Trump's tweets after latest London incident raised issues that bear examination but reflect a confused approach to the problem, Peter Bergen writes
The Internet is indeed the main recruiting tool of terrorist groups but to "cut off" that channel is a monumental challenge, he says
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and the author of “United States of Jihad: Who Are America’s Homegrown Terrorists and How Do We Stop Them?”
As is often the case after a terrorist attack, President Donald Trump quickly took to Twitter after Friday’s explosion on the London Underground that injured more than 20 people. Trump tweeted, “Loser terrorists must be dealt with in a much tougher manner. The internet is their main recruitment tool which we must cut off & use better!”
While the identity of the terrorist or terrorists behind the London explosion is still unknown, Trump is right that many of the “homegrown” terrorists in the West who have carried out attacks in recent years are often failures who find an ideology such as that of ISIS a useful anchor for their grievances. As self-styled ISIS “soldiers,” they can become the heroes that they imagine themselves to be, rather than the losers they often actually are.
And Trump is also right that the Internet is now the key recruitment tool for terrorists. The research organization New America has identified 129 militants in the United States who have tried to join terrorist groups in Syria such as ISIS, succeeded in joining such groups or provided support to others joining these groups. Strikingly, in the cases of these 129 militants, there were no instances of in-person recruitment.
Instead, the militants radicalized because of their access to the Internet – namely, because of what they were reading or seeing online. Some of these militants were also using encrypted-messaging platforms to seek guidance from members of ISIS in the Middle East that they had never met.
And Trump is therefore also right that trying to cut off militant propaganda on the Internet is a key to undercutting terrorist recruitment. But this is much easier said than done. And it certainly isn’t achieved by the Trump administration’s temporary travel ban from six Muslim-majority countries to the United States. The Internet, of course, cannot be regulated by changes in visa policies.
Trump also tweeted “Another attack in London by a loser terrorist. These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!” There was no evidence for this assertion since the perpetrator hasn’t been identified, although it is often the case that terrorists in the United Kingdom and the United States have been the subject of law enforcement scrutiny before they carried out an attack.
What social media companies can do
In the case of child pornography it was relatively easy for social media companies to remove such images, because they are both illegal and easy to recognize. Using “PhotoDNA” technology, child porn images are immediately removed from social media platforms whenever they reappear.
Jihadist propaganda, along with neo-Nazi propaganda and other forms of extremist material, are harder to remove from the Internet because the line between acceptable free speech – protected in the United States by the First Amendment – and objectionable content is much fuzzier than is the case of child porn.
Also, the notion that social media companies are not doing enough to take down terrorist propaganda is a dated one. In March, Twitter announced that it had taken down more than 375,000 terrorist accounts in the previous six months.
Facebook announced in May that it is hiring 3,000 more employees to take down violent content on its platform, including terrorist propaganda, although it’s dealing with fresh controversy over advertising by Russian proxies and others.
Last year, Google’s internal think tank Jigsaw launched its “Redirect Method” in which those searching Google for ISIS material will also be exposed to YouTube videos made by local activists with anti-ISIS messages in languages such as Arabic and English.
After the Charlottesville, Virginia, domestic terror attack in August in which a right-wing extremist killed a woman attending an anti-white nationalist rally, social media companies were quick to remove neo-Nazi material from their sites.
But you can never take down all terrorist propaganda, both because there is too much of it and also because the line between acceptable free speech and unacceptable incitements to violence is not always clear.
And not all social media platforms are based in the United States and therefore subject either to US laws or American social pressures. ISIS, for instance, favors the Berlin-based Telegram messaging service, which doesn’t have to contend with pressure from American policymakers in the same way that companies based in Silicon Valley do.
If the United States is indeed in an ideological war against groups like ISIS as President Trump has frequently said, it is puzzling that there isn’t more of a push at his State Department to combat the spread of jihadist propaganda.
Until the end of last month, the State Department under the Trump administration wasn’t spending any of the $80 million that had already been authorized by Congress in December to combat ISIS propaganda as well as Russian and Chinese propaganda. At the end of August, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally took half of the congressionally authorized funds. Also, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which is in charge of combating ISIS propaganda, has lost a number of key officials in recent months.
Trump’s tweets after the latest London incident indeed raised some issues that bear more examination, but his confused approach to fighting terrorism with a travel ban and vague suggestions about cutting off the Internet may cause more problems than it solves.
What’s needed is a serious and intensive look at what can be done to fight back against online recruitment of homegrown terrorists. And that’s not something a tweet can really fix.