There is power to be harnessed in the intangible world of chat rooms, social networking websites and international email exchanges. Not surprisingly, terrorists have turned to the virtual realm to fill their ranks. In the battle to spread extremist ideology, the Internet is an important weapon. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaida use Web pages, cellphones and social networking sites to lure recruits and spread their skewed ideology.
“The new militancy is driven by the Web,” Fawaz A. Gerges, a terrorism expert at the London School of Economics, told the Los Angeles Times. “The terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan are being replaced by virtual camps on the Web.”
The new weapons of choice go beyond guns and bombs: Computers, video cameras, DVDs — anything that will disseminate messages across the Internet — have become invaluable to terrorist groups, according to Georgetown University Professor Bruce Hoffman. Hoffman, who has spent 30 years studying terrorism and insurgency, submitted written testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment in May 2010. “The Internet, once seen as an engine of education and enlightenment, has instead become an immensely useful vehicle for terrorists with which to peddle their baseless propaganda and manifold conspiracy theories, lies and clarion call to violence,” he wrote.
The Internet removes geographical barriers, is cheap or free to use and allows real-time communication. In the past decade, the number of terrorist group websites went from fewer than 15 to more than 7,000. Hoffman explained that the “changing face of terrorism in the 21st Century” can be seen in the types of items authorities uncover during their investigations. For example, a 2004 raid at an al-Qaida safe house in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, netted more than the typical terrorist arsenal of guns, ammunition and other explosives. Police also found video cameras, laptops and CD burners — as well as high-speed Internet access.
This cache of new-age weapons was part of a media blitz aimed at Saudi youth. The equipment allowed terrorists to capture dramatic video footage that was then uploaded to websites, whose slick graphics were designed to captivate young recruits.
MONEY AND MANPOWER
To gain support and funding, extremists post online videos of operations and recordings of lectures from their misguided religious scholars, Abdul Hameed Bakier wrote in the weekly publication Terrorism Focus. They use chat rooms and message boards to gain followers; such forums also allow those sympathetic to terrorist causes to seek online guidance.
“The aspiring mujahedeen are from many countries, Arab and non-Arab. In some cases, the requests to take part in jihad are straightforward, where the forum user asks to go to a specific country for jihad,” Bakier said. “The most popular destinations for jihad appear to be Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.”
The case of five American men convicted in Pakistan in June 2010 on terror charges illustrates how the Internet has become an international conduit for those who want to join terrorist organizations. Ramy Zamzam, Waqar Khan, Umar Farooq, Aman Hassan Yemer and Ahmed Minni were sentenced to 10 years in prison for criminal conspiracy and funding terrorist organizations. After traveling from the United States to Pakistan, the men were arrested in December 2009 when authorities began to suspect that they intended to join extremists in neighboring Afghanistan.
Authorities said contact with the terrorists began while the men were still in the United States. A Taliban recruiter began to correspond with Minni after he posted comments on the Internet video website YouTube praising videos showing attacks on U.S. troops. As communication progressed, the men shared an email account and left messages in the drafts folder to avoid detection.
The Los Angeles Times noted that of the 12 U.S. domestic terrorism cases that the FBI disclosed to the public in 2009, the Internet was cited as a tool used to recruit and radicalize in nearly every one. “Basically, al-Qaida isn’t coming to them,” Gerges said. “They are using the Web to go to al-Qaida.”
That was the case with Bryant Neal Vinas, an American, and Najibullah Zazi, a legal permanent resident of the U.S., who both pleaded guilty in U.S. courts to terrorist charges in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The two were swayed by al-Qaida’s Internet propaganda and were eventually radicalized in New York. Later they traveled to Pakistan to join extremist fighters.
The Internet has also shortened the time it takes for terrorists to plan and commit attacks, according to Garry Reid, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism. As an example, he cited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who attempted to blow up a plane in the U.S. on December 25, 2009. Only six weeks elapsed from the time Abdulmutallab made Internet contact with extremists until he tried to destroy a plane full of people.
“I would say the enemy has maximized the use of global technology and global information tools to his great advantage,” Reid remarked during a March 2010 U.S. Senate subcommittee meeting. “I agree with Mr. Reid,” said U.S. Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, counterterrorism coordinator for the U.S. Department of State. “This is an enormous challenge with, really, endless implications — if you look at the history of terrorism, the Internet is probably the most important technological innovation since dynamite, and it’s enormously difficult to deal with all the different aspects.”
The arrest of American Colleen LaRose in October 2009 is another instance of the Internet being exploited for terrorism. U.S. authorities allege that she became obsessed with radical Islamists online and used the screen names “Jihad Jane” and “Fatima LaRose” to recruit male fighters to wage violence in South Asia and Europe; she also enlisted women with Western passports who could travel to Europe in support of terrorism there, according to her indictment. Authorities also believe she solicited funds for these operations online.
“LaRose showed that you can become a terrorist in the comfort of your own bedroom. You couldn’t do that 10 years ago,” Hoffman told the Los Angeles Times. In the months leading up to her arrest, LaRose used social media websites, message boards and email to gain recruits. American Jamie Paulin-Ramirez was alleged to be one of them. Paulin-Ramirez spent long hours on the Internet before she flew to Ireland and married a terror suspect on the day she landed. She was accused of conspiring with fighters overseas, pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad and aiding terrorists. Both women were indicted in March 2010.
In February 2011, LaRose pleaded guilty to four federal charges, including conspiracy to support terrorists and conspiracy to murder a foreign target. The following month, Paulin-Ramirez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
RECRUITING WITH CELLPHONES
Saudi security officials have successfully blocked al-Qaida-affiliated websites and arrested site administrators. Two years ago, Saudi Arabia enacted the Information Technology Law, which prohibits using modern technologies such as computers and cellphones to support terrorism. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, security spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, told the Arabic international newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that the law allows sentences of 10 years in prison and/or a 5 million-riyal (about $1.3 million) fine for anyone who sets up a website that promotes terrorist ideology, helps people communicate with terrorists or provides information on how to make a bomb. Because the Saudi government has made it more difficult for terrorists to operate online, groups such as al-Qaida increasingly use cellphones to send text, audio and video messages. This not only allows them to reach a larger pool of recruits, electronic media researcher Ahmad al-Kayyali told Asharq al-Awsat, but it allows al-Qaida to target young people who use this technology.
Sources: Asharq al-Awsat; The Associated Press; Los Angeles Times, U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment