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After San Bernardino, a call to block online al-Qaida content

December 19, 2015 at 4:24 PM EDT
The FBI revealed this week that one of the San Bernardino shooters and an alleged co-conspirator were inspired by former al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki. The U.S. killed al-Awlaki in a drone strike four years ago, but his legacy lives on in hours of recordings. Scott Shane, a reporter for The New York Times and author of the book, "Objective Troy," joins Hari Sreenivasan from Baltimore.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The FBI revealed in a criminal complaint this week that one of the San Bernardino shooters, the husband, Syed Rizwan Farooq, and an alleged co-conspirator who bought the couple’s assault rifles, were inspired by former al Qaeda leader Anwar Awlaki. The U.S. killed Awlaki in a drone strike four years ago in Yemen, but his legacy lives on in hours of recordings, many posted online.

“New York Times” reporter Scott Shane wrote the book “Objective Troy,” about Awlaki and the drone war. He joins me now from Baltimore.

You mentioned in your article there is increased pressure on Internet companies. Where is that coming from and how are these companies responding?

SCOTT SHANE, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, it’s not really coming from the government, although many counterterrorism officials are very distressed by Awlaki’s continuing influence on the radicalization of some Americans. It’s coming more from the sort of advocates who are working to counter extremism, especially in the Muslim community. And some of it’s coming from a group called the Counter Extremism Project, which includes a number of former government officials. They’re the ones who are sort of leading this call for YouTube and other Internet platforms to pull down Anwar Awlaki’s material.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There was connections, the Fort Hood shooter, the failed underwear bomber, the Tsarnaev brothers, they were all in some way, shape, or form inspired by what they heard on the Internet from Awlaki. But where does it stop? How do you figure out what’s hate speech? What’s extremist speech? What’s the thing that actually triggers someone to pick up arms against the United States?

SCOTT SHANE: I mean, in writing this book “Objective Troy” about Anwar al-Awlaki, of course, I used YouTube and other Internet sites and listened to many, many hours of Awlaki talking. So, people, you know, who want to understand radicalization, who want to understand terrorism, these are important things to look at.

But it is complicated because, you know, the country is spending billions of dollars to prevent terrorism, and, you know, in some ways the main engines of radicalization are provided, ironically, by some of the United States’ most successful and prominent companies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As you pointed out — I mean, there were 60,000 results for his videos on YouTube today. So how — what is the technological fix?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, part of what makes his particular case complicated is that he was a very successful, popular imam in the United States for a number of years, and so he did, for example, a 53 CD set on the life of the Prophet Mohammed, totally mainstream stuff, very popular among English-speaking Muslims, certainly in the years before Awlaki became a terrorist. And that is up there on YouTube as with well.

The Counter Extremism Project believes YouTube should take down not just the calls for violence from Anwar al-Awlaki, but all of his material, because they say that the mainstream stuff sort of establishes his respectability and his authority. And then when he tells people, “Your religious obligation is to kill Americans and attack the United States,” that hits home. But many civil rights groups, Muslim advocacy groups have a big problem with that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Scott Shane, reporter from “The New York Times”, joining us from Baltimore, his book is called “Objective Troy” — thanks so much for joining us.

SCOTT SHANE: Thank you.