Countering Terrorists’ Use of The Internet

Over the last several months, I traveled to Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Silicon Valley to discuss our efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism (CVE) with government officials, civil society, and the private sector.  We discussed issues such as enhancing our collective understanding of the drivers of violent extremism (yes, they’re different in each neighborhood), developing new tools, and effectively organizing governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector to take on this challenge.  In each village, city, and country I visited, I also met with teenagers and university students, teachers and parents, tech experts, and cybersecurity experts.  One question consistently came up in every conversation:  How can we counter violent extremism online?

Many also wondered what does it mean to counter violent extremism online, exactly? It means countering the use of the Internet to radicalize and recruit individuals to violence. In other words, we are focused on stopping terrorist groups, like ISIL, al-Qa’ida, and al-Shabaab, among others, from exploiting social media and online communication platforms to inspire young people to travel to Syria, Iraq, and other places – including within their own countries -- to help these terrorist groups commit acts of violence. 

Terrorists’ actions can include developing and promoting terrorist messaging online or engaging with individuals one-on-one to entice them to violence. Terrorists aim to exploit the vulnerabilities of the young people they target, then isolate them, and finally offer incentives to travel to war zones or commit violence. Often times, siblings, friends, and parents are unaware their loved one is being enticed to travel across the world, likely never to return. If they do return, the experience will change their lives forever in terrible ways.

Countering terrorists’ use of online communication platforms is complicated. It involves multiple legal systems, freedom of speech protections, tech companies’ terms of service agreements, law enforcement, human rights, international agreements, and family relationships. What is clear is that the solution requires a whole-of-society approach to include governments, tech experts, parents, and community leaders, among others. 

Over the last year, tech companies have removed more and more terrorist content that violates their terms of service agreements. The Global Coalition to Counter-ISIL’s Communications Working Group (led by the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom) regularly convenes over 30 member countries with media and tech companies to share information and strategies to counter violent extremist messages online and present positive alternative narratives. These are all steps in the right direction.

At the State Department, we’ve created new programs and initiatives to address this growing threat. We have also applauded governments and tech companies for taking actions to counter violent extremism online, and supported third-party, credible messengers through various training programs.  Tech camps and media workshops, “Voices of Reason” public-private networking events in Istanbul and Tunis, and the Creative Minds for Social Good partnership between the Department of State, the Sawab Center, and Facebook in Dubai have all helped sharpen voices to counter the messages from terrorists. We also work closely with the Global Engagement Center, the interagency entity that is applying data-driven solutions to counter-messaging. 

I’ve been involved in a number of key programs, which are really moving the ball forward. These include the Peer to Peer (P2P) Challenging Extremism program, which empowers university students around the world to push back directly on terrorist messaging by developing and launching their own messaging campaigns. These campaigns are developed by young people for young people. The State Department also supported a new “Hacking for Diplomacy” course at Stanford University, which encouraged students to think creatively about global issues, including countering violent extremism, and develop innovative and technological solutions. 

In addition to these approaches, we also need to educate leaders in all arenas on how they can tackle terrorists’ use of the internet to recruit vulnerable citizens. Whether it’s figuring how to help someone who is being radicalized, or figuring out what questions to ask if a parent suspects a son or daughter is messaging with a recruiter-- communities around the world need support. When I travel, I regularly ask national and local government leaders and civil society groups about the resources they’re offering communities -- and whether or not families know where to turn if they suspect radicalization? How are they educating parents who do not use the Internet themselves but whose children do? Governments and civil society groups are thinking more and more about these issues, and we must support them.

We also need to make sure our actions aren’t making the problem worse. Let me give you a few examples. First, in some countries, the only resource for parents to turn to if they suspect a child is becoming radicalized is the police. Many times families are not comfortable turning their loved one in to law enforcement unless they believe violence is imminent. Second, when some governments see violent extremist messaging and recruitment material proliferating online, their first reaction is to take down accounts or sites -- or in more extreme cases, shut down the internet altogether. While this may temporarily limit terrorists’ online activities, it also can have a significant negative impact on positive uses of the internet, and may result in individuals becoming more frustrated with government institutions. We need to take great care as we proceed. 

It is clear, countering violent extremism online remains a complex challenge. Addressing it will require governments, private companies, civil society organizations, schools, and communities to work together to make progress on making the internet safer for all. 

About the Author: Michael R. Ortiz is the Deputy Coordinator of Countering Violent Extremism in the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Department of State.

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A man uses a computer at a computer shop in central London
Posted by Michael Ortiz
January 12, 2017


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