US Needs Plan for Online Terrorism Recruiting, Expert Says

The U.S. government lacks a plan to counter terrorist recruiting efforts online, even though such efforts by jihad groups are growing, one terrorism expert told U.S. lawmakers.

The U.S. government doesn't make an effort to engage with people who may be open to terrorist recruiting efforts and dissuade them from joining, Bruce Hoffman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told lawmakers Wednesday. The U.K. government has a program that works with local communities to identify possible targets for terrorism recruiting, said Hoffman, a former scholar in residence at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

"Very clearly, our adversaries have a communications strategy," Hoffman told a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee. "Lamentably, we don't."

Instead of on-the-ground programs working with potential targets of terrorism recruiting, U.S. agencies have, in some cases, tried to control terrorism communications on the Internet, Hoffman said. "We shouldn't be censoring the Internet," he said. "I think the problem is we default toward these very intrusive approaches."

While most witnesses at the hearing agreed that the U.S. government shouldn't be censoring Web sites linked to terrorism, John Philip Mudd , a senior research fellow at the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation, suggested that taking down terrorism recruiting Web sites may be helpful.

Internet service providers should have protection from lawsuits if they take down terrorism-related Web sites, said Mudd, a former counterterrorism official with the CIA and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "We're not going to stop Internet recruitment and radicalization," he said. "We can work on it, we can chip away at it, but it's not going to stop."

Members of the subcommittee decried the ability of terrorists to recruit followers online, but several lawmakers also said they want to be careful that the U.S. government doesn't trample on free speech rights when it tries to counter terrorism recruiting activity online. There's an active debate in the U.S. security community about whether law enforcement agencies should attempt to take down Web sites recruiting terrorists, but by taking down sites, investigators could lose valuable information, said Representative Michael McCaul , a Texas Republican.

Mudd seemed to disagree. Keeping terrorism Web sites online may give investigators short-term gains, he said. "But in general, I'd say, make sure they can't spread the ideology, because that's spreading the revolution," he said.

The U.S. government has, at times, been too heavy-handed in its antiterrorism efforts, but there's also a proliferation of terrorism recruiting materials online, McCaul said. More than 5,000 Jihadist Web sites and discussion forums are online, he said.

"I don't think anyone here disputes that the terrorists are successfully using the Internet to help spread their message," he said. "Terrorists once had to travel to terror camps in Pakistan to receive indoctrination and training. Now, aspiring terrorists only need to open their laptop and connect to the Internet."

Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Democracy and Technology said that U.S. courts have established clear rules for when it's appropriate for government law enforcement agents to take away free speech rights. A 1969 Supreme Court case established that subversive speech was protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution unless it incited "imminent lawless action," said Anthony Romero , the ACLU's executive director.

In many cases, terrorism Web sites don't rise to that level, Romero suggested.

While several lawmakers expressed concerns about terrorism recruiting online, Brian Jenkins , a senior advisor at research and analysis firm The RAND Corp., suggested that terrorism recruiting efforts in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been limited. RAND found that only about 125 people in the U.S. were recruited to terrorism groups between Sept. 11, 2001, and 2009, he said.

"There are veins of extremism, there are handfuls of hotheads, but no apparent deep reservoir from which Al-Qaeda can recruit," he said.

Terrorists have gotten to the implementation stage in only three plots, including a failed car bombing in New York City May 1, in the U.S. since Sept. 11, Jenkins said.

An online recruitment campaign is "producing very few active terrorists," Jenkins added. "The number of English language Web sites vastly exceeds the number of terrorists it has produced. As a marketing effort, it would be judged a failure."

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