Published 10 July 06
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
Al Qaeda's cyber realm
"He was the Alexander Graham Bell of terrorist propaganda," Evan F. Kohlmann, a cyberterrorism expert, told the New York Times following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's assassination last month. Kohlmann has often similarly described the Al Qaeda leader's success in making the Internet one of the most powerful tools of terrorism and global jihad.
It's an analogy not to be taken lightly: the impact of telephone technology permeates our every waking moment. Is this true, too, of Internet-based jihad? And if not now, will it be? Recent international intelligence reports indicate that Zarqawi's legacy could be far more dangerous than anyone had realized, making him, even in death, possibly a greater threat to the Western world than the man we usually think of as number one, Osama bin Laden. In fact, according to forensic psychiatrist and former CIA agent Marc Sageman, the Internet "is where people now go to get radicalized instead of the mosque. You don't even need the mosque anymore."
What's more, FBI chief Robert Mueller noted at a press conference following the recent arrest of seven suspected terrorists in Miami, "the radicalization process has become more rapid, more widespread, and anonymous in this Internet age, making detection that much more difficult." Mike Sheier, former director of the CIA's bin Laden unit might agree: speaking to the Christian Science Monitor, he stated flatly, "The current state of Al Qaeda and the health of al Qaeda is largely due to its ability to manipulate the Internet."
Moreover, a report issued by the Anti-Defamation League asserts: "There is sufficient information to believe that in the future, terrorists may even turn the Internet itself into a weapon, using it to wreak havoc on America's infrastructure."
And why not? Only days ago news came that hacker had infiltrated FBI files, gaining passwords, counterespionage information, and other sensitive data through programs freely available online.
Not everyone is convinced that Zarqawi actually deserves all the credit for the growing attraction of the Web to members of jihadist groups, however. Some maintain that it has been a natural progression of events, caused in part by the simple availability and popularity of the Web and by the pressure that has driven jihadist training camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere underground - or out of existence. Farhana Ali, Associate International Policy Analyst at the Rand Corporation, a think tank for public policy debate, considers Internet jihad an extension of the kinds of warfare being waged by insurgents in Iraq: unseen, unknown, a cyber version of suicide bombing and IEDs.
Participation in jihadist web sites and online activities is said to be especially strong in Western Europe, engendering good reason for concern: radicalization in the region is growing, according to European intelligence reports. Meantime, experts estimate that there are anywhere from 4,500-6,000 jihadist web sites available at any one time - and even when one is taken down, it usually simply moves to another server. Such sites, we now know, were critical in the planning and networking activities surrounding the recently-foiled alleged plot by 17 Canadian Muslims to bomb the Ottawa Parliament buildings and the Toronto Stock Exchange. Even the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks were conducted largely on the Web and via e-mail.
"It's a virtual universe," Farhana Ali says, "where jihadists can share their concerns, broaden their message, and gain new recruits." Al Qaeda and other jihadist networks, she believes, "could not have survived like this without the Internet."
Chat rooms, fora, online broadcasts, the easy availability of world news and the ability to spread their ideas through propaganda sites, allow jihadist organizations, says Ali, "to keep their message alive" while permitting their leaders "to stay in secrecy and still have complete reach." An April, 2006 report by the Dutch intelligence agency, AIVD, echoes her views, calling the Internet "an ideological source of inspiration for jihadists worldwide."
It's that word "worldwide" that should set alarm bells ringing - and makes one wonder why it has taken so long for this issue to reach the public eye. In the April report, Violent Jihad In the Netherlands, the Dutch AIVD concluded that "the jihadist threat is increasingly rooted in our own society. The principle causes are the processes of radicalization and recruitment among young Muslims. In addition to peer pressure, the internet plays an increasingly important role."
Moreover, the report continues, the Internet, "serves as a source of information about jihadist combat methods and weapons. Handbooks on jihadist training and combat methods written by jihad veterans and training camp instructors have appeared on the Internet from Al Qaeda's earliest days. These handbooks provide many details about the production of improvised explosives, arrangement and facilitation of travel movements, and the surreptitious preparation of attacks abroad. The professional methods described in these handbooks were often copied from military handbooks or from guidelines for intelligence officers.
"With the disappearance of training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular, and the emergence of untrained local recruits in Western countries, the need for this expertise and the importance of such handbooks on the Internet grew. ... In view of the digital provision of ... instruction material, we might speak of the situation as being practically a virtual training camp."
How does the Internet work to serve the jihadi cause? Experts have identified five crucial areas of activity and concern:
1) Emotional support and the ummah
Marc Sageman has referred to the world of cyber-jihad as a kind of ummah, a Muslim community created, in large part to mobilize fighters by postulating an "imagined unity" - much, he says, as the concept of nationalism is used to mobilize a military. The Internet is, after all, not a passive medium, notes Sageman, but an interactive one: members from across the world join together in chat rooms, share ideas and information, and sometimes, eventually, gather in person. "These people don't radicalize from reading newspapers on the Web," he says, "but via engagement with others." Albert Benschop, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam and specialist in Internet jihad who has written extensively on the subject, contends one reason that European Muslims are especially drawn to these online groups, is that they may feel more at home in that "universe" than they do in the land in which they live, and where they are joined to one another by the shared conflicts they experience between the demands and values of their immigrant parents and the values of the West. That's not surprising, says Farhana Ali, who notes that "it's the same meme that was used in the 14th century to unite against the pagans." The Internet, after all, has a powerful emotional draw; studies have shown that people tend to be more open and more honest in Internet communication than they are when speaking to one another directly. "People even get married online," she notes. "So the members of these groups grow detached from the social mainstream society and more and more involved in the jihad group."
2) Training Camps
The broadcast of beheading videos has become especially popular: two members of Dutch terrorist network the Hofstadgroep allegedly spent their wedding night watching several of these and similarly gruesome videos downloaded from the Internet.
3) Access to information
Blueprints and floor plans of potential targets, maps of major highways and transportation systems, and similar information are readily available on the World Wide Web - and easily exchanged. Ideas, too, can be developed and passed around quickly: last January's Danish boycott and anti-Denmark demonstrations were engineered entirely on the Internet.
4) Advanced knowledge of communication systems
According to Benschop, Al Qaeda members and their followers now utilize some of the most advanced methods of Internet technology, including the utilization of "one-time-use" accounts that make tracing of communications between or among the parties literally impossible.
Hand-in-hand with the expanding use of the Internet for jihad and the increasing sophistication of terrorist groups' understanding of IT systems is the growing danger of cyber attacks on critical computer systems - from banking traffic to air traffic, from electrical power plants to telecommunications networks throughout the world. Even a small glitch could paralyze a country entirely for days at a time, endangering its economy and potentially threatening lives. Even military systems can be vulnerable, notes Benschop, noting a 2005 Pew study, "The Future of the Internet," in which two-thirds of experts questioned said they anticipated "a major attack on the informational infrastructure or national energy supplies." Benschop also cites the case of a student at the University of Idaho who was arrested for building web sites for jihadist groups: in consideration of his First Amendment rights, a Boise jury was forced to let him go free. Al Qaeda, says Benschop, "is prepared to use cyberspace to attack the infrastructures of countries they view as enemies. Not with bombs but with bytes. Terror from behind the keyboard."
For many, this is not surprising: Foreign Policy magazine released a study just a few days ago showing that among a bipartisan panel of foreign policy experts, 84 percent thought that America was losing the war on terror, in part because of our inability to reach the hearts and minds of Muslims either in the Middle East or, increasingly, in radicalized groups throughout Western Europe. "More than 8 in 10," according to the report, "expect an attack on the scale of 9/11 within a decade."
Chances are, the Internet will have a large role in this. And yet of all the people I spoke to, few had any real ideas for a solution - merely vague suggestions, such as Sageman's call for a crackdown on discrimination in Europe's job markets to reduce the enormous frustration among disenfranchised Muslim youth, and a similar reduction in European welfare programs that would create an incentive for these groups to work - instead of sitting home at their computers. And even Robert Mueller wrapped his audience in platitudes, as others have, discussing the need for "moderate" Muslim sites to counteract the terrorist ones, as if such sites don't already exist. In a way, of course, this is understandable: how, after all, do you fight a war against an enemy you cannot see, on a battleground you cannot touch?
One thing is certain: bombs and guns and all the military might we have is not the answer in itself. What faces us is a challenge we have never faced before. And we have work to do.
— Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2006 Abigail R. Esman
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