Terrorism.com: Classifying Online Islamic Radicalism as a Cybercrime
The threat of online Islamic radicalism is a growing issue for the U.S. and the West today; however, little is being done by lawmakers to address its prevalence and potential implications. By examining the history of this cyber phenomenon, one can better understand how it leads to the radicalization of individuals’ within the borders of western countries with no ties to foreign terrorism. While freedom of speech is a guaranteed right, online Islamic radicalism is pushing its boundaries, and deserves to be re-examined and compared to existing laws against cybercrimes such as cyberstalking and the use of the internet by hate groups. When this is done, it becomes clear that online radicalism must be governed in some way without obvious discrimination against any one racial group or religion. This provides an avenue for shoring up speech rights against hate groups as well as online radicals to help protect national security.
“What do Iraq, Lebanon, and the internet have in common?” asks an anonymous career CIA analyst in his book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. Answer: they are all fields of vigorous endeavor by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and radical imams for the spread of radical Islam and the recruitment of new mujahedeen (holy warriors) to their jihadist movement . It is not just Iraq and Lebanon, however; the internet, just like many Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African countries, has become an integral part of the strategies of Muslim actors and terror groups worldwide. Web sites, chat rooms, email, and social media have become increasingly influential in creating cohesive identities in cyberspace for the Islamic political and ideological agendas of terrorist organizations, Islamic imams and proselytizers, and individuals sympathetic to their cause. With the ability to reach a worldwide audience, these actors are able to infiltrate the boundaries of their sworn enemies, such as the U.S. and its allies, from within.
With this rapid spread of Islamic extremism and proselytizing on the internet both abroad and in the United States, the risk of homegrown terrorism is spreading as well; and there are many questions that are not being asked, such as when do such acts reach a point to where they are worthy of being deemed a cybercrime? This is the question that this paper will aim to answer. In order to accomplish this however, one must have a better understanding of what exactly these online imams and jihadis are doing, the origins of online radicalism, and its rise in the online community. In addition, identifying the barriers to classifying such activities as a cybercrime and the pros and cons of doing so will be an integral part of this analysis. In order to do this, existing laws pertaining to other relevant cybercrimes, such as cyberstalking and the use of the internet by hate groups, will be compared and contrasted to prospective laws governing online radicalism and proselytizing. The preliminary hypothesis is that activities pertaining to online radicalism or jihad against the U.S. and its allies, if meeting certain criteria, should be deemed illegal and punishable to the fullest extent of the law. The threat of online extremism is growing, and if not dealt with soon, it will only be a matter of time before it leads to a devastating attack. It is time to put aside political correctness and treat online extremism as what it really is: a major threat to the national security of the United States and its allies.
Review of Literature
In examining the current situation of the spread of online Islamic radicalism and proselytizing, it is important to understand the origins and background of the activities and the threat posed by their ever increasing prevalence in cyberspace. From the recognition of the internet by al-Qaeda as an invaluable medium to continue their Islamic movement after their “defeat” in Afghanistan, to the spread of online radicalism into U.S. borders, the following section will provide background from several literary sources on these events and why they matter. Also of importance is what the United States is or is not doing to counter these threats, which will also be covered in this section. Finally, these sources also dive into other aspects that come into play with the threat of Islamic radicalism online. The debate over making such online activities illegal, the pros and cons of doing so, and they cyber laws currently in existence that are comparable in nature are all topics which were introduced via the literary sources used for this paper, and which will be built upon in the analysis section.
Jihadi use of the internet initially emerged out of a practical necessity, writes Jarret Brachman in the article “Internet as Emirate: al-Qaeda’s Pragmatic Use of Virtual Jihad”. The medium provides jihadis with not only a tool for communicating with one another, but a new world in which to establish themselves. After being thwarted in Afghanistan, senior al-Qaeda leaders found themselves in a post 9/11 scramble to keep their movement motivated and coherent. As such, they took to the internet out of practical necessity to replace their dismantled training camps and loss of organizational leadership . Since then, the internet began to turn into a place that jihadis saw as their base for fleeing oppression in the real world and establishing their version of Islamic governance, virtually; and eventually into what it is today: a vehicle that senior Islamic ideologues can use for instantly disseminating their strategies for defeating western governments on a global scale and for recruiting new jihadists to their cause .
Since the attacks on 11 September, 2001, one can observe more and more social, cultural, and religious movements and groups that use cyberspace to disseminate information and construct virtual identities. Among them are many Muslims who construct what Birgit Brauchler, author of “Islamic Radicalism Online: The Moluccan Mission of the Laskar Jihad in Cyberspace”, calls cyber Islamic environments, which provide space for primary sources of Islam online , and make them available to a wide range of Muslims whose perception of Islam is strongly influenced by these presentations. These sites have made the internet the new battleground in the Islamic jihad. Web sites, email, chat rooms, and social media have become increasingly influential in creating cohesive identities in cyberspace for the Islamic ideological agendas of imams (prayer leaders; leaders of the Muslim community ) and proselytizers (one who converts a person from one belief, doctrine, cause, or faith to another ) seeking to recruit new mujahedeen for their worldwide jihad. These radicals use the freedom that the internet provides to spread their sermons, views, and propaganda to a global audience in a search for like minded Muslims  whom they can recruit from within the borders of their enemies’ home nations.
Two analysts from Booz Allen Hamilton, Donde West and Christina Latham, wrote in 2010 that the marriage of cyber jihad and Web 2.0, a term that is commonly associated with web applications that facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user centered design, and collaboration with the World Wide Web , is an inevitable outcome. Online forums supporting the “media jihad” such as al-Hesbah, al-Boraq, al-Ikhlas, and al-Firdaws , as well as social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter support the distribution and production of the overall cyber jihad of al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks, as well as provide a route for jihadists and other individuals to join the jihad and play an active role, often leading to their recruitment. In addition, these sites provide support for the publication of training manuals for weapons and technical security, as well as jihadist web radio and television channels . So what effect will this have on the worldwide jihadi movement and the spread of Islamic radicalism into the United States?
In the Newsweek article “Internet Imams: Inside the Cyber Jihad” author Christopher Dickey argues that using web based television and internet chat rooms, “news” sites, and what amount to virtual training camps for terrorism and guerilla warfare, online imams and proselytizers are maintaining a constant rant of propaganda, indoctrination, and ideological discussion about how best to defeat the United States and its allies . While Muslims in America have long resisted the calls to violence preached in other parts of the world, al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks, by using the internet, are working hard to change this. It seems to be working too, as is evident by the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. The Tsarnaev Brothers who conducted the attack were discovered to have been active in this radical online community. There is good evidence that the brothers had apparently been radicalized by material on the internet rather than by contact with militant groups overseas . As a result of the successful infiltration of radical Islam into cyberspace, many American analysts are worried that the United States isn’t fighting back hard enough in this cyberwar of ideas . Dickey states that the U.S. has failed to take the jihadists seriously, intellectually, and culturally, and as a result their corrosive influence on the internet is progressing unopposed.
It isn’t only the United States that is in danger. The increased use of the internet by radical imams, proselytizers, and jihadists has served to shift the Islamic movement to a truly global scale . The anonymity the internet provides allows these groups and individuals to engage in these activities without a major threat of detections. However, the very anonymity that the internet affords jihadists and imams can also work against them, argues the author of the article “A World Wide Web of Terror – Internet Jihad”, published by The Economist Intelligence Unit. It allows police and intelligence agencies to enter the jihadist’s online world without being identified. These online radicals, however, are becoming increasingly aware of these “imposters” operating on their sites and forums, and thus are being more careful to vet the validity of those participating in their discussions . So what are law enforcement and intelligence agencies doing in response to these online radicals once they have been discovered? Often, their actions can be counterproductive.
The United States and its allies have increased the appeal and presumed importance of websites operated by Islamic radicals and imams by repeatedly staging “information warfare” attacks on them, forcing them offline and making their producers search for new host servers, writes Anonymous, a career CIA analyst and author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. While these attacks have proven the capabilities of the U.S. Military’s information warfare personnel and have made these websites much more difficult to find for Muslim readers, the ultimate effect of knocking these sites offline is an interpretation of the attacks by Islamists that such attacks by the U.S. are validation of the Islamist claims that freedom of speech is not for Muslims, which has probably boosted readership overall . The attacks also deny U.S. intelligence analysts easy access to what terrorist networks and radicalized individuals are thinking and planning. Is one of these outcomes better than the alternative? This is a question that is up for debate. What is clear is that the tactics of U.S. intelligence and that of its allies is not having the desired effect; and in the meantime online radicalism and proselytizing is becoming more of a risk to the national security of the United States every day.
What more should be done to curb online radicalism of individuals within U.S. borders is a difficult problem to tackle, and as of now U.S. legislators and the White House have not attempted to pass any laws to ban such activities, which, according to Jeffrey Hermes of the Digital Media Law Project, would be unconstitutional, in direct contradiction of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech. Basically, it is a constitutional right to talk about violence in the U.S., to be divisive on social, political, and ideological issues, and even to argue that violence is an appropriate response to the ills that are perceived in the U.S. government or the world at large. It is even allowed to publish such opinions and arguments. Only when speech gets to the point of “inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” is it in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution . Allowing these rights to protect radical imams, proselytizers, and jihadis has yet to become a serious (public) debate among U.S. policymakers, who are too concerned with political correctness to realize that inaction is putting U.S. national security in jeopardy. That being said, President Obama has made note of the issue publicly, in a statement that shows the White House is only just starting to realize the issue is serious, the President noted that:
As a starting point to prevent online radicalization to violence in the homeland, the Federal Government initially will focus on raising awareness about the threat and providing communities with practical information and tools for staying safe online. In this process, we will work closely with the technology industry to consider policies, technologies, and tools that can help counter violent extremism online. Companies already have developed voluntary measures to promote internet safety – such as fraud warnings, identity protection, and internet safety tips – and we will collaborate with industry to explore how we might counter violent extremism without interfering with lawful internet use or the privacy and civil liberties of individual users .
This is an issue that will be discussed more in depth in the following analysis portion of this paper. First, however, it is important to look at how online radicalism can be likened to other cybercrimes. Doing so may aid in making clear certain points as to why online radicalism should be considered a cybercrime.
In recent years cybercrimes such as cyber stalking and harassment have received increasing amounts of credibility and attention because of their increasing frequency and because online acts have often been a prelude to real world crime, including sexual assaults and homicide . Cyber stalking can be defined as using the internet to harass, threaten, or intimidate another person, and most states have long since passed a variety of anti-stalking laws. Because of the First Amendment right of free speech, it is sometimes difficult to determine when such instances are infringing on free speech, so four factors are used to determine the seriousness of such cases. These factors are credibility, frequency, specificity, and intensity . Exactly how this can apply to online radicalism will be discussed in the analysis section, but one can easily begin to see the similarities between the two types of online activities.
Another online activity that is strikingly similar to online radicalism and proselytizing is the presence of hate groups and gangs online, such as the Aryan Nation, Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazi groups. Much like the online jihadist movement, these hate groups use the internet to communicate, organize, recruit, and sometimes even plan criminal activities . Also, like the jihadist movement, many of these activities are protected under the right of free speech. By developing laws against the spread of online radicalism, it is easy to see how these laws could also expand to encompass and combat online hate groups and gangs, or vice versa.
The method used for this research took a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach. Analyzing the trends in Islamic radicalism online takes into account much more qualitative data. Case Studies, professional analyses, military journals, think tank publications, and media articles from both domestic and international sources are all valuable sources from which to draw information for this research.
Case Studies have proven invaluable to this research. They provide historical information and analysis of the origins of Islamic radicalism online, its increased use to reach an international audience, ways in which U.S. and international law enforcement can benefit from its widespread use, and arguments for and against creating laws to combat it. These analyses can be applied to this research by building on it to form new hypotheses on how best to approach the threats from online Islamic radicalism and proselytizing, and how to analyze the seriousness of the situation at hand.
Content analysis was also valuable to this research. By studying documents detailing certain aspects of the threats and capabilities of online radicals, imams, and proselytizers, such as those that explain the current capabilities of online jihadists in cyberspace, how it can affect the national security of the U.S., and ideas to counter the threat, new conclusions can be drawn on which to base the analysis. The difficulty of this approach is obtaining documents that are available to the public. Since this phenomenon poses a major threat to national security and is one of current debate, many documents that may explain in detail how this threat is viewed by U.S. policymakers and what is being discussed to curtail it may still be classified. Finding the unclassified documents that do more than list the basics of what online radicalism is and does is a task in itself.
The review of publications by professional analysts from the CIA and think tanks such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy (FDD) played an essential role in forming the analysis of this paper as well. Having access to the thoughts of these professionals who have derived their analyses from the reams of intelligence collected on the use of the internet by Islamic radicals was a major boon to the validity and content of the analysis provided here. These individuals have made a career of analyzing this information and forming opinions that policymakers look to for guidance, so not including it as part of this research would have been a mistake.
Lastly, collection and analysis of other archival, administrative, and performance data proved helpful in this research. Any other available documents or articles that cover the effects and trends in online radicalism also provide insight into several aspects of the situation. This information was used to draw conclusions that support the hypotheses made as a result of the analysis of the case studies and content analysis.
Findings and Analysis
Imagine for a moment that you just witnessed a massive explosion in Times Square in New York City, perhaps you were there, perhaps you are watching on TV; regardless, you can still hear the screams of the injured and people rushing to help. Windows are blasted out, buildings are destroyed, and bodies are scattered everywhere, pure chaos. Instantly policymakers, media, analysts, law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and the public in general begin to point fingers. All signs point to a terrorist attack, true; but how did this radical terrorist manage to get into the country and plan something so devastating without our Intelligence Community catching on? Come to find out, he was here the whole time, born and raised; and he never had any physical contact with a terrorist organization whatsoever. Computer evidence seized at the suspect’s home shows that he frequented chat rooms, websites, and social media sites used by radical Islamic imams and proselytizers to recruit new mujahedeen for their global jihad against the enemies of Islam, aka the United States and its western allies. It turns out the imam that the suspect most closely followed online, the one that appears to have converted him to the extremist viewpoint of Islam that led to the bombing, lives right here in the United States. Worse yet, the Intelligence Community knew he was spreading his extremist rhetoric online, but did nothing about it. How could they? He is protected by the right of freedom of speech that the First Amendment guarantees. He never told the bombing suspect to specifically target Times Square, how to do it, or when, he simply urged that violence is an appropriate response to the ills that are perceived in the U.S. government, and that those Muslims who do not join in the jihad against the “Great Satan” will surely be punished by Allah, which, according to the First Amendment, is perfectly legal. So while the bombing suspect may be apprehended, face a long trial, in which he is granted so many rights and privileges, and ultimately spend the rest of his life in jail or face execution, the imam who preached this Islamic extremism is free to move on to the next new recruit. This is how United States law works, ladies and gentlemen, and this is why it fails to accomplish anything.
The above scenario is, of course, a worst case scenario; however, it is very possible, if not probable, sometime in the near future. In fact, this is very close to how the Boston Bombings were carried out. The Tsarnaev brothers, who reportedly had never had any contact with terrorist organizations, were discovered to have accessed radical Islamic websites, chat rooms, and media online after computer evidence was seized at their sister’s home . Until the United States and its allies address the issue of Islamists creating cohesive identities in cyberspace for their radical agendas to spread their sermons and recruit new jihadis, the situation will only get worse. This is not to say that all imams and proselytizers are operating from within U.S. borders as is in the scenario laid out above, in fact it is quite the opposite. The majority of these individuals are located within the Muslim countries of the Middle East where, of course, U.S. laws do not apply to them. That is not to say that there are none within the U.S. borders or the borders of one of the United States’ allies, with whom a treaty to combat online radicalism could be drafted; or that there will not be any of these individuals within U.S. borders in the future. The main concern at this point is that loners and small groups who follow these online imams, not necessarily known members of terrorist organizations, will be inspired by these radicals to kill, if not for Islam, then for their own self-created religion based on rage against the United States .
Should the U.S. focus on these small groups and individuals or go to the source? Can U.S. law brush off the freedom of speech in this situation if it means proactively targeting the source of online radicalism rather than being reactive and waiting for an attack to come together before law enforcement makes their move; an attack which they might miss altogether, putting our national security at risk? The answer is yes, it is possible to pass such a law if a miracle were to happen within Congress and an agreement could ever be made between the House and Senate; however, there would be some very unhappy people around the country as a result, and not just Muslims, which is something U.S. politicians would not much like and probably would never pass because of it.
To examine whether this is a good thing one must look at the pros and cons of allowing activities related to online radicalism to continue. The main benefit of allowing this activity to continue is that police and intelligence agencies are able to enter the jihadist’s online world without being identified as a result of the anonymity the internet provides . This provides these agencies with inside knowledge as to what is going on within the online jihadist community, tracking what is said, when it is said, and by whom. Using this method law enforcement and intelligence can theoretically stay ahead of the curve, but in reality there are far too many of these sites and individuals to track them all. Because of this, information warfare attacks have been used to knock these websites offline, but the only real effect of this is to increase the negative feelings of Muslims towards America as well as the readership of the next site to pop up , of which there is a never ending stream.
Another pro is that First Amendment rights would not be violated if these activities were allowed to continue. If laws were passed that made it a crime for Muslims to spread sermons, preach, proselytize, or communicate online if in any way it pertained to radical Islam, countless groups would be up in arms about it, and not just the Muslim community. Civil and human rights groups, equality groups, and one would imagine a good portion of the liberal leaning political left, among others, would come to the defense of the right to free speech for those online radicals, either not realizing or not caring that these individuals pose a threat to the national security of their country. By allowing these activities to continue this could be avoided, which is something the always politically correct (at least when interacting publicly) members of Congress would love to do. But at what cost?
The con of allowing these activities to continue is obvious: online radicals would continue to have the freedom to spout their anti-American rhetoric preached in their sermons, propaganda, and ideological sentiments. The implications of allowing these activities are many, with the primary threat being that of the radicalization of Muslims within U.S. borders , who may then carry out attacks in pursuing the Islamic jihad. The spread of the Islamic movement worldwide by way of online radicalism is a major threat to the national security of America and its allies, and by allowing it to continue and proliferate unopposed the United States is continuing its strategy of being reactive to such threats rather than proactively trying to nullify them; which is a strategy that is destined to fail at some point in the near future.
Developing laws to combat these threats domestically, and possibly internationally, is not a cure all solution to the problem, but it would be much more effective than “working closely with the technology industry to consider policies, technologies, and tools that can help counter violent extremism online without interfering with lawful internet use or the privacy and civil liberties of individual users ”, as President Obama stated. There are no technologies or tools that can combat something protected by the freedom of speech like there is to combat online crimes like fraud and identity theft; and there are no policies that can, or will, be enacted that will effectively halt the proliferation of such activities without narrowing the scope of what is protected by the freedom of speech. Policymakers should look to other online crimes that are comparable to the spread of online radicalism in order to justify any prospective laws made to govern it, such as cyberstalking. Cyberstalking, using the internet to harass, threaten, or intimidate another person, can be compared to online radicalism in that often it leads to crimes committed in the real world such as sexual assault or homicide . Online radicalism can do the exact same thing, although on an even greater scale, such as the scenario outlined in the opening paragraph of this analysis. There are differing degrees of cyberstalking, not all illegal, so a system that judges the incident based on four points, credibility, frequency, specificity, and intensity  has been used to judge cyberstalking cases. This same system could be used to judge the online activities of both imams/proselytizers and those who follow them or are recruitment targets. Currently these individuals must have made specific threats, identifying a target, method of attack, etc. to be considered as breaking the law and violating free speech . Using the system that is employed for cyberstalking cases would allow for their activity to be judged on more than just the specificity of their discussions, and would allow for more freedom of interpretation when determining whether they are guilty of a crime.
Another online activity almost identical to online radicalism is the use of the internet by gangs and hate groups. These groups use the internet for the exact same purposes as online radicals: to communicate, recruit, plan, and organize . Groups such as this also enjoy much of the same protections as online jihadis; hence they are also dealt with the same way, with little to no regulation and are privy to rights they should arguably not enjoy. This provides lawmakers with a golden opportunity however. By extending the prospective laws shoring up free speech rights of radical Islamists online to include the rights of neo-Nazi, Aryan Brotherhood, KKK, and several other hate groups, U.S. lawmakers may avoid some of the backlash that would come as a result of “targeting Muslims” or racist accusations by encompassing groups made up of all races, including those groups who spout hate for Muslims and Islam.
In theory the concept is simple; amend the definition of what is considered to be free speech online in order shorten the leash and tighten the noose on online radicals, allowing for the proactive arrests of the source of the problem rather than the reactive arrests that come after an individual has already become radicalized or an attack has already been planned or executed. In reality the problem is much more complex. Aside from the political issues and debate that would inevitably delay the passage of such an act, there are other more complex issues to deal with. These individuals may be located outside of the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement for instance, or they may be very difficult to track or locate. To counter this, the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities must work with a variety of entities and create a plan of action for combating the spread of online radicalism. On an international level, it is important to know that the internet has no boundaries. Therefore, countries must work together to share information related to the extremist use of the internet . Creating a treaty between the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan (the latter two are debatable as to the extent the term “ally” really applies) to form a universal set of laws that restrict the use of the internet to proselytize and spread the radical Islamic movement, or amending the International Cybercrime Treaty, which harmonizes the laws of the U.S. and many of its European allies against malicious hacking, virus writing, fraud, and child pornography on the internet , to include the spread of online radicalism would be an advisable step towards at least staunching the flow of these activities. Within individual countries, namely the United States, the cyber warfare community and intelligence agencies should work with law enforcement organizations in order to require “in country” companies hosting extremist websites to take these sites down. For example, if a U.S. based company is found to be hosting an extremist website, then U.S. law enforcement should require that company to shut it down, and if the company does not, appropriate legislation should also be in place to penalize that company , and also to prosecute the online radicals themselves.
To believe that the spread of online radicalism will ever be entirely nullified is outlandish. The internet is far too large and ungovernable and U.S. resources are spread too thin to truly put a stop to these activities; not to mention that the number of individuals engaging in this activity is growing exponentially as the technology that facilitates their actions becomes more advanced, making its proliferation virtually unstoppable given the lack of laws and regulations against it. This is precisely the reason that the laws need to change. By standing back and doing nothing because it is too big a problem to contain and the freedom of speech permits it, the White House and Congress is essentially welcoming the spread of radicalism into U.S. borders, putting the national security of the country at risk.
These policymakers should take a step back, look at the history of online radicalism, and see what its proliferation means for the security of this nation. If they do this, which is doubtful, they will see that U.S. and international laws must be reformed to address the spread of this issue. Freedom of speech as it applies to Islamic radicals online, as well as hate groups and gangs, should be amended so that it doesn’t take something as specific as a time, date, and location of an attack before it is considered a crime. Instead, along with specificity, the credibility, frequency, and intensity of their rhetoric should also be taken into account, as it is in cases of cyberstalking. Beyond this, the U.S. should work with international entities to share information on online radicalism and harmonize the laws between its allies so that finding a place to legally spread radical Islam online becomes increasingly difficult for these groups and individuals.
This being said, the hypothesis outlined in the introduction holds true after thorough analysis, that activities pertaining to online radicalism or jihad against the U.S. and its allies, if meeting certain criteria, should be deemed illegal and punishable to the fullest extent of the law. In order for this to occur however, laws governing these activities must first be created and passed, a tall order to be sure. Should U.S. policymakers ever decide to open their eyes and realize it is impossible to defend the national security of the U.S. while still being 100% politically correct or inoffensive, they may find that the passage of laws or amendments to govern the spread of Islamic radicalism online are a necessity. Until that time, the U.S. and its allies should prepare for the threat of not only an international terrorist attack, but that of an attack from a homegrown terrorist, radicalized by the online activity they refuse to acknowledge.
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