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Why is YouTube undercutting anti-ISIS efforts?

ICSVE covered in Op Ed in Washington Examiner

by Michael Rubin | October 25, 2017

It’s a well-known fact: Islamist radicals and terrorists recruit online, and they do it masterfully. But now that one group is making progress online against the Islamic State, YouTube is undercutting their work.

Consider Morocco: Moroccans constituted the largest single group of foreign fighters recruited into the Islamic State. Moroccan security officials long complained that the problem wasn’t Moroccan mosques. Morocco, after all, has one of the most progressive training and rigorous regulation programs for imams, and Moroccan intelligence monitors mosques for radicalism. Moroccan security forces also track Moroccan extremists to prevent in-person recruitment. The thoroughness of Moroccan security means those Moroccans who return from fighting for ISIS have a one-way ticket to a prison cell.

The influence operations of Islamist extremists are extremely sophisticated. Consider, for example, this decade-old study of Iraqi insurgent media. Chechen insurgents, meanwhile, included a cameraman with each terror cell. If he were wounded or killed, they would often scrap the entire operation. After all, their goal was not only to kill Russians but to amplify it to an audience far beyond, via video. ISIS produced gruesome videos to distract and recruit. The Boston Marathon bombers built their pressure-cooker bomb using instructions they found in an online Al Qaeda magazine.

U.S. efforts to “counter violent extremism,” meanwhile, have been woefully ineffective. Many groups which claim to specialize in counter-radicalism are peddling snake oil for cash.

A prominent exception to this, of course, is the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.

ICSVE has been at the forefront of efforts to study ISIS. It debriefs defectors and captured ISIS terrorists. It was the first group, for example, to explain how ISIS intelligence worked, as well as the processes by which ISIS would arrest and interrogate prisoners. It has also exposed the ways in which ISIS has worked to brainwash children. The important thing about ICSVE is that it’s not just exposing the horrors of ISIS, but effectively working to undercut them.

ICSVE fights ISIS in more than a dozen languages by using the words of insiders against the Islamic State. ICSVE’s “Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project” has collected 63 Islamic State defectors, returnees, and prisoner interviews, most captured on video. A sample of the ICSVE work can be found here. Basically, they use subtitles in languages of countries in which the Islamic State recruits to disrupt both ISIS’ online and face-to-face recruitment.

The ICSVE products are used on four continents by imams, psychologists, police, teachers, and prison rehabilitation counselors to fight ISIS and other radical group recruitment. In one case, efforts to dissuade one London teen recruit from seeking to travel to Raqqa failed — until he saw the ICSVE video. In another case, a Kurdish imam sympathetic to ISIS stood down when the video narratives advanced by defectors forced him to confront the errors of his message.

Alas, rather than promote such successful counter-radicalism, YouTube has moved to undermine it.

They have repeatedly moved to prevent ICSVE from uploading counter-ISIS videos. In all likelihood, YouTube is probably just using an algorithm and blindly responding to the complaints of ISIS sympathizers who recognize the effectiveness of ICSVE work. Countering objectionable content, however, should not mean countering content objectionable to radicals and terrorists.

Alas, that sort of common sense seems to evade Silicon Valley. It’s time to protect groups like ICSVE from Islamic State bots and trolls, not do their dirty work for them.

Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.

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