Internet experts Tuesday told a House panel that the United States needs to immediately improve its efforts to understand and respond to the online activities of terrorists who want to harm the country.
Witnesses before the House Homeland Security Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee questioned the robustness of military and intelligence community efforts to understand how terrorist entities, particularly the al Qaeda network, are using online tools to spread their messages.
In prepared testimony for the mid-afternoon hearing, Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman said the ability of the United States to counter ideological enemies like al Qaeda will depend on understanding the resonance of their messages and recruiting strategies, both of which involve the Internet.
He argued that so far, the United States has monumentally failed to understand al Qaeda. "Until we recognize the importance of this vital prerequisite," Hoffman said, "America will remain perennially on the defensive."
Rita Katz, director of the Search For International Terrorist Entities Institute, told lawmakers that the "jihadist movement" will continue to grow if the Internet remains a "safe haven" for terrorists. She said the challenge will not just be to monitor the online activities of terrorist suspects, but also to identify and exploit the online weaknesses of terrorist groups and mine for information that can help to defuse offline terrorist efforts.
"For as long as jihadists on the Internet can engage in terrorist activities unfettered and unmonitored," Katz said, "the U.S. will not be able to cause significant, lasting damage to the global jihadist movement."
Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's task force against hate and terrorism, said officials need the political will to act against the use of online tools to spread terrorist ideologies. He said it is particularly important that the government recruit researchers with the technical and linguistic skills to comprehend what they find online.
"In many ways, we have ceded the Internet to our enemies, and the result has been extremely harmful," Weitzman said. "However, even in a globalized world, there is no reason to believe that this condition is permanent."
WiredSafety.org founder and Executive Director Parry Aftab, meanwhile, warned the committee that blocking or limiting access to certain types of online technologies within the United States would not make the Internet a safer place for those who use it.