A major victory in the fight against extremism was secured last month when YouTube announced that it had taken down the lectures and sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who had turned into a firebrand preacher and notoriously effective recruiter for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In 2011 President Barack Obama took the extraordinary step of ordering a drone strike on Mr. Awlaki in Yemen, citing his “lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans.”
Unfortunately, given the ubiquity of his lectures and sermons online, Mr. Awlaki continued to inspire and incite extremist violence after his death.
In December 2015, a search for “Anwar al-Awlaki” on YouTube yielded nearly 60,000 results for his sermons and lectures.
(On Nov. 12, The New York Times reported that YouTube had removed thousands of videos from radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki from its video-sharing network. Courtesy of United News International and YouTube. Posted on Nov 15, 2017)
By last August, there were more than 70,000 results.
An hourlong polemic by Mr. Awlaki demonizing the United States titled “Battle of the Hearts and Minds” had more than 80,000 views and 700 likes.
Now, after YouTube’s action, a search on the site produces a significantly lower number of hits — 18,600 — almost all of which are materials about Mr. Awlaki rather than by him.
The removal of this online content will ultimately save lives.
There are at least 90 instances in which extremists in the United States and Europe were shown to have had ties to or been influenced by Mr. Awlaki, including the Fort Hood gunman, Nidal Hassan; the “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; the Charlie Hebdo attackers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi; Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in Orlando, Fla.; and the Boston Marathon bombers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
YouTube’s recent action was a significant step in a new direction, but now more must be done.
Mr. Awlaki’s content should be removed from all other Google sites, including the file-sharing platform Google Drive.
Other internet companies, large and small, should look to YouTube’s example and follow suit.
Recently, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube established the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism to share information and best practices about how to counter the threat of terrorist content online.
A zero-tolerance policy regarding Mr. Awlaki and similar figures would be a model for other companies.
In that same vein, industrywide standards are needed to ensure the timely and permanent removal of dangerous content, especially when produced by groups and individuals on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list, and the United Nations Security Council Sanctions list, and individuals with demonstrable links to violence.
There is no shortage of extremists online — Turki al-Binali, Abdullah Faisal, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Ahmad Musa Jibril are notable examples.
They must be subject to the same treatment and their content should be swiftly and permanently removed.
YouTube’s acknowledgment of the harmful impact of the Awlaki sermons should also open the door to a broader and more consistent approach against the content posted by the Islamic State online.
The group’s sophisticated exploitation of the internet to spread its message must be matched by a systematic and resource-intensive effort that includes website hosting companies such as WordPress, encrypted communications platforms such as Telegram and file-sharing platforms such as JustPaste.it, apart from video platforms such as YouTube.
Proven technology can also assist with the enforcement of new polices and prevent the re-upload of material from known extremists such as Mr. Awlaki.
Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College who advises our organization, developed an algorithm called eGlyph that quickly and accurately identifies for removal known extremist material on the internet and social media platforms.
This technology is based on software developed by Mr. Farid that removes millions of online images of child exploitation annually.
(Dartmouth Professor Hany Farid explains how eGLYPH technology is used to find and flag the worst of the worst violent extremist content. Courtesy of the Counter Extremism Project and YouTube. Posted on Oct 31, 2016)
Killing terrorists is only half the battle, as the case of Mr. Awlaki has clearly shown.
A new focus on combating extremist and terrorist ideologies online, through company policies, industrywide standards and technology, will be paramount in keeping the public safe.