Terrorism and the Internet

From a Virtual Shadow, Messages of Terror (Ariana Eunjung Cha, WaPo, A1)

The Internet, which was created in the 1960s as a communications network that could survive a Soviet nuclear attack, has emerged as a prime tool of Islamic radicals. They use its anonymity to coordinate operations secretly and to get their message to the public sphere with little fear of detection.

Half a dozen federal agencies have assigned teams to monitor sites that carry postings from Abu Maysara and other radicals. The Justice Department has tried, with limited success, to use the authority of the Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to shut down Internet sites that carry such postings, on grounds that they incite violence. The government’s aggressive pursuit of Web hosting services, as well as the people who post the material on them, has led civil liberties groups to protest that security initiatives are impinging on free speech. Another problem is that U.S. legal authority stops at the borders. Many of the sites with the target postings are located in other countries, so U.S. officials must depend on the good will of foreign governments to shut down the sites.

Radical groups have also used the Internet to research potential targets, communicate with each other, plan attacks and raise money. After the 2001 attacks in the United States, federal agents found a lengthy electronic trail. They believe that the hijackers coordinated their movements via e-mail, booked their tickets online and used the network to research such subjects as how to spread pesticides by air.

Peter Bardazzi, director of new media development at New York University, contends that the Internet has allowed terrorists to wage psychological warfare as never before, because they have direct control over shaping their own image and that of their foes. The beheading videos, for instance, are set up “like a stage,” he said. “They are trying to inspire followers but also to humiliate the enemy.” Bardazzi added that he believed the videos were changing popular sentiment about the war in Iraq the same way the images of fighting during the Vietnam War affected public opinion.

Today, nearly every active guerrilla group has an online presence, spread across hundreds of Web sites, according to Gabriel Weimann, who was until recently a fellow at the federally funded U.S. Institute of Peace. Many of the sites are as slick as those of Fortune 500 corporations. One radical Islamic site displays pictures of President Bush and his main ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with stitches covering their bodies and promises that this scene will be “coming soon.” It also urges boycotts of Coca-Cola Co., Nike Inc. and other U.S. corporations with an extensive presence overseas.

The piece is long but worth a read. In one sense, this is rather obvious. The Internet has become a stage for virtually every other type of commercial and political venture, so why would terrorism be any different? It does help point out the incredible complexity of counter-terrorism, though, and how much more sophisticated modern terror networks are even as compared to their predecessors of 15-20 years ago.

The London Telegraph has a related story:

Dutch intelligence officers raided the home of Kenneth Bigley’s brother last night. An intelligence officer from the Foreign Office is understood to have accompanied them to Paul Bigley’s home in Amsterdam. The raid came amid claims that the British hostage was free to roam his kidnappers’ home in Iraq and was “caged” only for terrorist videos. Paul Bigley’s computer was seized and he was interrogated about his alleged contact with the Tawhid and Jihad group, which yesterday claimed responsibility for Thursday’s killing of at least 35 children in Baghdad. Material from his computer was downloaded and sent back for analysis in Britain as he was forced to make a five-page statement. Mr Bigley has been an outspoken critic of the Government’s handling of his brother’s case and has established his own contacts in the Middle East but denies being in direct contact with the kidnappers.

In Fallujah, Mohammed Kasim, an Iraqi-born gunman with a British passport, said the latest video of Mr Bigley showing him shackled in a cage had been staged to “terrify” the British public. There was no way of verifying the claim, particularly in a country awash with rumour and conspiracy theories.

(via Michael King)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.