WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States government is struggling to prevent the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) from gaining ground in cyberspace, recently declared a Senate panel chairman, echoing top Obama administration officials.
“I think we’re in a crisis mode,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), chairman of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, during a hearing on Wednesday. “This online messaging is a huge part of the radicalization effort.”
Top Obama administration officials charged with combating ISIS’s online radicalization and recruitment efforts echoed the chairman’s declaration, saying that the volume and quality of the jihadist group’s online messaging have seriously improved in recent years.
In his written testimony, Michael Steinbach, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, said:
To an even greater degree than al Qaeda or other foreign terrorist organizations, ISIL has persistently used the Internet to communicate and spread its message. From a Homeland perspective, it is ISIL’s widespread reach through the Internet and particularly social media which is most concerning as ISIL has aggressively employed this technology for its nefarious strategy. ISIL blends traditional media platforms, glossy photos, in-depth articles, and social media campaigns that can go viral in a matter of seconds. No matter the format, the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago.
Meagen LaGraffe of the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center added, “The quality and volume of violent extremist messaging has advanced dramatically…”
George Selim, director of the Interagency Task Force on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), noted that ISIS’s online efforts to radicalize and recruit Americans pose a “real and persistent threat.”
Selim also serves as director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Community Partnerships.
The officials’ comments appear to contradict what their colleague Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, told lawmakers nearly a week ago.
“As ISIL loses leaders, territory, and resources, its message appears to be having less resonance online,” said McGurk, later adding, “Pro-ISIL content is down and anti-ISIL content is up.”
According to the officials who testified Wednesday, ISIS’s online messaging is difficult to track given that the group is often changing social media platforms and employing encrypted communication methods.
A new study by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School found that 89 percent of the 101 publicly known ISIS-linked criminal cases in the U.S. involved the use of social media and 69 percent involved the consumption of ISIS online messaging.
“The average age, overall, of those indicted for ISIS-related crimes is 26, and the most common age among them is 20,” noted the study, later adding, “This report suggests that efforts to intervene with or redirect these late adolescents towards more constructive futures will require focus on individual needs and circumstances.”
Many of the U.S. government efforts to directly combat ISIS’s online propaganda have failed.
“While the U.S. government has a good message to tell, we are not always the most credible voice to tell it,” testified LaGraffe.
“While we may have less success altering what an individual thinks, we can certainly be more effective at preventing individuals from turning those beliefs into violence,” she added.