The online activities of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspects charged with the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, indicate that the brothers viewed extremist messages online. Online networks provide an easy way for extremists to spread their message, give advice to new radicals, and plan attacks. Arguably, the use of the Internet to radicalize and recruit homegrown terrorists is the single-most important and dangerous innovation since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Recognizing this threat, the BPC Homeland Security Project, co-chaired by former 9/11 Commissioners Gov. Tom Kean (R-NJ) and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), released a report by Dr. Peter Neumann last December, Countering Online Radicalization in America, that identifies the shortcomings in U.S. online counter-radicalization strategy and recommends a path to improvement. The events at the Boston Marathon underscore the urgent need for the U.S. government to engage on this critical issue.
According to the BPC analysis, approaches aimed at restricting freedom of speech and removing content from the internet are not only the least desirable strategies, they are also the least effective. Instead, government should play a more energetic role in reducing the demand for radicalization and violent extremist messages. In the short term, the most promising way to deal with the presence of extremists and their propaganda on the internet is to exploit, subject to lawful guidelines and appropriate review, their online communications to gain intelligence and gather evidence.
Specifically, the BPC report recommended:
Developing a Strategy Against Online Radicalization
- The White House must revise its counter-radicalization strategy in order to make it stronger and more specific, and begin its implementation with alacrity.
- The strategy should include components designed to reduce the demand for radicalization and violent extremist messages and exploit the online communications of extremists in order to gain intelligence and gather evidence.
Reducing both Supply of and Demand for Radical Messages
- The government should clarify online law enforcement authorities, and communicate with internet companies on the nature of radical threats, propaganda and communication.
- Government should accelerate the establishment of informal partnerships to assist large Internet companies in understanding national security threats as well as trends and patterns in terrorist communications so companies become more conscious of emerging threats, key individuals and organizations, and find it easier to align their takedown efforts with national security priorities.
- The government should work to reduce the demand for radical messages by encouraging civic challenges to extremist narratives through counter-messaging efforts by community groups to promote youth awareness and education.
- Counter-extremism education for youth should be expanded, along with partnerships to educate parents, teachers and communities on the signs and risks of extremism. For example, government should encourage school authorities to review and update their curricula on media literacy, consider violent extremism as part of their instruction on child-safety issues and develop relevant training resources for teachers.
- The government should identify up-front what resources will be committed to outreach and education programs, as well as the metrics that will be used to measure success.
Countering Extremists Online
- Law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to better take advantage of the Internet to gather intelligence about terrorists’ intentions, networks, plots and operations, and to secure evidence that can be used in prosecutions.
- The amount of online training offered to members of law enforcement and intelligence agencies should be increased, including state and local agencies, so they are conscious of the increasingly virtual nature of the threat and can use online resources to gather information about violent extremist communities in their local areas. For example, extremist forums and social networking sites are essential for identifying lone actors, many of whom have a long history of online activism through posting messages in online forums, running blogs and maintaining Facebook pages. These communications should be monitored to watch for sudden changes in behavior including escalating threats or announcements of specific actions.
David Beardwood contributed to this post.
- Boston, “lone wolves” and “self-radicalization”
- Boston Response Praised, But Intelligence-Sharing Questioned
- Kean, Hamilton and Neumann in POLITICO: A radical call against online extremism