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Experts: Terrorists Increasingly Use Internet to Spread Message - 2004-05-14

An Internet video showing the beheading of an American hostage in Iraq is the latest example of how terrorists use and abuse cyberspace. An anti-terrorism expert says the easy access to global audiences that the Internet provides is of increasing appeal to terrorist networks.

Counter-terrorism analyst Gabriel Weimann calls the Internet a virtual battlefield that offers terrorists a channel of communicating with each other and with potential recruits and supporters.

He said that the Internet is an especially useful tool for global terrorist networks, such as al-Qaida.

?If you speak about global networks, you need a channel of communication,? he said. ?If you speak about organizations that are not any more structured as organizations, that are loosely knit networks, the internet becomes a very efficient channel of communication or coordination of disseminating information, recruitment, fundraising and so on.?

In his latest study of terrorism and the Internet, Mr. Weimann added that cyberspace has advantages for terrorist groups. First is easy access.

?You don't even need a computer; you can just go to a public library as al-Qaida operatives did,? he noted. ?Or, you can go to an Internet café. There is no control, no regulation, and no laws. Nobody is censoring the messages.?

The Internet also provides cheap, instant communication with a global audience and Mr. Weimann noted that it provides anonymity. ?You can sit in a coffee shop, an Internet café in London, use a server in South Africa and send a message to North America, without anybody being able to trace it,? he said.

Mr. Weimann completed his study for the independent Washington-based research group, the United States Institute of Peace. He says research shows fewer than 10 terrorist groups made use of the Internet seven years ago.

Today, he says, there are thousands of Web sites representing terrorist and radical groups around the world.

Mr. Weimann added that the wide array of information on the Internet is also available to potential terrorists and was used for research by the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

?It also has valuable information for terrorists about planes and their timetables, about locations of targets, maps and structures, access. We know how September 11th terrorists used the Internet to communicate and coordinate their actions, but also to look and search for material to help with planning the event.?

Terrorist groups also target youngsters with seemingly innocent games, cartoons and chat rooms.

?Not all Internet viewers know where they surf to,? he explained. ?Some of these Web sites pretend to be something else, and they don't look like terrorist Web sites, and you don't even know that. Second, many of these Web sites are targeting children, selling them cartoons, comics, tee-shirts, posters, symbols, slogans - sometimes not selling just downloading games.?

That enrages counter-terrorist executives like Steve Monblatt. He is executive secretary of the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, a branch of the Organization of American States that coordinates security policies among member states in the Western Hemisphere.

?Downloading games is a particularly new and insidious technique,? he added. ?Having said that, those are the uses [of the Internet] we have seen going back some years, recruitment and fundraising in particular.?

Terrorists are not the only ones using the Internet. So are those combating terrorism. Security agencies now scan and monitor Internet traffic for warning signs. Some radical Web sites have been banned.

Steven Monblatt says the Organization of American States, like other international organizations, is looking at ways to combat cyber-terrorism, hacking and cyber-fraud.

The challenge is how to do that, without infringing on basic civil liberties.

?How do you keep dangerous information off the Internet?? he asked. ?It's hard for me to find justification, for example, for recipes for poison or bomb-making instructions to be freely available online. I don't see that there are any legitimate uses for that kind of information, but we have to be mindful of the sensitivities and the need to protect the free flow of information, when we can.?

Civil rights groups worry that certain measures to track or combat terrorism on the Internet could violate the privacy of Internet users, and basic civil liberties.