Technology and Terrorism: How the Internet Facilitates Radicalization
By Marie Wright, PhD, CHS-IV
Extremist groups use the Internet for many reasons: to disseminate propaganda and spread disinformation; to recruit and train volunteers; to solicit funds from sympathizers; to gather data from open sources; to plan and coordinate attacks; to maintain communications—many of them encrypted—between members of a single terrorist group as well as with members of other terrorist groups; to provide tutorials on building and planting explosive devices; and to publicize their acts of violence and ultimately enhance the perceived image of their great strength. This article uses examples gathered from public sources to examine how the Internet is used to facilitate the radicalization of extremist groups, and offers options for implementing an effective response.
The Internet’s greatest assets—ease of access, fast transmission of multimedia information, immense and geographically dispersed audiences, lack of regulation or censorship, and inexpensive development and maintenance of a Web presence—are being used by extremist groups to achieve their terrorist agendas (Weimann, 2004). High on the list of their objectives is expanding the level of radicalization that supports the terrorist enterprise (Jenkins, 2007). Radicalization encompasses a mindset that incorporates violence as the supreme test of one’s belief. It is the necessary mental requirement for recruitment (Jenkins, 2007).
Information operations are crucial to radicalization, and terrorists use the Internet in many different ways to achieve this goal. Some uses are similar to those made by traditional organizations, such as distributing information and soliciting donations, and some are comparable to those made by the average user, such as searching for information (Weimann, 2004). Other uses, though, are distinctly ominous and horrific, such as providing tutorials on explosive devices and publicizing acts of violence.
Disseminating Propaganda and Recruiting Supporters
Over the past decade, the number of terrorist Web sites has grown from less than 100 to more than 5,000 (Kaplan, 2006). According to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, the sites are being used to create speeches, graphics, training manuals, slides, blogs, and Web casts, all for propaganda purposes (Porth, 2006). The sites offer tutorials on building bombs, sneaking into Iraq, setting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and killing U.S. soldiers, and are used to host videos and messages to expand recruitment and fundraising efforts. Some even offer video games where users as young as 7 years of age can pretend to be warriors killing U.S. soldiers (Kaplan, 2006). Pentagon analysts monitor terrorist Web sites, including those of designated foreign terrorist organizations (Table 1) and their sympathizers and supporters (Kaplan, 2006).
Extremist groups routinely use the Internet to spread misinformation and false rumors, hoping to reach disaffected youth, and to enlist sympathizers and financial supporters. Video and audio broadcasts are produced by terrorist-run media production companies, and Islamic extremist messages are promoted in video games, chat rooms, Web sites, and online forums (U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, 2007). CDs, DVDs, training manuals, pamphlets, and copies of speeches are downloaded and modified to better fit terrorist goals and objectives (e.g., to target recruitment-aged youths or to intimidate those involved in the fight against the extremists), then are disseminated through postings on publicly accessible Web sites (Smith, 2006). Messages are transmitted and repeated that accuse the United States and its allies of trying to shame and dishonor Muslim society and culture. Global jihadist messages are aimed directly at the individual, claiming “that the Islamic community faces assault from aggressive infidels and their apostate allies; it is threatened by military attack, cultural corruption, social disintegration, and substandard zeal” (Jenkins, 2007). Recruits are called to action to fight to restore dignity to Islam as a religious obligation required of all true believers (Jenkins, 2007). Although most of the messages are intended to appeal emotionally to youths between the ages of 7 and 25 years of age, some are targeted toward their parents, encouraging them to “support the jihad from [their] kitchens by raising children that support the cause” (Porth, 2006). All messages are carefully worded and translated into targeted languages, including Arabic, Turkish, and Russian (Porth, 2006).
In a statement made by Susan Collins (R-Maine):
The Internet has dramatically expanded the ability of radical groups to recruit, train, motivate, and coordinate terrorists over vast distances without direct contact. Terrorist can consult Web sites to learn techniques for shooting down helicopters, watch videos of hostage beheadings, read letters left by suicide bombers, or listen to messages from militant leaders. And, even if there were no Web sites, the Internet would still allow radicalizing messages as well as operational instructions to be passed along by e-mail. (U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, 2007).
Gathering Data and Planning Attacks
Last year, British military intelligence disclosed that terrorists were using aerial footage displayed by Google Earth to plan their attacks against British bases in Basra. In raids conducted on the homes of insurgents in early January 2007, the military found printouts of satellite photographs showing in detail the buildings and other vulnerable areas (e.g., tents, lavatories, and parking areas for armored vehicles) inside the bases. The photographs were believed to have been made within the past 2 years. In addition to being used for reconnaissance missions against British military bases, the images were reportedly being sold to rogue militias in the Basra marketplace. The British security services remain concerned that Google Earth’s aerial imagery could be used by terrorists to plan attacks against sensitive infrastructures, including electrical power stations (Harding, 2007).
Over the past few years, mujahideen (Muslim guerrilla warriors engaged in a jihad) have been developing a form of online warfare called electronic jihad, where the Internet is used to wage economic and ideological warfare against the West. In particular, Islamic hackers belonging to six groups —Ansar Al-Jihad LilJihad Al-Electroni, Inhiyar AlDolar, Hackboy, Majma’ Al-Haker Al-Muslim, Majmu’at Al-Jihad Al-Electroni, and Munazamat Fursan Al-Jihad Al-Electronic—have used their Web sites to recruit volunteers to participate in electronic attacks, maintain communication between others engaging in online warfare, and coordinate their cyber attacks (Alshech, 2007). To date, most of the hacking operations have been targeted at religious Web sites that promote ideologies perceived to be incompatible with mujahideen beliefs (e.g., Christian Web sites) or those believed to be defamatory to Islam (e.g., non-Islamic forums and sites promoting women’s rights). Few attacks have been launched against Web sites maintained by the U.S. government, or those associated with U.S. defense or financial systems, although these sites are certainly of interest. In 2006, an Islamic forum conducted a survey among its participants concerning the targets they would like to attack. Among those identified were the FBI and CIA Web sites, as well as the Web sites of Western financial institutions (Alshech, 2007).
The cyber attacks conducted so far have not been particularly effective, although they have been well-organized. The online attacks are led by attack coordinators, who are responsible for posting links to the targeted Web sites and to the hacking programs that will be used by the participants against those sites. The attack coordinators also are responsible for encouraging Islamic forum members to participate, and they have been responding in increasing numbers (Alshech, 2007).
Two types of Denial of Service (DoS) attacks have been favored by the Islamic attackers. The first is message flooding, where a targeted Web server is overwhelmed with incoming data packets, causing network performance to slow down to an unacceptable level or stop altogether. The second is a variation of a buffer overflow attack known as a ping attack. A ping is a packet that allows an attacker to determine whether a given system is active on a network. In this type of DoS attack, a flood of pings is transmitted to a targeted site. The pings saturate the victim’s bandwidth and fill up the system’s buffer (memory space), causing network performance to deteriorate and the system to hang, crash, or reboot. These two types of DoS attacks are neither new nor particularly effectual, and in most cases, the targeted Web sites have returned to normal functioning within a few hours of the attack (Alshech, 2007).
There are signs that extremist groups are interested in carrying out more sophisticated types of cyber attacks. Disaffected youths who join the terrorist cause tend to be more comfortable using information technology than their elder counterparts, and the technological interdependencies of our critical infrastructures (e.g., banking and financial networks, electrical power systems, water treatment facilities, emergency services systems, transportation systems, and telecommunication systems) are tempting targets. On January 19, 2008, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency analyst Tom Donahue disclosed that online attacks had disrupted the power equipment in several regions outside of the United States, causing power outages in several cities (McMillan, 2008). Although not terrorist-related, these attacks did not go unnoticed by extremist groups, raising the specter of similarly caused events that might result in mass casualties, escalating levels of fear, and adverse economic reverberations.
Maintaining Secret Communications
In January 2007, an encryption program called Mujahideen Secrets 1 was released on the Web site of Al-Ekhlaas, an Islamic forum and Al-Qaeda support group. The program provided users with the ability to encrypt files and e-mail messages using five different cryptographic algorithms, including 256-bit symmetric (secret key) encryption systems and 2,048-bit asymmetric (public key) encryption systems (Messmer, 2008a).
One year later, an enhanced version of the software was released on the same Web site. Mujahideen Secrets 2 offers additional capabilities not included in Mujahideen Secrets 1, including an easier-to-use graphical user interface and the ability to encrypt chat communications (Vijayan, 2008; Messmer, 2008b). This latter capability is designed to better protect the identities and locations of terrorists while online (Anonymous, 2008).
Publicizing Acts of Violence and Enhancing the Perception of Strength
For several years, jihadists have used the Internet to broadcast their atrocities and thereby promote an image of power. In 2002, the execution-style murder of journalist Daniel Pearl was electronically distributed. Over the next 2 years, as better video compression and editing tools became available and network bandwidth increased, other videos were distributed (Glasser & Coll, 2005). On April 9, 2004, a short video entitled “Heroes of Fallujah” was posted by Abu Musab Zarqawi’s followers, showing masked men positioning a roadside bomb in a hole in the road, then capturing the result as it destroyed a U.S. armored personnel carrier (Glasser & Coll, 2005). More graphic videos followed, including one distributed on May 11, 2004, that underscored the horrific partnership that had evolved between technology and terrorism. On that day, a link to a video showing Nicholas Berg’s beheading by Abu Musab Zarqawi was posted on the al-Ansar Web forum (Glasser & Coll, 2005). Since then, terrorist atrocities have been recorded and distributed online in almost real-time.
A 2006 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that “activists identifying themselves as jihadists … are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion” (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2006). Jihadist operations are designed to draw attention, demonstrate capability, harm their enemies, galvanize the Muslim community, provoke and attract recruits to the cause (Jenkins, 2007), and ultimately, foster a perception of great strength (Kaplan, 2006). According to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the threat of terrorist violence against the United States will persist and evolve over the next 3 years (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2007).
Implementing an effective response
The increasing threat from radicalization requires a deliberate and comprehensive response. The options outlined below collectively form a coordinated counter to terrorist information operations; these options are suggested for further discussion.
Option 1: Develop a stronger connection with Muslim communities.
To help prevent the alienation and isolation that many believe are the prerequisites for radicalization, we need to develop a better understanding of, and connection with, Muslim communities, both in the United States and throughout the world (Sutherland, 2007). Muslim community leaders should be active participants in improving cross-cultural dialogue, and they should play an active role in influencing Muslim perspectives in other parts of the world (Sutherland, 2007). To assist in this endeavor, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs recently established Citizen Dialogues as part of their Strategic Speaker Program. Citizen Dialogues sends teams of American Muslims abroad to connect with Muslim communities in other countries, and individual speakers to talk about religious freedom, diversity, and Muslim life in the United States (Curtin, 2007). State and local governments must reach out to the Muslim communities, and individuals from the federal government (e.g., Department of Justice, Department of the Treasury, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State) must continue to meet with leaders from these communities to further establish open lines of communication (Sutherland, 2007).
Option 2: Encourage the integration of immigrants.
Leaders in the Muslim communities can assist in the integration of new immigrants, and they should be encouraged to do so (Sutherland, 2007). To assist in this endeavor, some promising community activities have been initiated by the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties within the U. S. Department of Homeland Security. For example, in Michigan, the Instructor’s Guide for Community Emergency Response Training has been translated into Arabic, helping American Muslims to become more actively involved in training efforts for emergency response. Although an encouraging start, much more needs to be done to promote assimilation.
Option 3: Implement a comprehensive online counter-narrative.
We must better understand the narrative used by violent extremists so that we can implement the necessary multimedia counter-narrative to combat extremism and promote integration (Sutherland, 2007). The Digital Outreach Team within the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs has established a U.S. presence in Arabic cyberspace (Curtin, 2007); however, to better compete with those who frequent terrorist sites, the federal government should launch additional Web sites, blogs, Web casts, video and audio broadcasts, chat rooms, online forums, and video games to create an online counter-offensive (U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, 2007).
Option 4: Assist our allies in implementing a comprehensive online counter-narrative.
How we enable and assist our allies in launching their online rebuttals and multimedia information campaigns is just as important as how we create and transmit our own counter-narrative. We must continue to develop sound relationships with allied governments (Sutherland, 2007), and help them to understand that although extremist propaganda and other online terrorist activities pose a significant danger to us, the threat is equally perilous to them.
Option 5: Promote interagency initiatives to undermine terrorist information operations.
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs has established the Counterterrorism Communications Center, an initiative that draws together several U.S. government entities, including the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Experts from appropriate government agencies are assigned to the Center to develop and deliver proactive messages that are designed to undermine ideological support for violent extremism (Curtin, 2007), and to respond to statements and actions by terrorist groups and leaders (Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Policy Coordinating Committee, 2006). Working subgroups of the Center study different aspects of the philosophical struggle, including terrorists’ use of the Internet, television programming, and publishing technologies, and make appropriate recommendations for action (Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Policy Coordinating Committee, 2006).
Greater efforts need to be made to involve private sector entities in government interagency initiatives. The travel and tourism industry, the higher education community, and the business and labor communities have a collective interest in improving U.S. relations with individuals throughout the world (Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Policy Coordinating Committee, 2006).
Information operations are vital to radicalization; however, the United States and the international community have yet to marshal a coordinated and effectively resourced counter to the use of the Internet by extremist groups (Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 2007a). The Internet is used in numerous ways and, from the terrorists’ perspective, each is indispensable.
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