There’s no denying that the Internet has changed the world for both good and bad, but few elements of its dark side inspire more fear than its use by terrorists.
Observers around the world were horrified when a video of the 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl was disseminated on the Web, and other gruesome images have followed. It may not always be clear where such communications originate, but one thing has become certain: Terrorist organizations are making full use of the Internet today.
“All the capabilities and advantages the Internet provides for businesses and individuals are equally attractive for terrorist organizations and criminals of every kind,” Herbert Strauss, research vice president at Gartner focusing on national security, told TechNewsWorld. “Even more disconcerting is that the level of sophistication among terrorist organizations is increasing,” he added.
“We know criminals are exploiting technology to further their criminal activities, and there’s no reason to believe terrorists aren’t taking advantage of those same technologies,” FBI spokesperson Paul Bresson told TechNewsWorld.
Yet relatively little is known about the details of terrorist activities online.
“The story of the presence of terrorist groups in cyberspace has barely begun to be told,” Gabriel Weimann, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and professor of communication at Haifa University in Israel, concludes in a 2004 report on the subject.
“When policymakers, journalists and academics have discussed the combination of terrorism and the Internet, they have focused on the overrated threat posed by cyber-terrorism or cyber-warfare and largely ignored the numerous uses that terrorists make of the Internet every day,” he explains.
There were only a handful of terrorist organizations on the Net in 2000, but that number has grown to many thousands of terrorist-related sites in existence today, with more appearing each week, Michael Doran, deputy assistant secretary of defense for support to public diplomacy, told the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in a testimony last May.
There are now more than 40 active terrorist organizations worldwide, according to USIP, including several in each of the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and Asia. All of them maintain at least one Web site, and many have more than one, communicating in multiple languages.
“Currently there are about 5,000 Web sites by radicals dedicated to terrorist activities,” Frank Preston, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin who works with a team studying media use in terrorist cell group formation, told TechNewsWorld. “Most are chat rooms, and some are used for command and control using some sort of coded language.”
In using the Web, terrorists enjoy all the same benefits other users do: speed, low cost, anonymity, multimedia, easy access to a global audience and little regulation, to name just a few.
Generally, terrorists tend to have three primary audiences, Weimann asserts: Current and potential supporters, international public opinion, and enemy publics, or members of nations a terrorist group is fighting.
To wit: Terrorist communications are increasingly provided with English translations for the benefit of Western media, Dean Boyd, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, told TechNewsWorld.
Indeed, just as the candidates in the 2008 presidential elections have all established online presences as a way to communicate and network with supporters, so the terrorist organizations increasingly do too, according to a Spring 2007 report from George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and the University of Virginia’s Critical Incident Analysis Group.
Terrorists’ uses of the Internet typically fall into eight categories, Weimann found. Among them are conducting psychological warfare, such as by publicizing the Pearl execution; generating publicity and disseminating propaganda; data mining; fund-raising; recruitment and mobilization; networking; sharing information; and planning and coordination.
“The United States and many of its core allies have traditionally thought of intelligence gathering — or the ability to collect information on an adversary, analyze it and share it — as the providence of developed nations,” Strauss explained. “But the Internet provides the ability to do all of those things, and it’s available for bad guys as well as good.”
Google Earth, for example, provides much of the information a terrorist organization would need to plan an attack, such as the recent attempt at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Boyd added.
Spreading the Word
Recruiting on the Internet, while it does happen, tends to be less effective than one might think, Preston said. Generally, terrorists set up chat rooms or blogs in order to watch for potential recruits, inviting promising candidates to join password-protected, “next level” chat rooms for further evaluation. Those who meet with approval ultimately get invited to go to camps, he explained.
However, with government monitoring and resulting arrests, among other factors in this approach, “the numbers who ‘make it’ as a terrorist are insignificant,” Preston added.
It’s also important to realize that most potential terrorist recruits do not have Internet access, Preston asserted. Rather, “research has shown that most potential recruits are part of small Qur’anic study groups, such as Usroh or Halaqa, where one member downloads jihad videos for the group to watch,” he explained.
“This motivates the group to ‘go Jihad'” and proceed to camps for training — or to strap on a bomb and get to work, Preston said.
‘Quest for Bush’
Online video games have also become an inspirational tool, the George Washington report found. There is one entitled “Quest for Bush,” for example, in which players fight Americans and proceed to different levels including “Jihad Growing Up” and “Americans’ Hell.”
Dissemination of radical manuals and rhetoric is something that can even be observed on YouTube, Preston said: “Just look under the term ‘Halaqa’ for a sampling.”
Indeed, music videos distributed online are another propaganda tool, the George Washington report found. One titled “Dirty Kuffar [Non-believers],” for instance, features rap music and images of Muslims being killed by Americans.
Training is another function that is increasingly being conducted on the Web, Boyd noted.
“The use of virtual training camps on the Internet is replacing the typical training camps that have been used in the past, thus reaching a much wider audience and limiting the intelligence communities’ abilities to track individuals transiting into these camps,” the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Future of Terrorism Task Force found earlier this year.
For example, “Jihad University” offers online training in the use of small arms, mortars rockets, and other artillery, as well as guidance on where to fire at U.S. forces vehicles, Doran explained.
Even when the actual training is done offline, there is a downloadable jihadist training manual available electronically, Preston added.
“Organizations with sloppy server monitors are often ‘zombied'” — or taken over remotely — “for jihadist purposes,” he explained. “E-jihadists,” as he calls them, then use these zombie servers to host their training manual.
Of all the nefarious purposes terrorists use the Internet for, data mining and identity theft by those seeking entry into other countries are perhaps the most insidious of all. “One Internet user’s sloppy handling of personal data could become a passport for a jihadist,” Preston explained.
A Moving Target
Virtually every government on the planet is trying to monitor the online activities of terrorists so that efforts can be made to stop them, Strauss said.
Yet tracking these activities is a challenge. Like those associated with other criminal endeavors, terrorist Web sites come and go, disappearing one day only to resurface the next with a different name and URL.
Even more discouraging, activity on the Net is just one small part of the terrorists’ arsenal. “The Internet is just a tool,” Preston said. “The real power comes from the group dynamics.”