Fighting Extremism <em>Online</em>

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Oct 09, 2008 10:39 AM

Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East

The first-ever “digital natives” – that is how Children of Jihad author Jared Cohen described the generation currently coming of age, during an interview with me yesterday to promote the paperback release of his book.  Having grown up in a thoroughly wired world, today’s young people are turning to the internet -- not merely using the internet for communication, but for expression, identity, recreation, and a host of other purposes.

To many Americans, text messages and Facebook accounts may seem like just quirky features of Generation Y, but in the developing world, they are drastically reshaping the fabric of society.  Cohen should know; this young Jewish-American Rhodes scholar defied foreign governments and travelled to hostile Middle Eastern nations -- in order to interview young people (some of whom were members of terrorist organizations) – for Children of Jihad.  In some nations, Cohen explains, new technology is helping awaken civil rights in places where they previously did not exist. In Egypt, for example, a national student strike was organized via Facebook. In Saudi Arabia, thousands of women anonymously signed a Facebook petition calling for their right to drive a car, and the largest anti-terrorist demonstration in Columbia’s history was touched off by a Facebook group targeting the communist F.A.R.C. rebels.

To be sure, new communication methods are also being used by violent extremists, setting up the potential for an online battle of ideologies. Radical groups like Hezbollah not only release videos, but also target leisure activities such as video games. For instance, a “first-person shooter” game can easily be reprogrammed so that, as Cohen put it, “instead of shooting werewolves, you shoot Jews.” So, the question for America is how to handle the communication explosion. Should we try to restrict access to extremist activity or encourage even more development to ensure that oppressed people have the ability to organize?

For Cohen, the answer is clear: never question new technology. “I don’t want to miss the internet like we missed that cassette tape,” he said. In the 1970s, America was hesitant to encourage cassette tapes for fear that they would be used to market Soviet ideology to the masses. “But, at the end of the day, what was the first instance where the cassette tape was used for political reasons?” he asked. The answer? “It was Ayatollah Khomeini orchestrating the Iranian Revolution in 1979 from Paris.”  Essentially, if we don’t figure out how to exploit technology, our enemies will.

Now, there are certainly dangers for online freedom fighters. Bloggers have been arrested and women have died in honor killings for signing up on Facebook. However, Cohen noted that anonymous internet activism is far less likely to result in punishment than overt activism in the streets. As for the threat of online jihadis, he says, “they’re never going to win in that space,” and that he would “rather them be in that space than be in a quiet community, because at least online they’re doing it in front of everybody and can be watched.”

He also noted that new developments make it easier for American youth to interact with their counterparts outside the free world. Such interaction could be essential in a forum where Western governments can no longer air their messages as easily as they could through Cold War organizations like Radio Free Europe. Instead, the web provides the capability for millions of young Americans to become what Cohen called “diplomats”, showing young Iranians or Saudis what it means to live under freedom – from the comfort of their keyboard. However, he was more hesitant to speculate on how the energies of America’s youth could be channeled in such a direction. He hinted that the subject might be discussed in a future book, but strongly indicated that he did not think such an undertaking could be effectively managed by the government.

The jury may still be out regarding exactly how to use the internet to fight extremism. However, Cohen sternly warned that we cannot simply put the issue on the back burner, because our enemies make it a top priority. “I can guarantee you, and I know for a fact, that groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and others are already active in this forum,” he said, “I know that because, in my meetings with them and interviews with them, they told me. Hezbollah would talk to me about how they, you know, send Hezbollah guys into internet cafes to teach kid how to use internet on there terms.” Personally, I found that comment rather chilling, and it shows that ordinary Americans cannot simply assume that that someone else is fighting the war against online extremists. In a world of Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and unlimited text messaging, we have the ability to fight terrorism from our kitchen tables, and shame on us if we don’t take advantage of that power.    

Townhall’s Adam Brickley contributed to this post.