By Stew Magnuson
Experts have compared the use of the Internet by terrorists and their propagandists to jungle warfare. Sometimes enemies hide in the dense foliage to their advantage. Other times, friendly forces can do the same. The jungle is neutral in such conflicts. It’s not going away unless someone chops down every tree.
The Internet is not going to disappear, and neither are the thousands of websites devoted to terrorist causes, witnesses said at a recent House hearing.
“We’re not going to stop Internet recruitment and radicalization. It’s not going to happen in the world of the Internet and the information age,” said John Philip Mudd, senior research fellow at the New American Foundation.
The House Homeland Security Committee’s intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment subcommittee has held a series of hearings on homegrown radicalization. The latest gathered a half-dozen experts from think tanks and academia to sound off on the topic, “Internet Terror Recruitment and Tradecraft: How Can We Address an Evolving Tool While Protecting Free Speech?”
What can be done? Not much, those testifying agreed.
There are currently some 7,000 terrorist group websites, said Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Attempting to shut them down is futile and has been compared to a game of whack-a-mole, he added.
Further, free speech is protected by the Constitution, and radical thought is just that — thought.
There has to be some kind of action before a law is broken. Looking at a website that advocates violence or downloading bomb recipes off the Internet, are not against the law.
The Internet has played a role in every high-profile case of suspected terrorism in the United States, Hoffman said. The idea that the United States is immune to homegrown terrorism plots because of its “melting pot” society has been discredited, he added.
The British government has the Home Office, which reaches out to engage its Muslim communities to prevent radicalization. There are no such efforts in the United States, Hoffman noted. He lamented the fact that legislation introduced by the committee in 2007 that would have funded an in-depth study on homegrown terrorist plots and the role of the Internet did not pass.
“Our adversaries have a communications strategy. We, unfortunately, don’t,” Hoffman said.
Just as the jungle can sometimes be used to a war fighter’s advantage, these webpages can be used to gain insight into possible plots. Chatrooms are where many of these plots are hatched, said Mudd.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said attempting to stifle free speech, even if it is considered loathsome, will only drive it underground.
“The best antidote to harmful speech is more speech expressing countervailing messages,” he said.