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U.S. looks at ways to control militant websites

A House subcommittee hears testimony on sites promoting terrorist groups and extremist ideology. One expert suggests studying the sites for information, closing them or providing countering ideology.

September 30, 2010|By Jordan Steffen, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Militant websites are becoming more accessible and appealing to Americans, experts told members of Congress on Wednesday, adding that the sites must be monitored and some should be shut down.

At the moment, though, there are no government regulations or procedures for how to keep track of, or remove, websites promoting terrorist groups and extremist ideology, the experts said.

Officials testifying at the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade discussed strategies to combat websites that attempt to recruit members by using such familiar venues as Facebook and YouTube.

Subcommittee Chairman Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said there is tension between law enforcement agencies that want to shut down these websites and intelligence agencies that believe they provide valuable information about terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda.

Sherman said he favored shuttering key websites. "Being polite is good as long as it doesn't cost American lives," he said.

Gregory McNeal, an associate law professor at Pepperdine University, purposed a three-prong approach to countering militant websites, including studying the sites for information, closing selected sites and co-opting others by providing countering ideology. The most vital of the three approaches is removing selected websites by putting pressure on Internet service providers, McNeal said.

Of the thousands of militant websites, only 10 to 15 actually produce original content. The rest replicate links, information and media produced by the key websites, McNeal said.

Militant websites are said to have influenced several recent terrorist acts in the U.S., said Mansour Hadj, director of the Middle East program at the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Hadj said YouTube is a "primary clearing house" for Anwar Awlaki, an American who is among the most wanted terrorists. Awlaki was apparently in touch with U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November. After Awlaki's website was shut down, videos from it were moved to YouTube, which removed them just hours after the November shootings, Hadj said.

In 2007, two members of Congress, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.), asked U.S. Internet service providers to help stop the spread of militant websites. Within two weeks, 32 of the 50 providers erased the websites from their servers, Hadj said.

"In some circumstances, screws need to be turned against these service providers," McNeal said.

But Christopher Boucek, an associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned that legislation barring the websites is not the last step.

"Shutting down the websites will not completely lead to shutting down the sentiments behind them," Boucek told the committee.

Steffen is a staff writer in the Washington Bureau.

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