Politics & Government

Islamic State intensifying its battle on social media, Congress hears

Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., question witnesses Wednesday, July 6, 2016, about the social media efforts of the Islamic State.
Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., question witnesses Wednesday, July 6, 2016, about the social media efforts of the Islamic State. AP

U.S. lawmakers said in a hearing Wednesday that waging war against the Islamic State on social media platforms was just as important as any military operation in Iraq or Syria.

In a Capitol Hill hearing, lawmakers discussed the danger of online terrorist propaganda and quizzed witnesses on what the government is doing to fight it. The meeting, by the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, drew attention to the unprecedented number of ISIS-attributed attacks across the globe over the past four weeks.

The killings, in some places far from any known ISIS stronghold, represented a new pattern of attacks, said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. ISIS has shifted from its ground attacks to aggressively spreading extremist content online, hoping to use social media to inspire a sympathetic audience to commit attacks.

“They are expanding the battlefield,” said witness Michael Steinbach, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch. “And they’re doing it because of the lack of success they felt in Syria and Iraq.”

Social media has played a role in the radicalization of all 60 people arrested in the U.S. and accused of “crimes in support of ISIS,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Omar Mateen, the shooter who killed 49 people in Orlando last month, was radicalized at least in part through the internet, according to the FBI, Portman said.

While al Qaida also used social media to spread its message, ISIS is more efficient and more concerning, witness Meagan LaGraffe said.

“While al Qaida produced videos that took months to get out, our adversary today is using social media in ways not seen before,” said LaGraffe, the chief of staff at the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center. “It is clear that to our enemy, the information battle space is as important as the physical battle space.”

To fight ISIS in that “information battle space,” it’s crucial that the U.S. supplement any military strategy, whether at home or abroad, by a social media one, Portman said. Such an effort would be “as important as anything else that’s being done,” he said.

Portman said current government groups that fight ISIS online were the FBI’s National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism task force and the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center.

In fact, the Countering Violent Extremism task force said Wednesday that it would use $10 million it had received in federal funding to distribute to 60 organizations for counterterrorism efforts, said George Selim, director of the task force.

Selim said the mission included working with law enforcement, local officials and members of the private sector to fight terrorism at home.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., expressed concern about the various government groups and their willingness to share the work. “We’re in danger of the interagency groups not coordinating with the other interagency groups,” she said. “We have a plethora.”

Eleanor Mueller: 202-383-6033, @eleanor_mueller