A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday will take up a topic that has caused growing concern in recent months: the influence of social media in recruiting potential terrorists.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will consider a bill that would require the Obama administration to draft a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorists’ use of social media. A similiar bill unanimously passed the House in December, days after a married couple shot and killed 14 people at a San Bernardino, Calif., office holiday gathering.
It was that attack that helped crystallize a growing fear that social media give terrorist groups a potent recruiting tool that has left anti-terror investigators scrambling. The San Bernardino assailants, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, had exchanged private messages discussing their commitment to jihad and martyrdom, law enforcement officials have said, while Malik posted a note on Facebook after the shootings pledging her allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State terrorist group.
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And last year, the Justice Department charged at least 60 people with terrorism-related crimes, an unprecedented number that officials attributed to a heightened threat from that terrorist group — along with the influence of social media on potential recruits.
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Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), prime sponsor of the bipartisan House bill, said in an interview Tuesday that he pushed the legislation because the Obama administration lacks a comprehensive strategy to tackle the threat. His bill would require President Obama to send to Congress within three months a report on the nation’s strategy to combat terrorists’ and terrorist organizations’ use of social media, an evaluation of the role social media play in radicalization and an overview of social media training available to investigators.
“It’s sporadic,” Poe said of the administration’s social media efforts. “There isn’t an overall plan. The Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the FBI all have different ideas on how foreign terrorist organizations should be combated online… just come up with a uniform plan so we’re all dealing with the same issues.”
Administration officials vigorously disputed that characterization, saying the government is working hard to combat the terrorist threat on social media. If Congress really wants to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIL), they said, it should pass Obama’s authorization of use of military force — or AUMF in D.C. parlance — that he first submitted a year ago this week. It would authorize the president’s use of military force to fight the Islamic State.
“When the use of social media crosses the line from communication… into active terrorist plotting, that is deeply concerning and has to be addressed,” said Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “This is something that we have been focused on for some time.”
Horne said senior administration officials have held a series of meetings over the last year with technology and new media officials and others to discuss “ways in which technology companies can harness their entrepreneurial and innovative expertise to consider ways in which we can make it harder for terrorist groups to recruit and radicalize.” She added that the administration is “committed to working closely with Congress on these measures, though Congress has thus far refused take any serious action” on Obama’s request for military force authorization against the Islamic State.
The Senate version of Poe’s bill was introduced Tuesday and is sponsored by homeland security committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). Senate staff members, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal meetings, said they expect to obtain bipartisan support for the legislation. The committee is expected to vote Wednesday on whether to send it to the Senate floor.