- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

TERROR ON THE INTERNET: THE NEW ARENA, THE NEW CHALLENGES

By Gabriel Weimann

United States Institute of Peace, $24.95, 309 pages

As today’s generation of terrorists are ferociously hunted by counterterrorist organizations, they possess a distinct advantage that their older predecessors lacked: access to computers, the worldwide Internet and cyberspace’s myriad technological benefits in conducting communications and warfare.

Attesting to the pervasive use of the Internet by modern terrorist groups, Gabriel Weimann’s groundbreaking and important book points to the exponential growth in such use since 1998, when less than half of the world’s 30 active terrorist organizations had established a presence on the Net, compared to today when the 40 active groups have more than 4,300 Web sites serving them and their supporters.

In “Terror on the Internet,” Mr. Weimann writes, “As new communication technologies have emerged, terrorism has kept pace, constantly changing its character and modes of operation, so that today’s postmodern terrorism has a new face. It is less centralized, less structured, and less organized, yet far more dangerous than the terrorism of the late twentieth century.”

Mr. Weimann is a professor of communications at Haifa University in Israel, where he has taught since 1984 (for the sake of full disclosure, I know the author professionally and I wrote a blurb for this book). Considered one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on terrorism and the media, Mr. Weimann also directs a research program that monitors terrorist Web sites around the world.

According to Mr. Weimann, terrorists have established a sophisticated and dynamic presence on the Net, one that has completely transformed the way they communicate, obtain information, conduct propaganda and issue threats. They use it to radicalize and recruit new members, raise funds and train, organize and carry out warfare, and then broadcast such incidents. No longer relying solely on guns and bombs, terrorists exploit virtual cyberspace using computers, CD burners and e-mail accounts.

Focusing on the world’s top terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, FARC, Hezbollah and Hamas, Mr. Weimann points out that the Internet provides them with numerous advantages.

First, just like today’s multimedia conglomerates that control newspapers, radio and television stations, terrorist groups are exploiting the Net to create their own multimedia synergies. These are managed by media departments that develop videos, chat rooms, links to sister sites, downloadable posters and screen savers. Like an ever-expanding conglomerate, they have even established their own on-line “universities” that serve as jihad academies.

Also, the Net gives terrorist groups the capability to extend their virtual community to any part of the world. In such a way, al Qaeda’s dream of establishing a pan-Islamic caliphate, which so far has failed to be implemented on the ground, is taking shape in cyberspace. Mr. Weimann shows how these groups employ specialized communications tools, such as narrowcasting, to tailor their messages to specific audiences, such as women or children, for maximum propaganda effect.

In addition, with the increasing difficulty of providing physical training on the ground, the Net provides terrorists with a virtual training platform, where training manuals and other forms of practical instruction are posted, such as in al Qaeda’s Al Battar Training Camp, its bimonthly on-line magazine.

Mr. Weimann also notes that terrorist groups now exist organizationally in cyberspace, where easily disguised chat rooms and secret messaging (known as steganography) constitute new types of command and control mechanisms to coordinate activities and announce new operations to operatives at all levels.

For counterterrorist organizations, countering terrorism presents myriad challenges, Mr. Weimann writes. Untraceable “virtual headquarters” enable groups to avoid detection of their multifaceted and dispersed cells worldwide. Supporters who log on can use “anonymizer” sites, such as Safeweb, which eliminate information about the user, to keep their identities secret.

Most alarmingly, the Internet enables individuals anywhere in the world to log on to terrorist Web sites and join the jihad as “independents,” thus making it difficult to keep track of a group’s actual membership.

But the Net, and especially a group’s chat rooms, also present opportunities for detection and disruption, especially in revealing on-line debates over strategy and tactics, including disagreements and divisions that could be exploited by a government’s security services.

Mr. Weimann also discusses the threat posed by cyberterrorism and effective responses to terrorism on the Internet, taking special note of the balance governments must strike between their need to monitor the Net and maintain civil liberties. All of this makes Mr. Weimann’s book an indispensable resource for formulating solutions to terrorists’ exploitation of the Internet for their communications and warfare.

Joshua Sinai is program manager for terrorism studies at Logos Technologies.


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