Countering Cyber Extremism

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Violent extremist organizations have increased their online presence using the Internet to establish an online brand, communicate with members, and radicalize sympathizers. The regular use of online media, forums, and communications has altered the way that governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private companies must approach countering violent extremism online. Currently, U.S. policy is ineffective in countering cyber extremism. For example, law enforcement has poorly intercepted vulnerable sympathizers, and the government has utilized unsuccessful counter-messaging campaigns against violent extremist organizations.

With U.S. law respecting the difference between merely accessing online extremist sites and doing so with the intent to do harm, there is a major gap in identifying and interdicting radicalized recruits who travel overseas to join violent extremist organizations or remain at home to commit jihad here versus those who are simply curious. This paper provides seven recommendations for countering violent extremism to the U.S. government, private companies who host these online platforms, and NGOs who provide an alternative voice and expertise to the issue.

The U.S. government, NGOs, and communities all play a role in counter-messaging extremist organizations’ online presence. While this paper touches upon a number of themes and recommendations for U.S. government policy on countering violent extremism, there are many more avenues that can be explored from private sector, law enforcement, and international perspectives.

First, the U.S government should create stimulating counter-messaging campaigns with the assistance of third party groups, specifically those who have a connection to the violent extremist community. In the case of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications must work with Muslim influences abroad to develop strong partnerships and communication among involved communities.

Second, NGOs must be given more tools to counter violent extremism, as they provide an alternative, impartial voice and can often bring together parties that governments are unable to access. For example, Google Ideas’ Against Violent Extremism has managed to bring together victims and past members of violent extremist organizations to discuss how to counter extremist ideology stemming from terrorism, gangs, and supremacist organizations.

Third, communities are best situated to provide citizens with a strong counter-violent extremist message. Including them in counter-messaging campaigns builds trust, ensures grass-root involvement in countering extremist violence, and, most importantly, gives direct access to vulnerable persons.
Fourth, with violent extremists using cyberspace to spread their messages, there should be an equally strong counter-message online. This message can come from a number of groups and influential individuals, but it must be cohesive to be most successful as a counter-message campaign against the extremists.
Fifth, once vulnerable persons have been identified, their need to be rehabilitated is necessary to preclude an attack. The United Kingdom’s Channel Project has been successful in this and should be adopted in the U.S.
Sixth, the private sector that owns the databases and platforms used by violent extremist groups should more proactively self-regulate to ensure customers are following the terms of use. Lastly, the role of law enforcement in protecting national security is incredibly important in responding to this online and physical threat. Necessary legal authorities already exist but have not been used to their fullest capacities. Combining the PATRIOT Act with counter-terrorism authorities within Article 18 of the U.S. Code allows law enforcement to monitor both extremist websites and the persons entering them to uncover any potential violent plots.
Due to the complexity of countering violent extremism, a combination of these options should be utilized to address the varying needs of all stakeholders. Embracing a whole-of-government approach coupled with the private sector, NGOs, and community engagement is the most effective strategy to address this ever-evolving and challenging issue.

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