Information Communications Technology and Homegrown Extremism
August 5, 2013
Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on 30 charges, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, for his alleged participation in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. Many experts suggest that Tsarnaev and his late brother, Tamerlan, exemplify al Qaeda-inspired homegrown extremism, given that the young men spent more than a decade in the United States before undertaking such violent acts against Americans. Further, their alleged use of the internet and other information communications technology (ICT) for radicalization and operational planning remains consistent with the pattern of ICT use by homegrown extremists within the United States. ICT’s continued evolution benefits individuals or groups seeking to leverage technology and presents challenges for law enforcement and government agencies attempting to monitor terrorist activity. Recent leaks about classified programs and government responses to those leaks present an opportunity to better understand the relationship between ICT and homegrown extremism.
Q1: What ICT tools are available for use and exploitation?
A1: Extremists use a broad range of ICT tools, including file sharing and social networking media, to aid radicalization and recruitment, communications, and operational planning. Historically, would-be extremists accessed persuasive messaging through online forums, instructions on bomb making from online publications, and militant videos posted on video streaming websites. Today, ICT continues to enhance the capabilities of extremists, enabling them to plan and implement attacks without much, if any, support from established groups. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, “at least ten hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.” Similar sites also likely experience significant volume of content uploads, increasing the availability of extremist messaging and content. A recent post on Twitter by Alec Ross, former senior advisor for innovation for former secretary of state Hilary R. Clinton, states that “a billion tweets are sent every two to three days.” Business Insider suggests that there were over 644,275,754 active internet websites in March 2012. Since then, the number of sites has only grown. These websites host content such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine and are readily available to anyone with access to the internet.
As would-be extremists hone their use of ICT, it becomes more difficult to detect and interdict them. The vast breadth and depth of information and resources available via ICT benefits potential extremists and hinders law enforcement efforts because the virtual realm offers relative anonymity and easy access. Technological advances and swift adaptation by users present new opportunities for homegrown extremists. The amount of available information precludes government efforts to shut down or monitor the use of extremist websites, as new ones can be created easily and quickly. Moreover, even if censorship was a viable option, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, it merely affects the supply of extremist content, not the demand; this renders such a strategy ineffective. Further, ICT appears to have played a critical role in the Boston Marathon bombing, possibly facilitating the Tsarnaevs’ online radicalization and their operational planning. Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly used his YouTube account to view various English- and Russian-language videos on Islam and the situation in Chechnya. Allegedly, Tsarnaevs also used information from Inspire to help build a homemade bomb. As ICT advances, so too do extremist uses of the technology.
Q2: What efforts currently exist to monitor and counter extremist uses of ICT?
A2: A variety of controls aid law enforcement’s observation and interdiction of extremist uses of ICT. Government efforts have two distinct approaches: some initiatives seek to observe and understand extremist networks to better inform future policies and preventive actions; others focus on interdiction. Section 215 of the Patriot Act enables the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect phone metadata using a court order but not “the content of any communications… [or] the identity of any participant to any communication.” Government entities must request specified information, such as calls made from a specific number in Yemen at a certain time. Similarly, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act “permits the government to target a non-U.S. person…located outside of the United States, for foreign intelligence purposes without obtaining a specific warrant for each target.” The government lauds both programs for their ability to prevent extremists from carrying out violent actions; to date, according to NSA Director General Alexander, “42 plots and 12 individuals, including 13 cases affiliated with homegrown extremism,” were disrupted using information from these programs. These programs appear to help interdict specific plots and map networks and wider communications.
Though the U.S. government has initiatives to counter extremist communications and continues to introduce new programs, extremist organizations are adapting their tactics to remain undetected. For example, according to a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, “Bin Laden was tipped off that we had his satellite phone, and he went off the net." Recent leaks regarding classified programs and other efforts further educate homegrown extremists about the U.S. government’s ability to monitor communications. As a result, al Qaeda has encouraged homegrown individuals to undertake violent actions that resemble Major Nidal Hasan’s armed assault on Fort Hood, which he allegedly planned and implemented without support from an established terrorist organization.
Q3: Is ICT a tool to counter extremism?
A3: To prevent the spread of extremism and thwart terrorist plots, the United States should design programs that attack both communications and at least one other component of the ICT triangle. Opportunities exist for the United States to use ICT to thwart extremist activities and prevent the spread of extremism, including the dissemination of moderate messages to counter radicalization in order to stop the extremist lifecycle before it begins. The United Kingdom’s Channel program, a £3 million (approximately $4.5 million) per year initiative aimed at youths prone to all types of extremism, comprises the antiradicalization component of that government’s counterterrorism strategy. Between January 2007 and December 2012, Channel supported 500 young people considered “at risk of becoming involved with violent extremists,” out of the 2,500 individuals referred to the program by concerned police, families, and others. While this program reaches a fraction of individuals vulnerable to radicalization, it serves as an important component of wider counter-terrorism efforts within the United Kingdom.
The United States recognizes the importance of counterextremist programming both offline and online. However, current efforts need scaling up. Thus far, U.S. strategies to counter violent extremism appear to be present in name only. In its Fiscal Year 2014 budget request, the Department of Homeland Security asked for $135,000 for the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties’ program, “Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) through Community Partnerships.” This effort, in combination with the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which uses a $6 million annual budget to conduct counterextremist messaging via social networking platforms worldwide, comprise the sum total of current unclassified interventions. While these programs have met with some success (in 2012, CSCC engagements, including “written text posted to online forums, Facebook, or the comment sections of media websites,” totaled over 7,000) counterextremism initiatives warrant more attention.
Efforts to track down the Tsarnaevs after the Boston Marathon bombing serve as evidence of ICT’s utility as a force multiplier. Whereas it enabled law enforcement to quickly and effectively cull through vast amounts of video to identify suspects, it also likely facilitated Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization and the brothers’ subsequent operational planning. However, ICT did not comprise the brothers’ or law enforcement efforts; it only enhanced actions in the lead-up and response to the bombing. Moreover, online efforts alone will not mitigate the proclivity of individuals towards extremism and violent action. Marrying ICT interventions with community and individual level interventions enables broader engagements with at-risk or even radicalized individuals. ICT only comprises a portion of the extremist’s arsenal; so too must it be a portion, and not the sum total, of efforts to counter homegrown extremism.
Ally Pregulman is a project coordinator for the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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