September 8, 2016

How can engineers solve a problem like ISIS?

I'm an engineer so I like to solve problems - not only smaller problems but also more global problems. There are a lot of global problems out there, like North Korea. I don't think I can solve a problem like North Korea, even though there are peaceful solutions. But it can't possible hurt to think about the solutions in the back of my head, and maybe one day I will come up with a solution no one else has thought about. What if Elon Musk had said: "It's not possible for one man to solve the problem of expensive rockets, so I will not try!" But it turned out it was possible for one man to solve that problem: SpaceX.

Another global problem we have is terrorism. While the probability that the North Korean problem will affect me personally is low, the probability that terrorism will affect me is still low, but considerably higher.


To come up with a solution to terrorism, I decided to read the book The Great War of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism - From al Qa'ida to ISIS. It is written by Michael Morell, who has had several high ranking positions within CIA, including the job as he who had to give the President of United States his daily briefings on terrorism threats. So the book includes several anecdotes from George W. Bush, including what really happened when Bush's dog Barney got a piece of plastic stuck in his throat during one of these intelligence briefings, and the quote by Bush himself: "Fuck diplomacy. We are going to war."

The book is not including any details on how CIA is working to solve problems like terrorism, because that's classified. But the book will give you an overview of terrorism, from 9/11 to ISIS. This overview includes stories such as why CIA failed to predict 9/11, why CIA failed to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, what are some misconceptions regarding the embassy attack in Libya, that cyber crime is now generating as much money as the illegal drug trade, and an entire chapter on Edward Snowden criticism. But it also includes more personal stories, such as the confusions within CIA after 9/11:
I seriously thought a nuclear detonation in New York or Washington was a possibility - to the point of telling my wife that if such an attack were to happen in Washington to put the kids in the car and start driving west and not stop. It was surreal.  

The book argues that it is impossible to beat an organization like ISIS with bombs alone. The reason is, according to the book, that terrorists organizations have "nine lives":
When the West and its allies keep pressure on al Qa'ida, when it has to worry about its own security more than it can about its operations, al Qa'ida loses capability. When that pressure is not there, when it is free to operate, its capabilities grow. It is a pattern that has played out over and over again, wherever al Qa'ida has operated.   
So the west can put pressure on ISIS, but it will not defeat ISIS. The west has put pressure on al Qa'ida since 2001, but al Qa'ida is far away from being defeated.

What you also need is to stop the supply of people who's joining terrorist organizations. This is also more cost effective. The dollars spent by the US government on programs related to stopping radicalization are an infinitesimally small percentage of the government's overall counter terrorism budget. The problem is that it involves other countries, so it's far easier to drop expensive bombs on ISIS than it is to change a country that supply ISIS terrorists.

But one country that has succeeded in stopping the supply of new terrorists is Indonesia:
Between 9/11 and 2006, Indonesia suffered sixteen terrorist attacks, resulting in more than three hundred deaths. In the next eight years, there were only five attacks, causing fourteen deaths. And, as of early 2015, only about 150 Indonesians had gone to fight in Syria, a remarkably low number for its population and for its terrorist past. While excellent intelligence and law enforcement work have played a role - and these tools will remain vital, particularly as many terrorists will be released from prison over the next few years - so have the Indonesian governments's counter-radicalization programs.
At the core of Jakarta's program is a willingness to work with any entity that can reach young people with the right messages. The program is systematic and reaches almost every part of Indonesian society. The messages are essentially two - that the extremist interpretation of Islam is not consistent with the Koran, and that there is great value in tolerance.
Religious organizations in Indonesia are popular within society and are therefore an important channel for delivering the government's counter-narrative to al Qa'ida [for every narrative of al Qa'ida's, there must be a counter-narrative delivered loudly and widely]. Jakarta, for example, works with imams and mosques to offer a variety of perspectives on Islam, particularly to youth and student groups. Schools are also a focus - courses emphasize inclusion and tolerance. All the world's religions are now studied, not just Islam, and schools are working to provide multiple perspectives on some of the issues that have played a role in radicalization, such as the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.
Popular culture is also used. The government communicates with young people through popular musicians who communicate carefully crafted messages aimed at counteracting radical ideas. Music with lyrics about tolerance as an alternative to extremism has become popular in Indonesia and indeed throughout Southeast Asia. All of this is supported by a variety of media - books, articles, newsletters, the Internet, television, and radio. TV and the Internet focus on urban populations. Radio stations reach rural areas.
All of this, of course, requires focus, effort and resources. It needs to be done throughout the Muslim world. It needs to be led by the governments in question. And it needs to be supported by the United States.

So what can engineers do to stop the supply of terrorists? Yesterday I found the article Google's clever plan to stop aspiring ISIS recruits. It says that Google can use a combination of its search advertising algorithms and YouTube to target aspiring ISIS recruits and hopefully preventing them from joining the terrorist organization. What Google has found is that "there's a lot of online demand for ISIS material, but there are also a lot of credible organic voices online debunking their narratives." This is exactly what the book said: "For every narrative of al Qa'ida's, there must be a counter-narrative delivered loudly and widely."

What the software developed by Google is doing is that it can place ads alongside results for any keywords and phrases it has determined people attracted to ISIS are searching for. When you click on these ads, you arrive at Arabic- and English-language YouTube channels. These channels have videos like testimonials from former extremists, imams denouncing ISIS's corruption of Islam, and videos from inside the ISIS's caliphate in Syria and Iraq showing it is not the paradise they say it is. One of these anti-ISIS videos is showing a line of people trying to get food.

This new software seems to be working. When they tested it during two months, they found that searchers clicked on the anti-ISIS ads three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign. And those who clicked spent more than twice as long viewing the anit-ISIS videos compared with the best estimates of how long people view other YouTube videos.

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