Talk about unwelcome headlines before the holidays. The sudden decision by President Trump to move American troops out of Syria makes little sense since ISIS is not yet defeated. While ISIS may have certainly been battered and pushed back over the last few years, withdrawing now gives them a reprieve and risks further destabilizing the Middle East by allowing actors such as Assad, Russia, Iran, and potentially other terrorist groups, to fill in the remaining void. A similar logic follows Trump’s second sudden decision regarding troops in Afghanistan.
Making matters worse is the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who could no longer contain his disagreements with Trump, and pointedly wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours” in his resignation letter.
This is disheartening because Secretary Mattis was one of the most competent members of Trump’s administration. While one can certain disagree with decisions here and there, he has the requisite experience and know-how to run America’s defense department. I am a firm believer that for critical presidential cabinet positions, we must have the best people get the best job. President Trump will not find anyone better than Mattis who wants the job.
In addition to all that has and will be said among the Washington class and elites, I urge everyone to remember the non-traditional aspect of our war on terror. ISIS will not be defeated until we have also eradicated its online presence.
More than any other terrorist organization, ISIS became a household name via their effectiveness at utilizing the Internet and Social Media. Examples include their nasty online killings, to recruitment and organization via social media, and to encouragement of “lone wolf” attacks from law abiding citizens turned radicalized ISIS agents.
Social medial companies deserve their fare share of blame for allowing ISIS and other terrorist organizations to gain a foothold in them. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and similar companies have more resources, technical skill, and money than ISIS, yet were (initially) blindsided by terrorist activity. Compounding these issues are lack of incentives: combating terrorism requires social media companies to allocate resources that could otherwise be used to increasing growth.
The good news is that, due to public and government pressure, these companies have dramatically improved their counter-terrorism techniques. I haven’t seen as many headlines about terrorism on social media, but hard data would be more reassuring. (For an overview of how terrorists have utilized social media, I recommend the thrilling yet worrisome book Like Wars, published earlier this year, and which has helped shape my thinking on where the real threats lie in the modern era.)
To recap and summarize my position, let’s keep our troops in Syria and Afghanistan, but please don’t relieve the pressure on media companies — and ourselves as consumers — to be vigilant of terrorist groups using social medial to advance their malicious agendas.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the next logical step after social media is for terrorists to use new advances in Artificial Intelligence. Look at some recent research results from NVIDIA, for instance; I predict that it will not be long — if it hasn’t already happened — before terrorist groups start buying GPUs and generating fake images.
To be clear, I am not blindly anti-Trump. On the contrary, I want him to succeed as president so that America succeeds. Though I know there’s little chance he will change his mind with respect to traditional military, I hope that he and his administration will do enough to stop the online threat from ISIS. Or, at the very least, that they will not do something with the byproduct of making terrorists have an easier time online. I am more concerned about threats from the Internet, social media, and misinformation in the near future, rather than traditional military-style combat.
Overall, it’s a sad day when the leader of the free world’s actions give relief to ISIS and are praised by America’s biggest geopolitical foe — Vladimir Putin.