The war against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) is slowly moving from the battlefield to cyberspace, and a new study shows that United States is at the forefront of that struggle.
Between February and May, the location with the second-highest number of clicks on radical Islamist content online was the U.S. That means Americans or non-American citizens based in the U.S. are consuming jihadi content more than Saudis, Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians and Moroccans, among others.
The report from British think tank Policy Exchange, titled "The New Netwar," provides an analysis of the online war against radical Islamist content, with a focus on Britain's national security.
Data collected between February 19 and May 3 show that pro-ISIS and Al-Qaeda content was viewed more in the U.S. than in every other country except Turkey, which had 16,810 clicks. By comparison, the U.S. had 10,388, followed by Saudi Arabia (10,239), Iraq (8,138) and Britain (6,107).
The most popular links were from the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which took the users to content from ISIS's self-styled news agency, Amaq, known for its claims of responsibility after ISIS-directed or -inspired attacks.
The most popular referrer was Twitter (40 percent), followed by Telegram and Facebook. The authors said this demonstrated that while Telegram serves as a "safe haven" for ISIS supporters, they "have not abandoned other platforms" in the mainstream for outreach efforts.
The report says that "there is a danger that the blood and treasure we are investing in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria will produce little more than a pyrrhic victory unless we act to defeat the virtual threat." It also says the U.K. is failing to win the war online.
A former top U.S. military commander, General David Petraeus, said in a foreword to the report that current efforts to combat ISIS and Al-Qaeda online are "inadequate" if governments want to halt homegrown radicalization.
"There is no doubting the urgency of this matter," he said. "The status quo clearly is unacceptable."
The report cites the argument that ISIS has been in decline online because, along with battlefield defeats, thousands of accounts have been taken down by social media companies. But the report says that argument has been "significantly overstated," as the jihadi group still publishes more than 100 articles and videos weekly.
"For at least a year, the production of content has continued despite the death of key figures, loss of territory and ongoing fighting," the report said.
The report also blamed the media and academics for making ISIS propaganda more accessible to the wider public. "Making ISIS content more 'findable' undermines the efforts of those who are attempting to restrict access to extremist material," it says.
The 130-page report concludes with recommendations for the British government that would likely extend to other Western powers. It says the government should ask social media companies to implement "more stringent terms of service that explicitly reject extremism"; put more funding into a unit for counterterrorism referral online; and create an independent regulator for social media content. It recommended financial penalties for companies that do not act against extremist content.