Experts: Threat of Web terrorism growing

Following Shin Bet warning, Israelis are urged to "remain vigilant" for "any illogical, lucrative proposal."

In light of the Shin Bet's recent warning that terrorist groups have begun using social networking Web sites to lure Israelis - under the guise of business schemes and seemingly harmless meetings - to kidnap them, terrorism experts in Israel say that the threat is not new, and that the only way for Israelis to guard themselves against it is to remain vigilant. Two Israelis have been successfully lured out of the country by terrorists in the past. The first incident occurred in 2000, when Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, a retired IDF colonel who was reportedly enticed by the prospect of a lucrative drug deal in Dubai, was kidnapped by Hizbullah operatives there and taken to Lebanon. Tannenbaum was released in 2004 as part of the same prisoner swap that included the bodies of three IDF soldiers killed during an ambush along the Lebanese border in October 2000, and the details of his ordeal remain somewhat unclear. The second case occurred just months later, in January 2001, when Ofir Rahum, a 16-year-old from Ashdod who had become involved in an online "romance" with Mona Awana - a Palestinian woman from Ramallah who tricked Rahum into meeting her in Jerusalem - was driven by Awana to the outskirts of Ramallah, where the young man was shot and killed by Tanzim gunmen. While the extent of the role the Internet played in Tannenbaum's case remains unclear, and Rahum's kidnapping was much more local, intelligence experts on Monday agreed that both cases serve as a prototype for the ongoing, and now increased, Internet threat posed by terrorist groups like Hizbullah. "We know from these experiences that this is not a new problem," the director of the Institute for National Security Studies Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict, Yoram Shweitzer, told The Jerusalem Post. "But based on the new [Shin Bet] warning, it seems that the threat has become wider." Shweitzer, who interviewed Awana in an Israeli prison after she was arrested in connection with Rahum's death, said that while her use of the Internet was one of the first examples of a "successful" Internet attack, he believed that the threat as it stands today has also become more sophisticated. "Because Hizbullah wants to avenge the death of [Imad] Mugniyeh, I think they have broadened their attempts to lure and kidnap Israelis, and are now reaching out to those who are less savvy," he said. "It began with the targeting of specific individuals, some of whom had connections with the security services," he continued. "They reported these attempts to their contacts [in the security apparatus], but as time has drawn on, I think the security community realized that these attempts were not allocated for only these individuals, and have now gone public and issued this general warning." Tannenbaum himself fell into this prior category, as his reported ties to Sheikh Kais Obeid, an Israeli Arab who had left the country and become a senior officer for Hizbullah, ended up being an instrumental component of his kidnapping. According to the new warning, however, it seems that intelligence connections or other shady business ties within hostile countries are no longer a prerequisite for being targeted. Shweitzer also explained that terrorist organizations have become smarter, and may use European or other countries that are seemingly disconnected from the Middle East as a hub for their scheme, making it that much more difficult for a kidnapping attempt to be detected. "So the only real way to protect oneself from this threat is to remain vigilant," he said. "It also begins to broach the larger topic of being alert in the public domain. Any illogical, lucrative proposal that could be potentially seductive to businessmen should be a red flag." But other experts on Monday said the Internet was nothing short of a haven for terrorist activity, kidnapping plots being only one component of a much larger network. "The problem is not only an Israeli problem, but a global issue that also affects the Americans," retired intelligence official Reuven Erlich told the Post. Erlich, who now heads the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, has researched online terrorist activity at length, and said that hundreds of Web sites catering to the "global jihad," or worldwide Islamic fundamentalist movement spearheaded by al-Qaida, are only a mouse-click away. "Terrorist organizations are now able to use the Internet to recruit people, issue orders for actual terrorist attacks, incite, and provide information to operatives all over the world," Erlich said. "A jihadist can sit in Afghanistan and exchange information with someone in Damascus. It's that easy." "Because there are no geographic boundaries, because there's very little censorship, it makes the Internet a classic tool for terrorists," he continued. Regarding the Shin Bet warning, Erlich said he had no concrete information, but did say that over the last year, other countries had begun catching on to the threat posed by terrorist activity online. "There have been case studies by other intelligence services that have revealed these same things," he said. "That terrorists are increasingly using the Internet for planning and orchestrating attacks. It has become a well-known modus operandi for them."