WASHINGTON, D.C. — House Republicans and Democrats, in a rare show of bipartisanship, came together to pass legislation that requires the Obama administration to produce a strategy to combat terrorists’ use of social media.
It is the latest move by lawmakers to respond to public anxiety prompted by the Dec. 2 massacre in San Bernardino, California, which federal investigators believe could have been fueled by Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) propaganda disseminated on social media.
On Sept. 30, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) introduced the Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act ( H.R. 3654), co-sponsored by 12 Democrats and seven Republicans. Under the bipartisan measure, President Obama is required to forge an administration-wide strategy to combat terrorists online and to inform Congress about social media-related training it provides to federal law-enforcement officials.
The legislation was approved by a verbal vote at around 11 a.m. on Wednesday. Under a voice vote, the yeas and nays are not recorded. House passage cleared the way for the legislation to move to the Senate for consideration.
H.R. 3654 was passed by voice
— Republican Cloakroom (@RepCloakroom) December 16, 2015
“Today, terrorists use social media to recruit, fundraise, spread propaganda and teach future fighters,” Rep. Poe said in a statement. “Online we’ve seen recipes for bombs, instruction manuals for attacks, a Q&A forum for terrorists and even a live stream of an attack. Potential terrorists don’t have to go to Syria or Iraq to train anymore. All they have to do is log-on.”
“My legislation, H.R. 3654, the Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act of 2015, will help change this by requiring the President come up with a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorists online – something that the Administration promised in 2011,” he added. “Unfortunately, today there is no strategy and consequently, we’ve seen individual agencies making unilateral decisions and not coordinating with one another… We must first have a strategy before we can effectively defeat this enemy on every battlefield, including the cyber battlefield. H.R. 3654 requires just that.”
Edward Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised the House for passing Poe’s legislation, describing the voice vote as bipartisan.
“Terrorists are exploiting social media to recruit supporters, radicalize, raise money and spread fear,” said Chairman Royce, in a statement. “Yet, U.S. government efforts have not adapted to counter this ‘virtual caliphate.’”
“As we learned from the San Bernardino terrorist attack, ignoring the online statements of terrorists only puts Americans at risk,” he added. “We must stop terrorists from hijacking social networks for their twisted purposes. This bipartisan legislation will require the Obama administration to get serious about this threat, and lay out a comprehensive strategy to keep America safe.”
Counterterrorism officials have been focusing on the use of social media sites in the wake of the shooting rampage in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and 21 others wounded. The terrorist attack was carried out by Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik. Both of them were killed by police in a shootout after the terrorist attack.
Malik, a Pakistan national, spent time in Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States in 2014 on a K-1 visa, granted to people engaged to American citizens.
On the day of the shooting, she allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS in a Facebook post registered to an alias. Although it is believed she used a pseudonym, the Facebook account was reportedly linked to her personal email address.
Malik also spoke about violent jihad and martyrdom on social media prior to entering the United States, according to various news reports.
John Cohen, former acting under-secretary at Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for intelligence and analysis, told ABC News that a “secret” policy, implemented at least through the fall of 2014, prohibited U.S. immigration officials from analyzing social media activity as part of the visa application screening process.
It is unclear whether immigration officials would have been able to flag Malik’s jihadist intentions absent the “secret” policy given that she used an alias online, ABC News learned from unnamed officials.
“Currently, DHS looks at postings by visa applicants only intermittently, as part of three pilot programs that began in earnest earlier this year,” notes the article. “It is unclear how quickly a new process could be implemented, and other details couldn’t be learned.”
Unnamed officials told ABC News that the three pilot programs, which were reportedly implemented in the fall of 2014, are still not part of “a widespread policy.”
“Ms. Malik entered the U.S. before the pilot programs began, and it is unclear whether they would have stopped her,” notes WSJ.
The State Department, which is also involved in processing visa applications, is reportedly looking into how it might beef up scrutiny of social media posts by applicants seeking to enter the United States going forward.