Criminals Exploit Cyberspace
By Dialogo April 01, 2012
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Tweets from the media arm of the Ansar al-Mujahideen terrorist group show the
dissemination of propaganda through the microblogging site, Twitter. Similarly, the
Taliban’s Facebook page, self-titled the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, appears like a
legitimate source of information. It presents itself in a professional format mimicking
global news media entities, but it carries a violent agenda.
Now more than ever criminal and terrorist organizations are turning to cyberspace
to expand, support and refine their illegal and often violent undertakings. Propaganda,
scare tactics and even the targeting of news bloggers and security officials by criminal
organizations in Latin America and across the globe are on the rise. In November 2011, a
fourth blogger victim was found decapitated and mutilated in Tamaulipas, Mexico. His body
was found with a note from the Los Zetas criminal organization that claimed the killing was
on account of the victim’s use of social media to narrate their activities.
Social media provides a vehicle for narcotraffickers and terrorists alike to
promote their ideologies and boast about illegal activities. Terrorists use social media
tools to infuse fear via YouTube videos of decapitations, and to radicalize and recruit
youth from miles apart, based on reports from the United Nation’s Counter Terrorism
Implementation Task Force (CTITF). The number of terrorist websites in the last dozen years
has grown from 12 to more than 7,000, according to Gabriel Weimann, a professor of
communication at Haifa University in Israel and a terrorism researcher, in CQ Researcher, a
journal focused on politics and government.
Meanwhile, Mexican cartels glorify their violent lifestyle on social networking
sites like Facebook. “The Internet has turned into a toy for Mexican organized crime,”
Victor Clark, a Tijuana-based drug expert told The Washington Post. “It’s a toy: a toy to
have fun with; a toy to scare people.”
Narcocorridos, ballads that glorify the narcotraffickers, now prohibited by law
from airing on the radio, have found resurgence on the Internet according to the Radio
Netherlands Worldwide website. Applications such as “Qué narco eres” (What kind of
narcotrafficker are you?) are used by over 10,000 people, reported the Mexican newspaper El
Universal. Mexican cartels also intimidate rivals and the local population by posting
threatening messages on social networking sites.
Terrorist and criminal groups use the Internet as an open source information tool.
It assists them in identifying potential targets and gathering the information needed to
carry out violent acts, such as building schematics, photographs and even satellite imagery,
according to CTITF. Evidence from the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, indicates
that terrorists used Google Earth and Google Maps to plan their assault.
Terrorists also exploit social networking sites to uncover the names and addresses
of individuals affiliated with a target, such as hotel or embassy staff, as well as data on
their family connections and their networks, according to the U.N. CTITF May 2011 report.
Similarly, Mexican cartels use social media sites like Facebook to track targets such as
politicians or security forces and their families.
Criminals can use the data they collect from social media in various ways. They can
compile the information of potential victims – income, lifestyle, vacation times, and house
schedules, among other things. Once the information is obtained, then they can commit crimes
like robberies or kidnappings. “If the identity of a government dignitary or military
personnel is compromised, there is a risk in compromising governmental information,” said
Miguel Alcaine, head of the Honduras area office for the United Nation’s International
Telecommunication Union (ITU) in an interview with Diálogo.
Even common criminals seize opportunities to commit fraud and identity theft using
information from social networking sites. Adolescents and young people are particularly at
risk, according to the ITU. “Criminals can hack into social media or gather the information
from what users supply,” said Alcaine. “They [young people] tend to be more naïve in terms
of sharing information, thinking that only trustworthy people would access it or that the
information has no value to criminals.” Given the type of use and time adolescents and young
people dedicate to social media, they are more vulnerable, but people of all ages are
exposed to these risks.
Criminals also use the information they gather about their victims’ lifestyle to
commit online fraud more easily. In the same manner, cyber criminals can collect very
detailed data about the users and correlate it to obtain access to e-banking accounts or
information related to the companies where the users work.
Terrorists secure financing through multiple Internet schemes such as bogus charity
organization websites, credit card fraud and intellectual property theft. Bali bomber Imam
Samudra funded his deadly 2002 attack, where over 200 people died, with an estimated
$150,000 obtained from hacking into bank accounts and credit lines.
Training and Tactical Support
Terrorists not only use the Internet for propaganda, recruitment and fundraising,
but also for training and covert communications. Most active terrorist groups have
established at least one form of online presence, using email, chat rooms, e-groups, forums,
virtual message boards and common platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google
Earth, according to YaleGlobal, the flagship publication of the Yale Center for the Study of
Globalization at Yale University.
Online documents that describe attack methodologies such as homemade poisons,
hostage taking, bomb making and guerilla tactics are widely available. Terrorist websites
and accompanying terrorist-authored magazines, such as Inspire, also provide training and
ideas for terrorist attacks, reported CTITF. These online resources let terrorists train
virtually in many topics, including combat tactics, use of explosives and use of weapons.
Perhaps even more dangerous is the criminals’ use of social media platforms for
up-to-the-minute tactical communications. In a brazen use of Twitter, Mexican cartels alert
each other about the actions of security forces through the microblogging site, reported
Radio Netherlands Worldwide. The tactical support that social media and Voice over Internet
Protocol (VoIP) provide to criminal and terrorist groups makes cyberspace an accomplice to
crime and violence.
In recent years, hidden messages were stored inside digital images or music files,
but the technology has evolved to include video files, which provide significantly more
storage to hide bigger messages. The next boom in covert communications is believed to come
from the exploitation of VoIP.
The VoIP technology that allows consumers to use the Internet to make calls has
also eliminated the size limitations of covert communications exchanged. The very nature of
the technology, which eliminates the need for a file and uses the protocol as a vehicle of
communications across the Internet, allows for longer messages and more descriptive images
to be sent. This type of concealment technique makes it nearly impossible to detect and even
less possible to block.
Today’s technology, including the ever-wider use of social media, is connecting
consumers more than ever before, but it is also delivering new anonymous tools for criminal
and terrorist exploitation. Nonetheless, there are still risks for criminals who use these
tools. Those who participate in social media sites and use VoIP are subject to social
network analysis techniques in which officials can map out their networks of family, friends
and allies. Intelligence gathered from Facebook and Twitter assisted Philippine police to
apprehend the suspect of nine gruesome murders and capture an alleged drug gang who targeted
and robbed affluent people to feed their drug habits. Just as criminals seize on the
widespread use of social media, security agencies, too, are exploring ways to leverage those
same tools to protect consumers.
Sources: Ágora Magazine, CQ Researcher, El Universal, http://e2znews.blogspot.com,
Radio Netherlands Worldwide, U.N. Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force, U.N.
International Telecommunication Union, YaleGlobal
Terrorists Exploit Internet Capabilities
Terrorist groups discover the Internet’s usefulness for fundraising and publicity.
1996 After seizing the Japanese Embassy in Lima, the Peruvian terrorist group
Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement creates a website to publicize its actions.
1997 Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, a separatist militant organization, use stolen
Sheffield University faculty members’ computer IDs and passwords to solicit donations.
1998 Researchers looking for online terrorism sites discover al-Qaida’s website,
1999 Nearly all U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations have an Internet
2000 The U.K. passes the Terrorism Act of 2000, on July 20, which makes it illegal
in the U.K. to collect, make or possess information likely to be used in terrorism.
2001 The 9/11 attackers use the Internet to research flight schools and flights to
coordinate their actions. In October 2001, then President George W. Bush signs the USA
Patriot Act, which prohibits “material support” for terrorists.
2003 Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, leader of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia, pioneers several
digital magazines, including Sawt al-Jihad (The Voice of Jihad).
2004 Video of the decapitation of kidnapped U.S. executive Nicholas Berg is
released on a Malaysian website. The autobiography of Imam Samudra, mastermind of the 2002
Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than 200 people, promotes online credit card
fraud to raise funds.
2005 YouTube quickly becomes a repository for jihadist video content and
commentary. More than 4,000 websites connected to terrorist groups are on the Internet.
2006 President Bush reauthorizes the Patriot Act; U.K. passes the Terrorism Act of
2006, outlawing encouragement or glorification of terrorism; civil libertarians raise
concerns about free speech.
2007 The European police agency Europol begins “Check the Web” program, in which
member states share in monitoring and evaluating terrorists’ websites.
2008 A German court finds Iraqi Kurdish immigrant Ibrahim Rashid guilty of waging
a “virtual jihad” for attempting to recruit individuals online to join al-Qaida.
2009 Canadian resident Saïd Namouh is convicted on October 1 of planning terrorist
acts and distributing jihadist propaganda via the Internet. Researchers are tracking more
than 7,000 websites connected to terrorist groups and their supporters.
2010 Philippine police use Facebook to track down Mark Dizon, the suspect of nine
Sources: Agence France-Presse, CQ Researcher