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Typing TERROR in a Crowded Chat

By Christina L. Madden | February 5, 2008

Damascus Internet
cafe. Photo by Josh
Hough
(CC).

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week that Al Qaeda has improved its operations and that America is increasingly vulnerable to Internet attacks by terrorists and other militant groups.

In an experimental move, Al Qaeda recently solicited questions from the general public for an online interview with second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. Questions such as "How is the morale of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan these days?" and "What is your opinion of Tablighi Jamaat?" were passed along to al-Zawahiri, who for reasons of personal safety or lack of connectivity could not participate live. According to Al Qaeda's media arm, he will respond as soon as possible.

Al Qaeda's official website was shut down in 2002, but the organization remains active on a number of other sites. In 2004, 22-year-old Younes Tsouli teamed with Al Qaeda's leaders to promote the organization's extremist videos and propaganda. Before he was caught, Tsouli posted videos of kidnappings and murders of hostages in Iraq on multiple websites, sometimes unbeknownst to the website creators themselves.

John Anticev and Linda Walsh, special agents of the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force, estimate that anywhere between 5,000 to 10,000 radical websites exist worldwide. "Whereas the radicalization process was taking place in various mosques 20 years ago, a tremendous amount is now being attempted online," said Anticev in an interview with Policy Innovations. Chat rooms, videos, and other online forums help extremist organizations to spread ideas, raise funds, plan attacks, and recruit new members without geographic limit.

The ability of individuals to "self-radicalize" in the comfort of their own homes has prompted concern that a younger, tech-savvy generation of extremists is emerging in a fragmented and unpredictable manner. Last November, a 15-year-old Canadian national accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and of conspiring with Al Qaeda became the first minor eligible to be tried for war crimes.

The attention young people dedicate to communicating via virtual identities is often criticized as detrimental to the development of social skills and genuine culture, and some people believe the Internet contributes to social fragmentation and identity loss. But as the cases of young radical Islamists demonstrate, the Internet can also intensify a sense of identity.

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls this phenomenon group polarization. He observed in several studies that groups of like-minded individuals make people more confident and extreme in their views. While the Internet provides a platform for an unlimited range of ideas, it also facilitates group polarization. Whether going online for information on radical Islam or animal rights, Internet users tend to seek out information that reinforces, rather than challenges, their beliefs. Sunstein cites a survey of 1,400 political blogs that found that more than 90 percent of their hyperlinks pointed to websites of similar ideologies.

Outrage often breeds extremism, but false information can do the job just as well. According to Frank J. Cilluffo, Director of the George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have used the Internet to propagate a "clash of civilizations" myth, dating back to the Crusades, in order to draw in new recruits.

White supremacists and neo-Nazis are also using online tools to promote radical ideas. An Internet video of two men being brutally killed by Russian ultranationalists was a heated discussion topic on Russian-language blogs last year. Similar videos have been appearing online "with alarming regularity," according to Radio Free Europe, and racially motivated crimes have been on the rise in Russia in recent years.

Yet, a new set of laws designed to censor such online footage in Russia was sharply contested.

When cyber dissidents in China or Burma use the Internet to organize environmental movements or oppose political oppression, they are often lauded by the international community for managing to stay one step ahead of their governments. But the reaction is different when freedoms of expression and association combine with new technologies to provoke hate crimes and terrorist attacks.

What then is the solution? Paradoxically, it might be more Internet use.

Three of the world's leading state sponsors of terror—Iran, Syria, and Libya—are among the least connected to the World Wide Web. Just over 10 percent of Iran's population has access to the Internet, according to the OpenNet Initiative. The figure stands at roughly 6 percent in Syria, and a mere 3.6 percent in Libya. All three countries operate under regimes that strictly censor online content, political matters in particular.

Fearing an exposed flank on the cyber frontier, the State Department launched a Digital Outreach Team last year to counter ideological support for terrorism on Arabic-language blogs. The team of government bloggers monitors and participates in online conversations as U.S. Government representatives, using their real names. The team intervenes when they notice U.S. policies being maligned, and their responses are supervised by a senior officer and discussed before being published.

Some security experts think open source intelligence, where officials gather information from sources like radical websites and use it to better understand the roots of terrorism, is critical in developing an effective response. Yet, attempting to shut down radical websites may simply make the information more difficult for counterterrorism specialists to find, if extremists switch to more covert methods of communication.

Like many tools of globalization, the power of the Internet can cut both ways.

In 2006, Walsh and Anticev's squad squelched a plot to destroy a Hudson River retaining wall in downtown Manhattan. The suspects, located overseas and inspired by a story on 60 Minutes about the wall's vulnerability, used the Internet to research the use of explosives, to gather maps of lower Manhattan and the subway system, and to organize individuals for the attack. The FBI monitored the chat rooms in which the plan was unveiled, and used its international network of law enforcement and other agencies to identify the people behind the screen names.

The anonymity of the Internet is said to result in an increased tolerance of violence. By maximizing the benefits of the Internet, a more open and connected global society may be better able to minimize such threats.


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