Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online in the U.S.- Part 2 of 7

On Wednesday, I began a series of posts on U.S. Government (USG) and private sector initiatives to counter violent extremism (CVE) online inside the U.S.  Part #1 focused on whether the USG should notify Internet Service Providers (ISP) if they are hosting extremist content and thus work to have the content removed.  Next in Part #2, I’ll look at two related questions noted in Part #1.

2) What does the USG think will be accomplished by shutting down extremist websites/content?

6) What will extremists do when their websites get shut down?

I can almost hear the briefing now…

Chief of Extremist Content Removal:

“Sir/Maam since I last reported we have removed 5,209 pages of extremist content over the past 90 days.”

Secretary of Important Agency:

“Great job Extremist Content Removal Chief, excellent work!”

Chief of Extremist Content Removal:

“Thank you Sir/Maam, barring any questions, this concludes my brief.”

The hand of the most hated analyst raises up from the back of the briefing room…

“Chief of Extremist Content Removal, quick question, how many pages of extremist content were identified on the Internet at the beginning of the reporting period?”

Chief of Extremist Content Removal:

“10, 213 pages were identified at the beginning of the reporting period.”

Most Hated Analyst:

“And how many pages of extremist content have you identified at the end of the reporting period?”

Chief of Extremist Content Removal:

“10, 111 pages remain.”

Most Hated Analyst:

“So there were 10,213 pages identified at the beginning, your unit removed 5,209 pages of content and now there are 10, 111 pages of extremist content remaining?”

Chief of Extremist Content Removal:

“Again, unless there are any questions, this concludes my briefing.”

Of course, I’m being a bit ridiculous.  In Part #1, I examined the issue of cost versus benefit for removing extremist content.  In Part #2, I’m focusing instead on what our extremist adversaries will do should we begin removing extremist content in mass.  Several issues come to mind.

  • Go for all extremist content, but not some extremist content-  Unless we can guarantee the elimination of most all extremist content (over a period of time) then we shouldn’t even bother going after some.  Those seeking extremist content will just move to another extremist portal within a couple of clicks; most likely one hosted outside of U.S. jurisdiction and enforcement efforts.
  • Where will extremist content move to?- When we shut down extremist content in the States, we should expect extremist content will resurface with ISP providers outside US jurisdiction.  Thus, I don’t believe the USG should begin shutting down extremist content unless we are certain we can identify and pinpoint the location of all extremist content disseminated from ISP’s outside the U.S.  My guess is that U.S. technical coverage is very good.  But, is that coverage full scale and persistent?  I have no idea.  If it is not absolutely comprehensive, then eliminating content based on U.S. ISP’s only blinds us to the threat of extremists in our midst. At least if the ISP is in the U.S., we can use other law enforcement tools and CVE approaches to detect,  disrupt and deter homegrown extremists.  That being said, pushing extremist content to overseas ISP’s may also give the USG some additional options that could not be pursued domestically. I don’t know what these options might be but maybe some of the more technically minded folks can chime in?
  • Will eliminating online content push extremists toward physical rather than virtual recruitment?-  At least with the Internet, we can see when extremism emerges.  However, if we shut down extremist websites, we may actually be pushing those seeking any form of extremism into physical recruitment in local communities where we have limited human source coverage.  I’m not convinced this theory is true in the U.S.  (I do think it holds overseas) But, again, we could be blinding ourselves to the threat while expending more resources.

Overall, this is a demand-side problem (extremists seeking content) the USG would be trying to counter with a supply-side strategy (removing extremist websites-  similar to the war on drugs actually).  As long as there is demand for extremist content, there will always be someone entering the market to supply the product.  Young men are always looking for extreme content in one form or another.  If we want to solve the problem, I think we have to focus on the demand for extremism as much or more than the availability of content.  I think we get more effectiveness and higher efficiency by engaging directly with the extremists we identify in a face-to-face manner.  Reducing the amount and availability of extremist content will likely help mitigate extremism.  However, pursuing the elimination of content alone will not sufficiently reduce homegrown extremism overall.  Eliminating extremist content should be a supporting effort rather than the main effort in the USG’s CVE strategy.

Closing Note: Thanks for the feedback!

I’ve received some excellent feedback and good thoughts from many via Twitter.  As expected, my go-to folks on terrorist use of the Internet have provided some needed technical insight.  The Internet Haganah (@webradius) chimed in with some good ideas and @AbuMandM mentioned some of the same concerns.

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