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He bought the domain name of a famous terrorist. Then he rigged it to combat extremism

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki spread a message of hate online even beyond his death in 2011. A team of developers created a website to counter his message using his name: anwarawlaki.com. (AP Photo)

No one knew how influential extremists were online until Major Nidal Malik Hasan took a semi-automatic pistol and killed 13 and injured 32 at Fort Hood in November 2009. It was revealed through an investigation that Hasan had been communicating over email with radical cleric and Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, who counseled and advised Hasan before he committed his horrific attack.

In September 2011, al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. Predator drone strike, authorized by then-President Barack Obama. To this day, al-Awlaki is hailed as a martyr by many extremists (particularly Al Qaeda) and his recorded lectures are used as inspiration for creating more terrorists.

But how do you stop that message from spreading?

Khuram Zaman, CEO of Fifth Tribe, led a team in buying the online domain name of Anwar al-Awlaki (http://anwarawlaki.com/) to delegitimize him and his message.

“[For the] 15 to 20 percent of ISIS-related arrests in this country, Anwar al-Awlaki is an inspirational figure,” Zaman told Red Alert Politics, noting that the domain name was available on GoDaddy.com. “We put a bunch of articles about his prostitution [habits] on there. So, people looking for his videos, they may get exposed to his content. They’re made aware of the fact that this guy was doing really irreligious things.”

On the website, you’ll find four lectures of al-Awlaki disparaging moderate Muslims, likening them to disbelievers. But when you click to the “In the News” section, you’re flooded with all of al-Awlaki’s misdeeds, particularly about his secret sex life, addiction to porn, and his habit of hiring prostitutes.

In a follow up email, Zaman said the website “also has a cookie and email capture, so we can launch ads with counter propaganda or do interventions with family members.”

This is a brilliant step-up from Google’s announcement on Monday, who, in partnership with its video platform, YouTube, unveiled their plans to combat violent extremist messaging by stripping away ads and disabling comments to limit engagement on extremist-related content. It doesn’t silent free expression, but it makes it immensely difficult for the content to be seen by thousands, possibly millions more, than normal.

Zaman is of the belief that while this is a step in a good direction for a company as large as Google, policing content isn’t preferable and can often take too long.

“If people are promoting hate speech, one of the things you can do is create a really good counter speech campaign.”

It looks like Zaman and his team did just that.

Listen to the full conversation below: