Congress's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade held a hearing yesterday to discuss the U.S. strategy, or lack thereof, for dealing with the proliferation of jihadist web sites. In addition to dozens of sites that are explicitly dedicated to spreading jihadist ideology, al Qaeda and other like-minded organizations have become increasingly adept at using social media and highly-trafficked web sites such as YouTube to spread their message.
The problem has been well known for years, but there is apparently no real plan in place to deal with it.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse following the hearing, Representative Brad Sherman, who chairs the subcommittee, lamented the U.S. government’s unwillingness to tackle this issue. “Can we [shut down the sites]? Yes. Will we? No,” Sherman told AFP. “It is more likely we will tie ourselves up in knots than we'll do anything useful,” Sherman added.
Any effort to shutter the sites would face legal obstacles, as free speech concerns are quickly cited. That is understandable at a certain level. We don’t want the government to have the power to shut down web sites, or any other form of free expression, indiscriminately and at will.
But what we are talking about here, in many instances, are not spontaneous postings by individuals musing about jihad. Our terrorist enemies have orchestrated a very deliberate campaign to recruit, indoctrinate, and instruct would-be terrorists on the Internet. It is only natural, therefore, for America to devise a strategy to counter their efforts.
Here are just a few examples:
Until 2009, Anwar al Awlaki had a Facebook page devoted to spreading his message. He also had a separate web site. Awlaki is an al Qaeda cleric – that’s his role in life. The idea that the U.S. cannot interrupt, shut down, harass, or otherwise target Awlaki’s web presence because of free speech concerns is absurd. Awlaki’s web presence helped lure individuals like Major Nidal Malik Hassan (the Fort Hood Shooter), Umar Farouq Abdulmutullab (Christmas Day 2009 plot), and dozens of other recruits into al Qaeda’s ranks.
Surely, this is not free speech worth protecting. This is the direct recruitment of individuals for the terror network. Indeed, after the terrorist attacks of 2009, Awlaki’s web sites were taken down – perhaps by U.S. intelligence authorities. His lectures are still available on YouTube and elsewhere online, however.
The U.S. Intelligence Community was slow to respond to Awlaki’s threat – both online and in the bricks and mortar world. Unfortunately, that is not atypical.
The Quilliam Foundation, a group founded by former Islamists, recently released its report on jihadist web sites operating openly in the UK. Some of these sites are run by individuals with direct ties to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Their sponsorship of terrorism is easy for all to see. Some of the sites even glorify the killing of British troops in Iraq, yet British authorities do nothing about it.
In these cases, it should be easy for authorities to find the legal justifications for disrupting their web service. These sites are directly run by, or providing material support to, designated terrorist organizations.
Other cases may not be so clear cut. There are sites that are not necessarily run by terrorist groups, but do aid their cause. So, the U.S. needs a strategy.
For a detailed discussion of how to deal with the problem, including the not-so-clear-cut cases, I’d recommend law professor Gregory McNeal’s work. You can read his written testimony for the subcommittee here.
One last point is worth mentioning. When I’ve broached this topic with current and former intelligence officials in the past, they’ve been quick to argue that the sites in question are a useful source of intelligence about the terror network’s inner-workings. Shutting them down, therefore, would impede our intelligence collection. That is probably true in some cases, and U.S. intelligence agencies have reportedly even dabbled in setting up phony sites as a diversion and collection device.
On net, though, it is hard to argue that the intelligence benefit of these sites outweighs the cost. And I find it hard to believe that our monitoring capability is all that good.
After all, it appears that at least one recruit, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was able to post on Anwar al Awlaki’s Facebook page prior to committing a terrorist attack without anyone noticing.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.