Terrorists rely on tech tools

The Internet has become the new Afghanistan for terrorist training, recruitment, and fundraising, an academic says.

Terrorist groups are exploiting the accessibility, vast audience, and anonymity of the Internet to raise money and recruit new members, according to a researcher at the University of Haifa in Israel.

The number of terrorists' Web sites has increased by 571 percent in the past seven years, says Gabriel Weimann, chair of the university's communications department.

"Al Qaeda doesn't operate like a terrorist organization anymore," Weimann said, speaking at the New American Foundation in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. "They don't live together, they don't train together, sometimes they don't even meet." They don't need human interaction as long as they can communicate, he added.

Online Training

Al Qaeda's publication Al Battar or "The Sword" is an online training camp for its network around the world, Weimann noted. Edition nine of the publication was devoted to kidnappings. It suggests methods, potential targets, negotiating tactics, and even directions on how to videotape the beheading of victims and post the video on the Web. That issue was posted before the recent round of kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq.

The latest edition, number 13, was posted to Al Qaeda's Web site Wednesday. Weimann said it is not yet fully translated, but its central theme is weaponry.

Referring the recent beheadings, Weimann said that such acts are very low-tech, while videotaping and posting them on the Internet are very high-tech. Terrorists thus use a combination of primitive and sophisticated measures in their attacks.

"Cyberterrorism is a dark cloud on the horizon," he said of potential future actions.

Terrorists who use the Web to promote their causes operate the same way most savvy marketers do, he said. They inform their audience based on what they think most appeals to different groups of people.

For example, Weimann cited a Web site about the terrorist group Hezbollah. The English version and the Arabic version initially appeared identical. But closer inspection revealed places where the text of the two sites differed.

This is a challenge to governments, Weimann argued. "They need people who can go deep into the text, who can read the metaphors, not those who just passed Arabic 101."

Games and Glamour

The Colombian terrorist organization FARC, which Weimann called one of the most violent groups in South America, has a home page that at first glance looks like an agricultural resource.

Many terrorists' sites are geared toward children, he added. The Hezbollah site provides links to downloadable games.

"These games are training children to play the role of terrorists, to be suicide bombers and to actually kill political leaders," Weimann said.

The Hamas organization also has a kids' section that features cartoonlike stories meant to recruit young people.

Another strong recruiting tool consists of glamorizing those who have died for the cause. Hammas's site shows pages and pages of pictures of terrorist martyrs, together with their names and the dates of their suicide missions.

"This is a rewarding medal," Weimann said. "It glorifies the people who have done it and also recruits new ones."

Other terrorists' sites display falsified pictures of Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush shot or lying in caskets. Often, such sites provide detailed instructions on how to make a detonation device out of a cell phone, how to make a bomb, or how to deliver poison through the mail.

Spying Online?

Why doesn't the United States shut down these sites that spread dangerous information in cyberspace?

Many observers believe that the U.S. government monitors these sites and benefits from having them available for "sniffing out" information, Weimann said. In addition, some people worry that shutting down even terrorists' sites constitutes censorship.

Weimann suggests a third reason: "No one can totally block you out," he said of the sites. "They can always re-emerge." He cautions that we have not yet experienced any real cyberterrorist attacks.

He also sees an irony to the terrorists' savvy use of the Internet. "Exactly those who are critical of modernity and America are using it to their advantage," he said.