“Fears mount over fate of Syria’s ancient Palmyra ruins.” For once, the headline was no exaggeration.
The ancient city, known in Arabic as Tadmur has been captured by ISIS fighters. Nicknamed “the pearl of the desert” is described by UNESCO, as a heritage site of “outstanding universal value.”
Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General called the ancient metropolis “the birthplace of human civilization,” adding: “It belongs to the whole of humanity and I think everyone today should be worried about what is happening.”
Almost lost in story are the additional 170,000 people whose fate, like millions of other Syrians and Iraqis has been abandoned by the civilized world to these barbarians.
Because of its unmatched historic treasures, Palmyra might stay in the news a bit longer than other human rights disasters wrought by ISIS, but so far the world has shown a remarkable capacity of shrugging off the beheadings, the mass murders, serial rapes, and burning people alive.
That’s a bad mistake.
Because the cancerous hate behind ISIS is being embedded globally; from Singapore to San Francisco, from Lahore to London, from the Philippines to France.
Right now, we are losing to ISIS on two battlefields. In Syria, Iraq and Libya, where vicious no-holds barred barbarity, combined with money from newly controlled oil wells and the latest captured U.S. equipment, has trumped U.S. drone strikes and premature declarations of victory by the Obama administration.
Eventually, ISIS — the military menace — will be defanged, with or without American boots on the ground. But ISIS’ leadership has ensured that the terror group’s brutal, medieval values and violent Islamist worldview will far outlive the death of their last field commander.
That is due to the diabolical but brilliant marketing strategy that ISIS is deploying in targeting young Muslims.
Leveraging social network giants like Twitter and YouTube, the group paints a seductive picture of a heroic movement, sanctioned by Allah himself, to punish and expel the infidels.
ISIS, Al Shabab, Al Qaeda and their ilk have successfully recruited young potential fighters from across the Middle East, Europe and Asia and have used the Internet to lure teenage girls from the United Kingdom—urging them to swap their western lifestyles to join the struggle to establish a global Islamic Caliphate. They have also inspired and trained — online — lone wolf terrorists who are then convinced to murder and maim their neighbors in Western democracies.
Beyond killing or capturing their leaders, the burgeoning threats from ISIS and other terror groups will only subside if their online marketing capabilities are challenged and degraded.
Of course, proactive tweets and websites with positive messages about democracy and tolerance have a role to play in any campaign, but the key challenge is how to best disrupt the online food chain that feeds and abets terrorists.
At this stage the answer does not lie in more government legislation or intervention. No one wants more Big Brothers snooping in our lives.
What the world needs now are for the social networking giants like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to unfriend the terrorist enablers, recruiters, and teachers.
Teenagers in England shouldn’t so easily be able to communicate with a frontline ISIS fighter in Syria.
Muslim kids in France shouldn’t be circulating tweets celebrating the two Charlie Hebdo murderers as “heroes,” a mere two hours after the Islamist terrorists were gunned down by French police.
To date, Facebook has been the strongest in taking the lead against terrorists. Twitter has done the least.
How can online providers make a real difference? By doing the following:
– Publishing and adhering to transparent terms of usage.
– Permanently barring repeat offenders.
– Refusing service to groups that openly tout their affiliation with groups identified by the U.S. State Department as terrorists.
– Refusing to publish terrorist training manuals and videos online.
There are those who argue that such moves will only drive the evildoers underground. “Better to allow them to operate in the open, so that U.S. Homeland Security, MI5, German and French Intelligence can more easily track the activities”, they say. But such policies have only enabled Islamist extremists to impact more and more young Muslims around the corner — and around the world. Intelligence and law enforcement awareness that potential terrorists are out there did not stop the Charlie Hebdo Islamist murderers or extremists from Phoenix bent on shooting up an anti-Islamist gathering in Texas.
In recent months, I have met with senior intelligence and government officials in France, Germany, and in Asia. They fear more lone wolf attacks; they are already being forced to track more young extremists. They all say that to defeat terrorists’ online campaigns short of deploying privacy-killing, draconian “Big Brother” tactics, democracies need help from the ultimate experts in predictive behavior– not the CIA—but Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
There are life and death issues at stake.
During a recent conference in Jerusalem, I heard a remarkable speech from a courageous moderate Muslim leader. Imam Hassen Chalghoumi is the President of the Conference of Imams in France. He is among the very few of 6,000 Imams in France who regularly denounces anti-Semitism. He chose to make his presentation excoriating Islamist extremism in Arabic — a noble, even heroic gesture. But at the end of stirring speech he suddenly switched to French and raised his fist in anger and frustration at the specter of his young constituents increasingly embracing religious extremism: “J’accuse, Twitter! J’accuse, YouTube!”
The Internet did not create hate or terrorism. But it is high time for the collective genius that has given society this powerful tool to help stop terrorists and bigots from hijacking the most powerful marketing and teaching tool the world has ever known before it’s too late.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.