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Public Diplomacy Counterterrorism: Beating Terrorists at Their Own Game

As terrorist entities and non-state actors increasingly use the internet as a means to market themselves and attract potential recruits, the U.S. government’s monitoring of, and engagement with, terrorist websites have come under fire.

Actions like the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication’s efforts to discredit al-Qaeda by posting coffins draped in Yemeni flags on the group’s chat forums make many wonder: Why doesn’t the U.S. use its cyber capabilities to shut down these forums?

Wired magazine Editor-at-Large Ben Hammersley offered one explanation at a Brookings Institution event.  He argued that digital radicalization is not a typical national security concern because use of military action is inadequate in addressing the issue.  With proliferating access to digital technologies worldwide, there are simply too many real and potential threats for counterterrorism officials to remove from the internet.  He suggests that governments frame digital radicalization not as a military issue but as an epidemiological one.

The metaphor of digital radicalization as an epidemiological problem is apt for describing the State Department’s approach to counterterrorism.  The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications monitors online forums used by terrorist groups to identify trends in terrorist communications.  It analyzes data gathered from these forums to find unique themes and patterns that emerge in different groups’ online recruitment efforts.  By understanding these trends, the Center can develop communications strategies targeted for the populations that are most susceptible to each groups’ propaganda.  Like epidemiologists who search for patterns among specific populations to determine the causes of public health problems, the Center searches for themes in terrorist groups’ recruitment efforts to prevent the spread of radicalization.

Radicalization, whether offline or online, will continue to occur as long as terrorist entities exist. Simply shutting down web pages will not prevent radicalization; in fact, some believe shutting down terrorist activity online would drive extremists farther underground to other, less visible channels. Rather, it is more important for the government to understand the motivations of radicalized individuals and to use this understanding to preempt further recruitment by beating adversaries at their own game.

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