The Rise of Internet Terror
Today, most experts agree that the Internet is not just a tool of terrorist organizations, but is central to their operations*. Some say that al-Qaeda’s online presence has become more potent and pertinent than its actual physical presence since the September 11 attacks. “When we say al-Qaeda is a global ideology, this is where it exists – on the Internet,” says Michael Doran, a Near East scholar and terrorism expert at Princeton University. “That, in itself, I find absolutely amazing. Just a few years ago, an organization like this would have been more cultlike in nature. It wouldn’t be able to spread around the world the way it does with the Internet.”
The universe of terror-related websites extends far beyond al-Qaeda, of course. According to Weimann, the number of such websites has leapt from only 12 in 1997 to around 4,300 today. (This includes sites operated by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and others in South America and other parts of the world.) “In seven years it has exploded, and I am quite sure the number will grow next week and the week after,” says Weimann, who described the trend in his report “How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet,” published by the United States Institute of Peace, and who is now at work on a book, Terrorism and the Internet, due out later this year.
These sites serve as a means to recruit members, solicit funds, and promote and spread ideology. “While the [common] perception is that [terrorists] are not well educated or very sophisticated about telecommunications or the Internet, we know that that isn’t true,” says Ronald Dick, a former FBI deputy assistant director who headed the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center. “The individuals that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have arrested have engineering and telecommunications backgrounds; they have been trained in academic institutes as to what these capabilities are.” (Militant Islam, despite its roots in puritanical Wahhabism, taps the well of Western liberal education: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal September 11 mastermind, was educated in the U.S. in mechanical engineering; Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri was trained in Egypt as a surgeon.)
The Web gives jihad a public face. But on a less visible level, the Internet provides the means for extremist groups to surreptitiously organize attacks and gather information. The September 11 hijackers used conventional tools like chat rooms and e-mail to communicate and used the Web to gather basic information on targets, says Philip Zelikow, a historian at the University of Virginia and the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission. “The conspirators used the Internet, usually with coded messages, as an important medium for international communication,” he says. (Some aspects of the terrorists’ Internet use remain classified; for example, when asked whether the Internet played a role in recruitment of the hijackers, Zelikow said he could not comment.)
Finally, terrorists are learning that they can distribute images of atrocities with the help of the Web. In 2002, the Web facilitated wide dissemination of videos showing the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, despite FBI requests that websites not post them. Then, in 2004, Zarqawi made the gruesome tactic a cornerstone of his terror strategy, starting with the murder of the American civilian contractor Nicholas Berg – which law enforcement agents believe was carried out by Zarqawi himself. From Zarqawi’s perspective, the campaign was a rousing success. Images of orange-clad hostages became a headline-news staple around the world – and the full, raw videos of their murders spread rapidly around the Web. “The Internet allows a small group to publicize such horrific and gruesome acts in seconds, for very little or no cost, worldwide, to huge audiences, in the most powerful way,” says Weimann.
And there’s a large market for such material. According to Dan Klinker, webmaster of a leading online gore site, Ogrish.com, consumption of such material is brisk. Klinker, who says he operates from offices in Western and Eastern Europe and New York City, says his aim is to “open people’s eyes and make them aware of reality.” It’s clear that many eyes have taken in these images thanks to sites like his. Each beheading video has been downloaded from Klinker’s site several million times, he says, and the Berg video tops the list at 15 million. “During certain events (beheadings, etc.) the servers can barely handle the insane bandwidths – sometimes 50,000 to 60,000 visitors an hour,” Klinker says.