Terrorists are winning the digital arms race, experts say

Countries need to work together to craft an online counternarrative, they say

Terrorist groups are embracing a huge number of digital tools to recruit members and plan attacks, putting them a step ahead of governments trying to combat them, a group of counterterrorism experts said.

Twitter removed about 250,000 accounts connected with ISIS in one year, but the terrorist group uses 90 other social media platforms, Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol said Tuesday. Terrorist groups have begun to live stream their attacks, and they are using the internet to launch "innovative crowdfunding" campaigns, he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

"The technology is advanced," Wainwright added. "They know what to do, and they know how to use it."

It's imperative that countries start working more closely together to combat terrorism and to develop an online counternarrative that dissuades potential members from joining groups like ISIS, said members of a panel on terrorism in the digital age.

Governments need to trust each other more and be willing to share their terrorism intelligence, said Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, former director of national intelligence in Saudi Arabia. "Terrorist is a cancer," he said. "The terrorist cell uses these online methods to metastasize."

Raheel Sharif, former chief of staff for the Pakistani army, called for a combination of tough penalties for violent terrorists and deradicalization education efforts for others. Pakistan, in recent years, has cut the number of terrorist attacks in the country dramatically, he said.

But Prince Turki emphasized the need for a stronger counternarrative, on the internet and in schools, churches, and mosques. Tough penalties for terrorists need to avoid collateral damage to innocent people, he said. Counterterrorism efforts cannot "eliminate the terrorist and create 10 others," said Prince Turki, now chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

Counterterrorism efforts cannot "eliminate the terrorist and create 10 others," said Prince Turki, now chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

Some panelists suggested that a culture of free speech online complicates efforts to fight terrorism. The international community needs to find a balance between freedom of expression and safety, said Yemi Osinbajo, vice president of Nigeria.

"Each person has a ... digital device, and it has tremendous power," he said. "They don't even require any formal agreements. [Anyone] can reach millions of people."

Europol's Wainwright also seemed to suggest some limits on free speech. "We want to enjoy, we want to protect the freedom of the internet, but not to such an extent that there are absolutely no rules of governance," he said.

Panelists disagreed about the effectiveness of current online efforts to craft a counterterrorism message. Efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to counter online terrorism campaigns have been "singularly unsuccessful," said Louise Richardson, vice chancellor at the University of Oxford.

But Wainwright disagreed, saying some counternarrative efforts appear to have reduced the number of Europeans and U.S. residents joining ISIS. But more efforts are needed to counter the "fake news" terrorist groups are putting out about themselves, he added.

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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