Islamic terrorism is being promoted by a phenomenal growth in jihadist Web sites, which have grown from fewer than 20 five years ago to more than 4,000 today, according to French and US researchers writing correspondence published in the September 29 issue of the prestigious journal Nature.
Dr. Scott Atran of the Jean Nicod Institute in France and the University of Michigan and Dr. Jessica Stern of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University concluded that, due to the increasing role played by the Internet in the spread of terrorism, efforts should foster alternative peer groups in cities and cyberspace showing the same commitment and compassion towards their own members as terror groups seem to offer, but in life-enhancing ways.
"It is fair to say global Islamic jihad wouldn't exist without the Internet," said Yael Shahar, a researcher who specializes in the study of cyber-terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. "Today, the structure of the Web is the structure of terrorist organizations. Without it, they would be reduced to local cells."
Al-Qaida, Shahar said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, set the model for Web-based terrorist organizations that have no specific geographical location and for whom cyberspace has essentially replaced the need for state sponsorship, state-based espionage agencies and other forms of support. The Internet, according to Shahar, allows terrorist organizations to function like major corporations who do business in the global village online using workers from different countries and which grow by mergers.
"Suppose you are a small organization in Turkey concerned with regional jihad," Shahar said. "Along comes al-Qaida, and says 'We know you're not doing so well, but we'll help you build bombs and send you a suicide bomber or two if you sign on to global jihad.'"
Shahar said that the use of the Internet for global terror unfolds in four fundamental ways. Cyberspace is a platform for propaganda and incitement aimed both at the enemy and at existing and potential supporters. Often, on-line propaganda may send a double message one directed at the Western world and a second, more violent message, written in Arabic. It exploits the vulnerability of the democratic communications revolution. "Beheading videos [are] not aimed at people in totalitarian regimes who can't do anything about it," she said, explaining they are aimed at a democracy where enough of those videos may cause people to ask why their soldiers are fighting a war.
In addition, the Internet is a source of recruiting potential jihadists in both closed and open Internet forums. Command and control to carry out attacks, coordinate cells, send user manuals, and select targets is also done via the Web along with more administrative functions such as fundraising. "At the forefront of global jihad are technologically savvy, Western-educated terrorists," Shahar said.
"The problem is that counterterrorism agencies and jihadists are not on the same wavelength. We need to be using the same means as the terrorists, with the same kind of freedom, and that is not going to happen very soon," Shahar said, because counterterrorism agencies are still hierarchical, and are not exchanging information in real time for political, economic, and technological reasons. In addition, there is a strong resistance to change and various structural problems.
"We're already in the middle of a Third World War, in which the Internet is the means used by both sides to get their messages across," Shahar said. "Unfortunately, the West isn't doing so well."
Like Atran and Stern, Shahar advocates the creation of a network of researchers that will use their its methods to recruit supporters of counterterrorism.
"We need to find out what works for them and use it against them," Shahar said.