Why US should be wary of attacking cyberradicals, including Al Qaeda

Missives from extremist groups such as Al Qaeda can easily be found online. But launching cyberattacks to shut their websites down is problematic – and even counterproductive, a new report finds.

The first issue of Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire, released in June 2010, included articles aimed at youngsters, such as “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” and “What to Pack When You Leave for Jihad.” 

Soon after its launch, it became the terrorist organization’s most downloaded publication, according to US officials.

Samir Khan, who was responsible for the magazine, began his publishing career in online extremist materials from his parents’ home in Charlotte, N.C., translating Al Qaeda missives and posting them online.

So why didn’t American authorities arrest him or take down his websites? “The answer is simple: because Khan had not broken any US laws,” according to a new study on cyberradicalism from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC).

Spearheaded by former 9/11 commission co-chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the research project, entitled “Countering Online Radicalization in America,” wrestles with another question: Should the US government take down those sites? 

Despite the radicalizing dangers of the Internet, the BPC study ultimately warns that shutting sites down may not be such a great idea.

In the fall of 2008, for example, the Pentagon’s Joint Functional Component Command Network Warfare reportedly disabled three Al Qaeda online forums, likely in the hopes of limiting the ability of insurgents in Iraq to coordinate attacks against US troops.

The Central Intelligence Agency, however, “strongly opposed the Pentagon’s plans” to take down the three Al Qaeda forums, according to BPC research. 

Indeed, “there was quite a debate within the US government as to the wisdom of doing that and, secondly, about the legal authority for doing that,” says Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College London and director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, who wrote the BPC study. NO“The CIA was basically saying that this is not a good idea because we’re getting a lot of intelligence from these websites and online forums, and we’re losing that if you take these sites down.”

Nor did the takedowns reduce traffic to such sites, because their creators simply migrated to other servers. “So we’re losing these sources of information without any tangible gains,” says Dr. Neumann. 

The report argues that the US military should retain its ability to carry out cyberattacks – ”it would be stupid to not have that capability for all sorts of reasons,” adds Neumann. But such takedowns should be used only as a last resort, it maintains. These last-resort instances might include, say, another pending attack on the scale of 9/11.

Some community policing by domestic Web outlets – such as the search engine Google and the video website YouTube – could help diminish the reach of extremist propaganda, too, the report argues. Lawmakers such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut have criticized such outlets for not more vigorously controlling extremist content.

In response, YouTube has reorganized its Abuse and Safety Center, to make it easier for users to bring hateful content to the attention of the company. It has also formed a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, which has trained YouTube employees to distinguish among videos that are legitimate, hateful, and illegal.

Even so, “it remains easy to find content” on YouTube that promotes terrorism, according to the BPC report, including, say, the complete lecture series of Anwar al-Alwaki, the American-born recruiter for Al Qaeda who was killed in a US drone strike in September 2011.

Aside from community policing by big online content providers, the US government should not try to regulate such videos because the First Amendment “protects 99 percent” of them, the BPC concludes. “Saying in a video that you support Osama bin Laden is not against US law,” adds Neumann. 

The Pentagon has taken down foreign-based websites because the US Constitution does not apply in such cases. But these actions raise questions, too, about the nature of US military cyberattacks. 

In the 2008 case of the three Al Qaeda sites, the Pentagon justified it within the context of the ongoing war in Iraq. “But in the future it may be more difficult to do so,” Neumann adds. “On whose legal authority is this done? Who needs to authorize it? And does it constitute an act of war?”

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