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10. The internet has helped terrorists more than it has hurt them.

  • The Islamic State and al Qaeda, at least in their current levels of individuals and power, would not exist without the internet. (Can you imagine if, say the air, land, sea domain were helping the Islamic State more than those of us opposing it?)

9. Good counterterrorism cyberspace operations must include the delivery via cyberspace of narratives that advance liberal democracy, given that Islamist terrorist groups come from closed, self-reinforcing totalitarian echo chambers.

  • No counterterrorism, counter-cyberspace operations will succeed if jihadist ideology continues successfully unmolested and unchallenged on the internet. Somehow, we must offer a sense of Western identity and inclusion for these disaffected young Muslims via the internet inside their echo chambers to dissuade them from greater and greater radicalization, given how the internet has become the new mentor, enabler for, and defender of jihadism.

8. Only Nixon could go to China, but only Republicans can challenge Arab and Asian autocracies that fuel extremism; only Democrats can challenge jihadist extremist rhetoric at home and promote notions of universal (natural law) rights; only Democrats can shut down illegal jihadist and extremist speech at home and abroad.

  • However, sadly, the two parties do not run against their alleged identities to do these things.

7. Violent non-state actors leverage cyberspace (which we created and continue to subsidize) to advance their ideology, recruit, proselytize, share weapons information, publish online journals, and spread enticement to violence worldwide, but we are impotent to stop it; indeed, the internet saved al Qaeda from likely obliteration in 2002.

  • We created, paid for, and continue to support with taxpayer money the very Command, Control and Communications backbone of these terrorist organizations.

6. The United States can lethally target members of the Islamic State and al Qaida, but Facebook can make money off their jihadist websites, and Google can make money off their YouTube advertisements. Many Western IT companies are in denial as to how much they are enablers of modern terrorism.

  • Since material support to terrorism is already a crime, why are these internet technology platforms not prosecuted? If a U.S. paper company knowingly sold paper to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, would we not prosecute it? Why do we have the attitude that we cannot expect IT companies to deny their services to these terrorist groups?
  • Counterterrorism is as much the private sector's responsibility as it is to the U.S. Government, given that so much of the cyber domain exists on private sector infrastructure.
  • U.S. social media companies post jihadist content and often even sell such content on their websites through their automated uploading of ‘advertisements.’ Americans view or subsidize (to a small degree) ISIS or al Qaeda beheading videos, sniper videos, glorification of jihadist violence, the transfer of weapons technology, and exaltations to violence against Americans and innocents worldwide.
  • In 2011, Google agreed to pay $500 million to avoid prosecution for helping overseas pharmacies illegally market prescription drugs into the United States. Can Americans sue Google for profiting from jihadist content? One can find every day jihadist content that slips through existing firewalls on Facebook or Instagram.

5. The internet does not have to be everywhere.

  • The internet did not exist in Germany in 1944; why did it exist in Syria in 2017?
  • Encryption was not natural law in Japan in 1944; why does it have to be available to terrorists in 2020?
  • Why do we believe that a warfighting domain that is manmade and which the West created must be accessible to all states and non-state actors around the world?

4. Almost all Islamic State and al Qaeda web content is either illegal speech or the information operations of a declared enemy. Therefore, it ought to be technically whacked as soon as it appears anywhere in the world.

  • Would we allow American citizens to hand out Nazi propaganda on Times Square in April 1944? Such material support for a declared enemy would have been an illegal act. One would have been arrested for handing out Nazi propaganda in Times Square in 1944. Are we more enlightened (or naive and craven) today by not confronting those who pass the information operations of a declared enemy?
  • Why do we allow ISPs, networks, and nations to host the information operations of an entity that, in 1998, specifically declared war against us?

3. In America today, it is easier to accrue authorities to kill a high-value individual than it is to disrupt his website or curtail his speech on the internet.

  • Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in 2011, can still be viewed on countless video channels around the world today. Bin Laden remains a highly googled name worldwide. They both live on, even though they are no longer living.

2. Since biological and chemical weapons are banned, the U.S. military or intelligence agencies ought to hack into websites around the world that display their formulae and change them (or suppress them). CRISPR Technology, certain additive manufacturing (3-D printing), nanobiology all should be banned from the internet.

  • Would we allow the technology to exist on the internet to allow 3-D printing of smallpox? Or to allow nuclear weapons technology to be developed?
  • It is science fiction today, but what if a few, fairly well-educated, but misguided lab geeks posted on the internet how to use CRISPR technology to alter the monkeypox virus to make it virulent to humans? What if the DNA sequence to smallpox was posted on the internet along with a means to create it in a laboratory? Would it be wise and acceptable for the U.S. Government to hold months of interagency meetings debating what the USG should do about such internet posts?
  • There is no public good to allow these formulae to exist on the internet unmolested.
  • We ban child pornography; it is not true that a vibrant liberal democracy cannot ban certain images or information from the internet. Should we not at least try to suppress some/certain information from reaching the eyes of terrorist groups?

And the number 1 statement regarding jihadist use of the internet ...

1. A Clausewitz-ian understanding of the term suggests that the ‘Center of Gravity’ in our fight against violent extremist organizations is not ideology but the delivery mechanism of extremist content and command and control; that is, the center of gravity for terrorism today is, in fact, the internet.

  • No counterterrorism strategy or campaign will succeed as long as terrorist presence on the interest is not addressed.

Warfare today is indeed complicated and involves issues of speech, private sector rights, third party sovereignty, and technology creep, but the U.S. Government better adopt ‘net-speed’ in addressing the warfare challenges posed by jihadist use of the internet, or it is going to continue to be one step behind these non-state actors. The U.S. Government ought to write and adopt pre-determined authorities in advance of emerging technologies to allow Department of Defense or covert actions against jihadist use of the interest, or it is going to risk a resurgence of such terrorism.

Americans would be wrong to conclude that the lesson terrorists have taken is that the United States was simply slow to discern how the internet provided them a force multiplier and a means to pursue their goals. The lesson terrorists learned is that the United States is *always slow* to react to asymmetric warfare, given that terrorist groups (and authoritarian states) do whatever they want on the web. Such actors exist in profound contrast to liberal democracies, which are slowed in cyberspace by consensus building, political concerns, timetables, risk-adverse general officers and State Department diplomats, bureaucratic inertia, competing legal interpretations, private sector concerns, and competing personalities.

Allowing jihadist content on the web, on social media, YouTube, Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, was one of the West's largest strategic blunders in the last 50 years – maybe the single, biggest mistake in U.S. counterterrorism strategy. One can even point to the time and date of the blunder:  July 2010, when the West confronted Inspire Magazine (al Qa`ida’s first online journal) on the internet and became so utterly policy constipated as to what to do about it that it allowed the magazine to exist and propagate on the web. According to the press, the British knew what to do:  they switched al Qa`ida’s URL for Inspire Magazine 1 to a cupcake recipe. The United States Government did nothing. The golden years for al Qa`ida and Islamic State media organizations were thus born.

Such content should never have been permitted. It is not speech – it is conspiracy to commit murder or the information operations of a declared enemy and is as illegal as illegal content can be. Worse, it clearly meets the private sector’s threshold of impermissible speech and thus violates the private sector’s much more conservative limits on content as stipulated in almost all Terms of Use agreements. Yet such illegal content is very often not caught and, worse, sometimes uploaded (autonomously) for money.

Social media companies complain that they cannot stop a lot of jihadist content, given limits to their ability to monitor all content. Is that really an acceptable excuse? We have to subsidize jihadist websites, ads, and videos, which inspire violence and advance the recruitment of individuals the U.S. military and law enforcement often kill because these companies cannot figure out how to keep illegal content off their websites? (Because they are too poor to address the problem internally?) Who believes social media cannot do a better job? If they are unwilling to do a much better job, is not regulation the logical next step?

Americans and the U.S. judicial branch have yet to answer the question as to whether social media is a ‘pipe’ (a utility) or a ‘publisher’ (a private media). We continue to pay a heavy price for not answering that question coherently.

For cyberspace and counterterrorism, policy lags behind intelligence. We know what the terrorist is doing in cyberspace – how he does it, what his narratives are. We are just slow to address it successfully.

Social media algorithms and monitoring systems miss a lot of jihadist content. Worse, social media often does not delete jihadist content forwarded to them by third parties and instead arbitrarily claims such content does not violate their terms of use – even though the content of an ISIS-inspired, ISIS-sympathetic, or ISIS member advances ISIS’s cause.

It may be that the Islamic State did us a huge favor by creating a state and sucking many fighters to a geographic space – a space that became a declared area of hostilities. There, the United States and its allies enjoyed standing authorities to conduct operations against ISIS in cyberspace, which made such counterterrorism efforts much more convenient. In a sense, ISIS communications herded itself into Syria. However, should it disperse now or should al Qa`ida reemerge as the Islamist lead again, we may be back to the problem of addressing jihadism in cyberspace worldwide.

It took us years to accrue the authorities and develop operations to attack ISIS cyberspace operations in Syria and Iraq. U.S. efforts were first small, and the results were modest. However, over time, the U.S. effort grew. At first, the United States was afraid the world would complain about U.S. counter-ISIS cyberspace efforts. But no one complained. U.S. efforts in the war zone are fairly robust and successful. ISIS media operatives went from being afterthoughts or third-tier problems in campaign plans to high-value targets where they remain. The lesson we should take from counter-ISIS efforts is that media operatives are indeed as important as any individual ISIS target or leadership or operational planner; degrading ISIS media presence is imperative—the highest priority there is -- and the world is not going to complain that we are attacking in cyberspace.

The U.S. Government and its allies had the advantage of isolating counter-ISIS media cyberspace operations attacks in a war zone (Syria/Iraq). The U.S. and its allies ought to translate its success in theater to other regions and globally.

Each of these ten statements involves a complicated mix of interagency responsibility concepts of war vs. insurgency vs. crime, legal interpretations, an understanding of legal vs. illegal speech, private vs. public responsibility. Cyberspace may be one of the few national security areas where the public may have a better, more intuitive, and forward leaning attitude than the U.S. Government. Jihadist use of the internet is decried by democrat and republican, progressive and conservative, autocrat and liberal democrat. No one argues today that we ought not act more aggressively against jihadism in cyberspace. If the Islamic State survives and reconstitutes, it will be because it leveraged cyberspace to survive and reconstitute, pass information, inspire new recruits, claim Western oppression, and pass money. Now that it is down, it is imperative that it not be able to get up – at least not use the Western-created domain – cyberspace -- to resurrect itself.

Of course, there are many ambiguities regarding legal anti-American web content vs. the official messaging content of ISIS and al Qa`ida. Yet in 2020, it remains easier for the United States Government to kill ISIS and al Qaida members than it is to get social media to purge ISIS and al Qa`ida content. Something is still wrong.

The Islamic State and al Qaida’s principal means of recruitment is the internet, and its principal tactic is to inspire recruits already abroad via the internet. Recent attacks on Americans and Europeans all involved recruitment of individuals or communications via the internet, which is the ‘Center of Gravity’ – its source of strength -- for these terrorist groups.


James Van de Velde is Adjunct Faculty at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Advanced Academic Programs, at Johns Hopkins University.

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