Broaden the reach of UN sanctions

Unfortunately, when designating IS terrorists the UN makes no effort to update the substance of its sanctions in order to address the threat posed by ISIS’s online recruitment.

A 3D plastic representation of the Twitter and Youtube logo is seen in front of a displayed ISIS flag  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A 3D plastic representation of the Twitter and Youtube logo is seen in front of a displayed ISIS flag
(photo credit: REUTERS)
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2253, adopted unanimously in December, sends the unequivocal message that the world is aligned against the criminal brutality of Islamic State (IS) and intends to crack down, primarily on its financial and military capabilities.
However, even as the international community takes aim at IS, UN sanctions appear powerless to respond effectively to IS’s most potent weapon: the ability to recruit, radicalize and incite to violence online. If the international community is serious about clamping down on the recruiting pipeline that sustains IS, it will need to take an unflinching look at its outdated sanctions regime, and broaden the impact of its embargoes.
In addressing IS’s financial and military threat, Resolution 2253 does briefly acknowledge the threat from IS online. It specifically condemns terrorists’ use of the Internet to “incite, recruit, fund, or plan terrorist acts.”
Unfortunately, when designating IS terrorists – who will now be sanctioned under a new “IS” category as opposed to being grouped with “al-Qaida” terrorists – the UN makes no effort to update the substance of its sanctions in order to address the threat posed by IS’s online recruitment.
Instead, 2253 reiterates that the UN will continue to apply its al-Qaida sanctions – asset freezes, travel bans and arms embargoes – to IS recruiters.
This is a grave oversight. While these sanctions may limit the physical movements of IS personnel and weapons, the UN measures are powerless to inhibit IS’s online recruiting networks.
During the past 18 months, and despite existing UN sanctions against IS recruiters, IS has managed to lure thousands more young men and women to its territory using nothing more than Internet access and relentless, effective marketing. Continuing to apply the al-Qaida asset freezes, travel bans and arms embargoes to IS-linked recruiters (albeit under a new “IS” category) will do little to inhibit the group’s ability to restock its army with fresh recruits.
This is not conjecture. In late September, the UN commendably sanctioned a group of four major IS recruiters.
Less than a week later, however, one of the recruiters – British-born Sally Jones – was not only active on Twitter, but managed to threaten a US veteran.
The tweet in question – wherein Jones released the home address of former US Navy Seal Robert O’Neill – remained live for more than 24 hours before any action was taken by Twitter. Five days later, Jones again targeted a US veteran on Twitter – former US Army sergeant Dillard Johnson – all from her hideout in IS-controlled territory.
This situation is unacceptable, and speaks to a problem that runs far deeper than the scope of UN sanctions – institutionalized negligence on the part of social media giants. The designation of four major IS recruiters in September sent the strong signal that the international community condemns IS’s online recruitment. The message was clear back then, and has been again reiterated by language in Resolution 2253. Still, the meaning of the message appears to have left no impression on Twitter, as the California-based company continues to ignore its responsibility to respond to the weaponization of its platform. Meanwhile, the UN fails in its own mission to address the threat of IS’s online recruitment by continuing to cling to an outdated sanctions toolkit.
The international community continues to remain dependent on social media giants to decide whether or not they will host internationally designated terrorists on their sites. Today, Jones is still capable of inciting violence and recruiting on Twitter. Other high-level IS operatives – like Raphael Hostey – remain capable of funneling recruits from Twitter to Q&A sites, and then to private messaging accounts, before eventually shipping them to IS-held territory.
One way the UN can close this gaping hole in its sanctions regime is by expanding the definition of “asset freeze.” Currently, an asset freeze applies specifically to a person (or group’s) financial and economic assets, and does not take into account the value of social media accounts or private encryption programs. Certainly, social media platforms have proven value and should be considered crucial assets to IS and other extremist groups.
With evidence showing IS recruits being initially engaged online, freezing terrorists’ access to social media and messaging applications would mark a serious step forward in preventing recruitment and trafficking to IS territory.
If we are serious about undermining IS, we must not only target its ability to pay and move its soldiers, but its ability to find its soldiers. And to accomplish this will mean presenting a serious and united front against IS’s online recruitment empire.
The author is a research analyst with the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a not-for-profit, non-partisan international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideology. Led by a renowned group of former world leaders and diplomats, CEP combats extremism by pressuring financial support networks, countering the narrative of extremists and their online recruitment, and advocating for strong laws, policies and regulations.