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July 21, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 500

Keeping Pace With The Threat In A Rapidly Changing Future

July 21, 2023 | By Oliver "Buck" Revell*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 500

The Chairman of MEMRI's Board of Directors and former FBI Associate Deputy Director, Oliver "Buck" Revell offers some thoughts on the future challenges in counterterrorism in the 500th entry of the MEMRI Daily Brief.

The world today is awash in information. We are almost overwhelmed with it. Professor Jon Askonas recently described a situation where "having a small number of facts feels like certainty and understanding; having a million feels like uncertainty and befuddlement." The challenge of counter-terrorism, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies today has become similar to that of a private individual drinking from the firehouse that is social media: how to tell the essential from the ephemeral, how not to be distracted.

The challenges, particularly when it came to combating terrorism, were many in my three decades of service in the FBI, but our increasingly interlocked world has seemingly become more dangerous because not only have the types of terrorism and ideologies of terrorist groups proliferated but so have the vectors that help transmit them to impressionable new recruits.

In 2018, just as ISIS's last bit of ground was falling in Syria, an 18-year-old boy in Jupiter, Florida was inspired by watching ISIS videos to stab to death a 13-year-old boy and wound two others.[1] Only last week an 18-year-old Polish citizen not only converted to Islam based on increasingly hard-to-get ISIS propaganda, but planned a suicide attack using an explosive belt on a government office.[2]

And this sort of mobilization is not limited to Salafi-Jihadist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Both Jihadists and today's neo-Nazis look to unleash the "dark creativity" to be found in malevolent misuse of new technologies, new social media platforms and even artificial intelligence.[3] This can range from facilitating terrorist propaganda to providing other types of support. A recent MEMRI report revealed how Cloudflare, an invitee at a 2022 White House Summit on Open-Source Software Security, had been inadvertently providing services to openly neo-Nazi white supremacists.[4] The American company had provided similar tech support to jihadist groups in the past. The irony is that Cloudflare also is providing services under a government contract to the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) own Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

The poor cooperation between government and social media companies on real threats is a problem. This issue has been made radioactive by substantive accusations of government collusion with Big Tech social media companies on partisan political issues far removed from combating terror. Relationships and exchanges that should and must exist between government and the private sector have become muddled and contaminated when cooperation strayed from terrorist and criminal acts to policing discourse on things like COVID or "elections denial."

One of the big challenges ahead will be to differentiate between issues that demand cooperation and those that do not, to resist the temptation to use the blunt force of government-private sector cooperation as a substitute for internal political controversies. Fighting Nazis and Jihadists needs to be clearly delineated from efforts to police legal speech that may be problematic to some but which are not crimes. The misuse of such authorities not only risk damaging real and necessary investigations into terrorism and criminality, they create skepticism among the general public about both the role of government and the absolute non-partisan nature of law enforcement.

It is important that we get this issue right now – both legally and ethically – because the threats we face are not going away. Not only do we face a still potent Jihadist threat, and violent extremism from both the far-left and the far-right but two other important factors have come into play. The first is the role of near-peer or regional competitors (China, Russia, Iran) on issues related to both cyber-security and terrorism. The second is the growing strife and alienation within our own societies, both in the United States and in the West in general.

It is easy to try to blame this strife on foreign actors – who certainly want to stoke our internal fires – but the reality is that, aside from foreign influences, we do face an increasingly fractious society riven by controversies over both our national and individual identities. The many threats we face are both real and deadly but a young Abraham Lincoln was prescient when he said in 1838 that "if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."[5] Above all we need wisdom in out leaderships during these turbulent times.

Given the dangerous world we live in, I am glad to have been associated with MEMRI from its earliest days until now as Chairman of the Board of Directors. It was, in a sense, a natural progression for me from my days at the Bureau.

MEMRI has a deep, expansive understanding of what experts call the Jihadosphere but also are leaders in analyzing the technical ways that these extremists communicate to the outside world. MEMRI has followed them for decades, from when they had internet forums to Twitter and then on to Telegram and even more exotic platforms and delivery systems. To be knowledgeable about both the content and the technical means of extremist mobilization, the why and the how, is to understand the entire terrorist ecosystem. Years later MEMRI took that same expertise and way of understanding the threat and applied it to the issue of non-Jihadist domestic terrorism.[6] And MEMRI was always a pioneer in documenting and analyzing the antisemitic content that is a shared toxic heritage of both Jihadists and neo-Nazis.[7]

MEMRI's more recent focus on both Russia and China, in the original languages, only enriches how it is able to curate information across the spectrum of issues and challenges, separating the gold nuggets from the dross, which makes it invaluable to the end-user, whether that is an informed private citizen or law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The point is not so much to know but to understand.

*Oliver "Buck" Revell is Chairman of MEMRI's Board of Directors.

 

[1] Independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/crime/florida-teen-isis-fan-stabbing-sleepover-b1992939.html, January 14, 2022.

[2] Abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/man-arrested-planning-terrorist-attack-inspired-islamic-state-101262773, July 14, 2023.

[5] Quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln1/1:130?rgn=div1;singlegenre=All;sort=occur;subview=detail;type=simple;
view=fulltext;q1=by+suicide, January 27, 1838.

[6] Memri.org/dttm

[7] Mosaicmagazine.com/picks/politics-current-affairs/2023/06/the-century-old-anti-semitic-forgery-that-continues-to
-shape-arab-and-muslim-thinking-about-jews, June 28, 2023.

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