- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2005

It is an irony of the digital age that technology has aided the security forces in detecting and thwarting terrorist operations and has helped terrorists do their evil.

Let’s look at Iraq’s Sunni triangle where Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, after a recent trip, observed there are “roughly 10,000 terrorists who are either Saddam revanchists, Iraqi Islamic extremists or al Qaeda foreign fighters.” In Iraq, Mr. Lieberman writes, “[t]here are more … satellite television dishes on the roofs, and literally millions more cell phones in Iraqi hands than before.” Mr. Lieberman exhorts us to stay the course in Iraq. But, the unanswered question is: How many of these million cell phones are in the hands of the 10,000 terrorists?

Then there is France, where Islamic rioters, mostly outside Paris but scattered as well throughout the country, have run amok. French authorities say the car burnings were orchestrated and organized on blogs and executed with cell phones. Technology is key to the European jihadis.

Journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave reports that, “Satellite dishes protrude from almost all apartments in the cankerous Muslim housing projects. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera reaches ‘hoods in Europe’s Muslim and sub-Saharan African suburbs. For the last two years, youngsters have been proselytized via the Internet to become jihadis for the Iraqi insurgency. They use the Internet to locate mosques in Syria and Jordan where they can find shelter on the way to Iraq, as well as places to report for training and combat assignments.”

Cell phones and the Internet were a key in coordinated suicide attacks in the July 7 and July 21 London subway bombings.

And let’s look at the suicide terrorist attack against three Amman Jordan hotels, ordered by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, and carried out by Iraqis. Here’s yet another coordinated attack which had to be facilitated by hi-tech communications.

High-tech communication is not the only weapon at the disposal of the digital terrorist. Experts firmly believe the next terrorist attack in the U.S. will be coupled with an act of “cyber-terror,” calculated to disrupt or paralyze the economy.

Face it: to be effective, terrorists must be computer literate. And to be really effective, they must be able to communicate instantly, at considerable distance and often in encrypted algorithmic messages. There are more than 4,000 pro-al Qaeda Web sites, most of them online since September 11, 2001. Do we close them or listen in as they plot our destruction?

Writing about the “River War” in the Sudan in 1900, Winston Churchill warned against the dangers fanatical Islam posed to Western civilization, observing not without prescience that “were it not that [Europe] is sheltered in the strong arms of science … it might fall as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

Counterterrorism forces routinely monitor al Qaeda Web sites and cell phones. Cell phone interception has led to the arrest of terrorists in Switzerland and Pakistan. Videocamera surveillance figured prominently in the investigation of the London subway bombings. Technology helps us trace laundered funds used to finance terrorist operations.

And there is our control of the Internet and the information highway. Since 1998, the United States has controlled an NGO known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), responsible for the coordination and smooth functioning of the World Wide Web. ICANN can restrict access to the Internet by sites in particular countries. While its stated purpose is to coordinate technical approaches, ICANN can also serve counterterrorism objectives. Washington, for example, could use its control over ICANN to knock Iran off the Internet by deleting its two-letter identifier from the system.

But Washington’s control over the net may not last forever. Other countries resent what they see as an invasion of their sovereignty. Issues involving the appropriate international body to control the Internet are presently under discussion at the United Nations and elsewhere.

So which awaits us behind the closed door, the lady or the tiger, as in Frank Stockton’s riddle set in semibarbaric olden times? Is the Internet our salvation or our undoing now that terrorism has become the centerpiece of our foreign policy? Probably, we have a net zero. As technology develops, criminals will use the information infrastructure, as they always have, to work their wicked will. And as technology improves, police methods will become more modern to the extent necessary to meet the threat.

James D. Zirin is a New York lawyer and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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