Can ISIS be stopped online?

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Experts told lawmakers on June 23 that new approaches are needed to counter the Islamic State in cyberspace, such as better cooperation with Silicon Valley and Hollywood and less of a government footprint online. 

"The pace of the 'cyber bombs' we are dropping on ISIS' virtual sanctuary to take out these websites is like our campaign on its physical territory – slow and inadequate," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said at the hearing.

Royce said the State Department's efforts to counter the message by the terrorist group is "inadequate" and "falls on deaf ears," mainly because it has the State Department logo attached to everything and therefore is easily ignored as government work. The public diplomacy efforts, he added,  "have really been pretty much a bust, dysfunctional."

The Global Engagement Center within the State Department, led by Michael Lumpkin, pushes out counterprogramming to help opponents of groups like ISIS go after their message on social media. In February of this year, the agency announced that the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism will expand its work to collaborate with local partners across the world and focus on places that can be used to de-radicalize people, using a more "comprehensive approach" to tackling radicalization both physically and online.

"To counter a swarm you need a swarm," said Peter Neumann, the Director for International Centre for the Study of Radicalization for the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. "What's needed is scale." He argued that even if the U.S. government had the perfect message and strategy, it would still be a "drop in the ocean," because what's really needed is for the number of people countering the messaging online to increase significantly.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) noted that a Muslim American who started engaging with possible terrorists on social media could wind up on a no fly list or in court, even if the intent was to rebut their messages. He argued there are 14 levels of review before the State Department sends out a tweet, six levels for grant-funded-organizations, but none for a volunteer from the community. "We need a system by which people can register the fact that they are on our side," he said, "that they are trying to engage the terrorist."

Another option is taking the fight directly to the tech firms that operate the platforms used by terrorists. In February of this year, Twitter announced that it had deleted more than 125,000 accounts linked to terrorists in a little less than a year. At least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters from October to November 2014, according to a Brookings report.

"ISIL has been more successful in exploiting the internet than any group I have seen in 17 years of researching terrorism," Neumann said, adding that "government alone" will never be able to solve this problem.

At the Defense Department, the U.S. Cyber Command continues its hacking campaign against the terrorist group, intensifying their efforts in recent months. Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, however, told Congress earlier this month that ISIS continues to have a global reach.

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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