You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Virginia youth's YouTube comments caught attention of Taliban recruiter

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, December 14 2009

For all our talk about celebrating the unifying and empowering potential of technology, we can't ignore the fact that sometimes what is being strengthened is violent, dangerous extremism. We pretend that isn't the case at our own peril. One of the young Virginia men caught up in the Taliban recruitment situation last week, 20 year old Ahmed Abdullah Minni, was turned from lonely suburban extremist to part of an armed global force after he posted comments on YouTube celebrating videos showing attacks on American troops. That caught the eye of a Taliban recruiter based in Pakistan, who then hooked up with Minni, use all the tech tools of the trade:

After Saifullah first made contact with Mr. Minni via comments on YouTube, he exchanged messages with them by leaving draft e-mail messages at a shared Yahoo address. Militants have often used the to reduce the chance that intelligence agencies will intercept messages.

The police report said officers confiscated the men’s laptops and external hard drives, as well as cellphones and an iPod.

The dark side of all this is the suggestion that we haven't paid enough attention to what kind of connections are being made online, instead falling back on a easy assumption that anytime two humans form a stronger bond, that's a good thing. It's not always a good thing, as we're seeing in the Virginia Taliban case. That doesn't really undercut the value of the technology. It does, though, suggest that we'd be wise to start applying a more critical eye to the nature of online connections. And quickly. How humans interrelate has changed, but our sociology of that change is badly lagging.

Which brings us to the bright side. And that that's some people are starting to pay attention to the Internet as a place where bonds are made, loyalties are developed, and meaningful connections are forged in ways that can be constructive, but can also destroy. We've written about the State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative. For all its talk of cell phones and social networking, it's rooted in an acceptance of the idea that the future is playing out, to a great extent, online. The powers that be can engage there, or get passed by. It's also encouraging to hear Muslim leaders like the Muslim American Society's Imam Mahdi Bray put the Internet at the center of the Virginia episode:

They see great injustices, and their emotions and passions are stirred as they should be. ... But we are determined not to let religious extremists exploit the vulnerability of our youth through slick, seductive and destructive propaganda on the Internet.

We will respond in kind on the Internet. Silence in cyberspace is not an option.

Let's hope there are smart folks in the defense, development, and foreign policy worlds are energetically taking a very considered look at how the Internet is changing how people connect and organize, for better or for worse. Especially for worse. It wouldn't kill us to talk more about the dark side of online organizing. And it might not be very good for us if we don't.