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OPINION

Biggest battlefield in terror war is on the Internet

 

There is one war that the terrorists are winning and if we don’t act, more Boston-style massacres, more horrific atrocities on the streets of democratic nations, like the unspeakable beheading Wednesday in London-- and worse— are inevitable. 

The battlefield is the Internet’s dynamic world of social networking where the most popular technologies have been leveraged to provide unprecedented access to vast libraries of how-to- tutorials on terrorism.

This was the key finding of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Digital Terrorism and Hate Project which was recently presented at a Capitol Hill briefing co-sponsored with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking minority member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

Today, Islamists have created an online culture that spawns ‘lone wolf’ terrorists on steroids.

Before the carnage at the Boston Marathon in April shocked the world, our 2013 report had highlighted Inspire, Al Qaeda’s magazine and other online publications that provided the recipes for the pressure cooker bombs and radio signals the Tsarnaev brothers used to murder and maim so many innocent people.

Our researchers work only from open sources and are currently monitoring some 20,000 problematic hate and terror-related sites. But you don’t need to be the CIA or MI5 to see the clear trends:

Today, Islamists have created an online culture that spawns ‘lone wolf’ terrorists on steroids. With a special emphasis on online forums and social networking, online gurus of hate like the late Anwar al Awlaki validate and supercharge violent theological dogma targeting the United States, other western democracies, Israel and Russia. 

Increasingly the "true believer" is being told they don’t have to travel to the Afghanistan/Pakistan region for training and indoctrination, they can get it all online.

Let’s be clear. We are not talking about hate speech—there’s plenty of KKK and neo-Nazi type hate online—but about the growing existential threat from highly motivated and organized terrorists that must be dealt with.

In the past few months, I have met with intelligence and police officials on three continents, all of whom have the impossible task of keeping their citizens safe from terrorist attacks and finding the virtual (lone wolf) needle in the haystack.

So what can we do to degrade the terrorists’ virtual bases?

For starters we need the collective attention of the Internet community itself.

We have begun to grade the Internet giants on how they deal with digital terror and hate. 

The Wiesenthal Center has given Facebook an A- because of their no- nonsense terms of usage, their transparency and the fact that they have two teams -- one in Silicon Valley and the other in Ireland -- who are generally responsive to our concerns and who are forging their own technological firewalls against online bigotry. 

YouTube has barely earned a C-, for while they seem to have a good written policy, far too many do-it-yourself, how-to-terror videos still populate the giant online video provider. 

Twitter has earned an F for its failure to provide transparency and a quick response to the proliferation of hate hashtags and links to terrorism libraries.

If we are to have any hope that we can degrade and thwart future lone-wolf style terror attacks, we will need to create a new voluntary coalition that brings law enforcement, homeland security, Internet giants and human rights groups to the table. 

Will such deliberations work? I am not sure. But one thing is certain: maintaining the status quo is an invitation for the next unspeakable terrorist outrage.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.