Options Limited for Fighting Online Radicalization and Recruitment, Experts Say

By Matthew Harwood


Fighting Online Radicalization and Terrorism in the Real World

While the panel agreed that jihadists use the Internet as a radicalization tool, they also similarly agreed that there isn't much the U.S. government can do to police the Internet and identify individuals planning violent attacks against American citizens.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, complained of overzealous intelligence collection that created endless haystacks of data for intelligence analysts to sift through. Philip Mudd, senior research fellow at the New American Foundation and former associate executive director of the FBI's National Security Branch, agreed, stating the U.S. government has neither the manpower nor the resources to identify dangerous individuals in cyberspace.

(For more on the jihadism on the Internet, see "Fear of Online Radicalization Overblown, Report Says.")

The experts acknowlegded that government blocking of Web sites would raise legitimate free-speech concerns. Both Jenkins and Mudd worried that blocking Internet activity could be counterproductive because the Internet is an easy way to listen in on jihadist conversations and glean intelligence. For Jenkins, the Internet is the new jungle of guerilla insurgency: the United States must learn to operate within it and, where possible, use it to its advantage.

Witnesses also shared their views on the broader issue of radicalization and how to deplete the jihadist ranks.

One option is creation of a counterradicalization program, Hoffman said, pointing to the United Kingdom's counterterrorism strategy (Contest). The prevention element of Contest calls for dirsuption of radicalization activities, support for vulnerable individuals, and efforts to address the social grievances that often feed radicaliztion.

Jenkins said the federal government must trust members of the Muslim-American community and local law enforcement to collect intelligence and deter young people who stride onto the path of jihadism. A campaign, he said, that will be largely invisible to outsiders and to much of the law enforcement community as a whole.

Mudd, however, expressed skepticism about counterradicalization programs. He argued al Qaeda and affiiated groups have already started to discredit themselves by murdering multitudes of innocent civilians indiscriminately, mainly Muslims.The United States needs to highlight that. Rather than treat jihadist terrorists as the warriors they think they are, Mudd argued the United States needs to treat them as "chump-change murderers" they are.

Jenkins pursued a similar line of argument, testifying that the criminal justice system was the appropriate venue for jihadists, especially domestic ones. "They will treated as ordinary criminals and will spend a long time in a prison cell," he said. "They will receive no applause. They will disgrace their families and their communities."

While the jihadist narrative can be punctured by treating jihadists criminally as murderers and allowing the movement to kill itself through terrorist violence, the real test for the United States and its citizens will be after the next successful attack, which the panel agreed was inevitable.

The reaction to the next successful attack will be more important than the attack itself, Mudd commented. Will the United States respond through disproportionate force while spending more and more resources on security and limiting civil liberties, many on the panel wondered. If so, then al Qaeda and its sympathizers will have scored a victory.

"Attacks will not defeat this republic or destroy its values without our active complicity," Jenkins concluded.

 ♦ Photo by acidrabbi/Flickr


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