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Terrorists Exploit the Internet

The Internet has become indispensable as the greatest "library" of information the world has ever known. It has also become a global means of spreading terrorist ideology and facilitating attacks on innocent people.

The Internet video begins with the reading of a letter from a woman who claims she and other women have been abused in an Iraqi prison. The letter begs that the alleged crimes be avenged. Then the video shows a man eagerly stepping forward toward a car packed with explosives and gas cylinders. He gets in with a smile and wave, and drives to what the video claims is a U.S. military checkpoint in Iraq. Then, there's a huge explosion as voices chant "Allahu Akhbar!" - - God is Great!

The Dark Side of the Internet

The Internet has a deadly, dark side. Along with web sites for sports, news and mass entertainment are others espousing hatred and murder. Terrorists have embraced and exploited the Internet, and their presence in cyberspace is constantly expanding. So is the effort by the United States and other nations to monitor terrorist websites and identify the people behind them.

Gabriel Weimann is a terrorism analyst with the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, and author of the book: Terror on the Internet. He says the Internet has become invaluable for those who hide in the shadows and kill innocent people in the name of their cause.

"They can raise funds. They can recruit people. They can spread their propaganda. They can communicate. They can coordinate actions. They can build their networks. Everything can be done on the Internet - and they're doing all of it," says Weimann.

An Explosion of Hate

Gabriel Weimann says that when he began monitoring terrorist websites eight years ago, he found only 12 of them on the Internet. Now, he says, there are more than 4,800, encompassing groups from al-Qaida sympathizers and religious extremists across the Islamic world to Maoists in Nepal.

At the same time that terrorists use the Internet to spread their messages and communicate with each other, they also use the World Wide Web as a means of extracting information they need to carry out their deadly operations.

Deadly Data Mining

Analyst John Rollins, with the U.S. government's Congressional Research Service in Washington, cites how Internet data was used for the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

"We know the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001 used it for research purposes, for airline flights, for vulnerability of targets, for selection of targets. So much in the same way as a graduate student would use it to research a paper they're writing or someone would go on line to research their next vacation spot, the terrorists are using it as a research tool as well," says Rollins.

For instance, Internet satellite imaging and mapping services can enable a power company to plan the best route for a new electric transmission line or allow terrorists to study the security fences surrounding a U.S. Air Force base.

A Virtual Terrorist Training Camp

Terrorists also use the Internet to hone their deadly skills and share that expertise. Former CIA counterterrorism officer Vince Cannistraro says the Web has become a means for terrorists to spread lethal knowledge.

"You don't need to go to a training camp in Afghanistan or Pakistan to learn howto conduct a specific type of operation, especially including things like improvised explosive devices [and] roadside bombs. There is a common herb, for example,that has been employed to accelerate the explosiveness of an explosive device.That technique was available on the Internet and they learned it," says Cannistraro.

Protecting Against Internet Attacks

Along with extremist messages, surreptitious communications and training others in the ways of death, there is the threat of terrorists using the Internet to attack government and business computer systems. In the face of this threat, the U.S. government has established a special unit of the Department of Homeland Security for such activity. Andrew Purdy, Acting Director of the National Cyber Security Division at D.H.S., says this careful monitoring has become an international effort.

"We work with APEC in Asia, the O.A.S. in the Americas, the European Union and the G-8 in Europe. All [of us] are trying to enhance and advance the cyber risk management agenda, which includes raising awareness of cyber risks and those areas where we need to work together to try to reduce those risks of malicious activity," says Purdy.

Andrew Purdy says his unit is constantly evaluating which U.S. computer networks, if attacked, could cause the greatest consequences to the federal government and the nation.

Fighting Back

With the onslaught of Internet sites preaching hatred, inciting to violence, and showing how to kill the greatest number of people, some observers have asked whether these websites can be disabled by the authorities. Such calls grew even louder after terrorist groups posted videos of beheadings, including that of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, on the Internet.

But Gabriel Weimann at the U.S. Institute of Peace says government action against terrorist websites won't stop the problem.

"They will always have ways to access the Internet. And most of them, even al-Qaida, are using American servers in order to launch their anti-American campaigns. So there is no real way to stop the terrorists from using the Internet. The only way is fighting back in terms of propaganda, in terms of education [and] in terms of an anti-terrorism campaign," says Weimann.

Gabriel Weimann says a special effort has to be directed toward young people, who are some of the Internet's heaviest users. He says governments have to reach them with positive messages to counter an effort by terrorists to entice young minds with websites filled with cartoons, video games and other seemingly innocent entertainment masking hate and violence.

Next week, we'll examine the balance between security and civil liberties in this age of terrorism.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.