US taps college students to counter online terror recruiting

US Department of Homeland Security emblem is pictured at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center located just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia.
US Department of Homeland Security emblem is pictured at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center located just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • The United States Department of Homeland Security is enlisting American college students in its efforts to stop the radicalisation and recruitment of young people, mostly immigrants, by foreign terrorist groups.

Under a programme called Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism, students at dozens of universities are given a budget of up to US$2,000 (S$2,740) each semester to develop social media campaigns and other tools to counter the online recruiting efforts of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Mr George Selim, director of the Office for Community Partnerships at Homeland Security, said about 50 to 75 universities voluntarily participate in the programme each year.

Students enter a competition judged by Homeland Security and other national security officials, and the winning school is given US$5,000.

On Tuesday, the department awarded students at the University of Maryland first place in the competition for developing a project that helps friends and neighbours recognise signs of radicalisation in young people. It is built around a video game and a social media campaign.

"Who better to push back against the prejudice, bigotry and hate online than students?" said Mr Tony Sgro, the president of EdVenture Partners, the company that created the programme.

Countering violent extremism online has become a focus of the US government in recent years as groups such as ISIS and Nigeria's Boko Haram have successfully used the Internet to market themselves and gain recruits. Dozens of young people from the US have joined groups like ISIS.

However, the government has long struggled to counter the groups' use of social media.

So, officials at Homeland Security and other federal agencies have turned to the very people whom terrorist groups are trying to attract: young people.

Although most of the programme seems to focus on countering foreign terrorist groups, Mr Selim said students were also encouraged to develop campaigns to counter the violent messaging of domestic hate groups.

Government programmes to counter violent extremism have been criticised by some civil liberties groups, which say that ideology is not a clear predictor of terrorism.

Some Islamic organisations worry that the programmes are a way for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to gather information that can be used to arrest Muslims.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2017, with the headline 'US taps college students to counter online terror recruiting'. Print Edition | Subscribe