U.S. lawmakers have heard from experts about the expanding use of the Internet by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. The scope of terrorist exploitation of the Internet to spread hate propaganda and distortions was revealed in an unusual open hearing of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
Although the House Intelligence Committee usually meets behind closed doors, it held an open session to hear from specialists who studied and analyzed terrorist use of the Internet for the Pentagon.
What they heard surprised even those who were somewhat familiar with al-Qaida and other groups use of the Internet to spread anti-American and anti-Western propaganda.
Bruce Hoffman is a counter-terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation.
"The internet, once seen as an engine of enormous education and enlightenment, has instead for many of these radical jihadi groups become a purveyor of the coarsest and most base conspiracy theories," said Bruce Hoffman.
Hoffman says nearly 5,000 websites are maintained by terrorist groups. More than a dozen groups producing their own video, and half of these he identifies as Iraqi insurgent groups.
Some of these websites were displayed for lawmakers, as Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman explained how terrorists have gone global with multi-lingual messages distorting American policy, and incitements to hatred, extremism and terrorism.
"Identical internet products are being distributed globally in different languages, ranging from Indonesian, to Turkish, to Russian," said Peter Rodman.
Dan Devlin participated in the study.
"As they translate these videos into other languages, they target them specifically to the audience," he said. "A video that was shown in Arabic originally, then targeted into Turkish, can be aimed more at recruitment, where if it is translated into Russian and used in the Chechnya area, it emphasizes martyrdom, so they do tailor individually product even though it is the same product."
Terrorist groups design their material to intimidate, particularly in the case of Iraq, in addition to spreading hate themes, and attempting to recruit new members. Some web sites openly advertise for internet or information specialists.
The presentation drew this reaction from Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, and Republican Mike Rogers.
ESHOO: "We're reminded that terrorism is psychological warfare and that is really what is being waged with these."
ROGERS: "They are very sophisticated. Not only are they out recruiting individuals they have finance networks globally, they recruit people globally. They also have a media message targeted at specific groups. That is a very sophisticated global operation."
What, if anything, can be done? Bruce Hoffman says the challenge is to match military and other steps aimed at depriving terrorists of physical sanctuaries, with action in cyberspace:
"The success of U.S. strategy importantly, will depend on our ability to counter al-Qaida and the radical jihadis ideological appeal, what I call countering the five R's: the resonance of their ideological message, their ability to recruit and replenish their ranks, and their capacity for regeneration and renewal we have seen in recent years," he said.
He advocates creating a new government body to coordinate U.S. information efforts - recalling vital contributions of the former U.S. Information Agency, USIA during the Cold War.
USIA was dissolved in the late 1990's and its public diplomacy functions merged into the State Department.
Some lawmakers say U.S. efforts have been ineffective. Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry.
"This battle of ideas I think is a critical if not the critical element," said Mac Thornberry. "And I think you're exactly right, we're way behind the curve for a variety of reasons. This is hard for our country and our government to do."
Whatever steps can be taken, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, and Democrat Jane Harman say Americans must recognize what they're up against in the information war, and the U.S. needs to offer a strong alternative vision:
HOEKSTRA: "Understanding what they are capable of. I think so often the perception is that these folks are not sophisticated, it's [just] a rag-tag team or group of people out there that attack at will. They're much more sophisticated and much better than that."
HARMAN: "The war on terror is a struggle for the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims. Al-Qaida and radical Islamist terrorist offer one vision. America offers a competing vision."