Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
As New Yorkers witnessed yet again – for a second time in weeks – terrorists’ ability to recruit, direct and inspire attacks has not lessened. The internet is a battlefield, and we are losing that fight.
Investigators will need to take their time piecing together how failed suspected bomber Akayed Ullah became motivated to launch his attack on Monday. We do know that he has been in this country for years, and while some may point to his Bangladeshi origin (Bangladesh is 90% Muslim), it is also possible Ullah was radicalized here in the US.
Ullah’s botched alleged attack at the Port Authority Bus Terminal is the latest reminder that the United States – like many other countries – is vulnerable. And when it comes to issues in general, the US has a real issue with domestic radicalization. We need to look hard at this individual’s life while he was living in the US. One clear place to start is Ullah’s online activity.
It is likely that investigators are looking at, among many other things, Ullah’s digital footprint. With an immediate goal of mitigating any additional violence, one of their immediate first steps must be also seeing whom he communicated with online to make sure he didn’t work with anyone else and that there aren’t any follow-on attacks planned.
To start to match terrorists online from a level playing field, we need to create a new anti-digital warfare entity. When we realized that terrorists were taking advantage of changes in the financial space to move illegal funds that were critical to their survival, previous administrations created dedicated departments like Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. We need to do the same thing in the digital space. Groups like ISIS depend on digital warfare for their survival, and we need to cut off their access to this infrastructure.
The digital theater keeps growing. It expands every second, opening up new places for bad actors to exploit. The good news is that digital footprints don’t go away, and Ullah’s online activity could potentially provide valuable clues to investigators. Law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and the private sector – if they work with the authorities – can go back over his online activity to look at what platforms he used, block any extremist content he accessed and analyze his communications. This could help in the study of what allowed this attack to happen, but we need to think bigger.
Strategically, we need to apply advanced machine-learning tools – which technology companies use every day – to identify the individual’s patterns of behavior. We can see if anyone else is following a similar pattern. This can help ward off other attacks. We’re operating several steps behind terrorists if we don’t start to apply advanced technology to tracking, anticipating and preventing their malicious behavior.
We have already heard statements that if our immigration policies were different then terrorists like Ullah would not have been able to launch their attacks. While we should always review our immigration policies to ensure that they are appropriately identifying any threats, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’ statements that Trump’s immigration plan – including his plan to end “chain migration” – would have kept Ullah out of the country is a red herring. While policies that limit immigration would have kept Ullah out, the fact is that he could very easily have been radicalized while already in the United States. The White House offered no evidence Monday about where Ullah might have been radicalized and, according to the Associated Press, unnamed law enforcement officials said Ullah had looked at ISIS propaganda online.
Trump’s proposed immigration policies would do nothing to address terrorists’ ability to reach Americans. This is less about who we allow to legally immigrate to the United States - it is about how we prevent Americans, including natural-born Americans and legal immigrants, from getting access to terrorist content and becoming radicalized. Shutting our physical borders is not a strategy for combating domestic radicalization.
After the last attack in New York City – Sayfullo Saipov’s alleged truck attack near the World Trade Center – we heard calls for stronger immigration policy, travel bans and more walls. This is a misidentification of the threat; in Saipov’s case, reports are that he wasn’t radicalized before he came to the US. So, this isn’t an immigration issue. It’s a question of how the perpetrator was exposed to extremist content once in the US, why that content was available, and how he operationalized his plans without being detected. The more resources and time we devote to the wrong enemies – who are being painted as immigrants and refugees – the fewer resources we’re going to have for minimizing access to the content that inspires alleged terrorists like Saipov and Ullah to act.
As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that Iraq is “fully liberated” from ISIS over the weekend, ISIS and its affiliates still retain the ability to reach millions of people around the world through the internet.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The liberation of Iraq from ISIS – and major gains against ISIS in Syria – are significant achievements and shouldn’t be underplayed. But, if Monday’s attack was related to ISIS, it is just another reminder that terrorists today do not need physical safe havens. The internet is boundary-less, and they’re winning the fight online. Terrorists are circumventing a lack of physical access to recruits and sympathizers by putting content online, where there are no borders. There are no checkpoints. They are manipulating the digital theater, and we just aren’t able to keep up.
This isn’t about pointing fingers – tracking terrorists is extremely difficult, and it’s even more complex when you’re operating in a theater, like the internet, that doesn’t have any boundaries. This is a shared public and private sector responsibility. Much like the way we organized to combat terrorist activity in the financial space, this is a prime opportunity for experts in the private sector to work with government on identifying patterns of behavior and applying the most sophisticated tools to countering digital warfare.