ISTANBUL — It is the jailhouse interview his attorney wishes like hell he’d never made. For one long hour would-be jihadist Christopher Cornell outlined to an Ohio TV station in chilling detail what he would have done if the FBI had not arrested him in January.
He had bought two semiautomatic rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from a Cincinnati-area gun store. Speaking from his jail cell in Kentucky, the all-American kid unrepentantly told WXIX-TV Fox 19: “I would have put it to Obama’s head, I would have pulled the trigger, then I would unleash more bullets on the Senate and House of Representative members, and I would have attacked the Israeli embassy and various other buildings. They might say I’m a terrorist, but you know we see American troops as terrorists as well, coming to our land, stealing our resources and killing our people, raping our women. We’re more organized than you think.”
By “our lands,” this convert to what he thinks of as Islam means Muslim lands, or, more precisely, the lands conquered by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.
Some of Cornell’s frightening rant was broadcast late Friday as his lawyer appealed to a judge to stop the airing of the interview on the grounds it could prejudice his trial. In the end, the appeal failed on Sunday, and it is worth listening closely to what Cornell had to say.
Deluded he may be but Cornell, described by his father shortly after his arrest as a good kid and lost, shares the characteristics of many of the Americans and Europeans radicalized online by jihadists—mental instability and a sense of being marginalized. But understanding that about them does not make them any less dangerous.
As de-radicalization experts and psychologists grapple with the mindset of young Westerners lured into jihadist ranks, there is still no consensus among Western counter-terrorism experts on how to combat the jihadists’ sophisticated use of the Internet and their skill in radicalizing, grooming, and recruiting.
And that includes whether Western governments should be pressuring Internet companies to suspend social media accounts and whether reducing jihadist access to cyberspace will help or hinder de-radicalization. There is also concern that shutting down jihadist access to the Web, even if it were possible, could cripple efforts to gather intelligence about the organizations and the individuals involved.
While the confusion reins, foreign volunteers—from fighters to jihadi brides—continue to head to Syria and Iraq; and lone wolves—or what some experts prefer to describe as stray dogs—are inspired to act.
On Sunday, police arrested a Spanish-Moroccan woman in Barcelona on suspicion she was running a major recruitment ring for the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, after Turkish authorities arrested her on the border with Syria, returning her to Spain.
Her arrest came as jihadist sources confirmed that three British schoolgirls who flew without being challenged from a London airport last month had crossed into Syria close to the Turkish town of Urfa. They are now in the Raqqa home of Aqsa Mahmood, a 21-year-old Glaswegian jihadist who appears to be one of ISIS’s best female recruiters. She had groomed at least one of the girls online—despite U.K. intelligence services monitoring her social media accounts since she fled Scotland a year ago.
U.S. officials say only about a hundred Americans have traveled to Syria so far but admit the trickle of recruits from the U.S. to overseas jihadist groups has quickened in recent months. For intelligence officials in the U.S. the bigger worry is the potential influence that online jihadist propaganda can have encouraging vulnerable recruits directly or indirectly to mount lone-wolf attacks or gang together in Charlie -Hebdo-style wolf pack assaults.
For months ISIS has been mounting an online drumbeat exhorting followers who can’t make the trip to Syria not to sit out the war. “If you are able to kill an American or European infidel,” ISIS pronounces in one notorious audio message posted online, “particularly any of the hostile, impure Frenchmen—or an Australian or a Canadian…Do not consult anyone and do not seek a fatwa from anyone. It is immaterial if the infidel is a combatant or a civilian. Their sentence is one; they are both infidels, both enemies.”
But critics fear there is still little being done to turn back what the jihadists like to call their “invasions” of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their Arabic equivalents. Despite President Obama recognizing more than three years ago the threat posed by digital jihadist recruiters and propagandists, there has been no rollout by the administration of a promised strategy “for countering and preventing violent online extremism.”
Instead, last autumn the administration launched with great fanfare, but seemingly little study, a social media offensive against ISIS and al-Qaeda aimed at ridiculing the militants’ sophisticated messaging with blunt sarcasm. The news of the initiative made headlines — as it was meant to in a crafted PR offensive by administration aides—but doubts have persisted since about the effectiveness of the offensive and whether the State Department is the right messenger.
Part of the problem, say critics, is there appears to be no one in charge and a variety of agencies, from the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, as well as private contractors are mounting their different fight-backs with little coordination and few blueprints.
“They are monitoring suspicious websites and social media, cyber-attacking others, and planting bogus information,” says Gabriel Weimann, professor of communication at Israel’s Haifa University. “The virtual war between terrorists and counterterrorism forces and agencies is vital, dynamic, and ferocious,” he adds in a report for the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Ferocious it might be but Western online counter-radicalization efforts to date, say critics, are amateurish, lack a clear understanding of the mentality of the jihadi propagandists and their potential recruits, and are unclear about objectives, how to reach them, or even how to evaluate success. Ferocious is no substitute for viral on the Internet: the kind of contagious enthusiasm, horrifying though it may be, that infects much of the jihadist discourse.
The British are now launching an effort modeled on the State Department’s, announcing in January that the British army is to form a 1,500-strong “crack team of social media specialists” to focus on non-lethal psychological operations and the use of social networks to counter propaganda peddled effectively by organizations like ISIS. To respond to doubts being cast on whether the military is best-equipped for the task, army chiefs have been citing the movie The Imitation Game, a recent British blockbuster about Second World War code breakers, arguing it shows what is possible when thoughtful minds from different social backgrounds are harnessed.
So far the biggest advance in setting up the crack cyber-force has been to get rid of crusty old-school generals who demanded that the young agile minds recruited should also be physically fit enough to complete basic infantry training—a test that was also waived for the boffins of wartime Bletchley Park.
But breaking secret codes such as Germany’s Enigma is a different art from countering the jihadists’ complex use of the Internet for a variety of objectives—from propaganda to the grooming and recruitment of volunteers, from fundraising to operational purposes such as sharing tactical information and whipping up psychological warfare.
“Counter-terrorism is certainly lingering behind terrorists’ manipulative use of the new channels,” warns Weimann at Haifa University. “Despite the growth of Internet research in recent years, it has not yet provided efficient strategies or fruitful countermeasure devices or tactics.”
Consensus is also elusive on whether the best approach should include pressure on Western Internet companies to suspend jihadist social media accounts. Western governments haven’t been slow to criticize Twitter and other social media giants for allowing jihadists to use their platforms. British Prime Minister David Cameron has been at the forefront, saying Internet firms should be doing more to tackle online extremism by suspending social media accounts.
But that could result in a tremendous loss of useful information in the fight against the Islamic State. “If every single ISIS supporter disappeared from Twitter tomorrow, it would represent a staggering loss of intelligence—assuming that intelligence is in fact being mined effectively by someone somewhere,” argue analysts J.M. Berger and Jonatho Morgan in a study published Friday for Brookings, a U.S. think tank, called “The ISIS Twitter Census.”
The report garnered media coverage at the weekend for its estimate that last autumn the followers of the terror group had over 46,000 and possibly as many as 90,000 accounts on Twitter, which has become the main social media hub for ISIS, allowing it to disseminate links to digital content hosted on other online platforms.
The authors argued, “By virtue of its large number of supporters and highly organized tactics, ISIS has been able to exert an outsized impact on how the world perceives it, by disseminating images of graphic violence (including the beheading of Western journalists and aid workers, and more recently, the immolation of a Jordanian air force pilot), while using social media to attract new recruits and inspire lone actor attacks.”
But the authors maintain that Twitter’s aggressive suspension of jihadist accounts in recent weeks—a policy that has earned the threat of retaliation against the company’s executives by the terror group—could well be counter-productive. A total suspension, they say, could have unintended consequences. Not only would it deny intelligence agencies useful operational and tactical information, they fear, it could speed up radicalization by channeling potential recruits and lone wolves like Cornell into segregated ISIS Internet channels.
That, they maintain, would reduce any possibility of moderating influences being brought to bear by the intelligence services and de-radicalizing experts on potential recruits. But such sophisticated efforts seem a long way from being applied.