Analysis: Terrorist use of the Internet

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor   |   Feb. 18, 2008 at 8:27 PM
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Lawmakers in the United States and elsewhere should not to try to censor Islamic extremists' use of the Internet, says a new report from a global think tank.

"There is no censorship option," Greg Austin, vice president of the East West Institute, told United Press International. "Trying to suppress anything (on the Internet) except direct operational use by terrorists is a mistake."

Austin said a careful distinction had to be drawn between extremist sites "advocating violent ideologies or asserting the right to use violence in general" and terrorist sites that "call for or support specific terrorist attacks."

The report urges that, rather than try to close extremists sites, the private sector and religious and community groups should step up, countering extremists' propaganda strategy with messages that promote peaceful dialogue and emphasize the human cost of extremist violence.

The East-West Institute, a non-partisan global research institute based in New York, Moscow and Brussels, published the report "Countering Violent Extremism: Video-power and Cyber-space," to coincide with its fifth annual security conference in Brussels this week.

"We will lose the battle for cyberspace with terrorists and violent extremists if owners of large TV, film and Internet companies do not step up soon," said Austin, adding media industry leaders had to "choose sides" to prevent terrorist recruitment of "radicalized youth around the world through (their) sophisticated and aggressive use of the Internet."

But pressuring Internet providers to close down extremist Web sites is not the answer, he said. The report argues that efforts to close them down are doomed to fail and will end up merely "providing violent extremists with additional ammunition through the form of attempted censorship."

Internet experts say that trying to take extremist sites like Web chat rooms offline is a game of whack-a-mole, although doing so does generate "chatter" among members that can be combed for intelligence about them.

"Responses need to be compartmentalized," argues the report. "While particular acts of terrorism and social movements of violent extremism are far from mutually exclusive phenomena, responses to them should be clearly distinguished."

"It's a fine line to draw," acknowledged Austin. "In any particular case it could be ambiguous," he added, noting that "We know terrorists have used public sites to send coded messages."

Yigal Carmon, a former Israeli intelligence official who founded the non-profit research institute MEMRI to monitor extremist media, said he supported the report's recommendations.

"Terrorist use of the Internet should be suppressed," he said, calling on Internet providers to "respect their own rules and policy (against hate speech and incitement to violence) and respect the laws of the United States," which ban the provision of any service to designated terrorist organizations.

Intelligence experts say many extremist sites are closely watched by intelligence and law enforcement agencies and can yield valuable information about potential or actual supporters of terror groups.

The report calls for the formation of a global media leadership forum to get "media owners and senior journalists" to start a public debate on the best strategies "to counter violent extremism among peoples of different faiths, cultures, beliefs, ethnicities, and language groups."

As a start, it argues for more coverage of anti-extremist initiatives, calls for dialogue and other activities traditionally seen as less newsworthy than terror attacks or other violent incidents; and for the industry to think hard about images that glorify violence.

"The wealth and power of global media assets now directed at promoting various religions -- especially in the United States, Europe and the Middle East -- could usefully be redirected toward countering extremists who promote violence," Austin said. "We need richer video material, and more of it, that is dedicated to de-legitimizing extremist violence."

He said there were concerns about some legislative initiatives in the United States and elsewhere, including a bill being pushed in the U.S. House by Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.

The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which was overwhelmingly passed last year by the House, would establish a national commission to study how violent ideologies are propagated in the United States. It would direct the secretary of homeland security to ensure, using an audit system designed by the department's civil rights officer, that efforts against radicalization were racially neutral and did not violate constitutional rights.

"There's exploration to be done" of the bill's proposals, said Austin, but he added, "They are entertaining the idea that there's a censorship option. There isn't."

Carmon said he too was opposed to legislation, but added that Internet providers "should reform themselves, before Congress steps in."

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