In November 2001, Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist reporting from Afghanistan, watched “every second al-Qaeda member carrying a laptop computer along with a Kalashnikov” as they prepared to flee American bombing.
These are the first lines of an article I recently read in “Le Temps”, a Swiss newspaper, describing the growing role the Internet allegedly plays in al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities.
Terrorist organizations, and Al-Qaeda in particular, have not been caught on the hop by the fast development of recent technology. Quite the opposite: terrorist presence on the Internet is becoming ever more pervasive and sophisticated (last figures estimate the number of sensitive websites to 5’000).
As described in a report by Gabriel Weimann, the Internet is in many ways the “ideal arena” for terrorist activities. Evident advantages include its ease of access, anonymity, little or no regulation and the possibility of communicating to a vast potential audience. Moreover, the volatility of websites, which can close and re-open with a different URL every day, increases the difficulty of tracking terrorist activities.
In his report, Weimann describes the numerous uses terrorists make of the Internet. He divides them into 8 categories:
1. Psychological warfare: the Internet is used as a means of pressure or to instill fear (e.g. diffusion of execution videotapes).
2. Propaganda: via the Internet, terrorist organizations can directly control the messages they want to communicate in ways that are cheap and instantaneous.
3. Data mining: Internet is used to gather information about a target. In his book “Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyberterrorism”, Dan Verton claimed that:
al-Qaeda cells now operate with the assistance of large databases containing details of potential targets in the U.S. They use the Internet to collect intelligence on those targets, especially critical economic nodes, and modern software enables them to study structural weaknesses in facilities as well as predict the cascading failure effect of attacking certain systems.4. Fundraising
5. Recruitment: the Internet, and some online forums in particular, have been used as platforms to recruit specialists, not to mention candidates to be suicide bombers.
6. Networking: Through the use of the Internet, loosely interconnected terrorist groups are able to maintain contact one with each other (for more info about terrorist networks, have a look at this former post).
7. Sharing information: Internet is used to provide technical advice, from the way to create a detonator with a cell phone, to bomb recipes and encryption methods.
8. Planning: the Internet can be used to coordinate terrorist activities. For instance, bombings in Casablanca, Morocco in 2007 occurred in an Internet café, where the bombers were waiting for last-minute instructions from over the web about their intended target.
In response, some government security agencies have implemented software, such as “Magic Lantern” or “Carnivore”, which aim to locate terrorist websites by scanning the Internet. These agencies have also recruited “cyberspies”, whose job is to infiltrate chat rooms and forums.
These initiatives, however, are limited in number and scope, and usually lack much financial support because policymakers tend to underestimate the migration of terrorism from the physical space to cyberspace. According to Le Temps, the Swiss government, for instance, doesn’t have a specialized agency to combat terrorist activities in cyberspace – instead it uses existing services to combat cyber-crime and pedophilia when needed.
Of course, adapting existing expertise and experience within governments to respond to new threats can be very effective. But in this context it may also indicate lack of attention. Meanwhile, the nature of terrorism will evolve with and take full advantage of new developments in technology and communication unless countered. Governments take heed.
Le Temps, “Internet, la nouvelle base arrière du terrorisme”, 3 July 2007 (Swiss newspaper).
Gabriel Weimann, How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet, The Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2005 - Number 8, check that link.
Dan Verton, Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyberterrorism, McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2003.
Photo retrieved from Flickr.com.