Terrorism’s New Avatars – Part II

Amid the clamor surrounding intelligence failures and opening of new fronts in counter-terrorism effort, a new link has come to light – the open space of the Internet. Conventional wisdom holds that the war in Afghanistan weakened Al Qaeda and eroded its operational efficiency. Terrorism expert Gabriel Weimann believes this to be far from the truth. Social networking sites, online chat rooms, streaming video and many other features have made the Internet an ideal tool not only to connect disparate terrorist cells, improving operational coordination, but also to recruit new members while bolstering cohesion among current jihadists. Some would-be militants have even used their technological prowess, demonstrated on the Internet, to gain admission into Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, US Army reports have cautioned that Twitter or Facebook could be used to execute many of the terrorists’ nefarious plots. In the end, the global connections afforded by online social networking, thought to be the epitome of a free, democratic society, also turn out to be tools exploited by terrorists that ultimately wish to overthrow such a society. – YaleGlobal

Terrorism’s New Avatars – Part II

Al Qaeda recruits terrorists on-line, turning the democratic space on its head
Gabriel Weimann
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Killer charm: Terrorist mastermind Younes Tsouli taught hacking and bomb-making online

HAIFA: One of the little-noticed facts that connects many recent acts of terrorism – from Nidal Malik Hassan, the Fort Hood Shooter, to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas day bomber, is the growing use of the Internet by terrorists not only to spread their propaganda but also to recruit and raise funds. Hassan maintained online contacts with radical imam Anwar al-Alwaki while Abdulmutallab told investigators that a Yemeni cleric he contacted through the Internet put him in touch with an Al Qaeda. Research shows that about 90 percent of terrorist activity on the Internet consists of using social networking tools, be they independent bulletin boards, Paltalk, or Yahoo! eGroups. These forums act as a virtual firewall to safeguard the identities of those who participate, and they offer surfers easy access to terrorist material, to ask questions, and even to contribute and aid Cyber jihad.

Unfriendly sky: Nigerian bomber failed to destroy flight 253, but is a hero on the web. The Al Qaeda site 'the castle' (below) has been used for propaganda and recruitment

There is a consensus that the US military campaign to eliminate Al Qaeda’s operational base in Afghanistan produced the subsequent decentralization of the group, effectively weakening of Al Qaeda’s operational capacity. However, this has proved to be false. The Internet, in fact, increased the inter-operational and communication capabilities of Al Qaeda’s decentralized cells. Today, all active terrorist groups have established at least one form of presence on the Internet and most of them use all formats of up-to-date online platforms – e-mail, chatrooms, e-groups, forums, virtual message boards, and resources like You-Tube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Earth.

Chat rooms and electronic forums enable terrorist groups to communicate with members and supporters all over the world, to recruit new followers, and to share information at little risk of identification by authorities. The free chatroom service PalTalk, which includes voice and video capabilities, has become particularly popular with terrorist cells. In one PalTalk chat room, British Islamic militants set up support forums for the deceased leader of the insurgents in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In another, Arabic-speaking users share personal experiences of fighting Arab-Afghans. And in a third, relatives of Iraqi insurgents praise the “martyrdom” of the terrorists.

In addition to being used to generate support, chatrooms are used to share tactical information. Jihadist message boards and chatrooms have been known to have “experts” directly answer questions about how to mix poisons for chemical attacks, how to ambush soldiers, how to carry out suicide attacks and how to hack into computer systems. One chatroom is used on a daily basis to post the links for Al Qaeda propaganda videos and terrorist instruction manuals. The forums Al-Qalah, Shamikh, Majahden, and Al-Faloja are especially popular among terrorist cells and new recruits are encouraged to refer to the sites to read the jihadist literature. These chatrooms also aim to convince prospective members to join or to stage personal suicide attacks.

There are countless cases of jihadists using the Internet to their advantage, but the story of Younes Tsouli demonstrates the resourcefulness of Internet-savvy terrorists. As one journalist put it, Tsouli, more commonly known by his internet pseudonym Irhabi 007, “illustrated perfectly how terrorists are using the internet not just to spread propaganda, but to organize attacks.” In 2003, Irhabi 007 joined various terrorist internet forums, where he uploaded and published pictures, videos, and instruction manuals on computer hacking. Shortly thereafter his skills were sought out by Al Qaeda leaders who wanted him to provide logistical support for their online operations. In 2005, Tsouli became the administrator of the extremist internet forum al-Ansar, where he published bomb making instruction manuals and details related to suicide bombing operations. He helped Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda faction in Iraq and became a central figure in enabling Zarqawi to reestablish the links between Al Qaeda affiliated groups after the fall of the Taliban. When Tsouli was caught in 2006 British investigators found photos of locations in Washington D.C. that had been emailed to him by colleagues, suggesting he was helping to organize a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill.

An intelligence report released in October of 2008 by the US Army’s 304th Military Intelligence Battalion included a chapter entitled the "Potential for Terrorist Use of Twitter," which expressed the Army’s concern over the use of the blogging services. The report says that Twitter could become an effective coordination tool for terrorists trying to launch militant attacks and includes references to several pro-Hezbollah Tweets.

The report also highlights three possible scenarios of terrorist usage of this online format: (1) send and receive near real-time updates on the logistics of troops’ movements in order to conduct more successful ambushes; (2) use mobile phones to send images of a suicide bomber’s location to a second operative who can use the near actual-time imagery to time the moment to detonate the explosive device; and (3) hack into a soldier’s online account and communicate with other soldiers under the stolen identity. Although the last two options seem a bit far-fetched and difficult for terrorists to carry out successfully, the first option is a viable threat. The instantaneous update capabilities could help the terrorists organize more precise and detrimental ambushes.

According to the SITE report, despite the use of Twitter, jihadists continue to be wary of networking sites such as Facebook. In response to a forum members’ suggestion to become friends on Facebook, Ansar al-Mujahideen posters cautioned that such a network of friends was a danger to Western jihadists. Several forum members noted that the risks of having their real identity tied to their online personas outweighed the potential gains from networking with other jihad supporters. A member of a Jihadi forum in English issued a warning, reminding readers that a Facebook network would allow security agencies to trace entire groups of jihadists, arguing: “Don’t make a network in Facebook...Then kuffar will know every friend you have or had in the past.”

Noting the prevalent use of Facebook, jihadists suggested that it be used to strengthen jihadist media and reach a wider audience. A jihadist posting on al-Faloja, a password-protected jihadist forum, on December 9, 2008, applauded the “YouTube Invasion.” He noted the “great success” thus far in publishing jihadist media on YouTube, and urged jihadists to maintain that campaign. It was through YouTube that the five American youth, now in custody in Pakistan, sought to contact terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

By harnessing the power of a global community created by online social networks to their advantage, not only can terrorists promote global paranoia, share their messages with sympathizers and obtain donations; they can also create more terrorists. The Internet has provided terrorists with a whole new virtual realm to conduct their sinister back-ally transactions. Instead of waiting for web-surfers to come across their websites and propaganda materials, terrorists can now lure targeted individuals to the sites. The best way to persuade individuals to support your cause is to create an emotional, psychological or intellectual bond with the victim. The perspective adherent should feel that he is part of a community. What better way to do that than to send them a friend request? Still, while terrorists appear to use online networking more frequently and efficiently, they have also become more aware of the risks involved. Paradoxically, the most innovative network of communication developed by the West with its numerous online networking platforms, now serves the interests of its greatest foe – namely international terrorism.


Gabriel Weimann is Professor of Communications, Haifa University, Israel and The School of International Studies, American University, Washington, DC.
Copyright © 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization