“Ideating” on ISIS and Silicon Valley

on January 25 | in 9/11, Intelligence Reform, Terrorism

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This is a reposting from Just Security.

In a lot of Silicon Valley meetings, participants “iterate,” “ideate,” and “sync,” and do other buzzwordy things. Every once in a while something innovative and impactful comes out of those meetings. If more of those Silicon Valley innovations can be brought to the fight against ISIS, that’s a good thing. This seems to be what the administration is after in the recent meeting between senior national security officials and tech company executives. The criticism about that meeting (e.g., here and here) strikes me as quite overblown. Our national security leaders appear to be struggling to figure out how to respond effectively to the rise of ISIS. It is worth giving them latitude as they ideate on ways to address a real and growing threat.

Nonetheless, as a response to that threat, this recent initiative does leave me scratching my head. To explain why, I want to take the 30,000 foot view (to use another buzzwordy phrase) and offer the following three broad points.

First, the United States has a robust counterterrorism apparatus in place. This should be obvious, but it can be easy to forget as ISIS propaganda spreads around the Internet and in the wake of recent terrorist attacks. The counterterrorism apparatus created after 9/11 has proven effective, remains in place today, and stands in sharp contrast to Europe’s counterterrorism posture. The US structure includes a host of new post-9/11 agencies that overtime have become more mature institutions, big three letter agencies whose capabilities are still ahead of the curve, and statutory reforms that ensure relevant counterterrorism information flows between agencies and gets to those who need it.

The tools that we need to prevent attacks on the US homeland are the tools that we already have. Any initiatives to come out of meetings with tech executives are at best going to be marginal improvements to this effective post-9/11 structure. The system we have today isn’t perfect and its failures can cost lives, so it is certainly worth exploring ways to make it better. But recent administration initiatives focused on the tech industry seem driven not by clear ideas for how to make a good system better but rather by concern for the prospective fallout that will occur when imperfections become more apparent.

If we do want to ensure that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies are best positioned to meet the challenge posed by ISIS, the place to start isn’t with Silicon Valley. We should start by examining the strategic health of the organizations mentioned above and by ensuring that their topline manpower and budgetary requirements are fully resourced. These organizations have been stretched thin in recent years by the broadening threat landscape coupled with a decline in the resources necessary to meet those threats.

Second, the ideas considered at this meeting are not new. The discussion topics— essentially degrading ISIS’s ability to use the Internet by employing counter-propaganda, counter-radicalization, and content takedown strategies — are ones that have been explored many times over the last 15 years and have not previously proven viable. They sound remarkably like discussions I heard in 2005 and 2006, after Zarqawi (then considered the biggest, baddest propagandist on the planet) had used the Internet to launch his group to the forefront of the insurgence in Iraq. And they are similar to discussions from 2009, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was using the Internet in even more innovative ways to inspire homegrown jihadists and lone wolf attackers in the West.

The State Department’s new Global Engagement Center, which was announced on January 8, demonstrates that we’ve now got this record on repeat

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. That Center “will more effectively coordinate, integrate and synchronize messaging to foreign audiences that undermines the disinformation espoused by violent extremist groups” and will “offer services ranging from planning thematic social media campaigns.” This sounds remarkably like the mission of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which was created in September 2011 and was supposed to “coordinate, orient, and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism.” And these initiatives under the Obama administration are reminiscent of State’s hearts and minds initiatives under Karen Hughes of the Bush administration.

In the past, we have not proven to have the cultural acuity necessary to make online counter-propaganda and counter-radicalization efforts successful. Our efforts end up sophomoric and even at times counterproductive.

Online content takedown strategies present a different problem. What we have learned from past explorations of this issue is the Internet always adapts quickly. This is a universal challenge that spans industries; the music and movie industries haven’t found any more innovative solutions to their own content takedown problems than have the Defense or State Departments. This is why it is generally more effective to exploit online information to understand violent extremist groups — meaning to learn what we can about their plans, intentions, networks, and leaders — rather than taking down online information to degrade those groups.

Third, we have a foreign policy problem, not a Silicon Valley problem. The United States since 9/11 has relied on a layered, three-pronged approach to defeating terrorist groups. First, we take the fight to terrorists were they live. Second, we prevent them from traveling to the US homeland. And third, we aggressively disrupt plots domestically. This is the strategy we employed to protect the US homeland and drastically weaken al-Qaeda and likeminded extremists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen. It is the first prong of this strategy that we have not employed sufficiently against ISIS.

Yes — we have slowly increased our operational activities in Syria, but these have always been half-measures that nearly everybody knew beforehand would not be sufficient to the task at hand. If our domestic counterterrorism apparatus seems strained and is struggling to respond to the ISIS threat, that isn’t because it lacks the tools to do the job. It is because we lack resolve in Syria and are looking to fix weakness abroad with strength at home, placing too much burden on domestic law enforcement services and on quixotic domestic policy possibilities.

I do not mean to suggest that I have brilliant ideas for how to solve the crisis in Syria. My point is just this: We aren’t going to be able to compensate for shortcomings in our Syria policy by taking terrorist tweets down more quickly.

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