Friday’s horrific attack in Paris, apparently coordinated by ISIS, appears to have been carried out in large part by French citizens, living in France and Belgium. It would not be surprising, given the testimony of a recent congressional hearing, if we learn that some of those attackers were radicalized and recruited through a path that included social media.
Rep. Stephen Lynch of Boston helped run that hearing on terrorist groups’ use of social media, as the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on National Security, of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"As a recruitment tool, it’s very, very powerful,” Lynch told me. ISIL, as he calls the group, has a dedicated group of people working the Internet and social media efforts. “It’s a rather slick and effective campaign.”
President Barack Obama specifically raised that concern in his Monday press conference about the attack. “These are killers with fantasies of glory who are very savvy when it comes to social media, and are able to infiltrate the minds not just of Iraqis and Syrians but disaffected individuals around the world,” he said.
The hearing, held two weeks before the Paris attack, revealed the extent and effectiveness of ISIS’s use of social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members from Western countries.
“The war against ISIS, Al Qaeda and other extremist actors has many fronts — and an important one is online,” testified Mark Wallace, Chief Executive Officer of the Counter Extremist Project.
Lynch says that more than 40,000 Twitter accounts support the ISIS propaganda effort, including 2,000 in English. French accounts, on Twitter and other platforms, were added and expanded early this year. Wallace called Twitter a “gateway drug” that leads to even more direct engagement and interaction on other sites, such as WhatsApp — which, Lynch found in a recent visit to the Syrian border, is also used extensively by opposition groups supported by the U.S.
Used by ISIS, that path into its online community ultimately leads to radicalized young men traveling to Syria for training, or attempting “lone wolf” attacks where they live.
Authorities will want to know whether any of the Paris attackers were recruited this way. And, it is likely that ISIS is already using social media to propagandize about that attack — and recruit off of its success.
The United States and other Western countries have established counterterrorism programs for social media, but testimony at the hearing suggested that not enough has been done.
Some of the potential counter-measures require cooperation of the social media companies, which has met resistance from some, particularly Twitter.
Lynch thinks more should be done, to deny terrorists use of the Internet just as the U.S. denies them use of the banking system. But Internet service providers, Lynch says, “are somewhat reluctant to cooperate with authorities for fear of backlash on the part of their users,” who value privacy.
Other tactics, however, simply involve better use of social media in response. For example, Alberto Fernandez, vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, testified about an ISIS hashtag campaign that was “hijacked” by “anti-ISIS twitter trolls” — much the same way that Democrats and Republicans thwart each other’s social-media messaging.
Don’t Expect McGovern To Back Down
One week before the Paris attack, antiwar Rep. Jim McGovern of Worcester stepped up his attempts to force a vote on authorizing the war against ISIS. Don’t expect the awful event to slow him down — in fact, the signals I get are that he’s preparing to take it up yet another notch.
McGovern, arguing that Congress has abdicated its responsibility, has been trying all year to get the House of Representatives to debate and vote on an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS. The closest he has come was in June, when he forced the House to vote down a resolution on defunding the war.
On Friday, November 6, McGovern sent a letter to new House Speaker Paul Ryan, asking him to bring an AUMF to the floor for debate and vote.
It was co-signed by nearly three dozen House members — some of whom want to authorize war against ISIS and some of whom don’t. But they all agree with McGovern that Congress can’t simply allow Obama to endlessly claim authority for war under the AUMF passed in 2001.
“I’d like to see a vote on that,” Lynch said. “We should not be operating on a 2001 authorization.”
The Paris attack has already brought new calls for an AUMF vote — but also makes it more likely that an authorization will be drafted to be even more wide-ranging and open-ended than it might have been before. And the increased desire for military action against ISIS might make it even easier to simply allow the president to act without questioning his authority. Hillary Clinton, in a televised Democratic debate the next day, argued that the 2001 AUMF continues to cover action against ISIS.
But my understanding is that McGovern will double down, not back down. The form that will take remains to be seen, but his argument will be that the likelihood of greater military action only makes it more incumbent upon Congress to vote on authorizing the scope and limits.
Social Media Picture Of The Week
On Veteran’s Day last Wednesday, Rep. Bill Keating presented a belated Silver Star to 70-year-old Sgt. (Ret) Ronald J. Teixeira, for heroic action in Vietnam 46 years ago. He posted this on Facebook.