Report cites mounting threats fueled by online extremists

Terrorists are increasingly using the Internet in an effort to radicalize people inside the United States but the U.S. government does not have a coordinated strategy to counter their efforts, according to a Senate committee report.

Terrorists are increasingly using the Internet in an effort to radicalize people inside the United States but the U.S. government does not have a coordinated strategy to counter their efforts, according to a committee report released today by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman and ranking member Susan Collins.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Their report, part of a two-year investigation into homegrown terrorism, concludes that the use of the Internet by al-Qaida and other violent Islamic extremist groups "has expanded the terrorist threat" to the United States. Lieberman and Collins told reporters that the U.S. government lacks a comprehensive outreach and communications strategy to counter an ideology of hate that has spread over the Internet.

Individuals in the United States no longer need to travel to terrorist training camps abroad to plot attacks, Collins said. "Now the Internet is being used as a tool for training, indoctrination and even operational [planning]," she said. Lieberman and Collins said the report's main conclusion that the Internet is being used to radicalize people inside the United States is based on information from law enforcement and intelligence officials. But they admitted it is hard to quantify how many people are involved. "What makes this so troubling is that we don't really know how many people are being radicalized because it's very difficult to track," Collins said.

The report does not recommend any specific new laws or legislative proposals. The senators acknowledged that targeting Internet traffic raises privacy and civil liberties concerns. "There are obviously important First Amendment issues," Collins said. But Lieberman said he believes "a case could be made" for legal action against individuals who advocate violence over the Internet. He did not provide details. He also said law enforcement officials have infiltrated online chat rooms to give non-violent counter-messages and could do more of that.

Lieberman said he was not sure which federal agency should be in charge of developing a communications and outreach strategy to counter the spread of Islamic extremist ideology online. He said the Homeland Security Department would appear to be the best agency, but added that the effort should be broader than just one department. The report calls for strategies that encourage Muslim communities to become involved. "The most credible voices in isolating and rejecting violent Islamist ideology are those of Muslim community leaders, religious leaders and other non-governmental actors who must play a more visible and vocal role in discrediting and providing alternatives to violent Islamist ideology," said the report.