WASHINGTON: While the danger that cyberterrorism poses to the Internet is frequently debated, surprisingly little is known about the threat posed by terrorists' use of the Internet. A recent six-year-long study shows that terrorist organizations and their supporters have been using all of the tools that the Internet offers to recruit supporters, raise funds, and launch a worldwide campaign of fear. It is also clear that to combat terrorism effectively, mere suppression of their Internet tools is not enough.
Our scan of the Internet in 2003-04 revealed the existence of hundreds of websites serving terrorists in different, albeit sometimes overlapping, ways.
Terrorism has often been conceptualized as a form of psychological warfare, and certainly terrorists have sought to wage such a campaign through the Internet. There are countless examples of how they use this uncensored medium to spread disinformation, to deliver threats intended to instill fear and helplessness, and to disseminate horrific images of recent actions. Since September 11, 2001, al Qaeda has festooned its websites with a string of announcements of an impending "large attack" on US targets. These warnings have received considerable media coverage, which has helped to generate a widespread sense of dread and insecurity among audiences throughout the world and especially within the United States. Interestingly, al Qaeda has consistently claimed on its websites that the destruction of the World Trade Center has inflicted psychological damage, as well as concrete damage, on the U.S. economy.
The Internet has significantly expanded the opportunities for terrorists to secure publicity. Until the advent of the Internet, terrorists’ hopes of winning publicity for their causes and activities depended on attracting the attention of television, radio, or the print media. The fact that terrorists themselves have direct control over the content of their websites offers further opportunities to shape how they are perceived by different target audiences and to manipulate their image and the images of their enemies. Most terrorist sites do not celebrate their violent activities. Instead – regardless of their nature, motives, or location – most terrorist sites emphasize two issues: the restrictions placed on freedom of expression; and the plight of their comrades who are now political prisoners. These issues resonate powerfully with their own supporters and are also calculated to elicit sympathy from Western audiences that cherish freedom of expression and frown on measures to silence political opposition. The liberal spirit of terrorist Internet propaganda is well illustrated by the website of the Japanese Aum-Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth"). In 1995, Aum members released deadly Sarin gas that killed 12 persons and injured more than 5,000 in Tokyo's underground. Their new Internet website is very sophisticated and appealing. A blue-toned new age design – calming water and the symbol of the peace dove – dominates the home page and complements its title, “Liberation of the soul, the age of Benevolence.”
Terrorists have proven not only skillful at online marketing but also adept at mining the data offered by the billion-some pages of the World Wide Web. They can learn from the Internet about the schedules and locations of targets such as transportation facilities, nuclear power plants, public buildings, airports and ports, and even counterterrorism measures. According to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, an al Qaeda training manual recovered in Afghanistan tells its readers, “Using public sources openly and without resorting to illegal means, it is possible to gather at least 80 percent of all information required about the enemy.” One captured al Qaeda computer contained engineering and structural architecture features of a dam, which had been downloaded from the Internet and which would enable al Qaeda engineers and planners to simulate catastrophic failures. In other captured computers, U.S. investigators found evidence that al Qaeda operators spent time on sites that offer software and programming instructions for the digital switches that run power, water, transportation, and communications grids.
Like many other political organizations, terrorist groups use the Internet to raise funds. Al Qaeda, for instance, has always depended heavily on donations, and its global fund-raising network is built upon a foundation of charities, nongovernmental organizations, and other financial institutions that use websites and Internet-based chat rooms and forums. The fighters in the Russian breakaway republic of Chechnya have likewise used the Internet to publicize the numbers of bank account numbers to which sympathizers can contribute. And in December 2001 the U.S. government seized the assets of a Texas-based charity because of its ties to Hamas.
In addition to soliciting financial aid online, terrorists recruit converts by using the full panoply of website technologies (audio, digital video, etc.) to enhance the presentation of their message. And like commercial sites that track visitors to develop consumer profiles, terrorist organizations capture information about the users who browse their web sites. Visitors who seem most interested in the organization’s cause or well suited to carrying out its work are then contacted. Recruiters may also use more interactive Internet technology to roam online chat rooms and cyber cafes, looking for receptive members of the public, particularly young people. The SITE Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based terrorism research group that monitors al Qaeda’s Internet communications, has provided chilling details of a high-tech recruitment drive launched in 2003 to recruit fighters to travel to Iraq and attack U.S. and coalition forces there.
The Internet also grants terrorists a cheap and efficient means of networking. Many terrorist groups, among them Hamas and al Qaeda, have undergone a transformation from strictly hierarchical organizations with designated leaders to affiliations of semi-independent cells that have no single commanding hierarchy. Through the Internet, these loosely interconnected groups are able to maintain contact with one another—and with members of other terrorist groups. The Internet connects not only members of the same terrorist organizations but also members of different groups. For instance, dozens of sites supporting terrorism in the name of jihad permit terrorists in places as far-removed from one another as Chechnya and Malaysia to exchange ideas and practical information about how to build bombs, establish terror cells, and carry out attacks. The Mujahadeen Poisons Handbook, for example, is a widely distributed online manual that offers detailed instructions on how to construct a range of weapons.
Terrorists use the Internet not only to learn how to build bombs but also to plan and coordinate specific attacks. Al Qaeda operatives relied heavily on the Internet in planning and coordinating the September 11 attacks. Thousands of encrypted messages that had been posted in a password-protected area of a website were found by federal officials on the computer of arrested al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who reportedly masterminded the September 11 attacks.
How does one deal with this insidious use of a liberating public utility? An easy answer would be to find ways to curtail this freedom. Yet while we must better defend our societies against terrorism, we must not in the process erode the very qualities and values that make our societies worth defending. The Internet is in many ways an almost perfect embodiment of the democratic ideals of free speech and open communication; it is a marketplace of ideas unlike any that has existed before. But if we circumscribe our own freedom to use the Internet because we are fearful of terrorist attacks, then we hand the terrorists a victory at the expense of democracy.