Sinister links to a deadly network

Terror on the Internet
October 6, 2006

On May 12, 2004, an al-Qaeda website showing the decapitation of Nicholas Berg was shut down. Why? Because the Malaysian internet service provider hosting the site was experiencing such a massive volume of traffic that its other clients were being discommoded.

Posting footage of such beheadings has been a hallmark of Islamic fundamentalist activity on the internet. The murder of Daniel Pearl, a US reporter for The Wall Street Journal , was shown live on the web. And the now-deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi added plentifully to this sadistic genre of web publication.

Hezbollah, the most web savvy of all, operates the al-Manar site, the al-Nour site, and an English-language site called Moqa-wama. The al-Manar site describes its associated television station, established in 1991, as "the first Arab establishment to stage an effective psychological warfare against the Zionist enemy".

As for Hamas, it boasts a website for children that promotes suicide bombing and, in October 2004, it posted a picture of the decapitated head of Zaynab Abu Salem, a female suicide bomber.

Terror on the Internet collates these facts. It also makes a familiar argument about the parallel between the culture of the internet and that of decentralised "postmodern" terrorism: "the structure of modern terrorist organisations... is compatible with the structure of the internet. The loosely knit network of cells and subgroups typical of modern terrorist groups takes full advantage of the internet for intergroup and intragroup networking".

Gabriel Weimann is a professor of communication at Haifa University in Israel. Terror on the Internet is a useful resource for academics working in the fields of physical and information security; for policymakers and intelligence analysts. It offers a good descriptive account of the internet presence of Islamist groups and, to the detriment of the book's focus, that of some other terrorist organisations - such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the online T-shirt-selling Real IRA.

Weimann shows that terrorist websites have exploded in number from a dozen in 1998 to more than 4,800 today. Drawing on an eight-year study of website content, he demonstrates how modern terrorist organisations exploit the internet to raise funds, recruit members and plan and execute attacks.

But he also shows how the counterterrorist strategies of Western governments have both imperilled civil liberties and failed to parlay the very openness of the internet into an opportunity to promote anti-terrorist cultural politics.

Comprehensive though Weimann's conspectus of the content of terrorist websites may be, however, his analysis falls short of a deeper interrogation of what makes the internet special for these people, their ideology and their audience. For example, there is the generational issue of internet-age youth being more likely to believe in conspiracies than their forebears. Is there something about the psychology of interacting with a screen, in isolation from others, that makes young Western Muslims more prone to fall for the heady rhetoric of Islamist ideology than their elders? And what about the videos made by suicide bombers? There is surely something "born for the web" about these multimedia missives from beyond the grave.

Weimann throws cold water on the idea of cyber-terrorism - sensibly enough. His chapter on the topic is judicious and salutary. The use of computer networks to sabotage critical national infrastructures, such as energy or transport, does seem to pose a more serious threat than posting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on a website.

But, as Weimann suggests, we should not inflate its real significance. It is very hard to conduct real cyber-terrorism, and the more feasible attacks on computer networks - such as viruses - would just come as a blessed relief from all that e-mail. However, it may become more of a threat in the future, especially if al-Qaeda et al continue to be checked militarily. And I have spoken to at least one former senior intelligence officer who would certainly contest the alacrity with which Weimann dismisses the current scale of the threat.

Wherever the truth lies, Weimann's otherwise thorough book is unfortunately frayed by some loose ends. Why is Yahoo allowed to be labelled "one of al-Qaeda's most significant ideological bases of operation"? What happened to the nine men arrested and charged with terrorism offences, in the UK and Canada, thanks to the US National Security Agency's "Puzzle Palace"

electronic eavesdropping system? And is there an example of Hamas's use of steganography to hide military instructions? Nevertheless, this is a well-grounded book, whose closing appeal for a proactive use of the internet to counter jihadism can only be welcomed.

Brian McKenna is editor, Infosecurity Today and member, Wolfson College, Oxford.

Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges

Author - Gabriel Weimann
Publisher - United States Institute of Peace
Pages - 312
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 1 929223 71 4

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