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Terrorists Increasingly Turn to the Internet

Terrorist groups are using the Internet with more success, according to studies by an Israeli researcher.
February 21, 2006

The Internet is increasingly being exploited by terrorist groups, who are using the medium to multiply the effectiveness of their planning, recruitment, and propaganda, says an Israeli researcher. For instance, such groups have become sophisticated enough to build sites “narrowcasted” to women and children.

Gabriel Weimann, professor of communication at the University of Haifa, Israel, has done empirical research into the evolving nature of terrorist use of the medium, which he describes in a forthcoming book, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges.

Last week Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems were hauled before Congress and accused by legislators of abetting human-rights abuses in China. Weimann points to the opposite issue: the essentially unchecked use of the medium to spread violence and hate.

He argues a little censorship might not be such a bad thing. Weimann also believes some kind of a global body should advise Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on how to enforce their terms of service. While that is surely more easily said than done, his thinking at least offers a problem statement – and a detailed glimpse into this netherworld of the Web.

Technology Review: Your research says there are now 4,800 “terrorist” websites, up from just 12 eight years ago. How do you define “terrorist” and how do you count such sites?

Gabriel Weimann: When you live in a place for many years, you know your neighbors well. I have lived in the terrorist neighborhood on the Net for years. You learn their fingerprints in terms of style, signatures, symbols, dialects. I consult those who know the language well – the religion, the mentality, the dialects. And we refer only to terrorist organizations as listed by the U.S. Department of State.

The growth of these terrorist websites is [proportionally] faster than the wider growth of the Web. But it didn’t grow up steadily. The big jumps were after September 11, and another one came after the attack on Afghanistan, and then after the war in Iraq. The biggest enemies of the United States are using American servers to do this (see “Terror’s Server”).

TR: Any new trends on this front? Terrorist wikis and blogs?

GW: We are now seeing “narrowcasting.” Some groups are slicing up their target audience, by appealing to different audiences with different messages, styles, arguments, rhetoric. You can find terrorists that have 8, 12, 20 audiences. For example, some websites are used only to target and recruit children. Hamas is doing this, Hezbollah is doing this. They have computer game wars online that are used to attract children – to train them, actually. And there are websites for women posted by Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups.

TR: Where are these groups getting the technological savvy – how are they actually doing this?

GW: You really do not need much. Most of my first-year undergraduate students know how to establish a website, how to post a message, how to post movies or text. So do my children. You really need only one or two guys who can handle this quite common use of the Internet.

TR: Obviously the Web is full of all sorts of things. Why does any of this matter? How can the actual efficacy of terrorist Web exposure be measured?

GW: Let me only say that testimonies of terrorists indicate their trust in the usefulness of the Internet. Another measure is the many cases of people affected by Internet messages – from recruitment to support and fund-raising. The fact that they went from 12 websites to almost 5,000 in eight years shows how this medium became useful and important. Did you know about [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi some years ago? No. But now you do, because he is launching attacks and publishing them on the Internet. The Chechen rebels were executing Russians and you never heard about it. Now you hear about it on the Internet.

TR: For free-loving people, who accept even the most noxious forms of speech, what in your view is the problem with this state of affairs?

GW: I am one of those who fight for freedom of speech, free press, and free Internet. And yet when it becomes a weapon, when it is used to kill and victimize people – then I look for ways to minimize the threat, to limit its potential for abuse and violence.

TR: But whose job is this? Should the same big companies, who are criticized for helping China censor dissidents, help Western nations censor terrorists?

GW: The big ISPs will take down sites only if somebody makes them aware of the abuse of the service they provide. They – Yahoo for example – will not scan all the forums, chat rooms, electronic boards, e-mails, and postings on their servers. Thus, their real power is rather limited and they are activated only by complaints from individuals, agencies, states, and organizations.

There is no way I will let Yahoo or Google scan the Internet and make a political decision on who is a terrorist and who isn’t. But if you can approach them and you can prove to them that formal agencies can do this scanning and monitoring, and tell them “Your service is being abused by those groups -– so please police it” – this is legitimate.

TR: Who are these “formal agencies” that will alert ISPs to abuse? The U.S. or Israeli government? Surely not the United Nations?

GW: It can be an ad hoc Internet security organization, which doesn’t have to be under the United Nations. There are so many measures that can be applied to the Internet, including access and monitoring the flow. But for every measure you apply to the Internet, there is a price tag you pay for it in terms of civil liberties, privacy freedom of speech. I think there can be a “golden path” to minimize the price in terms of civil liberties and damage to the Internet’s freedom, and yet reduce the Net’s use and abuse by terrorists.

TR: I have heard people say “Sure, terrorists use the Internet. They also use the highways and drink the water.”

GW: Drinking water or breathing air lets them live – but they are not weapons, they are not instruments of death and fear. By breathing or drinking you do not victimize anyone. The Internet in the hands of terrorists, as my study shows, is a lethal weapon. And we are just starting to witness its lethality.

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