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Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, The New Challenges
By Gabriel Weimann
United States Institute of Peace Press
The worst things most of us ever encounter on the Internet are irritating junk e-mails and requests to give strangers our banking details. We are lucky. We do not see the threats and dangers hiding in plain sight, openly displayed on-line by those who wish us ill.
Terrorists, of course, are also attracted to the Internet, which offers them a worldwide propaganda and fundraising platform, secure and anonymous channels to communicate and plan with allies and extensive tools for sowing fear. It can be accessed from any country and is thus immune from any individual government's efforts to control it.
Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a communications professor at Haifa University who has published extensively on how terrorists transmit their messages, gives a dry, thoroughly researched and somewhat bleak picture of the situation in his latest effort, Terror on the Internet.
He is reassuring, briefly, on one point: The fear that terrorists may be able to hack into computer systems to bring down electrical networks or cripple banking operations is overplayed. Malefactors have so far not made serious or sustained efforts to commit such cyber-terror attacks, Weimann notes, before undermining his own optimism by suggesting that this may not remain the case for long.
As of last year, Weimann estimates, terror organizations operated roughly 4,300 Web sites, which would shift from server to server to escape being shut down. Many put out material designed to appeal to outsiders, trumpeting their grievances while playing down the means they were using to redress them. Others take advantage of their electronic platforms to recruit and rally the faithful.
Some openly intimidate and seek to impress impressionable minds, with a particularly disgusting example provided by Hamas, which posted a picture of the decapitated head of a female suicide bomber who killed two Israeli border policemen together with words of praise for her deed. This particular site, by the way, is intended for children.
The urge of normally conspiratorial and secretive groups to publicize themselves in such a way gives intelligence agencies unprecedented opportunities to study the mindset of their enemies. Internet communications can be tracked and decoded; at the very least, patterns of communication can provide important clues about how such organizations operate. The more the terrorists talk, the greater the chances for the intelligence agencies to listen.
The (relatively) good news does not stop there, according to Weimann. The author notes that both governments and private individuals have forced Internet providers to remove terror Web sites from their servers, a process that disrupts the ability of the bad guys to transmit their messages.
At the same time, however, the author does not forget the other, indirect costs imposed on societies fighting terrorists. Many countries have introduced legislation restricting terrorist access to the Internet, but the specter of censorship and other threats to civil liberties has rightly limited the use of this option.
Weimann's cool analysis, backed by copious evidence for his claims, is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the subject, and his prose doesn't get entangled in academic terminology. He takes a realistic view in acknowledging that there is no easy way to banish terror groups from the information superhighway.
One quibble, though. The author points out that the decentralized nature of the Internet enables terrorists to form self-sustaining cells, allowing them to come together for a brief period of mayhem, then disconnect and repackage themselves into other groups without the need for a leader or command structure. This makes it harder for law enforcement agencies to track them down.
This is true, but some old rules also still apply. Terrorists continue to need money, arms and political muscle to deliver their most powerful punches. The Internet is a useful way of supplementing these tools, but better yet is that old-fashioned but still essential resource, a nation-state willing to provide all three without the aid of computers or modems. Ask Syria. Ask Iran.