Yesterday, we noted that the Army is cracking down on soldiers who might divulge sensitive information in their blogs or personal e-mails. Under a new Army policy that went into effect late last month, superior officers must approve the content of blog entries or personal e-mails before they are posted or transmitted. The policy represents the sharpest restriction on soldiers' on-line activities since the start of the Iraq War. Some observers also fear that the new restrictions could mean the end of milblogs in their present, uncensored form.
Unfortunately, our enemies don't operate with such restrictions. USA Today's Mimi Hall reports that terrorist groups--including Al Qaida--are becoming even more sophisticated in their use of the internet to propagandize, raise money, and recruit more operatives. According to a new government report, terror organizations are also using "flashy websites, provocative video games, hip-hop music and gruesome images of bloodied Muslim children to recruit young people online." And apparently, the U.S. is doing little to counteract that activity:
"There's only one side on the battlefield, and it isn't us," says Frank Cilluffo, director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute, who will testify on the institute's Internet-Facilitated Radicalization report in the Senate today. "We've created this global village — the Internet — without a police department."
According to Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, insurgents also use the web to review attack techniques (such as shooting down helicopters) , watch videos of hostage beheadings, and listen to messages from terror leaders. Virtual one-stop shopping for jihadists.
Clearly, everyone agrees that the use of the web by terrorists is a growing problem. But listen to this proposed "solution:"
The report doesn't advocate stripping people of their rights to communicate ideas on the Internet. Instead, it says national leaders need to develop a compelling "counter-narrative" that the "West is not engaged in a battle against Islam," hire more intelligence officers to infiltrate chat rooms and foster better relations with Muslims.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke says officials are working with intelligence officers, Muslim leaders and police to address the problem. "It is something that is going to require the vigilance of local authorities," he says. "They are going to be more likely than the federal government to detect the preliminary signs of radicalization."
That's all well and good, but it only represents a partial solution--at best. What we really need is a full-scale Information Operations (IO) campaign against the jihadists, encompassing all the tools of the trade: intelligence, psyops, deception, public information, and yes, cyber-warfare. For whatever reason, our response to terrorism on the web has been piecemeal at best, allowing jihadist websites to multiply and flourish.
The failure of our "traditional" approach was underscored in an anecdote recently relayed to me by a military IO officer. During a recent deployment, he participated in a briefing that (among other things) highlighted insurgent activity on the web. When the senior officer present --a two-star general--asked what was being done to take down terrorist web sites, the briefer simply shrugged.
As highlighted in the USA Today article, insurgents have become adept at developing content or entire web sites, then placing it on U.S.-based servers. That makes the job of neutralizing that material more difficult, but not impossible. And, the first step in that process is realizing that the "global village" described by Mr. Cilluffo is really a battlefield, to be contested and won like any other in the war on terrorism. We can't win the information war with net nannies, cyber police and outreach programs for Muslim groups. If we're serious about challenging our enemies on the web--and we'd better be--we need a strategy that unleashes the full spectrum of IO techniques against our enemies, and employment of that strategy on a relentless, global scale.
Terrorists use the web for a variety of reasons; it's universally available, cost-effective, relatively anonymous, and allows them to reach millions of potential converts and operatives with a few keystrokes. But there's another, compelling reason that insurgents have migrated to the web--the lack of an effective counter-strategy among their enemies. We can fix that latter problem, but only if our leaders--national and local, civilian and military--have the courage to use all the tools at their disposal. The revised strategy won't always be transparent, and it may sometimes spill into "neutral" domains. But this more aggressive approach would make it even more difficult for terrorists to operate on the web--and that's the real bottom line.