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United Nations moves to confront Islamic State online

In meetings in New York, the UN Security Council's counterterrorism committee pledged to ramp up effort to prevent Islamic State and other terrorists groups from recruiting and organizing online.

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    The United Nations headquarters in New York City.
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The United Nations Security Council's counterterrorism committee promised to do more to thwart terrorists' efforts on social media, signing a statement Thursday to monitor the Internet for extremist threats from militant groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

The announcement also pledged support for civil society groups and Internet companies that attempt to take down radical content.

The decision comes after a special meeting of the counterterrorism committee's monitoring team organized in the wake of terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris that rekindled debates over how to counter the Islamic State (IS), which is increasingly sophisticated in its use of technology to recruit and organize.

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Though there is no deadline set for Security Council to follow through on the statement, the plan provides an impetus for UN member states to revamp their commitment to previous resolutions that call for international cooperation to prevent terrorist activity on communications platforms.

The move directs the committee and the Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate to redouble efforts to push for international cooperation to push IS off of social media platforms and the open Internet. The directorate is already tasked with monitoring the implementation of Security Council resolution 1373, passed in 2001, which calls on countries to cooperate in investigations into terrorist activity on Web communications platforms.

Security Council members have passed two more resolutions in the past decade also aimed at preventing terrorists from exploiting Internet platforms and establishing greater cooperation in that realm. But the UN meeting underscores the challenge governments face in combating radicalization online against sophisticated adversaries like IS.

The UN estimates the militant group has recruited as many as 25,000 foreign citizens from more than 100 countries, bolstered by a segmented media operation that includes 34 regional producers, allowing IS to develop messages that can reach potential supporters and recruits around the world.

"All of this works together, we see them pass it on to thousands of fighters and spread it virally," said Daniel Cohen, coordinator of the cybersecurity program at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank based in Tel Aviv, Israel, who spoke at a panel at the counterterrorism committee's technical assembly on Wednesday, ahead of the group's special meeting.

That challenge of combating IS online is compounded not just by who's consuming the content, but also who's producing it, according to experts. 

"When we talk about terrorists using the Internet, we have to remember who we’re talking about," Matthew Miraglia, a supervisory special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said on Wednesday at another of the UN technical sessions. "It’s teenagers, who are always going to be on the cutting edge of new technologies."

IS has proven adept at targeting that audience with well-designed information graphics and battle footage that draws upon references to popular video games franchises such as "Call of Duty" and "Grand Theft Auto." Blogs like Diaries of a Muhajirah, a series in which a Malaysian doctor recruited into the group writes romantically about her experience, have also proven to be effective tools.

"It’s a brotherhood and a community, and they also have pizza nights," Mr. Cohen said.

Though states and civil society organizations face a tough fight in combating the allure of militant groups – in France alone, 1,400 citizens have left for Syria to fight for IS, and many more are suspected of being in the process of radicalization – some experts said they are encouraged by the UN's move.

"Up to this point, the counterterrorism committee has only paid very general attention to information communications technology," said David Fidler, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and a cybersecurity expert. "They just said they’re going to look at communications technology and terrorists’ use of them. I did not expect them to come up with any proposals that reached any consensus."

Representatives from Silicon Valley's top companies were also optimistic. "I’m confident that we're moving in the right direction toward encouraging groups to stand up against the threat of violent extremism," Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management told Passcode after the statement was announced. Ms. Bickert said Facebook is actively organizing trainings to counter IS messaging in Indonesia, India, and Morocco.

The meeting comes as the issue of encryption is the spotlight after terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris in the past several weeks. On Thursday, French counterterrorism officials investigating the Paris attacks said that attackers used the encrypted chat applications WhatsApp and Telegram for communications connected with the plot. Investigators had found those apps on phones of suspects in the case before, but had not determined that they were used in connection with the attacks.

New evidence surfacing on Twitter this week also showed that some users discovered evidence that the militants had created a guide to using Signal, another encrypted chat application.

Though the Security Council's statement does not address encryption, it proved a pertinent issue for panelists during Wednesday’s discussion.

François Molins, the chief prosecutor for Paris, said that while secret communications remained a challenge, especially in the investigation into November's terrorist attack, they’re not necessarily the answer. "Today, we don’t have a solution to encryption," Mr. Molins told the conference over a video feed. "We have to balance between the protection of privacy and the possibility of judicial authority to prevent crimes."

Getting social media companies, governments, and civil society groups together provided much of the impetus for the special meeting. The UN's Jean-Paul Laborde, who leads the counterterrorism committee’s executive directorate, said that partnerships with social media companies would play a key role in fighting IS.

"We have to take the same pace, be of the same pace [as IS]," he said. "Beating them on their own territories means beating them on social media."

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