Analysis: Holy war on the Web: Israel and the cyber-battle against the jihadis

The arrest of two Israeli operatives is an alarming indication that al-Qaida can penetrate the country.

al qaeda 88 (photo credit: )
al qaeda 88
(photo credit: )
Al-Qaida is using the Internet to bypass physical borders and recruit susceptible Muslim Israelis and Palestinians for jihad. The recent arrest of two Beduin from Rahat, who are accused of scouting targets for terror attacks, marking out the Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv, and gathering intelligence on IDF bases in the Negev, marks the latest known infiltration of al-Qaida into Israel, but also demonstrates that Israeli counterterrorism agents have followed the jihadis into the digital arena. Ever since the destruction of its training camps in Afghanistan by the United States in 2001 following the September 11 attacks, al-Qaida has relied almost exclusively on the Web to indoctrinate, train and raise a global army. Over the past decade, it has founded a virtual base of operations in the form of thousands of Web sites. Since al-Qaida has no territory on the planet in which it can freely operate, the Internet has become a natural safe haven for it. Israel has so far ranked low on al-Qaida's list of targets - jihadis have been preoccupied with striking Arab-Muslim countries they view as heretical, launching sporadic attacks in Western states and battling coalition forces in Iraq in a bloody bid to reestablish the caliphate there. Recently, however, Israel has featured far more prominently in propaganda messages issued by jihadi leaders. In May, Osama bin Laden released an audio message timed to coincide with Israel's 60th independence celebrations, in which he vowed, "We will not give up a single inch of Palestine as long as there is one true Muslim on earth." The Sunni al-Qaida would dearly like to pull off a major, mass casualty terrorist attack in Israel - such an attack would bolster its claim of waging holy war on behalf of the Palestinians, and help ward off challenges from the Shi'ite claimants to the jihadi throne, namely Iran and Hizbullah. Sheikh Hamid al-Ali, based in Kuwait, is a leading Islamist ideologue whose teachings are often posted on Islamist Web sites. "Lebanon is a vivid example of the Iranian expansionist scheme at the expense of real Arab causes, which are exploited by Shi'ite sects," Ali said in a recently posted message on an al-Qaida affiliated Web forum. "The jihadi movement has to be aware of the reality of the size of Iran's influence, and must not allow Iran to exploit legitimate causes." Al-Qaida ideologues have also expressed deep disappointment with Hamas, which they accuse of being too nationalist and provincial. Al-Qaida members routinely condemn Hamas for failing to declare an Islamic emirate in Gaza, an entity they say could link up with other pockets of Islamist rule in a future caliphate state. One message, posted on the jihadi al-Firdaws forum several months ago by a user who identified himself as Palestinian, read, "When Hamas took over Gaza, we eagerly anticipated their announcement of the establishment of an Islamic emirate, as was the case in Afghanistan and in Somalia. But this did not happen." Al-Qaida's attempt to create local terror cells have been met by a determined Israeli response. Security forces here have employed a range of techniques to monitor jihadi Web sites, and have called on the services of an agency that is keen to keep its name out of the limelight to eavesdrop on al-Qaida Internet chatter around the clock. Israel is also a leading center for the development of computer technology aimed at seeking out jihadi Web sites. In June 2007, a number of programmers gathered at a conference held at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba to share their visions and innovations in this field. An array of programs was unveiled aimed at trawling the Internet and locating dangerous jihadi Web sites automatically, such as the Advanced Terrorist Detection System (ATDS), developed by Mark Last and Alex Markov from Ben-Gurion University, and Abraham Kandel, of the University of South Florida. "ATDS should be able to detect on-line suspected terrorists accessing terrorist-related content," the scientists explained. "Such on-line detection may enable law enforcement agencies to arrest suspected terrorists accessing the Web through public infrastructure such as public computer labs in a university campus or Internet cafes. The detection result should include the suspected terrorist IP address." The recent arrest of two Israeli al-Qaida operatives is an alarming indication that al-Qaida can penetrate the country, but it is also proof that counterterrorists here are taking the threat lurking on line seriously. Yaakov Lappin is the author of an upcoming book on al-Qaida and the Internet.