Terrorists and rogue states are moving their battle to the Internet in a virtual war against liberal democracy. For too long, the United States and its allies have ignored the incitement and violent propaganda from Internet platforms operated by violent Islamist extremists.
Today, such neglect is not an option. As we have been warned by Harry Wingo -- a former Navy SEAL who now serves as Google's Washington, D.C. policy counsel-- "the code is mightier than the sword."
Internet code is an operational weapon used by terrorist groups to indoctrinate, recruit, train, and finance the next generation of terrorists. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas (with support, in some cases, from rogue states like Iran) use a vast and anonymous terrorist Web network as another front in their war against the West. These Web outlets should be treated as indistinguishable from the terrorist organizations that use them.
Is the threat real? A declassified U. S. National Intelligence Estimate concludes: "The radicalization process is occurring more quickly, more widely, and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint. We judge that groups of all stripes will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, propagandize, recruit, train and obtain logistical and financial support."
Usama bin Laden's As Sahab media wing has built a formidable infrastructure online to export its violent ideology. Its online presence, which includes calls to violent action by senior Al Qaeda officers, has increased exponentially since 2005.
Internet "clearinghouses" serve as middlemen to allow videos to go viral on jihadist Web forums and on popular Western sites such as Archive.org and YouTube. Al Qaeda's strategic goal is clear: According to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second in command: "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media ... we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our people."
Major General John M. Custer III, Commanding General of the U. S. Army Intelligence Center, underscores the impact of online terrorist media: "I see 16, 17-year-olds who have been indoctrinated on the Internet turn up on the battlefield." He describes Internet sites that look like current news sites. -- With a single click, you're at an active jihad attack site viewing small arms attacks. The next links take you to motivational sites, where mortar operatives and suicide bombers are pictured in heaven [providing] religious justification for mass murder.
Aggressive action is needed against these media properties. The goal: to shut down those sites that yield little actionable intelligence while infiltrating, monitoring and countering the more dynamic sites that serve as operational tools for the terrorists. An effective strategy should limit and discredit the jihadist message, deny safe haven to terrorists on the Internet, thwart their ability to obtain support from a vulnerable online population, and continue to monitor their communications on Web forums.
Free speech protections apply to hateful or anti-American speech but not to violent incitement and certainly not to the use of the Internet as an operational weapon for recruitment, fundraising and planning attacks. The U. S and its allies should designate or criminalize terrorist Internet sites as terrorist entities; this would build on steps taken already by the U.S. government to designate Hezbollah's al-Manar and the Iraqi-Syrian Al Zawraa television channels for their role in providing operational support in furtherance of terrorist attacks.
Terrorist Web sites and their video production units, media companies, and Web site operators should be the next candidates for consideration. Their assets should be frozen and those who provide material support to these entities and individuals should face criminal charges.
The private sector has an equally important role to play in countering this threat. Media entrepreneurs can follow the lead of Google, which has removed numerous violent Al Qaeda videos from YouTube. Google made the choice to self-regulate in order to ensure that its platforms are not used to incite violence. Google also avoided the reputational risk of being identified, fairly or not, with the activities of a terrorist organization. Internet providers that repeatedly aid terrorist entities by hosting their Web sites should be fined to the full extent of the law.
The private sector and the government also have a role in information campaigns aimed at discrediting Islamist terrorists by widely publicizing their atrocities on the Internet. Too few Muslims, for example, know about incidents such as a February 2008 terrorist attack in which, according to Britain's Daily Mail newspaper, Al Qaeda rigged two unsuspecting women who were afflicted by Down's syndrome with remote-controlled bombs and detonated them in a Baghdad market killing 99 people.By inciting attacks, actively recruiting and fundraising, and providing pre-attack operational assistance for terror attacks, terrorist Internet sites are not only yelling fire in a crowded movie theatre. They are providing the match, the gasoline, and the arsonist.
It is high time that we view the terrorist code as being as dangerous as the sword.
Mark Dubowitz is the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies where he heads up projects on terrorist media and Iranian energy sanctions.