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Terrorists' use of social media a national security threat

| Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

The largest U.S. technology companies are “the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists,” explained Robert Hannigan, the U.K.'s director of the Government Communications Headquarters, in The Financial Times on Nov. 3, 2014. He was referring to Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and other popular services — YouTube, WhatsApp, Skype, Tumblr, Instagram and others.

These companies have helped al-Qaida and are now helping ISIS to fundraise, recruit, indoctrinate, train and disseminate their ideology. Nearly every day brings news of arrests of young Westerners for terror activity, planning attacks or attempting to travel to the Middle East to join a terror organization. U.S. social media companies are at the center of these cases.

ISIS has grasped the effectiveness of social media, culminating in its strategic decision to show its Aug. 19 beheading of American journalist James Foley, uploading the video to YouTube and tweeting blow-by-blow stills of the deed. Thousands of these tweets went viral.

The next day, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo tweeted, “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery.” But the videos of ISIS' next four beheadings of Americans and Britons were all disseminated via Twitter — and ISIS went on to tweet its January videos about two Japanese hostages, both ultimately beheaded, and its video this month showing the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot.

“Why aren't YouTube, Facebook and Twitter doing more to stop terrorists from inciting violence?” MSNBC host Ronan Farrow asked in his July 10, 2014, Washington Post op-ed. This is the question that U.S. government officials should be asking the heads of these companies. Farrow also noted, “(T)hese companies already know how to police and remove content that violates other laws ... employ algorithms that automatically detect and prevent the posting of child pornography ... (or) prevent copyrighted material from hitting the web. Why not, in those overt cases of beheading videos and calls for blood, employ a ... similar system?”

One can hardly imagine the development of the global jihad movement without the Internet and social media. An entire generation of Muslim youth continues to be radicalized online; recruitment numbers are swelling today because for too long nothing was done to stem the flow of jihadi content hosted by these services.

Congress and the Obama administration should make this issue a priority in 2015, first and foremost by summoning the heads of social media companies and having them clarify what exactly their policies are. Solutions could require examination by constitutional law experts and might need to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

U.S. policymakers can follow several clear models that European governments have begun to implement. On Oct. 8, the European Commission, with ministers from all 28 EU member states, summoned major U.S. technology companies to a “private” meeting in Luxembourg on stopping terrorist use of the Internet.

It is difficult to understand why as yet no one in the U.S. government has taken similar action. The removal of a handful of YouTube videos, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages is hardly a serious solution.

Yigal Carmon is president and founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI); Steven Stalinsky is MEMRI executive director. The organization recently launched its Cyber & Jihad Lab Project.

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