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Experts: Terrorists Exploit Internet to Recruit, Spread Ideology

Experts say that the weapons of terrorism today are not limited to bombs and guns, but include all the components of technology, and in particular, the Worldwide Web. They warn that extremists are using the Internet to promote violence, spread ideology and recruit. From Washington, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

When authorities raid terrorist hideouts these days they come away not only with components for bombs and other weapons, but they usually cart away computers, cellular phones, video equipment and other tools used for creating and spreading extremist ideology over websites and chat rooms, drawing the disenfranchised and the easily influenced into their cause.

Several experts testified this week before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security about how the Internet has become the weapon of choice for terrorists and other radicals. Their testimony comes in the wake of the passage in the House of the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007. The centerpiece of that legislation is the creation of a National Commission to study violent radicalization and to determine the best way to combat it.

Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University says the near limitless communications options the Internet provides such groups is essential to their survival. "Without an effective communications strategy, a terrorist movement would be unable to assure a continued flow of new recruits into its ranks, motivate and inspire existing members as well as expand the pool of active supporters and passive sympathizers from which terrorism also draws its sustenance," he said.

Rita Katz of the private SITE Institute, which tracks terrorist websites, says the Internet enables terror groups such as al-Qaida to exist despite the money the United States and other nations spend to fight them on the ground. "Though guns, IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and other weapons are necessary for terrorists to remain dangerous, the Internet is what enables them to coordinate, share information, recruit new members and propagate their ideology. If we do not treat the Internet as a crucial battleground in the war on terror we will not be able to defeat the jihadist threat. The virtual jihadi network has replaced al-Qaida training camps," she said.

The Internet is a tool not just for Islamic radicals, but for all types of extremists.

Parry Aftab, an attorney who specializes in Internet issues that affect children, says these groups are using the Web to recruit bored, middle-class young people with access to technology. "Kids who would have never been exposed to this otherwise - who are not Muslims, who are not normally interested in radical groups, who see it as a way to become included, a way to become famous, a way to become "in" [popular], a way to find a place to belong," she said.

So what can be done to take this weapon out of the hands of radicals and terrorists?

Katz says the first step is for intelligence officials and law enforcement authorities to infiltrate these chat rooms and message boards and study them so they can target these groups' weaknesses.

Other recommendations from the experts include educating young people about radical groups and how they use the Internet to recruit, and increasing cooperation internationally to lessen the impact of the Internet as an inexpensive and easily accessible resource for extremists.

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