REPORT: Shutting Down Extremist Websites Won’t Stop Online Radicalization

By Peter R. Neumann

DHS cyber defense analysts (Photo: AP)

The FBI arrested two men from Alabama on terrorism charges on Tuesday, claiming they wanted to travel to Somalia to join the militant group Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

According to the criminal complaint, the two met online and spent hundreds of hours in extremist online forums, talking to Al Qaeda supporters and watching the latest videos from “jihadist battlefronts” like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

They are the latest in a series of cases in which face-to-face radicalization seems to have been replaced by the internet. Today’s homegrown extremists, it appears, are no longer hanging out at radical mosques or being lured into extremism by real-world recruiters. They meet and socialize on extremist websites and get their information from mainstream platforms like YouTube, Paltalk, Facebook and Twitter.

Counterterrorism officials have long spotted this trend. Late last year, the White House promised an “internet strategy,” aimed at “countering and preventing violent extremist online radicalization.”

A new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center — published last week and endorsed by the former 9/11 Commission chairs Governor Tom Kean and Rep. Lee Hamilton — made suggestions for what this strategy should look like.

Some of its recommendations are counterintuitive.

Based on dozens of case studies and interviews with leading experts and officials, it concluded that online radicalization is here to stay, and that future attacks against the homeland will involve individuals who have been radicalized — at least in part — on the internet. However, it argues that “knocking down” websites or censoring the internet is not the solution.

Going through a long list of measures that can be used to remove content from the internet, the report concludes that doing so would not just be unconstitutional, but also ineffective.

For example, “takedown regimes,” which exist in countries like Britain and the Netherlands, make little difference to the amount of extremist content online and can easily be circumvented, while aggressive prosecutions of content producers are rarely successful and can have the (unintended) consequence of drawing more attention to their websites.

Filtering systems, which have been considered by Australia and the European Union, would require the government to maintain and publish blacklists of banned websites, prompting legal challenges and raising myriad political and constitutional issues, while — again — dealing with only a small percentage of extremist online content.

Even if those measures could somehow be made to work, vital intelligence would be lost. Indeed, a whole chapter of the report shows how the presence of violent extremists in cyberspace can be used to gain information about their intentions, networks, and the people who are involved in them.

The report argues that the White House’s strategy should focus on reducing the demand for violent extremist messages: for example, by bringing together tech companies and community groups, helping them to become more effective at challenging extremist narratives.

First and foremost, however, policymakers need to recognize that “knocking down” the vast majority of violent extremist material is impossible and that most efforts aimed at doing so are costly and counterproductive. As much as some politicians may like this to be the case, the internet can’t simply be shut down.

Our guest blogger is Peter R. Neumann, Professor of Security Studies at King’s College London and the principal author of “Countering Online Radicalization in America