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Anti-terrorism authorities discuss free speech as an obstacle to their mission

By Brian MacIver, Medill News Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- In August, authorities arrested a 15-year-old near Philadelphia for allegedly plotting an attack on Pope Francis during his U.S. visit. The boy, said to have been inspired by Islamic State propaganda, used "social media to share explosives-making instructions he obtained," according to the House Committee on Homeland Security's October Terror Snapshot Report.

Islamic State militants are now actively recruiting for their cause online, and the United States has yet to successfully adapt to this shifting cyber terrorism landscape. But it's not because the IS is using tools or technologies that American authorities do not understand. Rather, some experts argue it is because of the First Amendment.

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"The challenge with ISIL's use of social media is that we can't stop it for freedom of speech reasons," said Ben Fitzgerald, director of technology and national security at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. "A free and open Internet allows people whose message we don't like to exist."

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During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday, Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., said, "no one has the funding to out-message us," yet IS seems to consistently be one-step ahead of the United States.

The extremist group has been "going dark" by using encrypted messages, something that worries FBI Director James Comey.

"Changing forms of Internet communication and the use of encryption are posing real challenges to the FBI's ability to fulfill its public safety and national security missions," Comey said in a statement to the committee. "The foreign terrorist now has direct access into the United States like never before."

While authorities have arrested 55 individuals this year in in the U.S. in IS-related threat cases, there could be hundreds or thousands more Americans taking in recruitment propaganda over social media, according to Comey.

Twitter especially has become the hub for the IS's social media recruiting efforts. According to Ben Fitzgerald, extremism has "become very savvy with Twitter and has created Twitter apps. They're using the software the way it was intended for a purpose we don't like," he said in a phone interview.

The growing social media communication between the IS and recruits has led to an increase in threatened attacks by lone wolves -- individuals not directly affiliated with known terrorist organizations.

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The FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center have yet to figure out an effective way to prevent terrorist propaganda from spreading online.

"Today, the global terrorist threat is more decentralized, more complex, and in many respects harder to detect," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the panel. Johnson was accompanied by counterterrorism Chief Nick Rasmussen.

"Today, with new and skilled use of the Internet, terrorist organizations may publicly recruit and inspire individuals to conduct attacks within their own homelands," Johnson said.

Most agree that America is more secure against large-scale terror operations since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But "we've seen a proliferation of more rapidly evolving threat or plot vectors that emerge simply by an individual encouraged to take action," NCTC Director Rasmussen said. The so-called lone wolf.

Rasumussen said these types of attacks allow "little time for traditional law enforcement and intelligence tools to disrupt or mitigate potential plots."

The arrest outside of Philadelphia last summer was the latest in a string of disturbing incidents cited in the committee's report.

On Sept. 17, authorities arrested Ali Saleh, 22, in Queens, New York after he made repeated attempts to travel overseas to join IS militants. According to the committee's report, Saleh "interacted with ISIS facilitators via Twitter."

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In Avondale, Arizona, 42-year-old Ahmed Mohammed El Gammal was arrested on Aug. 24 and accused of helping a 24-year-old New York City resident travel to Syria to receive training from the IS. El Gammal had reached out to the recruit over social media before meeting in person.

The FBI's Comey also said the U.S. government is "actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risk that result from malicious actors' use of their encrypted products and services."

Since the encryption services make it difficult for the FBI to effectively work in cyberspace, Comey said the bureau has been forced to go back to basics.

"FBI agents, analysts, and computer scientists are using technical capabilities and traditional investigative techniques -- such as sources, court-authorized electronic surveillance, physical surveillance, and forensics -- to fight cyber threats."

The experts argued the best solution for America and other Western countries to increase their effectiveness is to work closely with service providers such as Google and Twitter.

"The only thing we can do is have productive relationships between government and private companies," Fitzgerald said.

The challenge in forging this kind of cooperation is in making sure these companies still maintain clear independence from the government, the think tank expert said.

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"The issue becomes which is worse for the nation: the ability for groups like ISIL to spread their message that we don't like, or having a free and open Internet," he said. "From my perspective, I'd rather have a free and open Internet."

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