Terror on the Internet

November 27, 2006 • Digital News, Public Relations • by

Medienheft, November 27, 2006

For international terrorism, the Internet serves as a platform for self-promotion, a weapon for spreading fear and a tool for recruiting new adherents. In addition, it is ideal for networking and for planning terrorist attacks the world over. In his new book, “Terror on the Internet”, terrorism expert Gabriel Weimann offers an up-to-date overview of the phenomenon and describes the challenges mounted by post-modern terrorism.

To reach maximal disruption with minimal means – this has forever been the objective of terrorism, but it was not before the age of electronic mass communication that this goal could finally be realised. Among the more recent examples, instances of media-boosted terrorist acts that deserve a mention include: the attack on Israeli athletes by radical Palestinian group “Black September” during the Olympic Games 1972 in Munich; the kidnapping and killing of industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer by German terrorist group RAF (1977); the hostage drama of Gladbeck, Germany (1988); the kidnapping of the Wallert family by the radical-Islamist rebels of Abu-Sayyaf (2000); Nine-Eleven (2001); the hostage drama of Moscow (2002); the bombings in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). In each of these cases, the media – television in particular – played a less than glorious role as it willingly acted as a platform for terrorist messages.

Today, most kidnappings and terrorist attacks are almost automatically blown out of proportion by the media, turning the global news-making machinery into the latest weapon in the arsenal of terrorists. The strategy of asymmetrical communication warfare has gathered even more momentum with the advent of the Internet, bolstering the position of terrorists everywhere in the world. Nowadays, it seems all you need for setting the global agenda is a computer with Internet access. As an example, the number of videos showing the decapitation of political enemies has increased dramatically since the Iraq war of 2003. Grainy images of the execution of the US businessman Nicholas Berg two and a half years ago have proven conclusively that those responsible for producing such gruesome Internet fare can always count on the press and television when it comes to spreading their message of terror.

An “Electronic Jihad” can be waged at the price of broadband Internet access! It is certainly no exaggeration to say that online media have revolutionised the way terrorist propaganda works, making it faster, cheaper, practically untraceable and global – all courtesy of the Internet. The notion of a small band of terrorists who are hiding away in Afghan caves and caverns, busily hoarding weapons and concocting, under the guidance of their bearded leader, plans and strategies for their “Holy War” should be dismissed as what it is: romantic folklore. Intelligent networks like al-Qaeda function much more like loose associations of many people with even more faces, all of which can get and keep in touch via electronic mail, news forums and other tools provided by the World Wide Web. Of all technological innovations, it had to be the Internet, the most democratic and uncontrollable of all the media, which turned terrorism into a kind of vertically organised franchise, for which everyone who is willing to give it a try can “kill and maim to the best of their abilities” (German news magazine Der Spiegel).

The claim that the global sphere of communication has, among other things, truly become a breeding ground for international terrorism is massively substantiated by the findings of Gabriel Weimann and his team of media researchers at Haifa University, Israel, and has recently been published as Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges. In it, Cyberspace is described as the ideal meeting place for all the supporters of a terrorist cause, a global, round-the-clock platform for the anonymous exchange of data and information as well as a tool for professional fundraising, recruitment and mobilisation of new proselytes of both genders and all ages. Because of its decentralised structure and the wide array of multimedia tools, the Net offers easy integration of text, graphics, sound and film. For Weimann, the Internet is the perfect “new arena” for engaging in all sorts of terrorist activities.

Reading Weimann’s book, a culmination of several years of study, makes it seem plausible that terrorists finally have found the weapon for waging the psychological war against their enemies. Hence the disturbingly long list of ways terrorists are using the web for their cause, starting with “data mining”, i.e. the simple and easy collection of useful data, such as the timetables for all kinds of public transport and the exact location of promising targets (nuclear power plants, harbours, airports, etc.); “networking”, i.e. communicating among the different terrorist organisations through e-mail and chat rooms; as well as accessing “instructions and online manuals”, i.e. downloadable instructional material such as videos, pamphlets and online manuals on how to build bombs. In short, every tool the ultra-rapid technological progress of the last few years has churned out is being used by terrorists everywhere and most of it is available absolutely free of charge.

Even the actual planning and coordination of terrorist attacks is a theoretical – and practical – possibility, judging from the impressive material gathered in Weimann’s book. As an example, as early as in December 2003, i.e. three months before the bombings in Madrid (which killed 201 and injured 1,240), detailed information was available on “Global Islamic Media”, a website run by Al-Qaeda. Not only was the motive (forcing US troops out of Iraq) and the possible target (Spain) mentioned, the author of that text – apparently a member of the “Media Committee for the Victory of the Iraqi People” – also proposed the upcoming Spanish elections as the ideal time, describing in detail how to bring Spain – for the author the weakest link in the chain of supporters of the War in Iraq – to its knees: “It is necessary to make utmost use of the upcoming general election in Spain in March next year. We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure” Weimann, p. 134.

Over a period of seven years, Gabriel Weimann has meticulously collected and catalogued a vast amount of terrorist web material, systematically analysing it in terms of its target audiences and the scope of its rhetoric. It is based on these empirical results that Weimann – a former Senior Fellow of the renowned United State Institute of Peace, Washington – concludes that the Internet truly has become an important, and often a vital, instrument for the realisation of a number of fatal terrorist attacks that have occurred over the last few years. There is no reason to believe that its importance will diminish anytime soon. Rather, as is indicated by the results of Weimann’s analysis based on a variety of methods, a disturbing trend can be found: in the last few years, showing that there has been a veritable explosion of the number of websites set up and operated by terrorist groups – from 12 in 1998 to 4,800 in 2006. And it is certainly not only al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists who make use of such websites. While a few years ago, only half of all the 37 terrorist organisations designated as such by the US State Department ran websites, in 2004 all of them did, many offering several Internet platforms at once.

As is indicated by the title of Weimann’s book, the alarming Internet-presence of al-Quaeda, Abu Sayyaf, ETA, Hamas and Co. truly is a huge challenge for politics – as well as the media – especially in terms of finding new methods for fighting terrorism. Surprisingly, though, this very important topic is treated rather superficially in Weimann’s book. Even this widely recognised expert – on his sixth monograph about media and terrorism – doesn’t seem to have too many answers when it comes to solving one the most pressing problems entailed here, i.e: how can democratic societies effectively fight terrorism without shattering their existing legal frameworks? The truth is that the very structure of the Internet makes most attempts at control and censorship futile anyway, China being the exception that proves the rule. Hence the lack of any ready-made solutions – and Weimann’s relatively scarce treatment of the question.

All of this might cast some doubts on the benefits of our often lauded liberal times, which are based on a complete freedom of expression, digital and otherwise. Nevertheless, and this is Weimann’s key message, there is no point in working oneself into a surveillance frenzy like the USA did with their “Patriot Act”. The price to be paid, in terms of a loss of basic civil rights, simply is too high. For the media, however, there is a way to help counteract the influence of terrorism: it simply has to avoid all the hysterical news hype and the unnecessary sensationalism that is unleashed at the release of another terrorist threat. In this way, the media would stop being a global platform for terrorists – people who thrive on exactly this kind of global publicity.

The modern mercenaries of terror love the vast and uncontrollable expanse of the Internet, and a large part of organised crime will inevitably, make use of this powerful tool. Nevertheless, the defenders of our societies are well advised – at least until a new, more potent recipe for the fight against terrorism will be found – to use the Internet just as their opponents do, but in even more clever, more technologically astute and, hence, more effective ways. For it is a fact that even the most experienced cyber-terrorist is bound to leave some traces of his existence on the web, and the Internet won’t be such an ideal hiding place forever. Rather, the Internet’s apparent drawback – its all-pervasiveness – might work in favour of those fighting terrorism, making it possible to beat terrorists with their own weapons. As a case in point, Weimann describes (p. 183ff) the FBI’s successful attempts at monitoring suspicious activities among the users of specific computer networks, i.e.: credit card transactions or online flight bookings, with the help of specialised computer programs like Carnivore and other spying software – tools that are not entirely without their critics. Whether such attempts will prove effective in the fight against terrorism, however, is beyond the empirical scope of Weimann’s study; nevertheless, it does seem plausible.

So far, there has been no real reason for panic. After all, none of the most apocalyptic scenarios that have been circulating – terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants or a digital strike that brings down the global financial system – have fortunately turned out to be fictional. Still, people – including media researchers – should keep an eye on the terrorist flows of information. For, as Weimann states, “There is a real war going on in cyberspace but it is invisible to most of us” – one more reason to recommend Weimann’s book as the reference text for those interested in the subject.

Reference:

Weimann, Gabriel (2006): Terror on the Internet. The New Arena, the New Challenges. Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press. [309 pages, 24,95 Euro, ISBN: 9781929223718]

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Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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