Should visitors to Islamic State sites face punishments like fines or jail time?

In the US, it was called Operation Avalanche. In the UK, its name was Operation Ore.

Results of the two operations: the identification of thousands of suspects involved in the trafficking of child abuse images, thousands of homes searched, thousands of arrests, thousands of charges being brought, thousands of convictions, hundreds cautioned, and more than a hundred children removed from suspected dangerous situations.

None of this is new: not the surveillance tactics, not the sting, not the idea of going after people who access these types of sites.

After all, such content isn’t protected by free-speech laws.

On Tuesday, University of Chicago Professor Eric Posner, the fourth most-cited law professor in the US as of May 2014, proposed that we start treating terrorist propaganda similarly.

From Posner’s article on Slate:

Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions.

Such a law would be directed at people like [Ali] Amin: naïve people, rather than sophisticated terrorists, who are initially driven by curiosity to research ISIS on the Web.

Posner’s reference is to Ali Amin, the subject of a recent article in the New York Times about how naive Americans get drawn into Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.


Lonely and bored, the 17-year-old Virginia resident discovered ISIS online, was gradually drawn into its messianic world, eventually exchanged messages with other supporters and members, and then provided some modest logistical support to ISIS supporters (instructing them how to transfer funds secretly and driving an ISIS recruit to the airport).

He was convicted of the crime of material support of terrorism and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Amin did not start out as a jihadi; he was made into one.

This is the threat represented by naive people like Amin, Posner says:

Using their own websites, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms, [terrorists] lure young men and women to their mission - without having to risk the capture of foreign agents on U.S. soil. The Americans ensnared in ISIS's net in turn radicalize others, send money to ISIS, and even carry out attacks.

Never before in our history have enemies outside the United States been able to propagate genuinely dangerous ideas on American territory in such an effective way - and by this I mean ideas that lead directly to terrorist attacks that kill people.

And here is Posner’s proposed “new thinking” about limiting freedom of speech in order to address the threat: introduce laws with graduated penalties that start out with a warning letter from the government and escalate to fines or prison sentences for those who view Islamic State-related websites.

This is not about targeting the sophisticated terrorists who’ve mastered encrypted communications, Posner says.

Rather, it’s about intercepting people like 17-year-old Amin, who get drawn into online relationships by recruiters after doing things like running a casual online search for more information.


When people discover ISIS websites and circulate them by Twitter, Facebook, and other public websites, those people often disclose their identities. Many are too naïve to use pseudonyms; others reveal their identities to their ISPs, which can be forced to cough them up to police.

Teenagers who are curious about ISIS but not yet committed to it are unlikely to use complicated encryption technologies to mask their identities from ISPs. Laws directed at this behavior would make a dent in recruitment, and hence in homegrown radicalism, even if they do not solve other problems.

As word spread, people like Amin “would be discouraged from searching for ISIS-related websites and perhaps be spared radicalization and draconian punishment for more serious terrorism-related crimes,” Posner suggests.

As far as legitimate research goes, the law would contain exemptions for those who can demonstrate a legitimate interest in viewing Islamic State websites, including journalists, academics, private security agencies and the like.

Posner suggests that to prove their “legitimate” interest, such people might be required to present documentation such as press credentials, a track record of legitimate public commentary on blogs and elsewhere, academic affiliations, or employment in a security agency.

That aspect might prove problematic.

David Rothman, founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of, writes that even a published writer such as himself can’t convince the government of his bona fides:

I’m a lifelong liberal Democrat and Obama supporter, I’ve appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Nation and even its philosophical opposite, National Review… but the White House switchboard would not even connect me to the press office when I was seeking possible comment on library-related matters.

There are also security researchers such as those affiliated with Ghost Security Group who work anonymously to infiltrate terrorists’ online sites in order to gather intelligence and thwart attacks.

If Posner’s suggestion were to bear legislative fruit, would researchers like GhostSec have to give up their credentials in a bureaucratic manner that would risk exposing their identities and jeopardizing their operations, or would they quietly be given a pass?

What legal hurdles would be faced by a law against viewing terrorist sites online?

Posner says the obvious problem would be that it could be struck down on First Amendment grounds, given that it would interfere with the right of people to receive or read political information, as would proposed laws that would require internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter to remove Islamic State-related propaganda from their websites.

Child abuse imagery, terrorist recruitment sites: should they both be deemed similarly criminal to access?

Does it approach thought crime, or is it justifiable in the light of current events?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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