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The internet is a terror battle ground -- and we're losing

As New Yorkers witnessed yet again -- for a second time in weeks -- terrorists' ability to recruit, direct and inspir...

Posted: Dec 12, 2017 7:52 PM
Updated: Dec 12, 2017 7:52 PM

As New Yorkers witnessed yet again -- for a second time in weeks -- terrorists' ability to recruit, direct and inspire attacks has not lessened. The internet is a battlefield, and we are losing that fight.

Investigators will need to take their time piecing together how failed suspected bomber Akayed Ullah became motivated to launch his attack on Monday. We do know that he has been in this country for years, and while some may point to his Bangladeshi origin (Bangladesh is 90% Muslim), it is also possible Ullah was radicalized here in the US.

Ullah's botched alleged attack at the Port Authority Bus Terminal is the latest reminder that the United States -- like many other countries -- is vulnerable. And when it comes to issues in general, the US has a real issue with domestic radicalization. We need to look hard at this individual's life while he was living in the US. One clear place to start is Ullah's online activity.

It is likely that investigators are looking at, among many other things, Ullah's digital footprint. With an immediate goal of mitigating any additional violence, one of their immediate first steps must be also seeing whom he communicated with online to make sure he didn't work with anyone else and that there aren't any follow-on attacks planned.

To start to match terrorists online from a level playing field, we need to create a new anti-digital warfare entity. When we realized that terrorists were taking advantage of changes in the financial space to move illegal funds that were critical to their survival, previous administrations created dedicated departments like Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. We need to do the same thing in the digital space. Groups like ISIS depend on digital warfare for their survival, and we need to cut off their access to this infrastructure.

The digital theater keeps growing. It expands every second, opening up new places for bad actors to exploit. The good news is that digital footprints don't go away, and Ullah's online activity could potentially provide valuable clues to investigators. Law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and the private sector -- if they work with the authorities -- can go back over his online activity to look at what platforms he used, block any extremist content he accessed and analyze his communications. This could help in the study of what allowed this attack to happen, but we need to think bigger.

Strategically, we need to apply advanced machine-learning tools -- which technology companies use every day -- to identify the individual's patterns of behavior. We can see if anyone else is following a similar pattern. This can help ward off other attacks. We're operating several steps behind terrorists if we don't start to apply advanced technology to tracking, anticipating and preventing their malicious behavior.

We have already heard statements that if our immigration policies were different then terrorists like Ullah would not have been able to launch their attacks. While we should always review our immigration policies to ensure that they are appropriately identifying any threats, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders' statements that Trump's immigration plan -- including his plan to end "chain migration" -- would have kept Ullah out of the country is a red herring. While policies that limit immigration would have kept Ullah out, the fact is that he could very easily have been radicalized while already in the United States. The White House offered no evidence Monday about where Ullah might have been radicalized and, according to the Associated Press, unnamed law enforcement officials said Ullah had looked at ISIS propaganda online.

Trump's proposed immigration policies would do nothing to address terrorists' ability to reach Americans. This is less about who we allow to legally immigrate to the United States - it is about how we prevent Americans, including natural-born Americans and legal immigrants, from getting access to terrorist content and becoming radicalized. Shutting our physical borders is not a strategy for combating domestic radicalization.

After the last attack in New York City -- Sayfullo Saipov's alleged truck attack near the World Trade Center -- we heard calls for stronger immigration policy, travel bans and more walls. This is a misidentification of the threat; in Saipov's case, reports are that he wasn't radicalized before he came to the US. So, this isn't an immigration issue. It's a question of how the perpetrator was exposed to extremist content once in the US, why that content was available, and how he operationalized his plans without being detected. The more resources and time we devote to the wrong enemies -- who are being painted as immigrants and refugees -- the fewer resources we're going to have for minimizing access to the content that inspires alleged terrorists like Saipov and Ullah to act.

As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that Iraq is "fully liberated" from ISIS over the weekend, ISIS and its affiliates still retain the ability to reach millions of people around the world through the internet.

The liberation of Iraq from ISIS -- and major gains against ISIS in Syria -- are significant achievements and shouldn't be underplayed. But, if Monday's attack was related to ISIS, it is just another reminder that terrorists today do not need physical safe havens. The internet is boundary-less, and they're winning the fight online. Terrorists are circumventing a lack of physical access to recruits and sympathizers by putting content online, where there are no borders. There are no checkpoints. They are manipulating the digital theater, and we just aren't able to keep up.

This isn't about pointing fingers -- tracking terrorists is extremely difficult, and it's even more complex when you're operating in a theater, like the internet, that doesn't have any boundaries. This is a shared public and private sector responsibility. Much like the way we organized to combat terrorist activity in the financial space, this is a prime opportunity for experts in the private sector to work with government on identifying patterns of behavior and applying the most sophisticated tools to countering digital warfare.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 256827

Reported Deaths: 5638
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17257180
Hinds16331322
Harrison13567194
Rankin10804212
Jackson10453184
Lee8864141
Madison8314164
Jones6434112
Forrest6009120
Lauderdale5902186
Lowndes5405116
Lafayette499193
Lamar488565
Washington4803124
Bolivar3997109
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Pontotoc367853
Monroe3558105
Warren354898
Union345960
Marshall344066
Neshoba3396152
Pearl River3301100
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Lincoln298085
Sunflower286671
Hancock274459
Tate273162
Alcorn265453
Itawamba263759
Pike263778
Scott248046
Yazoo247056
Prentiss246552
Tippah243050
Copiah242749
Coahoma241054
Simpson236467
Leake231765
Grenada219471
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Marion213073
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Wayne202932
Winston201666
George199839
Attala194259
Newton193444
Tishomingo189361
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Jasper172736
Holmes168767
Clay159833
Stone144721
Tallahatchie141934
Clarke139862
Calhoun136521
Smith121424
Yalobusha117834
Walthall112336
Noxubee110822
Greene110429
Montgomery109834
Carroll104821
Lawrence102917
Perry102631
Amite98426
Webster92824
Tunica87321
Claiborne86625
Jefferson Davis85326
Humphreys83124
Benton82023
Kemper77620
Quitman6968
Franklin66715
Choctaw60913
Wilkinson58725
Jefferson54919
Sharkey43117
Issaquena1596
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 426543

Reported Deaths: 6126
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson62752920
Mobile30551554
Madison27303186
Tuscaloosa20835267
Montgomery19192305
Shelby18693114
Baldwin16513183
Lee12603101
Morgan12321113
Etowah11805168
Calhoun11206200
Marshall10236107
Houston8681148
Cullman8094105
Limestone807474
Elmore7923101
DeKalb771597
Lauderdale763183
St. Clair7599120
Talladega6224108
Walker5930174
Jackson583741
Colbert535473
Blount532083
Autauga522755
Coffee446256
Dale399781
Franklin368148
Chilton337865
Russell335910
Covington330168
Escambia321342
Dallas305196
Chambers288669
Clarke283133
Tallapoosa2630107
Pike251329
Marion247350
Lawrence245247
Winston229035
Bibb217047
Geneva203335
Marengo200829
Pickens196931
Hale177442
Barbour173836
Fayette171226
Butler170758
Cherokee160930
Henry155021
Monroe147317
Randolph141535
Washington138326
Clay127045
Crenshaw120244
Cleburne118423
Lamar118419
Macon116835
Lowndes111535
Wilcox103621
Bullock99728
Perry98219
Conecuh95120
Sumter89526
Greene76223
Coosa60515
Choctaw51524
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