Note: To view the full webcast of the hearing, please go here.
There are fewer than 10 "highly dangerous" radical Islamist websites operating today and shutting them down would "dry up" the others, Mansour Al-Hadj, a former extremist Muslim from Saudi Arabia, told a House subcommittee Wednesday.
Al-Hadj, the director of the Reform in the Arab and Muslim World Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), was among a group of cyber-radicalization experts who testified Wednesday during a hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade that examined the threat of web-based radical Islamic indoctrination.
During the hearing, committee members and witnesses seemed to agree that the United States is marching blind in the fight against the spread of jihadist ideology online. Also, they said, the rapid transformation of technology has outpaced the creation of a web-focused U.S. counterterrorism policy. That means there is no consensus about whether the sites should be eliminated, either through cyber attacks or voluntary removal, or engaged in a head-to-head war of ideas.
But while radical websites and forums have been shuttered, online social networks have become the chosen vehicle for getting this message out to the world. That includes services such as Facebook, YouTube, Google Video and Twitter. Al-Hadj said this is particularly clear with American-born al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) spiritual leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, whose presence on YouTube exploded after authorities took down his website after last November's killings of 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas.
The free world faces a threat "based on ideology and ideas," said Christopher Boucek, an analyst in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. To combat it, authorities should engage radicals online, "highlight[ing] the flaws and the inherent discrepancies in these arguments." To succeed, however, this strategy must also be accompanied by a "more rigorous shut-down approach," in which radical sites are denied access to the web by cyber-attack or other means.
Shutting down these sites does work, said Pepperdine University law professor Gregory McNeal. However, there has been "no concerted government effort to shut down these sites."
Also on Wednesday, another video by American-born al-Qaida representative, Adam Gadahn (aka Azzam al-Amriki) leaked out on jihadist forums. Gadahn has evaded American authorities since shortly after 9/11, but is thought to be in hiding along the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His face has become known to the world through his numerous appearances in al-Qaida-produced jihadist videos broadcast online. On Friday, al-Qaida leader Osama bin-Laden's face found his way to computer screens around the world as well, in a new video released by the group.
Rep. Brad Sherman, the California Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said one reason YouTube doesn't take down radical videos is because it makes too much money from them. "They feel that if they let everybody on, that just makes a little bit more money for them. And for them to endanger lives nationwide for that reason, is a decision that they've made."