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The Vile and Versatile Internet: A New Tool for the Cyber-Savvy Terrorist

The Internet is arguably the greatest cross-cultural bridge in the history of mankind. Its global reach enhances business, research, and personal relationships at the speed of light. In addition, it is a tremendously underestimated and versatile tool now being massively used by terrorists. Its most attractive features include the user’s ability to be anonymous, to target specific individuals or groups, and to achieve and maintain largely uncontrolled accessibility. Understanding the various ways in which terrorists leverage and exploit the Internet is an important step, therefore, toward the goal of developing countermeasures to deter and detect terrorists and their malicious Internet activities.

The terrorist’s objective, by definition, is to use force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government or civilian population in furtherance of various political or social goals. The Internet is useful both as a supporting instrument and as the modality of attack. According to Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corporation, over 5,000 terrorist organizations were operating Internet websites in 2006.

Anonymity is a particularly important Internet attraction for terrorists. E-mail accounts, blog sites, and chat rooms can be set up and used without any verification of a person’s identity. Changes can be made and/or sites deleted without any trace back to the true identity of those responsible. In addition, there are websites, such as that used by the French Anonymous Society, where uncensored anonymous communications are supported and even, in some cases, encouraged.

Beyond the anonymity provided to individuals using the Internet, terrorists have exploited Internet service providers (ISPs) to conceal their true locations. For example, one particular al Qaeda-affiliated site, was first apparently “located” in Malaysia – but then appeared in Texas not long thereafter before reappearing still later under yet another IP address in Michigan. Further investigation revealed that the ISPs hosting the site had no knowledge of its subversive content or even that it was using their servers. This type of cyber shell game becomes a tremendous challenge to law-enforcement efforts worldwide.

The cyber-savvy terrorist enjoys the Internet’s nearly unregulated global reach in furthering his objectives. Internet communications can be openly broadcast to a wide audience or specifically designed to target a single person or cell. In addition, the nature of the communication can be tailored and the delivery targeted to meet the terrorist’s sometimes varying objectives. For example, converting Internet messages by language is a relatively easy means of targeting a particular audience. Video clips originally recorded in Arabic, and therefore suited for one particular audience, have been dubbed in Turkish with a different message for an entirely different sympathizer audience. Moreover, those same messages can be delivered via the Internet to media outlets for broadcast or posted in chat rooms and on bulletin boards for more targeted dissemination – and with very little or no extra cost to the terrorist organization.

Terrorists also can disseminate messages to and through a wide array of multi-media formats. Today, with voice-over IP capability, direct two-way communication can take place over the Internet network. Video clips and still photos of terrorist achievements also can be directly disseminated and posted by websites.

Planning and Command, Recruiting and Fundraising

The Internet is even more valuable, in many situations, as an intelligence collection and reconnaissance medium. Through open-source data mining, terrorists can find a wealth of pre-attack planning information without having to leave their own geographical sanctuaries. Photographs and high-resolution digital images of potential targets are readily accessible via the Internet. Building plans and emergency plans for specific sites are posted on the Internet as a public service. An al Qaeda training manual found in Afghanistan contended, in fact, that at least 80 percent of all of the information needed for a successful terrorist attack could be found through public sources.

Command and control operations are easily facilitated over the Internet. Thanks to the versatility and near unconstrained flow of information over the Internet, terrorist strategic and operational planners can coordinate their plans and activities with minimal risk of interference to their operations. To cite the most prominent example, the Internet was instrumental in orchestrating the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States and the later “7-7” attacks in the United Kingdom. In the current Jihadi movement, the Internet has been heavily used to communicate radical ideological arguments and to issue religiously justified orders or calls to action. These types of strategic guidance are a routine form of command and control for the extremist Islamic terrorist.

The Internet provides an efficient medium for terrorist propaganda experts to personalize their messages in ways designed to reach the hearts and minds of specially targeted audiences worldwide. Suicide/homicide bombers are portrayed as heroic nationalists and/or as religiously devout. These martyred terrorists are exalted as role models for others brave enough to follow. The terror propagandist also tailors and construes his messages to entice activist support. Using JavaScript functions, the terror propagandist can develop different messages for Western populations and Asian populations, leveraging the same multi-media message by tailoring it to different language preferences. This Internet feature fosters a form of language-specific, audience-targeted recruitment. For example, Chechen terrorists have designed websites to include links focused on Jihad in Afghanistan, Gaza, and the West Bank as well as in Chechnya itself.

The Internet is regarded by a growing number of experts as the most provocative source for the self-identification of neophyte terrorists to move from the virtual world into the real world through connectivity with other like-minded people. The arrest of the so-called “Toronto 18” in 2006 is but one example of the role the Internet can play in bringing previously disassociated people of similar ideology together in the discussion and planning stages of plots eventually leading to terrorist activism.

Additionally, the Internet facilitates overt and covert fundraising efforts on a global scale. Today, funds are routinely wired across political jurisdictions into foreign banks by means of the Internet. Even more covert means for funneling monetary support to terrorists are facilitated through elaborate integrated websites, chat rooms, and bulletin boards. There are numerous portals, in fact – usually established for everyday business purposes but also available to terrorists – specializing in the anonymous transfer of money.

In the late 19th century, terrorism was described as “propaganda by deed.” The Internet efficiently conveys reports on terrorist acts in ways that sway and influence a broad spectrum of target governments and populations. As a psychological weapon, the Internet is ideally suited to convey a message aimed at inciting fear in a target population. One horrific example of this was the repeated display of the video clip of the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl. The worldwide dissemination of those images was purely for the purpose of striking fear in the terrorist’s enemy.

Countermeasures Being Used and/or Under Development

In August 2007, the New York Police Department (NYPD) released a study detailing the causes and consequences of homegrown radicalism. The NYPD study pointed specifically to the Internet as the principal means for impressionable young Muslims to gain direct access to, and learn more about, radical extremist ideologies.

The United Kingdom has levied stiff criminal sanctions against those who use the Internet to facilitate a terrorist attack before the attack takes place. In October 2007, the High Court in Edinburgh, Scotland, convicted Mohammed Atif Siddique, 21, a student. The Court sentenced Siddique to prison for eight years for possessing terrorism-related materials downloaded from the Internet, setting up websites with information on building improvised explosive devices, and circulating inflammatory terrorist-related materials. The Court noted that Siddique’s acts in acquiring and possessing materials, via the Internet, for the furtherance of terrorist acts constituted a criminal violation of Britain’s Terrorist Acts.

The punitive effects of successful convictions may help deter messengers of terrorism and reduce misuse of the Internet; however, criminal recourse would be difficult in the United States. Interdiction strategies to shut down radical websites address only part of the problem. Arresting individuals for disseminating terrorist messages and prosecuting those arrested addresses another part of the problem. Developing and carrying out creative ways to deter the use of the Internet for malicious purposes must, therefore, remain at the forefront of the international community, and more must be done to standardize legal measures globally.

Law enforcement authorities and prosecutors need greater awareness of the Internet as a versatile tool in the terrorist toolbox. Greater emphasis also has to be placed on educating Internet service providers on the signs of terrorist exploitation of their services, and strategies must be developed for defeating and reporting the malicious acts of terrorists. Public education also can help to mitigate unfounded fears regarding terrorist uses of the Internet while heightening public awareness at the same time. In the long term, that increase in public awareness should lead to the timely reporting of suspicious Internet activity – and, of greater importance, the early interdiction of terrorist plans.

Joseph Steger

Joseph Steger is the pseudonym of a senior law-enforcement commander whose undergraduate background in a pre-medical program led to initial certification as an EMT in 1981. He retained that level of certification for eight years and across three states while serving as a federal law-enforcement officer. Over the years, Steger has worked closely with CONTOMS-trained tactical medics and physicians in numerous situations.



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