US Cybercounterterrorism Team Takes on al-Qaida
A U.S. team of communications counterterrorists has been using a variety of techniques to counter the impact of al-Qaida propaganda online, with mixed results and opinions. "I am against my government producing propaganda and performing illegal hacking," said Rich Jones, lead developer of the OpenWatch project. "However, I do understand their desire to disrupt terror networks."
The interagency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications last week revealed that its Digital Outreach Team responded to pictures posted by al-Qaida supporters on Yemeni discussion forums. To counter the images of coffins covered by the U.S. flag, the center posted pictures of coffins draped with the Yemen flag, along with Arabic messages regarding the human toll inflicted on Yemen by al-Qaida.
The Obama administration formed the center last fall in order to use communication techniques -- including words, images and video -- to sabotage the efforts of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Housed in the State Department, the CSCC has a US$6 million annual budget and focuses on various forms of counterterrorism communications. Its Digital Outreach Team specializes in cybercounterterrorism -- among other things, posting messages in the Urdu, Arabic and Somali languages on social media sites and Web forums frequented by al-Qaida recruiters and potential recruits.
Fighting the Web Fight
The work being done by the CSCC and its Digital Outreach Team appears to be valuable and effective.
"I think that it is important for the CSCC to respond on all fronts, understanding that al-Qaida is a sophisticated enemy using the Internet wisely both to recruit members and to gain sympathy from citizens in the region," Constance Knapp, codirector of Pace University's Seidenberg CyberSecurity Institute, told TechNewsWorld. "Replacing anti-American ads with ads showing the damage that has been caused hopefully reaches an influential segment of the population. Such responses can be very effective, especially when the response time is short."
Digital counterterrorism is particularly effective with young, Web-savvy audiences, said Knapp.
"Young people all over the world are becoming increasingly aware of security loopholes in any website," she noted.
"All organizations need to balance security and access. Complete security means no access, and open access means no security," Knapp explained.
"As radical groups such as al-Qaida and others come to rely on well-educated younger recruits, cyberattacks will obviously become of even greater concern," she said. "I believe that the center's digital outreach team will become even more effective over time. In my opinion, such efforts will continue to supplement ongoing traditional counterterrorism efforts."
The center's strategies make sense in a global, Web-based electronic culture, said Darren Hayes, associate member of the Seidenberg CyberSecurity Institute.
"It is well documented how al-Qaida propagandists have inspired young Muslims into action through the use of chat rooms, blogs, social networks and other websites," Hayes told TechNewsWorld.
"Moreover, the use of technology has extended to the development of jihadist video games and even access to important news on mobile devices," he pointed out. "Thus, it makes sense for the U.S. to counter this online jihadi propaganda through . . . the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications."
Potential terrorists are millennials who must be reached electronically, suggested Farrah Parker, communications specialist with FD Parker & Associates.
"The CSCC tackles terrorism from a millennium perspective and will achieve tremendous success," she told TechNewsWorld.
"Their tactics represent the evolving methods required to keep America safe. By monitoring chat rooms and creating banner ads, the Department recognizes al-Qaida's shifting social dynamics," Parker said. al-Qaida recruits are youth who are attracted to technology just like most youth all over the world."
Too Open or Not Open Enough?
However, a different approach might be more effective in the long run, said Hayes.
"The efficacy of the center is questionable," he argued. "This small group of Urdu and Arabic speakers . . . must openly declare that they represent the U.S. government before communicating with these online jihadists. They will therefore be subject to stringent guidelines on what they can and cannot say. A more covert approach would likely have a far greater influence."
The goals of U.S. government-sanctioned hacking and cyberattacks are understandable, Jones said, although he does not approve of those approaches.
"I am against my government producing propaganda and performing illegal hacking," Jones told TechNewsWorld. "However, I do understand their desire to disrupt terror networks."
Still, these terror networks aren't as highly organized as some might think, he contended.
"If their networks really are disrupted by having their website defaced, then they really aren't that much of a threat anyway, and I think that's part of the problem," he said. "The U.S. is building an empire on a popular lie that there is a massive, organized threat out there, and that they must be destroyed, and to do that we need to invade their countries. In reality, it's a loose group of amateurs who should be treated like criminals, not a military threat."
Jones recently submitted an FOI request for documents related to the center's actions through the investigative journalism site, MuckRock. What the public needs, he maintained, is awareness of what the center does and why.
"Sunlight is the only disinfectant," said Jones.
"I think that the American people should be demanding that all new documents created should be 'Public by Default.' As it stands, they are secret by default and are only made public after time, when requested, and only if they aren't arbitrarily declared to be state secrets," he explained.
"I believe it should be the inverse. Our policymaking should be data-based, not ideologically based," Jones argued, "and the only way that the wonks can make intelligent decisions is by giving us access to the raw data."