Several lone wolf terrorists in the United States, including the Orlando shooter who killed almost 50 people in a nightclub in June, were likely exposed to online propaganda from terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Social media campaigns have been connected to the radicalization of several attackers within the United States.
The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing on July 6 to understand how to counter the radicalization and recruitment efforts of terrorist organizations, specifically ISIS, over social media and the Internet.
As Homeland Security Today previously reported, social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram have been used by individuals associated with ISIS to take credit for attacks and perpetuate propaganda online. Just last month, in the aftermath of a stabbing in France that left a law enforcement officer and his wife dead, one perpetrator live-streamed a video of the attack on Facebook, encouraging ISIS supporters to engage in similar attacks against Westerners.
US government agencies, including the Global Engagement Center launched by the Department of State in January, have begun to use social media campaigns of their own to counter ISIS’s propaganda machine.
“Previous efforts to address this threat have struggled to overcome bureaucratic hurdles, unclear authorities, and a lack of interagency communication and unity of effort. These structural deficiencies will continue to hinder future administrations,” said Rob Portman, chairman of the subcommittee.
Alberto M. Fernandez, vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), said in order to combat the social media rhetoric used by terrorist organizations, initiatives like the Global Engagement Center should share information and stories from ISIS defectors and recanters.
“It is particularly effective to have such material tracked and disseminated by the private sector and by independent media rather than directly by governments,” Fernandez said.
George Selim, director of the Office for Community Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said prevention and intervention programming is important to prevent violent extremism online.
“At the Department, we are aware that there is a limit to the effectiveness of government efforts with regard to countering terrorist recruitment and radicalization to violence, particularly in the online realm, and those local communities online and offline must address these issues since they are best positioned to intervene,” Selim said.
The Global Engagement Center currently works with international governments, nongovernmental organizations and across US government agencies to implement counterterrorism strategies online.
Other counterterrorism efforts, such as DHS’s newly announced Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) Grant Program will work with different levels of government, higher education institutions and NGOs to combat violent extremism. Meagen Lagraffe, chief of staff to the coordinator and special envoy at the Global Engagement Center, said these relationships are important in order to establish and maintain trust with areas targeted by global terrorist recruitment efforts.
“We’re currently building our data analytic shop so that we can not only do measuring on the front end of any particular messaging campaign so we can identify what particular messages might resonate with a particular audience, but also on the back end of any campaign so we can measure our effectiveness,” Lagraffe said.
Fernandez noted that counterterrorism efforts are important online to combat the recently expanded outreach tactics of ISIS. The organization has begun to use multiple languages in the past two years, including English, Russian, German and French to target internationals. Fernandez says the variety of languages has also led to more Western media coverage.
Fernandez said ISIS’s presence on Facebook has declined from 25 percent to 2 percent over the past year. However, according to MEMRI, the groups still thrive on applications such as Telegram and Instagram.
Shortly following the horrific Orlando massacre, for example, ISIS supporters began posting messages, banners, and images on Telegram praising the deadly shooting and calling for more attacks. These posts included threats against the White House, Washington DC, and California.
Furthermore, in the weeks preceding the Garland, Texas attack in May 2015, the attacker, Elton Simpson, fired off a series of tweets pledging allegiance to ISIS and calling for jihadi terror attacks on the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest using the hashtag #TexasAttack on Twitter.
These are just a few examples out of many.
“Progress has been made in removing content, in contesting or crowding the space, and in kinetic operations,” Fernandez said. “But that is not enough.”