Airstrikes are only part of the effort needed to stop the rise of groups like the "Islamic State." A new transatlantic organization is set on curbing extremists' access to one of their most effective tools: social media.
"Islamic State" [IS] activists are "weaponizing Twitter; they're weaponizing social media," warns Ambassador Mark Wallace, one of the founders of the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), which launched in the US in September and is now expanding its presence to London, Brussels and Berlin. Wallace says IS activists with their many accounts tweet between 90,000-100,000 times per day. "As coalitions are forming in governments now to deal with this," Wallace said, "we think the private sector has to have a similar coalition."
The CEP has been formed as a non-profit in the US and donors' identities will not be revealed, which organizers hope will encourage generous support. Wallace is its CEO and says in the less than one year since its creation, through its research and compilation of information on extremist networks, CEP has already "helped knock terror financing cells out of countries. We've engaged in a very vigorous online campaign to dislodge and disrupt those propagandists that would use the likes of Twitter, Facebook and others to spread insidious propaganda. We believe spreading some of those tactics and goals around the world will be very useful."
Wallace, a former ambassador to the United Nations under President George Bush, was flanked at CEP's Brussels launch by the policy heavyweights of former US Senator Joseph Lieberman and the former chief of German intelligence, August Hanning, who'll head up the Berlin office. Wallace said he envisions the CEP spearheading and coordinating international efforts to "knock off the cyber jihad … in the US, in France, in Germany, in multiple languages so we prevent those that would seek to turn the internet into a weapon of hate, or at least minimize its effects."
Lieberman and Hanning both expressed concern about the seriousness of the threat and the lack of an effective global response in explaining their motivation for joining the organization. "There's no single answer to the threat of extremism and the violence caused by extremism," Lieberman said in an interview with DW, "so we've got to go at it in many different ways. We've got to be careful not to repeat what others are doing or have done and failed." He says CEP is going to be innovative and experimental and lean heavily on "digital disruption" of extremist support systems. The group's European branches will closely follow tweets in French, German, Italian and Turkish in order to translate and expose content to Twitter or other companies and demand it be removed as illegal "material support" for terrorism.
'Soft power' against IS
Roberta Bonazzi runs the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), which will also serve as the Brussels office for CEP. She agrees there's an urgent need for new thinking. "Clearly, something has gone wrong" in conventional approaches to counter-radicalization, she points out, "otherwise we would not be seeing so many young people travelling to Iraq and Syria to join groups like IS." Her EFD has already spent many years working to combat extremism at the grassroots level and has established a network of Muslim activists contributing to that effort and offering guidance to vulnerable youth. "We realized that young people constantly have questions," she explained, "and very often those who are most ready to give them answers are radicals."
Organizers of the new effort insist there's no more time for misguided or ineffective methods. Hanning tells DW bluntly that IS has in fact already succeeded in setting up its "Islamic state" complete with borders and social structures such as health care and social grants. "That's a very new development, not like al Qaeda," he warns, noting this adds to its attractiveness to recruits.
After his seven years in Germany's intelligence service, Hanning is certain there's a growing and essential role for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in fighting extremists. "I know what states can do and what they can't do," he says, calling "soft power" efforts a "very important playing field for NGOs like CEP."
In addition to striking back at IS' online messaging, Hanning believes there's been insufficient attention given to cutting off its finances. "Governments always have to be very cautious for diplomatic and other reasons," he explains, "but private organizations can be very open. They can blame publicly all these foundations and other organizations that are financing" terrorist organizations.
Hanning asserts "that's a huge opportunity," clearly relishing his freedom outside government. "We have prepared a lot of information and we can use it publicly," he said. "That's a very sharp tool - and we will do it."
A provocative strategy, perhaps, but all part of CEO Wallace's plan to motivate society at large to take action. Twitter is one of Wallace's first targets. He's asking the public to take action against terrorist propaganda online. "Social media platforms should do more about that. You all can do more about that," he told a think-tank audience in Brussels.
"Demand from Twitter not to bring this hatred into your community," he implored the crowd. "Ask them at what point does this become material support [for terrorism]? That'll scare 'em."