Should we knock terrorists off the Internet? Maybe!

J.M. Berger published a fantastic challenge to conventional wisdom this week providing some insightful and unique analysis of recent ‘Found experiments’ occurring with terrorists’ use of the Internet and social media. In his Foreign Policy article “#Unfollow”, @intelwire describes the latest revelations of al Shabaab being booted from and then reconstituted on Twitter. Thus far, the outcome of this recent event has countered conventional wisdom about terrorists being denied access to the Internet.

Just a few weeks back, Twitter closed the account of al Shabaab, @HSMPress, for violating Twitter’s terms of service. Shockingly, a terrorist group (al Shabaab) used Twitter to issue “a direct threat of violence”. No way! Who saw this coming?

@intelwire points out that there have been two arguments about why the U.S. should not push terrorists groups offline.

“Stopping terrorists from spreading their propaganda online (using U.S.-based Internet companies to boot) seems like a no-brainer to many. But within the terrorism studies community, there are two common and sincere objections to disruptive approaches for countering violent extremism online.”

As expected, al Shabaab quickly returned to Twitter under a new account name similar to its past one. However, Berger has noted through some excellent charts that so far, Shabaab’s audience has not been sufficiently resurrected. As of today, they have about 10-20% of the audience they had before being knocked off line. At this rate, Shabaab will end up spending a large amount of time regenerating its audience on Twitter suggesting the disruption approach would limit terrorist groups’ reach while also wasting their time. Cool!

As for the loss of intelligence, @intelwire’s piece notes that disrupting Shabaab’s Twitter account may actually result in an intelligence gain. While many followers were lost, the most hardcore supporters of Shabaab returned very quickly effectively outlining where Shabaab’s greatest support resides.

“The former followers who quickly signed up for al-Shabaab’s new Twitter account — just 882 users — have a serious interest in the al Qaeda affiliate’s activities….. We know these users are more likely to be very interested in al-Shabab, and the number is manageable enough that a single analyst can look at each account individually to make a more sophisticated evaluation.”

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I’ve been dismissive of focusing too much energy on disrupting terrorist websites and their more recent migrations to social media like Twitter and Facebook. However, the case of Shabaab on Twitter is quite instructive. I still have a few questions.

  • Is Shabaab an anomaly or a trend? – @intelwire compares Shabaab with the fall of al Qaeda forums in recent months. However, Jubhat al Nusra has maintained a consistent and growing presence online. So, are the challenges found by al Shabaab attempting to reclaim its online audience the result of effective disruption or a side effect of the group’s general decline and loss of audience?
  • On social media like Twitter and Facebook, are terrorist groups inadvertently censoring themselves? – Recent takedowns of terrorist websites have resulted in online extremists encouraging their followers to migrate to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook where they can establish individual accounts that are more difficult to disrupt. However, in doing so, extremists are actually censoring themselves as social media sites are governed by terms of service that restrict the violent images and language so cherished by extremists and critical for recruitment. So, when extremists move to social media, are they actually censoring themselves and over the long run taming their messages and reducing their effectiveness?
  • Is the greatest counter to extremists online actually the public? – Government struggles at disruption of online extremists as it requires considerable resources and creates a tension with civil libertarians that worry about government violations of citizen privacy and restricting freedom of speech. However, the public has no such limitations can identify terms of service violations and report them without much restriction. So, Americans, if you don’t like extremists on line, help Twitter and Facebook police them by reporting violations.

Syria’s Internet Blackout

This afternoon, the Internet went out on the Syrian Revolution.  Many months ago, I discussed how social media and uprisings are a two-way street noting that social media can 1) identify opposition leaders and 2) many countries have gained the capability to disable the Internet – essentially cutting off international connection to the revolt.  Well, today, Syria lost its Internet access.  Many are speculating why Syria took so long to shut off the Internet.  Here’s some thoughts being thrown about at the Washington Post:

Still, maybe one question here is why Syria didn’t do this sooner. Its uprising long ago exceeded Egypt’s and Libya’s in severity by the time those countries had instituted their own blackouts. One possible explanation is that Syria has been far more assertive online, using it as a tool for tracking dissidents and rebels, and sometimes even tricking them into handing the government personal data using phishing scams. President Bashar al-Assad has a background in computers, unlike the much older Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi, and once even directly mentioned his “electronic army.” Assad’s regime may have seen opportunity as well as risk on the Web, where perhaps the Egyptian and Libyan authorities saw primarily a tool of the uprising. Or, perhaps the Syrian simply feared the economic consequences of an Internet blackout, or lacked the means to conduct it.

Rumor also has it the regime may be going into a serious engagement with the rebels.

So, for the US Government, what is the implication?  The first thing I thought was that the U.S. should quickly build a capability to deploy air-droppable Internet and Mobile Phone hotspots into denied areas.  These would need to be low cost and self powered (solar maybe).  If the U.S. wants to support uprisings and revolutions, especially without arming militias, we should help rebels keep their information campaigns going via social media as this is the lifeblood of these Arab Spring uprisings.  Just my two cents.

Update 0800 EST – An alternative Internet from Afghanistan

After I posted this last night, @El_Grillo1 sent me this article about an alternative Internet for assisting dissidents.  Here is a quote from the article and check out the story here.

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

Here’s some of the Internet outage charts everyone is excited about on Twitter and an old New York Times graphic showing Internet monitoring by country’s around the world.

Radicalization in the U.S. Beyond al Qaeda

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) released a report I wrote last December entitled “Radicalization in the U.S. Beyond al Qaeda: Treating the Disease of the Disconnection“.  A big thanks from me to FPRI for sticking with the publication review and release process and for getting the article out. While the article was written last winter, I hope those analyzing current events in the domestic radicalization scene will find interest in the article’s conclusion.

Here’s a quick summary of today’s release:

Recent weeks have seen an unfortunate number of violent shootings perpetrated by armed men. The shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Oak Creek, Wisconsin shine light on ideologies and other factors inspiring violence in the U.S. In response, the Foreign Policy Research Institute is now releasing a report Radicalization in the U.S. beyond al Qaeda: Treating the Disease of the Disconnection, by FPRI Senior Fellow Clint Watts. Completed in December 2011, the report explores the efficacy and future threat of al Qaeda’s ideology in radicalizing Americans but concludes with a broader call for examining the variety of domestic ideologies inspiring violence in the United States. Watts discusses potential trends in future U.S. radicalization and outlines several recommendations for preparing the U.S. to detect and interdict violence from a host of extremist ideologies, of which al Qaeda represents only one.

For those that read this blog, you will be familiar with parts of this article as I wrote parallel blog posts (#1, #2, #3, #4) in December 2011 as I was doing background research on the alleged spike in ‘Homegrown Extremism’.  I took some criticism when I wrote that militant Islam wasn’t the greatest ideological threat internal to the U.S. military and I believe the past 6 months’ events demonstrate the variety of extremist threats that might emerge from former military members.

In this article, I discuss several facets of al Qaeda radicalization, which I continue to explore (here and here), but I hope those interested in current events on the domestic scene will maybe take up the research challenge I tried to articulate at the end the piece.  Here is a clip from my concluding remarks.  I apologize in advance for the formatting as I took it from the pdf.

“Future Radicalization: What Can We Do?
Ten years of counterterrorism lessons learned provide the basis for reshaping a broader U.S. approach to countering violent extremism. The approach should remove some of the least productive elements of the past decade’s efforts and build resources and processes more effective and efficient for identifying and interdicting homegrown extremism.
• Cease large scale training for law enforcement officers on militant Islam
U.S. efforts to counter violent extremism since 9/11/2001 have included teaching the principles of militant Islam to law enforcement officers. In retrospect, this training appears expensive, often incorrect in its content, highly inconsistent in its delivery and quite possibly counterproductive for countering violent extremism.28 The complete lack of a standardized curriculum and certified instructors results in wildly variable militant Islam instruction enabling counterproductive stereotypes that undermine law enforcement community engagement programs and alienate vulnerable communities. Teaching of militant Islamic extremism should end and in its place should be a broader set of training on radicalization and extremism encompassing those indicators potentially precipitating violence for any and all ideologies.

Increase information sharing from federal to local levels regarding electronic surveillance
The emergence of lone wolf extremism provides few indicators. Electronic communications and social media posts often provide some of the only clues permitting law enforcement to begin preempting homegrown extremism. U.S. federal agencies hosting advanced electronic surveillance resources able to detect these signals of radical emergence must perfect the authorized exchange of information across all law enforcement agencies.
• Continue the expansion of community engagement with and beyond Muslim communities

Community engagement programs provide additional detection capability and more importantly increased interdiction capability with homegrown radicals. U.S. law enforcement has dramatically increased its community-oriented policing strategies with the Muslim community leading to increased detection and preemption of extremism. However, as noted by Kurzman and Jenkins, the past decade’s incidents of Muslim-American extremism provide no particular profile and provide no basis to conclude that extremists will reside in Muslim communities. In addition, if an extremist does reside in a Muslim community, there is no reason to assume that the Muslim community will be aware of potential extremists in their midst. Emerging radicalization threatening the U.S. may very well emerge from vulnerable, non-Muslim communities. Law enforcement should now begin placing more emphasis on expanding their community engagement in all communities where extremist ideology may emerge.

• Sustain the use of informants and intelligence-led law enforcement approaches
Successfully countering violent extremism and its resulting attacks requires a preemptive approach. No single preemption technique works better than the expanded use of informants – a proven practice honed by law enforcement for many decades. Some recent articles argue against law enforcement’s expanded use of informants citing 1) entrapment of innocent suspects or 2) alienation of vulnerable communities.30 Both of these arguments are misguided. For the former, Brooks’ article appropriately noted that U.S. prosecutor declination rates of terrorism-related offenses has increased substantially in recent years suggesting the necessary checks to prevent the unlawful pursuit of innocent subjects are in place.31 For the latter, community engagement with vulnerable communities alone will not provide the necessary safe guards to preempt terrorist radicalization. As witnessed by the more than twenty Somali-Americans recruited to al Shabaab from Minneapolis, communities and parents know some but not all of what their young men are doing. Law enforcement’s use of informants should not be a single-point solution but complimentary to the community engagement approaches being implemented by law enforcement. Additionally, community engagement and informant operations should be planned and designed within the larger context of intelligence-led policing operations – a data driven approach focused on preventing rather than reacting to crime and terrorism.

• Detect extremists electronically and engage with them physically
The Internet provides the method for both accessing extremist content and detecting those being radicalized by extremist content. Despite this early warning mechanism, the expansion of e-investigation by both law enforcement and counterterrorism analysts has led to excessive focus on the part of many to detect, de-radicalize or disrupt terrorists through a flurry of mouse clicks in the comfort of one’s home or
office. This rearward investigative approach is costly, time-consuming, and prone to error. While Google’s calls for positive engagement may be noble, their Internet enabled countering violent extremism concepts misunderstand the process of radicalization and provide a costly indirect and less effective radicalization interdiction method to physical engagement.32 Google and others advocating Internet extremist interdiction might better use their resources and interrupt radicalization by proactively removing the vast quantities of extremist content residing on their servers and violating their own terms of service.33 (YouTube, owned by Google, being one such platform – see the endnote for additional discussion on this point.)
Electronic detection followed by physical engagement provides a more effective method for disrupting homegrown extremism. A more appropriate blend of effort and resources for countering homegrown extremism might follow a spectrum of key tasks:

1- Identify and remove extremist content from U.S. and partner nation servers through established legal processes and cooperation with the private sector.
2- Detect online extremist radicalization through electronic surveillance and rapidly share this information with law enforcement and homeland security officials to initiate physical engagement with advocates of extremism.
3- Expand community engagement across all communities for additional detection capability and further means of extremist interdiction.
4- Directly and physically engage those being radicalized. Law enforcement and their local community partners should physically preempt those
demonstrating extremist sympathies. This engagement could use a combination of intermediaries to include family, community leaders, law
enforcement, social workers, and reformed extremists who are particularly effective in deescalating extremists moving down the path of radicalization.
5- Monitor and interdict those committed to extremism through informants, surveillance and preemptive law enforcement. For some radicalized in the U.S., there is no de-escalating their intent to commit violence. Law enforcement at all levels should continue their proactive policing when direct intervention with extremists is infeasible or insufficient to deter.
• Develop countering violent extremism resources and expertise at the national level as on-call resources for state and local jurisdictions.

The U.S. is the most diverse society in the world providing freedoms that permit the pursuit of an unlimited number of ideologies and causes; the vast majority of which are peaceful. However, a certain percentage of the U.S. population at any given time will pursue an international or domestic extremist agenda against the U.S. government and its citizens. Training more than 700,000 state and local law enforcement to know, understand and detect each and every form of extremist ideology that might emerge in a local jurisdiction is impractical, expensive and ineffective. A more sensible approach may be for the federal government to provide a national package of resources and support for state and local officials to detect homegrown radicalization.

These resources might include:
a. In person and online training providing general principles for detecting radicalization processes (regardless of the ideology) with a specific focus on spotting the criminal acts and violent rhetoric correlating with extremism.
b. A resource database accessible by state and local law officials outlining the propaganda, websites, principles, and case studies of all extremist ideologies present in the U.S.
c. A national outreach capability for state and local law enforcement officers to contact experts in any given extremist ideology to obtain assistance in detecting, engaging or disrupting extremists in local communities.
d. An on-call/as needed contact team of experts and experienced practitioners capable of deploying to local jurisdictions and assisting communities facing an unfamiliar homegrown extremist threat. “

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online in the U.S.- Part 5 of 7

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online requires private sector support and intervention.  Unlike national borders or illegal products, governments have few if any mechanisms to control the Internet and the distribution of its content.  In parts #1, #2, #3, and #4, I explored several problems with trying to identify and remove extremist content residing in the private sector.  Today, I’ll shift to:

5)     What happens when the U.S. government starts policing businesses (primarily ISP’s) based on their terms of service?

Right now, it appears a few ISP’s and content hosts have decided to try and police themselves enough to keep consumers and governments sufficiently content to stay off their backs without impeding their services.  However, their argument is a bit absurd when it comes to enforcing their own terms of service.  “we try, but there is so much data that we can’t help it, our product is so good we just can’t stop extremist content from moving through our service.”

Here’s a hypothetical example: A water company delivers water to an entire city and 0.01% of the water turns out to be poisoned resulting in a handful of deaths.  Would the citizens say? “it’s only a few people, no big deal, so we’ll just let it go for now and won’t hold the water company responsible because most of the water is really clean.” No way!

ISP’s operate in a similar fashion to water companies except the product moving through ISP pipes is information rather than water. Is poisonous information as dangerous as poisonous water?  Depending on one’s perspective, extremist content is a weapon and its transport into the U.S. via ISP pipes should result in regulation and/or action.  This analogy is again a bit extreme.  However, I use it to illustrate important questions which are fundamental in our online CVE approach: Can information be a weapon? Should we protect the freedom of all speech, regardless of its content? My guess is ‘no’ on both but I’m not sure I can identify the appropriate middle.

Businesses, by design, maximize profits and minimize costs.  Today, there is no incentive for ISP’s to slow down content upload and weaken their competitive advantage in order to filter out extremist content.  I expect that their push towards “wanting to counter violent extremism online” is two fold.  First, it’s good public relations.  It’s probably cheaper for them to project a desire to counter violent extremism online than it is to actually counter violent extremism online.  Second, by calling for an increased CVE effort online, they will likely advocate for government funding to deal with extremism.  Essentially, this would mean the government would be funding ISP’s and other web companies to counter a problem they created by not filtering their content.  These companies would receive funding to offset their costs while also maintaining or increasing their revenues.

I also wonder if companies would reduce their internal policing of extremist websites if the government takes on the role of identifying extremist content and notifying the providers.  A smart company might think, “well, the government will now tell me what is extremist content, so I’ll reduce my internal policing staff and resources and just wait for the government to tell me what content to take down.  This also saves our company the headache of dealing with customers that want to argue about my company’s judgment on what is extreme.”  Essentially, government policing of extremist content may provide ISP’s a disincentive to police their hosted content.

(A quick note: Some may think my comments above are anti-ISP’s.  Actually, if I operated an ISP, I doubt I would work vigorously to remove extremist content either.  The purpose of a business is to provide a product or service and earn profits.  By unilaterally pursuing the removal of extremist content, these ISP’s would only be raising their internal costs and hurting their competitive advantage.)

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online in the U.S. – Part 4 of 7

Parts #1, #2, and #3 of CVE online in the U.S. discussed the challenges of implementing a strategy to remove/curb the presence of extremist content hosted on ISP’s based in the U.S.  In Part #4, I’ll shift to a question I’ve not really heard anyone bring up:

4)     We’ve let al Qa’ida extremism drive our thinking on eliminating extremist content online.  What about other domestic groups that advocate extremism and host extreme online content?

As seen by recent events in Norway, extremism comes in many shapes and sizes. Recently in the U.S., there have been significant increases in right-wing, white supremacist, anarchist and separatist groups.  I wrote about this phenomenon a few months back and received the usual response of “who cares?”.

Despite these domestic groups being quite organized, well trained, well armed and equally extreme to al Qa’ida (AQ) in many ways, the media and society treat non-AQ extremism much differently.  Violence carried out by members of right-wing or supremacist groups quickly moves from media headlines and is often attributed to a “crazed man” rather than an organized movement.  Then there are gangs, which also advocate violence much in the same way as terrorist groups.  Would we pursue the elimination of domestic terror group or gang content with equal zeal to the way we pursue AQ-related extremist content?

I think fairly instituting a policy of extremist content removal requires a balanced application of policy across all types of extremist groups.  It’s easy to police AQ websites because no one in the States will come to their defense.  However, the extremist content of right-wing, anarchist, and supremacist groups will likely use freedom of speech defenses to protect their content.  How would we handle these domestic groups that fight back against content removal?

Eliminating websites for many domestic extremist groups will play directly into their ideological justifications and enhance their recruitment.  These groups would see content removal as a violation of freedom of speech, expansion of government, etc.  Again, I’m taking this a bit far. But, I grew up in the Midwest and was exposed at an early age to some very extremist thinking (that was never followed up on).   While most of these groups are harmless, their rhetoric and websites can be strikingly similar to very serious extremist groups like AQ.  Just in the past few years I’ve heard political figures say things like “Separating from the Union” or  “Reload”.  While I don’t see these as serious extremist views advocating separatism or violence, it would be challenging to determine where the line between serious and silly resides.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online in the U.S. – Part 3 of 7

In Part #1 and Part #2 of CVE online in the U.S., I discussed the challenges of removing extremist content from U.S. ISP’s and then addressed the consequences of shutting down this content.  Both of these posts focused on the supply of extremist content. In Part #3, I’ll move into a separate question I noted in Part #1 and an even more tricky area- “What is extreme content?”

3)     Who would be responsible for identifying and tagging extremist content in the USG? (Essentially, what is extremist content and who will decide what is extremist content?)

This may be the toughest CVE related question of them all.  Determining what is extremist will be a huge challenge.  We can say “advocating violence” but that can get twisted in a lot of different directions depending on the definition of “extremist” and who is in power to craft and enforce policy.  We are all responsible adults and I imagine we could establish some good guidelines.  However, over time, threats will change and the reins of power will shift.

How might a definition of “extremist content” be used in the future for other purposes?  I recently heard a media pundit and on another occasion a political figure call NPR and PBS “Extremist”.  I like to think this is a silly example, but our country has a history of massaging policies depending on who is in charge, the intensity of threats, and the ambiguity of terms (like extremist).   Balancing freedom of speech with the need to protect American citizens has always been a challenge and the incarnation of extremist content via the Internet appears to be the next complicated chapter in this saga.  Even if we could determine what is extremist content, what element in the government would enforce this?  I’m assuming DHS would get tagged with the responsibility.  Are they the best fit for enforcing such a policy?

When I look back at this past decade, there have been repeated deliberations over policies that when originally crafted probably seemed clear to the policy’s creators; Patriot Act, electronic surveillance, detainee rights, Miranda rights for terror suspects- I could go on for a while.  Each of these policies were good in some respects but encountered problems over time.  Are we sure we can draft a definition of “extremist content” that will be enduring and definitive?  I am not sure we can.  Not saying I wouldn’t try, but it would be a huge hurdle.  Any thoughts from the crowd on what might be a good and enforceable definition of “extremist content”? ad who would enforce it?

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.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online in the U.S.- Part 1 of 7

Google’s recent conference on countering violent extremism (CVE) precipitated a ‘surge’ (that term is so 2007 now) in discussion over how the U.S. should mitigate what is perceived to be the growing threat of homegrown extremism spread via the Internet. On Twitter, a sizable group intermittently deliberates the need for and method to accomplish the CVE goals put forth at the Google conference and echoed in the third tenet of the administration’s new CVE strategy- “Countering Violent Extremist Propaganda While Promoting Our Ideals”.

Joshua Foust (Google Wants to Fight Extremism) and Will McCants (Don’t Be Evil) wrote what I believe are the two best responses to this debate.  I’ve been discussing with a group of colleagues on what might be an alternative to the Google CVE approach of peppering individuals ‘susceptible to extremism’ (a.k.a. confused adolescent boys & lost, lonely loser men) into submission through a barrage of positive email spam and heart-warming YouTube videos. Having worked on and studied ten years of U.S.-GWOT strategic communications, I hear echoes of previous efforts that failed to counter much of anything and in many cases exacerbated the problem of extremism.  Additionally, the online CVE approaches recently put forth by ‘experts’ usually prove quite expensive to execute and extremely difficult to assess.

I’m already guessing my take on the use of social media to counter violent extremists using social media will not make social media zealots particularly happy.  That being said, I hope this series of posts initiates some discussion about how the U.S. might implement a sensible U.S. CVE strategy in cyberspace- a strategy scaled such that the benefits outweigh the costs of implementation.  Note, I don’t disagree with the objective of CVE.  However, I’ve grown quite wary of strategies hollow of any reasonable method for their implementation.

My comments below are just thoughts for now and I’m not convinced I’m correct.  I look forward to any and all discussion on the topic and hope that some feasible solutions might be revealed.  That being said, here are some of the sub-questions I have created with regards to this topic.  They are not necessarily in a logical order or sequenced for any particular reason but generally focus on two general approaches: 1) Shutting down extremist websites and their content & 2) Counternarratives against extremist rhetoric.  These are just questions I considered as I weighed the options for countering violent extremism:

  1. Should the U.S. Government (USG) notify Internet Service Providers (ISP) when their terms of service are being broken by people posting extremist content?
  2. What does the USG think will be accomplished by shutting down extremist websites?
  3. Who would be responsible for identifying and tagging extremist content in the USG? (Essentially, what is extremist content and who will decide what is extremist content?)
  4. AQ extremism has driven our CVE thinking, but what about other domestic groups that advocate extremism?
  5. What happens when the USG starts policing businesses based on their terms of service?
  6. What will extremists do when their websites get shut down?
  7. Do we expect extremists to listen to our ‘counternarratives’?
  8. If they don’t want to listen to our ‘counternarratives’, then what else could be done?

These eight questions are not likely to encompass all of the issues that need to be addressed. I would enjoy hearing any thoughts on what else should be included.  But for now, I’ll start with question #1:

1) Should the U.S. Government (USG) notify Internet Service Providers (ISP) when their terms of service are being broken by people posting extremist content? 

Yes, the USG should tell ISP’s that they are hosting extremist content.   My larger issues with this are 1) enforcement and 2) costs versus benefits.

As I understand it, the recommendation by most is that DHS would enforce this provision.  Surfing the Internet, identifying extremist content, notifying ISP providers, then ensuring removal of extremist content is a cumbersome bureaucratic mess requiring a lot of resources.

How much federal time and resources should we commit to removal of these websites? Many are just young guys who can get shut down one day and immediately open up another website the next day- thus draining government time, money and effort.  DHS could spend tons of resources chasing websites with no following as well.

How many resources are we willing to commit to the elimination of a website that may or may not lead to a rare event- a violent extremist attack?  In my opinion, we would be committing large amounts of effort to counter only one of the inputs to radicalization.  I still think the websites should be shut down.  My issue focuses more on “bang for buck.”  Since the take down of extremist content has a small impact on proliferation of extremist content (but probably is still necessary), how can we reduce the costs of policing this content?

Enough for now and more to come in posts 2 through 7….

Debates over Extremism on the Internet

Andrew Sullivan from the Daily Beast posted some of my old data on terrorist use of the Internet and pointed to Will McCants and Josh Foust posts on Google’s new venture to counter violent extremism on the Internet.

Contrary to common perceptions, I’m a big fan of social media and respect the changes its had in our society. I have a blog, I use Twitter- I get it, I like it. That being said, I’ve been skeptical about “Tweet out evil” approaches for years.  I think American obsession with terrorist use of the Internet went overboard a long time ago.  Thus, I only listen to a couple folks when it comes to countering violent extremism on the Internet.

I will write a more extended article in the coming days, but in the meantime, I’ll through up some of my thoughts on terrorist recruitment on the Internet circa Dec. 2007 to February 2008 pulled from an article I wrote called Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?.

• Foreign fighters from the Sinjar batch (2006-07 recruitment class) showed little recruitment via the Internet. Remember, this is based on 2006-2007 data and the Internet has proliferated dramatically in North Africa and the Middle East over the past 4-5 years. Here’s my 2007 thoughts:

“Western journalists and academics increasingly focus on the Internet as a source for terrorist recruitment. Although the Sinjar records do not explain how young men are radicalized, they do eliminate the Internet as a major factor for three reasons. First, Sinjar recruits rarely mention utilizing the Internet to reach Iraq. Second, many North African and Middle Eastern countries have limited access to the Internet. Third, most North African and Middle Eastern countries producing large numbers of foreign fighters access militant websites with less frequency than Western countries that produce far fewer foreign fighters.”

• Western recruits are more likely to be brought in via the Internet than Middle Eastern and North African recruits because they have higher access to the Internet, less direct contact with AQ militancy in person, and thus need the Internet to build an affinity for and a connection to AQ.

“Western fixation with AQ’s propaganda has resulted in over-focus on countering media outlets that likely have limited and at best a secondary recruiting impact in high foreign fighter producing cities and countries. While AQ mass media propaganda is an important factor in the war of ideas, it should be addressed more in Western counterterrorism efforts in Western countries where socially isolated second and third generation Muslims and Western converts have limited direct access to militant ideologies, limited access to veteran foreign fighters, increased access to the Internet, and a propensity to access militant websites. The two non-Western exceptions to this might be Saudi Arabia and Morocco, which appear to have sufficient access and desire to utilize militant websites. However, the plethora of former foreign fighters in Saudi Arabia and Morocco is far more likely the radicalization culprit with the Internet acting as a distant second factor.”

• Western recruits are a small minority of AQ’s global foreign fighter recruitment. Here is my 2007 model of AQ recruitment. Thus the question remains, how many Americans are really being recruited via the Internet and how much money and technology must we commit to stop this infrequent event?  I have some ideas that I’ll write in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, here’s my recruitment construct, which I still believe is applicable today.

“Certainly, official AQ members at times directly initiate recruitment in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Occasionally, individuals self-radicalize and independently seek out the greater jihad, possibly using the Internet for ideological indoctrination and communication with facilitators. However, both of these scenarios represent only a portion of foreign fighter recruitment. Most North African and Middle Eastern foreign fighters are instead recruited through social, family and religious networks empowered by former foreign fighters who catalyze the radicalization process. These local networks are efficient, built for the community and adaptable to local conditions. Such networks are difficult to create in either a hierarchical AQ Central (top-down) or a self-selecting (bottom-up) system.
An alternative foreign fighter recruitment model might reflect all three patterns described above. My hypothesis for future research estimates that global foreign fighter flow consists of roughly the following:
-Self-selecting (bottom-up) recruitment accounts for 10 -15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. These self-recruits consist largely of second and third generation Muslims and converts to Jihadi doctrine based in Western countries, the majority of which reside in the EU. Their increased Internet access and propensity for militancy help radicalize them locally before moving through select intermediaries to more formal networks. These individuals are inexperienced, untrained and often a liability to the larger AQ movement as their conduct may stray from AQ’s global message, and their operational and security mishaps endanger the group. However, their access to Western targets and their propaganda value remain a coveted prize for AQ and a worthwhile risk.

-AQ hierarchical (top-down) recruitment accounts for an additional 10 – 15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. AQ, under intense pressure from Western military and intelligence, expends effort to specifically recruit individuals that maintain valuable skills in weaponry, media, operational planning, finance and logistics. These recruits pose the greatest threat globally as their knowledge, skills, and experience create hallmark AQ attacks and maintain organizational coherence. While self-recruits are dangerous due to their access, these direct recruits are dangerous due to their ability.

-Former foreign fighters embedded in family, religious and social networks in flashpoint North African and Middle Eastern cities produce between 60 and 80 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. Jihadi veterans and their networks are the center of gravity not only for al-Qa’ida but also for decades of Jihadi militancy. These communities are motivated not only by militant ideology but by their perceived oppression from the West economically and politically, frustration over Palestinean-Israeli conflict, and the influence of Western values on their culture. High foreign fighter producing communities sustained the Afghan jihad during the 1980’s, provide for current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will be the thread for future militant efforts at the close of current conflicts.”