The Cipher Brief

U.S., West Must Do More to Deny Terrorists Access to Online Social Media

By: Rep. Ted Poe (TX-2)

The terrorist attacks that have swept the United Kingdom mark yet another chapter in the long war by violent Islamist extremists against the free world. Terrorism in Europe is not a new phenomenon. The fact that three attacks have struck Britain in the last three months alone exposes that despite safeguards and a vast understanding of the terrorist threat, much more must be done to defeat these radical killers.

In March, 52-year-old Briton Khalid Masood who converted to a radical brand of Islam in prison and was investigated by British intelligence drove his car into pedestrians near the Palace of Westminster and then fatally stabbed an unarmed police officer. Masood injured more than 50 innocent people and killed five in his terrorist rampage in London.

A few weeks ago, another British national, Salman Abedi, bombed a concert in Manchester full of young children, killing 22 people and injuring over 119. Abedi previously attended a mosque led by an Imam who had condemned ISIS’ ideology and whose members had reported Abedi’s radicalism to British authorities on several occasions. His radicalization appears to have started with his father, Ramadan, who is known to have supported Islamists with ties to al-Qaeda. He took his three teenage boys to Libya in 2011 to participate in the civil war against Muammar Qaddafi.

Tragically, our ally across the Atlantic was struck again by terrorists on June 3rd. The tactics of the perpetrators of that attack appear to echo the methods of the Westminster attack from March. There terrorists used simple vehicles and knives to kill as many people as possible. Just hours before the attacks in London, ISIS reportedly encouraged its followers to kill Western civilians with guns, knives, and trucks over the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

According to the British Home Secretary, the UK security services are investigating 500 different plots with 3,000 high priority suspects and 20,000 lower tier suspects. With this extraordinary volume of potential threats combined with terrorists’ ability to adapt to changing security measures and innovate new methods of attack, it is an enormous challenge to stop every plot. As Irish IRA terrorists reminded British authorities just three decades ago, “we have only to be lucky once, you will have to be lucky always.” This may cause many to conclude that there is no way to stop this growing threat to our countries. But that defeatist attitude is unacceptable.

British authorities have revealed that at least two of the three London attackers on Saturday were known to British intelligence services. One of them, a British citizen born in Pakistan, apparently eluded police despite being on a watch list and appearing in a 2016 British television documentary highlighting the United Kingdom’s home-grown extremism problem. The other, a Moroccan-Italian man who lived in east London, was allowed to enter to the UK in January,  despite being listed on the Schengen Information System, an EU-wide database of potential suspects.  

Frankly, our Western allies across the pond have, for too long, coexisted with radicalism festering in their borders. British Prime Minister Theresa May said it best after last week’s attack, suggesting that there is “far too much tolerance” of Islamist extremism in Britain today. Now our European partners must take a more serious look at this threat. They must have “some difficult and often embarrassing conversations,” as Prime Minister May said. Western values are the bedrock of our free civilization, but they can lead to its ultimate destruction if they are used to tolerate and coddle the criminal extremism that seeks to attack it.

Our allies in Europe must not resign to a defeatist attitude that accepts these attacks as the norm. The free world must not treat these attacks as separate incidents. It’s time that we come to terms with the fact that the terrorists themselves see the attacks as part of a single war against the West. Countries must allocate more resources to local and federal authorities investigating these ongoing threats so that they can keep up with the growing number of individuals suspected of extremism. Our allies in Europe face a greater risk than we do, as more of their citizens who fought with ISIS and other terrorists return home. Borders must be protected, and perhaps individuals who are on watch lists should not be allowed entry until their cases are thoroughly investigated. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  

Protection should extend beyond physical borders, as well. Terrorism is increasingly transcending borders instantly over the internet where terrorists radicalize, recruit, fundraise, and plan their treachery. That is exactly why I have led the charge in Congress to remove extremists from social media. Last year, the House of Representatives passed my bill, the Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act. It was eventually included in the Department of State Authorities Act and passed into law late last year. As Twitter and Facebook make progress to deny terrorists online presence, terrorists have migrated to other platforms, like Telegram. More must be done to take these thugs offline.

President Trump’s May 21 speech in Saudi Arabia set the right tone: communities, particularly all those in the Middle East, must drive out the radicals who spread the jihadist hate and murder. And we, in the West, must do the same. We must no longer tolerate those that seek to destroy our way of life. We can no longer coexist with terrorists that exploit and misuse our rights and freedoms in order to eventually kill and maim innocents. We must drive the violent extremists out of our cities and cyberspace. We must never tolerate and allow this spate of terrorist attacks to become the norm. Defeatism is not an option. And that’s just the way it is.  

Congressman Ted Poe represents Texas' Second District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade.