Why aren’t we shutting down terrorist websites?

James Van de Velde Counter-terrorism Analyst
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How is it that the U.S. Department of Defense can target individuals within al Qaida but can’t shut down their websites? Al Qaida, the Taliban, Ba’athist insurgents, Iranian-supported Hezbollah and many other terrorist groups have developed websites and online magazines designed to recruit, train, and inspire violence against U.S. servicemen or innocents in the West. The latest al Qaida online magazine, “Inspire,” directed by the late Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, includes a plea for any jihadist wannabe to make triacetone triperoxide (TATP) — a powerful explosive — as well as a color, fold-out recipe with mixing instructions and a list of places to buy the over-the-counter ingredients. Previous editions have called for the killing of specific Americans, asked readers to mow down Americans in shopping malls with trucks that have swords affixed to their front grills, and explained how to use an AK-47. One edition included the now infamous article “How to build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom,” which may have inspired New Yorker bomb suspect Jose Pimentel.

If Americans assume the U.S. government shuts down these websites and magazines or at least confronts the Internet service providers (ISPs) that host them, either inside the United States or worldwide, they would be very wrong. Al Qaida’s defeat may be within reach, but without contesting its online activities, al Qaida and its partner terrorist groups will likely survive and these pleas for local jihad may result in periodic random violence within the United States.

Al Qaida’s principal means of recruitment is the Internet, and its principal tactic is to inspire recruits already abroad. Al Qaida’s recent attempts to attack Americans or Europeans all involved Internet recruitment of individuals already abroad.

To destroy al Qaida, the United States and its allies must shut down its insidious and false message and contest its enormous presence on the Internet. Terrorist websites today enjoy a form of sanctuary worldwide. In fact, the most popular location to host militant websites for the very jihadists we are at war with is often inside the United States (i.e., with American ISPs).

Well-meaning professionals often argue that these websites (see table) — which post beheadings, videos of improvised explosive device (IED) explosions that killed American servicemen, weapons formulae, executions of alleged collaborators, exaltations to violence, and the endless re-posting of al Qaida’s lame and bogus narrative — allow us to monitor these jihadist groups. But the argument that the intelligence “loss” from contesting these sites outweighs the “gain” confuses the end-state goal: denying the enemy use of the Internet. The goal is to defeat the enemy, not endlessly report on the organization.

When ISPs shut down websites for hosting content that violates the ISPs’ terms of use, the intelligence gain from forcing forum members to re-acquire the re-constituted (and degraded) websites alone is significant — it makes it harder for recruits to find these sites and exposes them to intelligence collection in their search. The argument that shutting down websites is a futile exercise of “whack-a-mole” has never been proven true. Disrupted websites have not been re-constituted quickly if at all, and those that have been re-constituted have often re-appeared in much diminished forms, with far fewer members and more limited exposure.

Al Qaida declared war on us in 1998. If we have the legal right to target its members, we have the right to disrupt its websites. And simply confronting ISPs that host content that violates their own terms of use agreements does not undermine any right, law, or policy.

Al Qaida recruits an amalgamation of disaffected, marginalized, and exploited Muslims to further its extremist narrative that the West is oppressing Muslims worldwide. Allowing prominent, moderate, non-violent Muslim authorities to compete with al Qaida’s message on the Internet will allow for a message that better represents the silent, non-violent Muslim majority.

Al Qaida will die when its strategic message can no longer radicalize individuals worldwide. And that message is created and propagated in large part through the Internet.

James Van de Velde, Ph.D., a former lecturer of political science at Yale University, foreign service officer and Naval Intelligence (Reserve) officer, is a counter-terrorism analyst in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jamesvandevelde@gmail.com.