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Online Jihad:  How Terrorists Are Exploiting the Internet - 2004-03-26


In many ways, the Internet is the perfect medium for modern terrorists to spread their propaganda, plan attacks and recruit new members. The Internet affords its users a degree of anonymity while its global reach allows for instant communication among decentralized terror networks. VOA’s Serena Parker reports on what’s being done to monitor this online jihad.

Like hundreds of millions of people around the world, Islamic terrorists and their supporters use the Internet. Ironically, the very network they are exploiting was designed by the U.S. military and security services. Gabriel Weimann, of the United States Institute of Peace says that during the Cold War, the U.S. Defense Department worried that a Soviet nuclear strike on the United States could cripple its central communications network. So the military decided to decentralize the whole system by creating an interconnected web of computer networks.

“But this is not the only paradox,” he says. “The other one is that the extreme movements that actually challenge Western culture, Western modernity, Western technology are making use of the West’s most sophisticated channel of communication, the Internet.”

The Internet is an ideal device for extremists who use it overtly and covertly. According to Brian Marcus, director of Internet monitoring at the Anti-Defamation League, terrorists employ the Internet to plan attacks, raise money and spread their baleful message.

“Terrorists of all types are using the Internet for propaganda purposes,” he says. “In many cases terror groups will videotape what they’ve done and will post videos. Also some groups, like Hamas, have a web page where they will post information on the latest attacks. They will even post information on the people who perform those attacks. Terrorists also use the Internet to raise funds. They try to incite people to join and even take on actions themselves. They also look at it as a recruitment tool.”

According to Brian Marcus, the U.S.-led war on terror has increased vigilance of terrorists’ physical activities, but it’s hard to monitor their use of the Internet.

Aaron Weisburd researches and reports on the use of the Internet by Islamists. He expects terrorists to exploit the Internet for training purposes because the global war against them has shut down their physical training camps in places like Afghanistan. “The trend, in terms of terrorist use of the Internet, is in using it as resource and as a tool for distance learning, for training, for teaching people how to do the nuts and bolts of terrorism,” Mr. Weisburd says. “How do you build bombs? How do you clean an AK-47 and put it back together again? That kind of stuff. Over the last few months we’ve seen a real strong, consistent trend of setting up sites and distributing information about how to do things.”

Most terrorist groups put up official web sites in several languages for the benefit of their international audience. For instance, Al-Qaeda followers can check out the Azzam.com web site, named for Abdallah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentor and Al-Qaeda co-founder. However, the communications and information sharing among terrorists take place in so-called chat rooms, Internet sites that are forums for people concerned with certain topics. Even if a counter-terrorism analyst can find one of these chat rooms, there’s no guarantee he will be able to enter it. The room may be protected by a password and the messages that are posted are likely to be in coded Arabic, Urdu or Farsi.

According to Josh Devon, senior analyst at the SITE Institute, a counter-terrorism research organization, these web sites and chat rooms are viewed by millions of Muslim and Arab youths. He says many of these young men are frustrated by the political and economic situation in their home countries. Islamists who blame the United States and the West for these problems find an audience among disaffected youth.

“All these kids have to look at all day are martyrs’ wills, videos of attacks, the torturing of captured soldiers, really hard, disgusting things that young kids are watching who believe that they have no way out,” he says. “And they think how cool would it be to join a terrorist group, become a martyr, do something with your life and have everyone - the Internet is the world’s largest billboard – everyone you know looking at your will, your picture, your video and to some people, to a very small portion of people it’s very enticing.”

Some of the terrorists who were involved in the May 2003 Riyadh bombings said they were radicalized by Abu Qatada, a fiery Islamic cleric jailed in Britain at the time. Through the Internet the bombers said they were able to listen to his sermons and read his fatwahs. According to Josh Devon, even if the United States or its allies capture or kill a high-value target like Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden, the Internet lets his message live on.

“The Internet is a place where people can have life after death,” Mr. Devon says. “These guys have official web sites and anyone who wants to can go and listen, read and be indoctrinated by these things, and there’s really nothing to be done to prevent it.”

Some groups in the United States and abroad are fighting Islamic terrorists’ use of the Internet. Internet Haganah is one such site. According to director Aaron Weisburd, Haganah is a volunteer-based effort to stop the use of the Internet as a communications and propaganda tool by Islamic terrorist groups and their supporters.

“Once we have identified those sites we do an assortment of things,” he says. “We investigate where the site is hosted, who the site is registered to. If possible, we try and see if we can figure out who is footing the bill for it. We try and figure out who or what people are participating in the site, particularly with web forums, which are a big part of the online jihad scene. And along the way we also encourage Internet service providers to simply not do business with such people, which we’ve also found to be highly effective.”

Aaron Weisburd says that over the last year and a half, Internet Haganah’s efforts have led Internet service providers to remove some 400 to 500 web sites with links to Islamic terrorism. While many of these sites are able to find another host-server, it has become increasingly difficult. But as Mr. Weisburd notes, it’s not the Internet web sites that are so dangerous in themselves; rather, it’s the people behind them.

How to identify those responsible for promoting terrorism on the Internet is complex. Gabriel Weimann of the United States Institute of Peace says there must be a balance between security concerns and personal privacy.

“One of the challenges of my research will be to find the golden path,” he says. “How to ensure or at least to minimize the ability of terrorists to use and abuse the Internet while making sure counter-terrorism efforts do not do the same to our access of the Internet, our use of the Internet, our freedom of speech, freedom of the press and, of course, our privacy. This is not easy. It’s a question of compromise.”

Counter-terrorism analysts note the general public doesn’t often post information on how to make a bomb or recipes on how to make chemical weapons. They argue that limited searches designed to target those people who are posting information that really only has one purpose – to destroy human life – will help them fight terror on-line.

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