Defeating Terrorism on the Internet

By Joshua Sinai
JINSA Fellow

By Joshua Sinai
JINSA Fellow

The Internet is a crucial tool that terrorist groups and their extremist supporters use to distribute their propaganda and attack planning beyond the “physical” space where they operate clandestinely into the worldwide “cyber” space, where it is easier to reach vast audiences that have Internet connectivity. Terrorist presence and appeal on the Internet can be thwarted, however, through a four-pronged approach with simultaneously employed counter-measures.

The Internet’s websites and social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are used by terrorist groups as vehicles to conduct propaganda, recruitment, communications, training, tactics, and even issue coded plans for new attacks.

Terrorists’ presence in cyberspace, however, also presents significant vulnerabilities that can be (and, in fact, are) exploited by governments to defeat terrorists’ on-line militant activities.

Defeating terrorism on the Internet requires a four-pronged approach:

The first prong is to gain detailed knowledge of how the terrorist adversary is exploiting the Internet in order to identify their agendas, leading activists, their locations, and, if possible, even their attack plans. Such information can be collected by monitoring and covertly participating in terrorist-affiliated online forums, chat-room, and social networking sites. This is crucially important because such sites often provide the early warning indicators of contentious issues that are of special concern to them (such as the Danish Mohammed cartoons or the targeted killing of one of their group leaders) that might incite their activists into imminent violent activities. As an example, the NYPD runs a Cyber Intelligence Unit, in which cyber analysts track online activities of suspected violent extremists and interact with them to determine their potential threat.

While continuing to monitor discussions and other activities in the militant cyberspace, the second prong calls for another set of public diplomacy-trained counterterrorism operatives to counter extremist arguments with moderate counter-narratives that promote nonviolent solutions. In an example of this measure, the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which was established in 2011, reportedly counters al Qaeda’s propaganda and recruiting efforts in public forums across the Internet.

The third prong is “information warfare”-based, whereby counterterrorism agencies create or sponsor websites that attempt to appeal to the targeted audience of potential sympathizers to a militant group with moderate messages. Here, the counter-terrorist attempts to directly compete with the terrorist group adversary by providing content that aims to affect the cognition of the targeted audience so that it turns against the terrorist group. It does so with a narrative that aims to weaken and undermine the terrorist group’s credibility and legitimacy. It also aims to cause the terrorist adversary to refrain from embarking on certain violent activities because it is now aware that its message is being seriously challenged.

If the first three prongs prove unable to significantly decrease and degrade the influence of terrorist-related websites on potential sympathizers and activists, counterterrorism agencies will have to resort to the fourth prong to render them inaccessible by shutting them down by legal injunction against their service providers. To determine which militant websites need to be shut down, the question of purported intelligence value versus the threat level presented will need to be resolved. Once shut down, however, continuous vigilance will be required because some of these websites may rise up again under different names using other service providers.

To be effective, this four-pronged governmental campaign to defeat terrorism on the Internet must be provided with the necessary legislative and legal instruments to ensure that these measures adhere to democratic constitutional frameworks that protect government agencies against potential lawsuits based on alleged violations of civil liberty laws.

Finally, metrics of program effectiveness must be developed to ensure that such countermeasures are effective. Some metrics might include a significant reduction in interactions by militants in extremist forums, a change in militant narratives towards greater moderation in their rhetoric and agenda, and the turning away of susceptible individuals from remaining active in such websites and disengaging from potential violent activities. Evidence that an adversary terrorist group is becoming increasingly hesitant and reluctant to carry out violent attacks because it realizes that it is being countered effectively is proof of success.

Joshua Sinai, JINSA Fellow, is a Washington, DC-based consultant on national security studies, focusing primarily on terrorism, counterterrorism, and homeland security. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.