Moderator Gopal Ratnam, left, and panelists Joshua Geltzer, Seamus Hughes, and Blaise Misztal speak at the Bipartisan Policy Center on March 9, 2018. (BPC photo)

The Challenges of Trying to Delete Terror Groups from the Internet

Terrorists using technological defense mechanisms and new online forums to their advantage for recruiting and messaging have thrown up hurdles to policymakers and law enforcement who also must ensure that free speech and economic dynamism of the Internet are protected in counterterrorism operations, says a new report on cyber jihad.

The report, “Digital Counterterrorism: Fighting Jihadists Online” by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Terrorism and Ideology, stresses that “social media and encryption undoubtedly pose counterterrorism challenges” and any efforts to address those challenges “will resonate far beyond the narrow realm of counterterrorism.”

“These technologies implicate the freedom of expression, individual privacy, constitutional law, international human rights, technological innovation, and the future prosperity of the United States. They also affect everyday domestic law enforcement, cybersecurity, and other public-safety efforts,” said the report. “In considering policy responses to the counterterrorism challenges these technologies present, governments must consider these other efforts as well.”

For those reasons, “the likely end result will be imperfect for counterterrorism,” the report finds, though “recent developments offer some reason for optimism, particularly in the social-media realm” as web companies develop new technologies for detecting and offering a countering message to extremist content.

“Even with these new techniques, however, the digital realm will remain contested; many experts predict that the decline of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate will lead it to redouble its efforts in the digital realm, seeking to remotely inspire and direct violence in the West.”

READ THE FULL BPC DIGITAL COUNTERTERRORISM REPORT

In a keynote address at a Friday forum introducing the report, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy Robert Strayer called intercepting wrongdoers at the “nexus of cyber policy and counterterrorism” a “complex and cross-cutting issue.”

Strayer said a number of federal departments and agencies have to collaborate on cyber jihad, including in areas such as protecting civil liberties and preserving the digital economy. But online jihadists remains “one of the most important foreign policy challenges we face today,” he said, and those battling the terrorists must “leverage the best traditions of cyber sector innovation.”

Technology itself is not the problem, he stressed, but “will always be abused by bad actors.” The government cannot remove content or force internet service providers to do so unless the law is clearly violated, such as distributing child pornography or making a threat of imminent violence.

Encryption and anonymity tools that help protect users from malevolent state and non-state actors also can be used by terrorists. Strayer said this underscores the need to “continue to focus on the potential terrorists themselves” in a comprehensive counter-extremism campaign.

“Solutions must be done in a manner that does not disrupt international flow of data,” he said, while recognizing government has an obligation to protect citizens and free expression and ensure that global counterterrorism operations online are not used to target political opponents or dissent.

In addition to working with web companies including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as well as smaller companies, Strayer emphasized the importance of well-crafted counter-messaging offensives along with technological solutions.

“We should not get too fixated on taking down content instantly,” he said, warning that if enforcers push for too quick a removal process for extremist content companies may move to “take down anything remotely controversial”

Joshua Geltzer, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, said on a panel discussion that online countermessaging to ward away potential recruits from being lured by terrorists or to dissuade would-be jihadists from conducting attacks is not the “totality” of the solution as we “haven’t seen the government crack the code” to a perfect messaging op.

“Countermessaging only makes sense in a broader strategic mosaic,” Geltzer said.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, called the government-wide effort to detect and stop online jihadists “a complete mess” as government has “ceded the space to private companies,” firms like Telegram — the app of choice for ISIS loyalists lately — aren’t at the table, and broad-based countermesssaging “doesn’t necessarily get you to your target audience.”

The objectives of an online campaign countering jihad is to get the would-be recruit to “not join ISIS or keep him busy online so he doesn’t do an attack.”

Hughes noted that tech companies “were pulled kicking and screaming to take down content; now it’s the norm.” Still, Apple won the debate on refusing to unlock the work-issued cell phone of San Benardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook, he said. Tech companies also are weighing whether violence has to be attached to extremist content to clear the bar for removal.

With terrorists easily able to migrate over to new technologies, Hughes predicted that if the same discussion was held a year from now Telegram would probably not be what the terror experts are talking about.

The BPC report concluded that, ultimately, social media and encrypted communications platforms “are but a channel  through which terrorists transmit their ideas.”

“It is the ideas themselves, and whether they resonate or repel, that will decide whether young Muslims choose terrorism or peace.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a weekly columnist for the New York Observer and a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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