Terrorist Use Of U.S. Social Media Is A National Security Threat

By: Steven Stalinsky and Yigal Carmon*

February 4, 2015

On January 30, 2015, Forbes magazine published an article by MEMRI president and founder Yigal Carmon and MEMRI executive director Steven Stalinsky, titled “Terrorist Use of U.S. Social Media Is A National Security Threat,” that focused on the need for Congress to question heads of U.S. social media companies on their policies on jihadis’ use of their services. The following is the article:

“American companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and other popular services, including YouTube, WhatsApp, Skype, Tumblr and Instagram, are facilitating global jihad.

“This was one of the main subjects of a recent meeting between UK Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama focusing on cybersecurity and counterterrorism. The president stated, ‘Social media and the Internet is the primary way in which these terrorism organizations are communicating’ and that ‘we’re still going to have to find ways to make sure that if an Al-Qaeda affiliate is operating in Great Britain or in the United States, that we can try to prevent real tragedy. And I think the companies want to see that as well. They’re patriots… we’re also going to be in dialogue with the companies to try to make that work.’

“This follows Robert Hannigan, the U.K.’s Director of the Government Communications Headquarters describing ‘the largest U.S. technology companies’ as ‘the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists’ in The Financial Times last November. Mr. Hannigan said out loud what for too long too few have: For almost a decade, these companies have helped Al-Qaeda, and are now helping ISIS to fundraise, recruit, indoctrinate, and train new terrorists. Nearly every day brings more news of the arrest of young Westerners for terror activity, planning attacks, or attempting to travel to the Middle East to join a terror organization.

“ISIS has grasped the effectiveness of social media

“U.S. social media companies are at the center of each of these cases. ISIS has grasped the effectiveness of social media, culminating in its strategic decision to show the beheading of American journalist James Foley on August 19. It first uploaded the video to YouTube and tweeted a graphic blow-by-blow series of stills showing the knife cutting his throat, the removal of his head, and the placement of his severed head on his lifeless body. This act created an earthquake on social media, as thousands of these tweets went viral.

“The following day, Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, tweeted, ‘We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery.’ But the release of the videos of ISIS’s next four beheadings of Americans and Britons were all announced via Twitter—with more graphic images of the beheadings and their aftermath—belying his claim. Furthermore, four months later, the number of graphic jihadi tweets of beheadings and executions is at its peak.

“Most recently, on January 20, ISIS sent via Twitter an embedded YouTube video featuring Jihadi John, the apparent beheader in its previous videos, threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless the Japanese government paid a ransom of $200 million within 72 hours.

“Government should be asking company heads why they aren’t doing more

“‘Why aren’t YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter doing more to stop terrorists from inciting violence?’ MSNBC host Ronan Farrow asked in the title of his July 10, 2014Washington Post op-ed. This is precisely the question that U.S. government officials should be asking the heads of these companies. Farrow also noted that ‘these companies already know how to police and remove content that violates other laws. Every major social media network employs algorithms that automatically detect and prevent the posting of child pornography. Many, including YouTube, use a similar technique to prevent copyrighted material from hitting the web. Why not, in those overt cases of beheading videos and calls for blood, employ a preventive similar system?’

Asked about terrorists’ use of YouTube in a May 2013 CNN interview, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt claimed: ‘If there were an algorithm to detect terrorists, trust me, we would use it.’ But Google is quite capable of identifying and removing content from its search engine using its algorithms – and has done so on numerous occasions. But why should national security be ‘entrusted’ to Google employees anyway? What are their qualifications to determine what could threaten the lives of Americans?

“Those who support allowing jihadi content on social media state that such content should be left alone because of its intelligence value. In an October 9 Washington Postop-ed titled ‘We Shouldn’t Stop Terrorists From Tweeting,’ Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro of The Brookings Institute defended Twitter for allowing and not removing jihadi content: ‘[B]anning particular sites or individuals may make sense if the risk of recruitment and radicalization is high. But those risks have to be weighed against the intelligence value of having groups such as the Islamic State active on social media…’

“Such an approach is flawed. One can hardly imagine the development of the global jihad movement without the Internet. An entire generation of Muslim youth has been and continues to be radicalized online by violent images and incitements to murder. Recruitment numbers are swelling today because for too long nothing was done to stem the flow of this jihadi content hosted by these services. And, consider that jihadis who post this content are fully aware that it is being monitored by Western security agencies; the argument that allowing them to continue to use these platforms on the chance that their accounts could yield significant intelligence is simply naive. The rebuttal to this being that the government shouldn’t be relying solely on social media for its intelligence gathering.

“A growing threat to national security

“Another reminder of the free rein afforded to jihadis online was a January 10 New York Times headline soon after the Paris attacks: ‘Jihadists and Supporters Take To Social Media To Praise Attack On Charlie Hebdo.’ The next day, justice and interior ministers of 12 European countries, including the U.K., France and Germany, issued a joint statement expressing concerns about the Internet being used by terrorists, and calling for tech companies to do more to deal with this issue.

“On January 12, in further evidence of the growing threat to national security posed by Al-Qaeda’s, ISIS’, and other groups’ cyber jihad activity, pro-ISIS hackers broke into the Twitter and YouTube accounts of U.S. Central Command – CENTCOM – leaking documents and information and live-tweeting as they went. “With the Sony attack that took place, with the Twitter account that was hacked by Islamist jihadist sympathizers yesterday, it just goes to show how much more work we need to do, both public and private sector, to strengthen our cybersecurity,” President Obama warned the following day.

“Gen. Jack Keane (ret.), former U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, understands the strategic importance Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups place on the use of social media and the damage done by leaving it undisrupted. He stated on Fox News on October 23: ‘…I think we should clearly appeal to the hosts who are running Twitter, Facebook, the various websites, and shut these things down.’

“Time for Congress to catch up to terrorist use of the Internet and create and enforce new laws to address this problem

“The new Congress and the Obama administration should make this issue a priority in 2015. The long-overdue first step in doing so would be summoning the heads of social media companies and having them clarify what exactly their policies are. Solutions could require examination by constitutional law experts, and might need to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

“There are several clear models for U.S. policy makers to follow which European governments recently have begun to implement. On October 8, the European Commission, with ministers from all 28 EU member states, summoned major U.S. technology companies to a ‘private’ meeting in Luxembourg on terrorist use of the Internet, against the backdrop of the ‘flow of so-called foreign fighters’ as well as ‘calls for electronic jihad that the E.U. is facing.’ The meeting’s goal was to come up with a plan for these companies to stop online radicalization on their websites.

“It is difficult to understand why no one in the U.S. government has taken similar action yet. These companies should be questioned in a transparent framework, and must commit to tackling the problem of eradicating violent jihadi content from their platforms. It is time for the government to catch up to terrorist use of the Internet and create and enforce new laws to address this problem. The removal of a handful of YouTube videos, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages is hardly a serious solution.”

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*Y. Carmon is President and Founder of The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of MEMRI.