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Agencies Aim To Counter Threat Of Online Extremism

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Agencies Aim To Counter Threat Of Online Extremism

Agencies Aim To Counter Threat Of Online Extremism

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now, the power of the Internet to promote change has been a big part of the story in Egypt. There is a reason that Egyptian authorities cut off the Internet while they were trying to cling to power. But there is another online success story which is more disturbing: The Internet as a tool to promote violence and recruit terrorists.

Counter-terrorism officials and specialists met in Saudi Arabia recently to fight that threat. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Riyadh.

DEBORAH AMOS: At this gathering, officials and experts used complicated terms, like radical narratives, and counter-narratives. Then, one young American woman brought all the concepts down to the emotional and the concrete.

Carie Lemack's mother died on 9/11, a passenger aboard American Airlines flight 11. She was invited to speak, here, by the Saudis.

Ms. CARIE LEMACK (Speaker): To have the opportunity to talk about preventing future terrorist attacks and to do that and honor my mom is something I couldn't say no to.

AMOS: Lemack was invited because she is often called on to talk to youths considered susceptible to violent ideologies. In Britain recently, Lemack said she had to convince one group that her mother had actually died in the 9/11 attacks. That's not what they read on the Internet.

Ms. LEMACK: And they were shocked because they had been told that there were no passengers on the planes. And there are so many conspiracy theories out there, and they hadn't heard from someone who had actually lost a loved one. And so it was really powerful experience to be able to share the truth with them, because it's the first time they'd ever seen it face to face.

AMOS: Lemack is what the specialists call a credible messenger, and the experts from the U.S., Russia, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Australia, say there are not nearly enough of them.

Richard Barrett, coordinator of the U.N.'s al-Qaida/Taliban monitoring team, says that finding messengers is a new trend in fighting terrorism to help dissuade people from being recruited online. And, Barret says, Saudi Arabia is in the forefront.

Mr. RICHARD BARRETT (Coordinator, U.N. al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team): They've done quite a lot on looking at the Internet and trying to counter the radical messages that appear on the Internet.

AMOS: In Saudi Arabia, there are programs to engage radicals and dispute their arguments online. Anyone setting up a website that calls for violence faces 10 years in jail and millions in fines.

But these days, the language of Jihad is no longer just in Arabic. Al-Qaida's first English language magazine is online, it's called Inspire, and it is based in Yemen. The authors claim they instigated U.S. attacks, including the underwear bomber, the shooting at Fort Hood, and printer bombs intercepted on cargo flights from Yemen.

Inspire is dangerous, says Marc Sageman, an authority on Islamist extremism, because it encourages what he calls lone wolves - individuals who cross the line to violence.

Mr. MARC SAGEMAN (Authority, Islamist Extremism): It's written in a very kind of lively way, the first issue was a little heavy handed, and so they are learning, and I think that its dissemination is increasing among Jihadist English speakers.

AMOS: And on the sidelines of the conference, Evan Kohlmann, a New-York based consultant, says he's already seen al-Qaida's new English language magazine downloaded on computers seized in U.S. terrorism cases.

Mr. EVAN KOHLMANN (Terrorism Consultant): The product is excellent, and I can tell you right now it's being digested, like you have no idea. They are receiving letters every day, people are sending in letters from the United States to Inspire, saying how wonderful they are, how great this document is.

AMOS: So how to counter these violent messages?

Mr. ALISTAIR MILLAR (Director, Center on Global Counterterrorism Corporation): I'm Alistair Millar. I'm the director of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation.

AMOS: You need the right messenger, says Millar. If governments try, he says, they will fail.

Mr. MILLAR: Youth and others who might be susceptible to the allure of the terrorist narrative are going to be repulsed by any overt effort by government to tell them what to do.

AMOS: It may be up to people like Carie Lemack, daughter of a 9/11 victim.

Ms. LEMACK: Our motto is to speak truth to terror, which is a very American way of approaching it.

Mr. ABDULLAH KEMAL SHARAYED (Former al-Qaida Member): (Speaking foreign language).

AMOS: And this is a voice that Millar also calls credible. Abdullah Kemal Sharayed was introduced at the conference. He was a leader in an al-Qaida inspired group in Jordan. He and another former al-Qaida member explained how they were radicalized at an early age - and why they turned against the group, a message they often deliver to young people susceptible to calls for violence, says Millar.

Mr. MILLAR: They have credibility amongst the people that we are trying to reach. And I think it highlighted exactly what we wanted to do, in terms of showing that we need to have the right messengers to deliver the message.

AMOS: And that job is to compete in the Hearts and Minds campaign online.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.

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