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White House sets up working group to address online radicalization

The White House is moving to blunt increasing use of the Internet by extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, to recruit new members and instigate mayhem with a program aimed at increasing exchange of information and knowledge among federal, state and local officials.

The program includes a new White House working group, chaired by its National Security Staff, that would bring together experts from the government to make plans on how to protect against the spread of violent extremism online.

In a statement posted on the White House Web page on Feb. 5 and cross-posted on the DHS blog page on Feb. 6, Quintan Wiktorowicz, the White House senior director for community partnerships on the National Security Staff, said the administration’s new Interagency Working Group to Counter Online Radicalization to Violence would develop strategies to counter online violent extremists messages, as well as coordinate government efforts to do the same.

Before joining the National Security Staff, Wiktorowicz had researched radical Islam, interviewing moderate and extreme Islamists in England. He produced a somewhat controversial finding that, contrary to popular belief, radicalized Islamists weren’t all that well-grounded in their religion, lacking detailed knowledge of religious tenets. That lack of knowledge made them susceptible to radicalization.  

Wiktorowicz included ‘violent supremacist’ and ‘sovereign citizens” groups, along with Al Qaeda, as the targets of the effort, since those groups are increasingly leveraging online tools and resources to spread propaganda, identify and groom potential recruits, and supplement real-world recruitment efforts. The groups, he said, use popular online media, like mainstream online music videos and video games to trawl for new members and instigate private conversations.

Under the new initiative, he said, the federal government, will initially focus on raising awareness about the threat and provide communities with practical information and tools for staying safe online. He said the White House effort would work closely with the technology industry to consider policies, technologies, and tools that can help counter violent extremism online. In addition to existing voluntary measures developed by private industry, like fraud warnings, identity protection and safety tips, the effort would explore with industry how to specifically counter violent online extremism without interfering with legitimate private Internet use, along the lines of the work being done to counter cyber bullies, scammers, gangs, and sexual predators.

Wiktorowicz also said the new working group would incorporate specialists in countering violent extremism, Internet safety experts, and civil liberties and privacy practitioners from across the U.S. government. The group, he said, will develop plans to implement an Internet safety approach to address online violent extremism, coordinate the government’s activities and assess progress, and identify additional activities to pursue for countering online radicalization to violence.

In the coming months, he said, the new working group will coordinate with federal departments and agencies to raise awareness and disseminate tools for staying safe from online violent extremism primarily through three means. It will begin by including information on violent extremism into existing government safety initiatives at the Department of Education, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies provide platforms.

The primary government platform for raising awareness about Internet safety is the Federal Trade Commission’s OnGuard Online Web page, he said. The site involves 16 departments and agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education. OnGuard Online─ and other safety platforms like DHS’ Stop.Think.Connect and the FBI’s Safe Online Surfing─ will begin including information about online violent extremism. The information will also be posted on the Countering Violent Extremism homepage on the DHS Website and updated to reflect new best practices and research.

The federal government will also work with local organizations across the country, including school districts, parent teacher associations, local government, and law enforcement to disseminate information. The effort will channel assessments of online violent extremism and recruitment information garnered by law enforcement departments and agencies to local partners and “encourage them to incorporate the information into their programs and initiatives.”

U.S. Attorneys across the country, who historically have engaged with communities on a range of public safety issues, will coordinate federal engagement efforts at the local level, said Wiktorowicz, with support from DHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education. “U.S. Attorneys and others involved in community engagement will seek to incorporate information about Internet radicalization to violence into their efforts, as appropriate,” he said. The federal government, he added, will also seek out state, local and tribal government and law enforcement experiences in dealing with online threats.  


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