An ambitious private initiative to help American Internet service providers (ISPs) identify jihadist websites they are unwittingly hosting was unveiled the other day in Washington. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) will lend its translation capabilities and the expertise of its Islamist Website Monitor Project to any ISP that wants to investigate the content of a suspicious foreign-language site. MEMRI president Yigal Carmon expects that ISPs will voluntarily shut down extremist sites once the providers realize what inflammatory material the sites contain.
The goal is to significantly disrupt the jihadists' use of the Internet to spread their ideology, their explosives know-how, and their recruitment propaganda worldwide. It's a daunting task: The Economist reports that the number of terrorist websites has gone from "a handful in 2000 to several thousand today." What makes it doable, Carmon says, is the fact that the majority of extremist websites are hosted by ISPs in the United States.
Consider "Supporters of Jihad in Iraq" (www.hussamaldin.jeeran.com), a website whose headlined caption reads "Kill the Americans everywhere." It is hosted by Electric Lightwave, a subsidiary of Integra Telecom in Portland, Oregon. Or the website of Islamist sheikh Hamed al-Ali (www.h-alali.net), hosted by Fortress Integrated Technologies, in Irvine, California. Or the Al-Saha Forum (www.alsaha.com), which has posted videos from the media production arm of al Qaeda: It's hosted by Liquid Web Inc., in Lansing, Michigan.
If these and similar ISPs systematically eliminated sites with dangerous pro-terrorist content--just as they routinely purge sites with obscene content--al Qaeda and company would lose one of their most valuable weapons. "This is their air force, this is their unconventional weapon," says Carmon.
Some ISPs already have procedures in place to banish extremist sites. Google, which hosts more blogs than any provider in the world, requires its blogger clients to agree to a detailed Terms of Service waiver that prohibits both "hateful" and "violent" content.
In addition to their own standards of taste and civic responsibility, companies must be mindful of the fact that most extremist websites are hosted in violation of federal law. Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, for example, makes it illegal to provide support to designated terrorist groups, and Title 18, Section 842, of the U.S. Code makes it illegal to disseminate operational military information to terrorists.
Usually, the problem isn't that companies are unwilling to comply. It's that the websites are in Arabic or Farsi or other foreign languages. The ISPs don't realize who they're helping.
This is where MEMRI comes in. A privately funded nonprofit founded in 1998 to break down the language barrier between the Middle East and the West, the institute translates and posts on its website selections from the press, television, and websites of the region. It translates them into English, French, Italian, Hebrew, German, Spanish, and Japanese.
Three years ago, MEMRI published a study of Islamist websites, naming their hosts. Within a week, most of the ISPs had shut down the extremist sites--without any direct prodding from MEMRI. Now, to encourage more such voluntary action, MEMRI has made a standing offer: Any company concerned about a foreign-language site it is hosting can fill out a short form on MEMRI's website, and the think tank will--at no cost--translate the content, usually within a week.
On July 19, the day it announced this offer, MEMRI also released a new study of Islamist websites. Several of the American ISPs it names, contacted by a reporter, seemed happy to learn what was lurking on their servers. SiteGenie's Scott Litke acted swiftly to remove the World News Network (www.w-n-n.net), which was posting instructions on bomb making. "If someone tells me one of these sites has nasty stuff--it's gone," Litke said. "I don't even like sites talking bad about America."
Interserver, Inc., an ISP in Secaucus, New Jersey, quickly took down the website of Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (www.alsunnah.info), who was spiritual mentor to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, notorious for beheadings of foreign hostages and ferocious bombing attacks on civilians.
But not all companies are alert to the problem. A spokeswoman for ThePlanet, in Houston, said, "We don't police the content of our websites." Asked about the website they host for the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad--a State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization--she claimed never to have heard of it and would say only, "We work with the authorities when sites are a credible threat or there is some kind of pending harm."
Even willing companies, however, are up against the fact that websites are portable. When the World News Network was kicked out by SiteGenie, it quickly found a new home with an ISP in Malaysia.
Yet it is a mistake to assume the Internet is untamable. Of the sites shut down after they were exposed in MEMRI's July 19 report, only one had managed to relocate as this story went to press eight days later. One of the reasons so many jihadists use American service providers is precisely that other governments have managed to keep them off their service providers. In May, Saudi Arabia passed a law mandating up to 10 years in jail for anyone setting up a website that promotes terrorist goals. China, too, has been quite successful at excluding content deemed objectionable by the regime.
The United States need not take such drastic governmental action. American businesses seem mostly eager to do the right thing, if not perfectly equipped to do so. The Holy Grail for these companies would be a database of individuals and websites associated with violent jihad. Whether maintained by a private or a public entity, such a watch list could help ISPs identify suspicious clients before accepting their business. Carmon likens the concept to a Better Business Bureau for the web or the "know your customer" regulations that the U.S. Treasury imposes on banks.
Such a database lies farther down the road. For now, MEMRI's translation service is an excellent start.
Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.