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Sayfullo Saipov had 90 IS videos on his phone: is the fight against online extremism failing?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 11:07pm

The huge cache of Islamic State (IS) propaganda videos found on the mobile phone of the suspect charged in Tuesday’s truck attack in New York has raised questions about efforts to tackle extremist content online.

Sayfullo Saipov, 29, who is accused of using a truck to mow down pedestrians and cyclists, killing eight and injuring 12, told prosecutors he was inspired by IS videos he had watched on his phone, which had 90 videos and 3,800 images. Among the files were depictions of beheadings, and shootings, bomb-making instructions and several images of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The source of Saipov’s propaganda is not clear, but IS has a propaganda distribution network that feeds videos, magazines, sermons and photos across the internet. It uses social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and encrypted messaging apps.

Tech firms have struggled to balance their mission to support free speech with curbing the spread of terrorist content. Years of criticism of the way terrorist groups have used their platforms led Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft to create a joint forum to counter terrorism in June. The companies have also developed artificial intelligence tools that are supposed to automatically detect and remove extremist content.

However, some counterterrorism researchers are sceptical about the effectiveness of the alliance.

“They are catching the top of the iceberg, but not going deep under the iceberg” said Eric Feinberg from cyber intelligence firm GIPEC, who studies the spread of extremist propaganda online. “I’m sitting here finding this stuff every day and what are they doing?”

Without a coordinated approach between all of these companies, removing extremist content will continue to be a game of “whack-a-mole”, he said.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Programme on Extremism at George Washington University, said the propaganda was “not as abundant as it used to be”, but it’s still there and IS strategy to evade detection is evolving.

He said Facebook has been most effective in tackling the problem. However, he notes that Google Plus is being used “especially by American jihadis”.

Counterterrorism expert Michael Smith, who has spent years analysing the organisation’s propaganda, described Tuesday’s attack as “absolutely consistent with everything Islamic State has been petitioning supporters in the US to do”.

The content found on Saipov’s phone is part of a strategy to de-sensitise would-be terrorists who don’t have a history of violent crime.