On-line arrests off-side?

The RCMP in Winnipeg detained a 23-year old Manitoban and seized a number of hard drives they said he used to express support for the Islamic State (see story here).  The youth arrested is a convert to Islam and the son of a member of the Canadian Armed Forces.  He as apparently been on CSIS’ watchlist for some time.

The youth is alleged to have posted material on-line that praises the Islamic State.  Bill C-51 will make this kind of activity illegal in Canada.

Many have long called for websites and supporters that feature extremist material to be taken down.  Clearly, the less this garbage is available, the better we’ll all be – right?

Hmm, as usual, things are not that simple.

There are at least three (and probably more) problems with this heavy-handed approach.

1) taking material off the Web is not as easy as you think.  There are thousands of sites and tens of thousands of tweeters and other on-line users that advocate support for Al Qaeda, IS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab or other extremist groups.   Furthermore, almost as soon as a site or objectionable material is removed, it pops back up somewhere us.  Corrective action becomes a virtual whack-a-mole.  Besides, twitter users who have had their accounts suspended see this action as a badge of honour.

2) what kinds of material should be removed?  The fuzziness of the definition of “support for terrorism” reminds me of the statement by US Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart on pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it”.  Who will determine what constitutes terrorism?  What about scholars of terrorism or those who use violent material to undermine it?

3) perhaps most importantly, taking down sites prevents security and law enforcement services from detecting who is on these sites and what they use the sites for.  If someone is using social media to parade their violent views, promote action (their own or that of others) or recruit, our counter terrorism agencies want to follow as long as possible to determine intent, capability and just how many people are in the milieu.  Of course, when a criminal threshold is passed, action should and must be taken.  But before that, on-line content can assist in furthering investigations.

It will be interesting to see where this case goes and what precedent it sets for the months and years to come.  Expect the inevitable Charter challenge.

At the end of the day the challenge of stopping this activity evokes the image of the little Dutch boy and the dike.  Just as global warming will lead to higher sea levels, the conditions favouring extremism will float an increasing number of terrorist boats.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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