I fail to see why anyone is surprised anymore that the internet is routinely used in the planning or execution of terrorist attacks, or that it is a factor in the passage of individuals from peace to violence. It’s also inevitable that every time it crops up in the context of a new arrest, someone somewhere calls for increased powers for security agencies to monitor the internet. The former is a fact of life; the latter will not change that.
The current debate is about the so-called Sargodha Five, a group of young men detained in Pakistan last week, who travelled from the US to link up with Islamists in the Punjab. The basic story is that back in North Virginia they bonded over YouTube jihadi videos, and that an initial laudatory comment left on one alerted a man called Saifullah to their presence and proclivities. They subsequently set up a dead-letter email drop in order to correspond with Saifullah, who eventually facilitated their passage to Pakistan. Once there, Saifullah had problems passing them off to local al-Qaeda (possibly) activists due to their unproven legitimacy, and they wound up in the hands of local security services instead. Saifullah is assumed to be a form of middleman, possibly freelance, and is now the subject of a manhunt keen to snare one of the ‘mystery men’ thought to be a recruiter for various extremist groups. The men themselves are in a tug-of-war between the FBI and the Pakistani courts.
Aaron Weisburd writes that this is a standard pattern of behaviour, observed many times over the years. Raff Pantucci wonders if they copied the email drop method from previous cases revealed in court but they might also have been instructed by Saifullah to do so. Whilst some uses of the internet might be extraordinary, most are banal, and we should remember this when thinking about how to tackle this element of terrorism.
You’d have to be a fool to argue that the internet plays no role in many of the cases that come to light in the press and in the courts. It almost always does. So do cars, telephones and cheap hotels. The internet is so deeply embedded in the lives of most people residing in the West that it would be unusual were this not so. It is too easy to argue that government consistently fails to spot extremist use of the internet, and that more powers are needed to combat it. If, as liberal societies, we determine that total surveillance of interpersonal communication is undesirable, we should also understand that it is utterly impractical. It also won’t stop people turning to violence as a solution to their particular problems.
The answer is not to monitor us all to combat the actions of a few. Total security, in cyberspace or otherwise, is impossible, and attempts to create it are subject strongly to the law of diminishing returns. The only way to combat violent extremism is to tackle its causes, a banal statement in itself perhaps. Like it or not,states will decide what types of material are deemed inappropriate to view and share online, but treating all internet use as de facto potentially problematic and appropriate for regulation does no-one any favours. Hot on the heels of Google’s CEO last week stating, ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’ (a specious argument at the best of times) there are rough times ahead.