On Wednesday September 29th I testified before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade on the subject of the U.S. Strategy to Counter Jihadist Websites. A full copy of my written remarks appears here or here. A webcast can be found here. The story was picked up by AFP here and the Los Angeles times here. My oral remarks are below:
In the era of homegrown terrorist plots, jihadist websites are a grave threat to national security. Combating them requires a three pronged approach combining:
1) Monitoring for intelligence value;
2) Elimination and destruction for operational gains; and
3) Co-optation for propaganda and ideological value.
My remarks today, and my written testimony focus on the elimination and destruction of terrorist websites.
Eliminating selected jihadist websites will enhance our ability to collect intelligence by narrowing the field of enemy sites we must monitor. A smaller number of websites will allow for targeted efforts to undermine the jihadist message. Finally, efforts which keep the enemy on the move impose costs on them, delegitimize them, and at the margins make it more difficult for potential recruits to become radicalized.
Today’s headlines about a plot to engage in co-ordinated, Mumbai style terrorist attacks reveals the critical importance of countering the jihadist web presence. Homegrown, low sophistication, high casualty plots are increasingly facilitated by jihadist websites. Consider just a handful of our close calls here within the U.S.:
- Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood attacker was inspired by and radicalized by jihadist websites. Those websites now hold him up as a symbol of successful homegrown attacks.
- Najibullah Zazi who planned a second series of attacks against the NY Subway system was radicalized, and educated through jihadist websites.
- Faisal Shazad the Times Square bomber was radicalized through jihadist websites. It was there that he found his inspiration and fixity of purpose that drove him to carry out his attack.
- Internet images of jihad were the singular tie binding together the efforts of the Fort Dix plotters.
- Moreover in the case of Ohio terrorists Mohammad Amawi, Marwan El-Hindi and Wassim Mazloum, jihadist websites were the motivating and enabling factor in their recruitment, providing them with information about how to build bombs.
The common theme running throughout nearly every attempted attack since September 11th is a radical jihadist ideology. That ideology finds its home in a small core of websites with close operational ties to al Qaeda. Those core forums are the main stream media of jihadist ideology. They have the label of legitimacy. Their stories, videos, training materials, and directives are picked up by mirror sites and repeated throughout the web. We should be disrupting their operations.
I would like to address a common myth that shutting down jihadist websites does not work. I say this is a myth because to date, there has been no concerted government effort to shut down these sites. I readily admit that the jihadist web presence cannot be eliminated, but that is not the goal of what I’m advocating for. Rather, the goal I believe we should be pursuing is to impose costs on our enemies in time and resources, to narrow their potential webhosts, and to corral them into places of our choosing so we can monitor and co-opt them.
It should not be easy for our enemies to recruit, train, and proselytize. The internet is not a battlefield that should operate according to the directives of our enemies, rather it is a battle space that we should own. On the traditional battlefield, few would argue that we should forgo killing and capturing terrorists, merely because they may be quickly replaced. Yet when it comes to the internet, that is exactly what those who are opposed to shutting down these websites are advocating.
I’m speaking in the terms of warfare, however the fight against terrorist websites must be an interagency effort. The intelligence community, the military, law enforcement and the State Department are all key players in a comprehensive strategy to counter the threat of jihadist websites. However, this should not be solely the province of the Executive branch. In fact, I believe that comprehensive legislation directing and prescribing the activities of each agency in the cyber realm is essential to national security. Congress can and should make its mark before the Executive branch takes action on its own — forming precedents without policy.
The threat of jihadist websites is one part of a broader need for legislation directing our nation’s cyber warfare efforts. The key to countering the influence of jihadist websites is to first ensure that those websites do not receive any support from U.S. webhosts. This can be accomplished through the application of existing laws and shaming techniques. Second, we should eliminate selected sites using existing statutes, and treasury regulations. Third, we should work with allies to target those individuals who are supporting websites abroad. Finally, when necessary actions should be taken by the Pentagon’s Joint Functional Component Command-Network Warfare unit and Cybercommand to shut down selected websites. However, this should only be done after co-ordination and consultation with the intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic community and Congress should be regularly informed of these actions.
Following these steps will go a long way toward countering the influence of jihadist websites.