Should the U.S. Destroy Jihadist Websites?

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Salah Malkawi / Getty

Osama bin Laden, in a video that aired on the eve of the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks

The Internet has played a key role in radicalizing a number of key players in alleged terror plots this year. From Fort Hood accused shooter Nidal Hasan to the five young Americans detained in Pakistan this month allegedly en route to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan, authorities claim the suspects needed no face-to-face contact with jihadist recruiters. Instead, the Internet is serving as an electronic funnel for extremists to infuse U.S.-based Muslims with a justification for jihad.

But wait a minute. The U.S. military invented the Internet 40 years ago. Why can't it simply hunt down and destroy the web sites that inspire murderous fanatics? While the Saudi government estimates there are 17,000 such websites, most experts say that only around a half-dozen of these generate original material. "Most jihad cyber domains initiate very little, if any, original discussion, primarily reposting material from popular jihad forums," said a report earlier this month from MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, an organization that monitors and translates much jihadist material. "Hence, disabling the few prominent domains could seriously cripple Islamists' ability to conduct mass online discussions, and could also hamper the rapid spread of jihad material in cyberspace."

The topic is now the subject of increasing debate. On one side are military theorists such as John Arquilla of the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California, who believe that driving militant Islamists off the web would destroy their ability to carry out jihad. But scholars such as Chris Boucek, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, maintain that defeating online jihad won't happen by shutting down websites — they say the best antidote to jihadist websites is countering their arguments for killing with better-reasoned Islamic logic.

Last week the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing into the topic just as Arquilla was arguing in a post on Foreign Affairs magazine's website that the time had come to view al-Qaeda's cyberspace as a battlefield. "Instead of thinking of cyberspace principally as a place to gather intelligence, we need to elevate it to the status of 'battlespace,'" he argued. "This means that we either want to exploit terrorists' use of the Web and Net unbeknownst to them, or we want to drive them from it." Arquilla tells TIME that al-Qaeda doesn't "put people on planes anymore because they know we're good at spotting them, and if we take away cyberspace we would achieve a crippling effect on the global terror network."

But Arquilla's logic doesn't add up, counters Evan Kohlmann of the non-profit NEFA Foundation, created following 9/11 to track Islamic terrorism. Shutting down jihadist web sites "would be like firing cruise missiles at our own spy satellites," he argues, referring to the intelligence the U.S. and its allies glean from such sites. Besides, it can't be done. "If you shut down one of their websites today, they have a complete copy elsewhere and can put it up on a new server and have it up tomorrow," Kohlmann says. Such websites are the only window the rest of the world has into al-Qaeda and other such groups. "If you start shutting down the websites," he adds, "it's like chopping up a jellyfish — you end up with lots of little pieces that are very difficult to monitor." Kohlmann believes that the websites are a treasure trove of valuable intelligence, most of which is being overlooked by the U.S.

And there seems to be growing support for the view that instead of trying to blow up al-Qaeda's websites, it may make more sense to battle their ideology online with better arguments. "We're talking about a movement that's based on ideas and grievances, so we need to understand those ideas and grievances," Boucek says. "Failing to engage in debate on those issues means we're ceding all of that to them, and that makes no sense to me."

At the recent House subcommittee hearing, Boucek lauded a Saudi program where government-funded religious scholars go online to assorted jihadi websites and debate what is and isn't permitted by Islam. "They try to show people that there's a different way than what they might be thinking," he told the panel. "This is basically saying, 'If you go online to look for answers about religion and you listen to these guys, you'll go off on the wrong track'." The Saudis, in their so-called Sakina campaign, then take these written chats and post them elsewhere. "There's a multiplying effect when they put this on their website for other people to read," Boucek said. "Also on their website are different documents and studies, recantation videos, things like that that explain extremism and radicalization."

Boucek and other experts believe Washington should launch a a similar program with experts going onto jihadi websites and arguing with young Muslims over what the Koran allows. The approach shouldn't be heavy-handed and would probably be better handled by academics than by government officials. "You can't have the American military telling people what their religion allows," Boucek says. But someone, he adds, should be arguing the other side on these websites. "It's shocking to me that eight years into this conflict, we don't have a formal institution doing this."