On January 8, 2016, the White House announced the creation of a new Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, hosted at the Department of Homeland Security. In many ways, this task force is an extension of the 2011 strategy, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, as well as the 2015 Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. But the White House also used the opportunity to emphasize the role that social media plays in violent extremism today. Admitting that more needs to be done, especially in the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, senior officials travelled to the nation’s IT hub of Silicon Valley seeking help.
The U.S. government uses the phrase “countering violent extremism” to refer to efforts to undermine radicalization and recruitment for terrorist or other violent groups. ISIS currently draws most of the attention, given the recent spate of attacks in Jakarta, Istanbul, Paris, Beirut and Sinai.
When it comes to countering violent extremism, the U.S. government has articulated concern with two phenomena: foreign fighters and “lone wolf” attackers. First, an unprecedented number of foreign fighters or volunteers—approximately 35,000 individuals—have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Libya in support of ISIS.[i] Only 15 percent are estimated to be from North America or Western Europe.[ii] But the concern is that some of these Western volunteers will return home, or travel to the United States, to conduct attacks. The second area of concern is the unprecedented number of U.S. residents that have been charged with terrorism-related crimes; more than 60 individuals in 2015 alone, according to the FBI.[iii] U.S. officials are concerned that some individuals—aka lone wolves—will follow the example of San Bernardino and conduct attacks inside the United States in support of ISIS.
ISIS has used social media to recruit foreign fighters and encourage attacks by sympathetic individuals inside the United States. Any strategy to counter violent extremism, therefore, requires a social media component with efforts to (1) undermine ISIS’ credibility; (2) minimize the resonance of ISIS messages with local audiences; but also (3) reduce the effectiveness of social media as a medium for ISIS. Silicon Valley can assist in all three.
One opportunity for undermining ISIS’ credibility, for example, lies with refugees from the Levant. ISIS’ message when it announced its caliphate in June 2014 was that it had established religious law in its territories and, thus, all Muslims had an obligation to transfer their allegiance to ISIS and relocate to this caliphate.[iv] But it is difficult to lay claim to a caliphate if its residents are fleeing. This potential weakness appears to have been recognized by ISIS, which has released statements discouraging emigration.[v] Thus, one possible way to undermine ISIS credibility would be to use social media to amplify the stories of refugees who have fled ISIS-held territories.
Opportunities also exist to minimize the resonance of ISIS messages with local audiences. Specifically, Silicon Valley could help the U.S. government apply new methods in geo-inferencing to illuminate where and to what extent ISIS messages, articulated on social media, resonate with local populations. This type of analysis could help to focus assistance provided to local communities to counter violent extremism, not only inside the United States, but also in Western Europe, the Middle East, North Africa or even Southeast Asia. It also could contribute to a greater understanding of differences between individuals who ‘flirt’ with radicalization and those who are more likely to become foreign fighters or lone wolves.[vi] In further application, Silicon Valley could help to develop methods to measure the effectiveness of counter messaging efforts in real-time. This latter represents an area of significant need in the campaign to counter violent extremism.
Finally, opportunities also exist for Silicon Valley to put hurdles in the way of ISIS’ use of social media, rendering it less efficient. While some in Silicon Valley understandably have expressed reluctance to work with the U.S. government in the area of encryption, some consensus appears to have been reached on this broader goal. Namely, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube regularly remove ISIS recruitment messages in an effort to slowdown distribution.
That said, there are limitations to what Silicon Valley can do. Even a concerted social media campaign, aimed at slowing down the radicalization pipeline, is unlikely to be enough to mitigate the threats posed by foreign fighters and lone wolves. Too many—approximately 250 Americans—have already left the United States to join ISIS overseas.[vii] Add to that number are those who have already been imprisoned on terrorism-related charges and will be released in the near future.[viii] This yields between 400-450 individuals who have either volunteered with ISIS overseas or been arrested and imprisoned on terrorism charges in the United States. Given these numbers it is unlikely to be enough to interdict, or even prevent, new recruits. We must also develop programs to address the potential recidivism of existing extremists, whether in the U.S. homeland, or fighting abroad.
Countering violent extremism clearly represents an essential component of US policy to mitigate the threat posed by ISIS and other terror group. The U.S. government has admitted that more must be done to design and implement an effective CVE policy. Given the central role that social media plays in the recruitment of foreign fighters and lone actors by ISIS, Silicon Valley can help. It can especially assist the US government as it attempts to identify opportunities and assess efforts to undermine ISIS. But, at the same time, Silicon Valley should not be viewed as the panacea for violent extremism in the United States.
Kim Cragin is a senior research fellow for terrorism at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed here represent her own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
[i] This number – 35,000 – includes an estimated 30,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, an additional 5,000 in Libya. See, Patricia Zengerle, “US Fails to Stop Flow of Foreign Fighters to Islamic State,” Reuters, 29 September 2015, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/29/us-mideast-crisis-congress-fighters-dUSKCN0RT1VZ20150929, last accessed 30 September 2015; Michael Pizzi, “Foreign Fighters in Syria, Iraq have doubled since anti-ISIL intervention,” al-Jazeera, 7 December 2015, available online at http://america.aljazeera.com/ articles/2015/12/7/foreign-fighters-in-syria-iraq-have-doubled-since-anti-isil-intervention.html; and “About 5,000 foreign fighters currently in Libya, Foreign Minister Says,” BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 28 February 2015.
[ii] 4,500 of the 30,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are estimated to be from North America or Western Europe. See, Rebecca Kaplan, “Report: Westerners who join ISIS and the threat that they pose to the US,” CBS News, 18 November 2015, available online at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/report-more-women-among-todays-foreign-figh….
[iii] “DOJ: 60 charged with terrorism in 2015,” CNN News, 23 December 2015, available online at http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/12/23/isis-terrorism-us-fbi-prosecuti….
[iv] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, This is the Promise of Allah, statement released by al-Hayat Media Center, 30 June 2014.
[v] “IS Fighters in Video warn Migrants about Living in Europe,” translated by SITE Intelligence Group, September 2015; and “IS Recruiters Press for Lone Wolf Attacks, Offer Advice on Private Messenger,” translated and reposted by SITE Intelligence Group, August 2015.
[vi] Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes make this distinction in their December 2015 report entitled, ISIS in America: From ReTweets to Raqqa, available online at https://cchs.gwu.edu/sites/cchs.gwu.edu/files/downloads/ ISIS%20in%20America%20-%20Full%20Report
[vii] Jeremy Diamond, “”Congressional report: U.S. has failed to stop the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS,” CNN News, 29 September 2015, available online at http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/29/politics/foreign-fighters-isis-congressio….
[viii] For further discussion, see commentary posed by Michael A. Brown on 4 November 2015, available online at http://www.rand.org/blog/2015/11/whats-next-on-the-convicted-terrorists….