- The Washington Times - Monday, October 29, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

T homas X. Hammes is a retired Marine colonel. He is the author of a seminal book on conducting counter-insurgency warfare. The work is called “The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century.”

Recently, he made an intriguing proposal on how to battle jihadists on the Internet (a virtual agora where Islamist militants appear to consort with alarming frequency). This is what he said:

“For the last few years, individuals and private organizations that are pro-Israeli have been in a daily fight to shut down or deface anti-Israeli Web sites. Unofficial and informal, this Internet Hagana has had considerable success. They cannot shut down all hostile sites because they keep popping up, but at least they have not completely ceded the field to the Internet jihadists.

“While we have a few Americans who take similar action against mufsidoon (evildoers) Web sites, why don’t we encourage Americans/western ‘geeks’ to go after these Web sites? Exploit them, disrupt them, shut them down, post false information, and create distrust. This will not be a government-controlled or directed effort. Essentially, I am suggesting a leaderless effort that allows Americans to use their creativity, technological skills, and the rabid dedication some people will apply to such a project. The mufsidoon are coming after all American citizens; this is a way some Americans can fight back.

“Some will object that such actions will simply encourage Islamists to attack American sites. But our sites — government and private — are already subject to tens of thousands of attacks per day.

“Obviously, such action won’t solve the overall strategic issues but it will insure the terrorists no longer have a sanctuary on the Internet.”

It’s relatively easy for terrorists to start a Web site. All they need do is contact an Internet service provider or “host” offering access to the World Wide Web. If they want to include a blog for interactive communication, there are a host of companies offering free software on the Internet. Terrorist Web sites are troubling. Such sites can recruit the susceptible, rouse the faithful, raise the funds, activate the dormant, instruct the soldier and even order the attack. A number of sites invite the visitor to download a clip of a beheading, a suicide bombing or an execution. Some even make available instruction manuals on how to make a bomb.

It is next to impossible to shut down a terrorist Web site. Hosting companies with a First Amendment bias usually resist any request to censor content. If a site is knocked off the Web, it can easily reappear under another Web name or with another host — possibly one residing offshore. For various legal reasons, our counterterrorism forces may lack authority to shut down these sites in the absence of a specific plan for an attack or commands to commit acts of violence. Moreover, for strategic reasons related to intelligence gathering, they may be reluctant to do so. So if remedial action is to be taken, it must be taken by private citizens, technological gunslingers reminiscent of the vigilantes of the Wild West.

At least one such vigilante has answered the call. Joseph G. Shahda, a Lebanese-Christian engineer out of Boston has knocked at least 40 militant Islamist Web sites off the net, and is working on scores more. His approach is simple. He contacts the Internet service provider that sponsors the Web site. Most hosts cooperate once they are satisfied of the terrorist content. And, presto, the site is down — often to re-emerge with a new “host” somewhere else in cyberspace. “These sites are very, very dangerous,” Mr. Shahda told the New York Times, “and I think we should keep going after them.”

Terrorist Web sites are no laughing matter. The New York Times reported last week that a 21-year-old American militant named Samir Khan, who was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Queens and works his blog from his parents’ home in North Carolina, is a cyber cheerleader for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Samir is an infantryman in what al Qaeda calls the “Islamic jihadi media.” Samir’s blog has propagated bin Laden’s message of hate to the faithful, featured “glad tidings” from a North African Islamist cutthroat whose gang killed 31 Algerians, posted a screed in English arguing for violent jihad and published links to secret sites where horrific bloodshed is portrayed in excruciating detail, including a suicide bomber attack on an American outpost in Iraq. Mr. Khan claims 500 regular readers of his blog, and the number may be growing.

Mr. Khan was recently thrown off the net following complaints to his service provider that he was operating a terrorist Web site, so he simply moved his blog to Muslimpad, a sketchy site which recently moved from Texas to Amman, Jordan.

Law enforcement officials don’t quite know what to do about bloggers like Mr. Khan or with vigilantes like Mr. Shahda. IfMr. Khan is removed from the Internet, they lose the opportunity to gain intelligence, find out what he is up to and who visits his site. Elements of the Joint Terrorism Taskforce regularly read Mr. Khan’s blog and say it has been a lodestar for gathering valuable intelligence information. But if they do nothing, they take the chance that he might become a command and control way station identifying a target or conveying a signal to attack.

It is also interesting to contemplate what criminal acts blogger Samir Khan may have committed, although treason and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization are the offenses that most quickly come to mind. But such charges are hard to prove. The Constitution provides that, “No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.” And, ironically, the only online terrorism case that has gone to trial involved a student accused of soliciting funds and supporters for Hamas. It ended in an acquittal.

James D. Zirin is a New York trial lawyer. He is co-host of the cable television talk show, “Digital Age.”

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