The Internet has become the “seductive hypermedia” for radical Islamic terrorists, with official and unofficial Web sites, forums and chatrooms that appeal to supporters worldwide. Most Web sites are intended to advance a group’s propaganda to increase their supporting audience, while some have operational intentions. But how do we defeat such terrorism in cyberspace?
An eclectic group of international experts in terrorist use of the Internet and graphic design specialists met recently in Israel’s southern resort city of Eilat to formulate a comprehensive response campaign that deserves wide attention.
As explained by Gabriel Weimann, of Israel’s Haifa University, terrorists “narrow-cast” their messages to “trap” selected audiences of adherents. Taking this further, Boaz Ganor, of the Israeli Interdisciplinary Center, showed how the “captured” adherents are then indoctrinated into radicalization by emphasizing a problem, such as threats posed by a common enemy or humiliation suffered by Muslims at the hands of their adversaries. Emphasizing the religious obligation of Muslims to confront their enemies and the challenge to their faith is the common denominator that binds the audience into their new virtual community. Segments of this community are then activated into a variety of activities on behalf of the terrorist group, such as fund-raising, recruitment, training and warfare.
The different types of terrorist activities on the Internet require appropriately differentiated responses. As outlined by Mr. Weimann, one such response is based on what he terms a “MUD” approach (Monitoring, Using and Disrupting).
c First, terrorist Web sites need to be monitored to learn about their mindsets, motives, persuasive “buzzwords,” audiences, operational plans and potential targets for attack. These sites will also reveal whom they consider to be their political and religious authorities, as well as moderate religious clerics they regard as particularly threatening. Monitoring also reveals their inner debates and disputes.
c Second, counterterrorism organizations need to “use” the terrorist Web sites to identify and locate their propagandists, chat room discussion moderators, Internet service provider (ISP) hosts, operatives and participating members.
c Third, terrorist Web sites need to be “disrupted” through negative and positive means. In a negative “influence” campaign, sites can be infected with viruses and worms to destroy them, or kept “alive” while flooding them with false technical information about weapons systems, circulating rumors to create doubt about the reputation and credibility of terrorist leaders, or inserting conflicting messages into discussion forums to confuse operatives and their supporters. In a more positive approach, alternative narratives can be inserted into these Web sites to demonstrate the negative results of terrorism or, to potential suicide bombers, to suggest the benefits of the “value of life” versus the self-destructiveness of the “culture of death and martyrdom.”
An effective “MUD” approach, however, depends on several conditions. It must be interdisciplinary, involving experts in communications and rhetoric, psychologists who understand the impact of influence campaigns on their targeted audiences’ cognitive and behavioral responses, graphic designers who understand the type of graphic interface and layout that would appeal to such potential audiences, and civil liberty attorneys to ensure such influence campaigns do not infringe on constitutional rights of free speech and expression.
Finally, international cooperation is required to implement and coordinate such influence campaigns worldwide.
Above all, such a response requires new counterterrorism “armies” possessing new strategies, capabilities, tactics and cyber weapons to counteract the Jihadi Web sites.
This is a dynamic arena of continuous feedback loops in which our actions must ceaselessly anticipate and respond to the reactions of the targeted terrorist Web sites. For instance, when a Web site is brought down, it usually re-emerges in a different configuration elsewhere. Moreover, we need to prioritize the audiences to be targeted by such influence campaigns. For example, devoted activists may be considered a lost cause, while potential recruits who have not yet been activated into terrorism represent new opportunities for influence operations.
Such influence campaigns must be led by moderate political and religious leaders from Islamic communities to formulate alternative messages and narratives to the radical Islamic ideologies. Here, further differentiation is required because, for example, mainstream Islam in the Middle East will be different than its counterparts in Southeast Asia or Europe. It is crucial that whatever is being countered must be as authentically Islamic and close to the “ground” truth as possible. It is here that the root causes underlying the problems that the radical Islamists are exploiting for their own purposes must be resolved.
The Eilat workshop also proposed an institutional framework to carry out such influence campaigns. Joint governmental and independent nongovernmental organization (NGO) campaigns would be driven by coordinated official and “unofficial” international monitoring entities that would form a “Web site Interpol.” Guidelines would be issued to define “Red Lines” in terrorist supporters’ Web sites which, crossed, would trigger measures to cease their presence on the Internet.
Joshua Sinai is program manager, counterterrorism studies, The Analysis Corp., McLean, Va.