In Internet’s way: Terrorism on the Free Highway

Combating terrorism is an enormous task.

IDF cyber warfare room 370 (photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
IDF cyber warfare room 370
(photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
The Internet has enabled a global jihad based on a loose, decentralized network of Mujahideen transcending the limitations of face-to-face interaction. Terrorists are making the most of the vast information available on the Internet to coordinate, to communicate, and to find essential data in order to wage anti-social, violent operations.
Most jihadi websites have several sections. Most important is usually the religious section, which features Quranic references to jihad, the different ways jihad can be expressed, aspects of martyrdom, fatawa explaining who can be targeted legitimately, and online doctrinal consultations with religious sages. In the jihad section, would-be recruits are encouraged to join the battle. Some general advice is given, e.g., the best routes into war zones as well as names and locations of sympathetic mosques. Galleries of martyr portraits are accompanied by their last testaments, often in a video clip. Most sites have IT section where contributors are urged to share their knowledge and develop new ways of using cyberspace to further jihad.
Many jihadi sites have a women’s section where wives and mothers are urged to support their men in jihad and help them in the psychological battle against what one site described as that disease, the weakness which loves life and hates death. Some show women mourn their dead loved ones.Information – Information technology has enabled terrorist organizations to receive and share knowledge globally. Terrorists can easily obtain information on sensitive targets and their potential weaknesses; public transport timetables; building sites, their opening times and their layout. Al-Qaida maintains an extensive database that contains information about potential American targets.
Hamas uses a network of websites targeting many populations. Its official Website, the Palestinian Information Center (, appears in eight languages. It provides propaganda and updates the Palestinian take on the news.
Propaganda and Indoctrination – Most radical and terrorist organizations use the Internet as a vehicle for ideological indoctrination. Hizb ut-Tahir (, an Islamist extremist group, offers music and computer games to introduce their ideology and to attract young supporters. As Islam is under attack, Muslims have a personal duty to fight. There is also an immense amount of how-to material: cell phone detonators, how to make flamethrowers and napalm bombs together with violent and terrorist propaganda.
Al-Qaida’s network has been successful in its use of multimedia propaganda, producing pre-recorded videotapes and audiotapes, CD-ROMs, DVDs, photographs, and written documents. Islamist zealots are developing computer games and promoting hip-hop artists in order to spread radical ideology and to reach sympathizers within adversarial populations. Nearly every insurgency operation in Iraq was filmed and posted on a number of sites and bulletin boards accompanied by jihadi songs. The bloodshed was presented as heroic and glorious, and the accompanying text promoted jihad.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) publishes its English language jihadist magazine Inspire. The magazine, known for its high production standards, is aimed to radicalize English-speaking Muslims, encouraging them to engage in militant activity. Inspire encourages jihadist to mount attacks where they live. Inspire number 11 (2013) is a special issue devoted to the prime enemy, the USA. In it you find a message to the American nation, another message to American Muslims, comment on the Boston Marathon bombings, and a column on “America’s Bitter Harvest.”
The military wing of Hamas, the Ezzedin al Qassam Brigades, has its own Website ( It provides report on current affairs, glorifies martyrs, offers interviews with Palestinians and intellectuals who support the armed struggle against Israel, provides information about their prisoners, and offers a comprehensive photo gallery. One of Hamas’s Websites was designed to target children: the site presented, in comic-book style, stories that encouraged children to engage in jihad and to become martyrs”.Networking - The Internet can help bridge the gap from the isolated potential mujahid to the global jihad. Connection between people may start on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Vibe and then may continues on more obscure forums.
The dark Internet is a home to illicit jihadi information and communication. Jihadi websites allow isolated young Muslims to engage with a worldwide network of like-minded people striving against what they perceive as a common enemy and with a singular unity of purpose. The forums, where people seem to care for each other, provide them with friends and support. The forums prove the existence of the ummah, or imagined Muslim nation.Psychological warfare – Al-Qaida regularly publishes videos that are designed to evoke fear. Violence plays a key role in the psyche of jihadists. The majority of all videos distributed on jihadi forums feature explicit violence.
Fund raising – Some terrorist groups raise funds via the Internet by five primary methods:
By making appeals via e-mail or directly through their websites. Hamas has circulated appeal letters to various newsgroups. Hezbollah supplied bank account information to those who solicit the group by e-mail and it posted its bank account information directly on several of its websites.
By selling goods. Many sites offer online “gift shops”: visitors can purchase or download free posters, books, videos, pictures, audiocassettes and discs, stickers, badges, symbols, and calendars.
Through side businesses that are not identified as group-owned but are nevertheless associated. There are links between terrorism and organized crime, especially in spheres concerning illegal migration, corruption, economic crime, illicit drugs, arms trafficking and money laundering. The Hezbollah had coordinated the transportation, distribution, and sale of multi-ton bulk shipments of cocaine from South America. Large cash money was smuggled to Lebanon, and several Lebanese exchange houses utilized accounts at the Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB). The proceeds were laundered through various methods which included the sale of used cars in the United States to African nations, mixing legitimate business with drug money which eventually found its way to the Hezbollah.
Through online organizations that resemble humanitarian charity groups. Some charity organizations in the USA were in the service of Hamas and the Hezbollah until they were closed down. Charities are legitimate front organizations which enable to raise money from across the globe.
Through fraud, gambling, or online brokering. According to the United Kingdom’s Financial Services Authority (FSA), terrorist groups launder their money through online firms. Online brokerage and spread-betting firms are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist groups because they are under-regulated and do not perform thorough checks on their investors. Younes Tsouli, Waseem Mughal and Tariq Al-Daour, based in London, worked for al-Qaida in Iraq. They stole money through online gambling sites. With different Trojan viruses, the three terrorists managed to raise more than 3.5 million dollars to buy web hosting services in order to show more influential videos of al-Qaida.Spreading tactics – Instructions and online manuals – Multiple password-protected forums refer to extensive literature on explosives. There are tutorials in viruses, hacking stratagems, the use of secret codes, encryption methods, Tor and other anonymity tools. Bomb-making knowledge is available on jihadi websites in the form of very detailed step-by-step video instructions showing how to build improvised explosive devices. There is strong evidence that such online instructions played a critical role in the March 2004 Madrid bombings, the April 2005 Khan al-Khalili bombings in Cairo, the July 2006 failed attempt to bomb trains in Germany, and the June 2007 plot to bomb London’s West End and Glasgow.
Recruitment – There are numerous cases of normal, often non-religious citizens becoming radicalized by jihadist websites, leaving them vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. The content of such propaganda usually consists of enemy demonization, justification of violence, and a general background of the jihadi group, its platform and objectives. The sites try to be effective as they compete with each other on the attention of potential followers. Interactive technology is used to connect with those who seem receptive to the jihadi messages and ideology.Planning of activities and coordination – The Internet has proven to be an excellent vehicle by which information about travel, training, targets, tactics and a host of other useful organization details is displayed. Data, instructions, maps, diagrams, photographs, tactical and technical details are often sent in this exchange, often in encrypted format, using onion routers such as Tor that hide the Internet Protocol (IP) address.
Al-Qaida members used the Internet in planning and coordinating the attacks of September 11, 2001. Mary E. Galligan, FBI Chief Inspector who supervised PENTTBOM, the FBI’s investigation of the attacks, studied closely the incident that brought about the global war on terror. She said that clearly the Internet was a vital channel for coordination of those attacks. Galligan asserted that al-Qaida terrorists learned the methods used by the US to combat terrorism; they studied the American soft spots and targets. Al-Qaida activists refrained from using cell phones, as they knew cell phones could be traced. Instead, they used the Internet, prepaid phone cards, and face-to-face meetings in Spain. Email was used to transmit messages between the terrorists. Al-Qaida activists were looking for American flight schools on the Internet, while they were in Germany. The terrorists used public libraries terminals for communications and data. At many public libraries, people can simply walk up to a terminal and access the Internet without presenting any form of identification. Within two weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the US had located hundreds of e-mails linked to the hijackers, in English and Arabic, sent before September 11, some of which included operational details of the planned terrorist assault.
Combating terrorism is an enormous task. It demands resources and capabilities that most of us – normal citizens – do not have. The prime responsibilities lie with the ISPs, with nations of the free world, and with the international community at large. As terrorism is a global phenomenon, it is necessary to fight against it globally via diligent cross-country cooperation.
ISP RESPONSIBILITY Like in any other forum and industry, there is a need to assure a certain security level on the Internet. American Internet Service Providers hosted terrorist sites and helped the cause of jihad. Some did it knowingly while others did it inadvertently.
InfoCom Corporation in Texas, for instance, hosted websites for numerous clients in the Middle East. It served more than 500 Saudi Internet sites and notable Palestinian Hamas organizations, including the Islamic Association for Palestine and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.
InfoCom also served to launder money. Large amounts of money came from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to sponsor Hamas activities.
InfoCom was founded by Mousa Abu Marzook, one of the leaders of Hamas.
While InfoCom directors knew exactly what they were doing, Fortress ITX unwittingly hosted a jihadi site that urged attacks against American and Israeli targets. Among the web pages were “The Art of Kidnapping,” “Military Instructions to the Mujahideen,” and “War Inside the Cities.”
This informative site was shut down when Fortress learned about the content from a reporter.
Undoubtedly, not playing into the hands of terrorists requires oversight and proactive steps. ISPs are reluctant to monitor their servers for economic reasons. American ISPs do not see monitoring as part of their service.
They often claim they do not wish to compromise their customers’ First Amendment rights.
If an ISP hosts a terrorist site, the owner can be charged with conspiracy and aiding and abetting terrorism. But unfortunately, many of the terrorist websites are still hosted by servers in the western world.
Intermediaries, such as ISPs and Web- Hosting Services (WHSs), can play a useful role in offering the public a regulating or authenticating service. That is, ISPs and WHSs can market their Internet access software by promising to include certain kinds and quality of content and exclude others.
ISPs and WHSs would compete with each other on the basis of the cluster of options they offer as well as over their software-based filtering systems.
Codes of conduct should be adopted to ensure that Internet content and service providers act in accord with the law and with principles of social responsibility. These codes should meet community concerns and industry needs, operating as an accountability system that guarantees a high level of credibility and quality.
To be effective, these codes of conduct should be the product of and be enforced by self-regulatory agencies.
Because of the transnational nature of Internet communications, coordinated activity among such agencies in different jurisdictions needs to be an essential element of self-regulation.
STATE ACTION One of the prime responsibilities a state has to its citizens is to provide them with the ability to lead their lives in peace, free of existential threats and violence. Caution and reasonableness are prerequisites to address violent, anti-social challenges sensibly and cautiously, without evoking unnecessary panic.
While realizing that some boundaries need to be introduced to liberty and tolerance in order to maintain a responsible Internet, we should be careful not to exaggerate the challenges.
The course of action needs to be measured, without silencing individuals and organizations. Evoking fear only plays into the hands of terrorists.
INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION Follow the money is a good advice for the combat of terrorism. The ability to stop the flow of funds via the Internet to terrorist organizations is difficult and time-consuming. Sites and accounts are closed and re-opened under different names very swiftly.
As many terrorist organizations have set up charities in the real as well the virtual worlds, multilateral bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which was established to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, are instrumental in sharing information about the global charitable sector, improving oversight of national and international charities, devising methodologies for detecting terrorists masquerading as charities, and establishing international standards to combat such abuse.
On September 8, 2006, the United Nations adopted a Global Counter- Terrorism Strategy. The strategy, in the form of a resolution and an annexed Plan of Action (A/RES/60/288), is a global instrument designed to enhance national, regional and international efforts to counter terrorism.
This was the first time that all Member States agreed to a common strategic approach to combat terrorism, sending a clear message that terrorism is unacceptable in any form and also resolving to take practical steps to fight it. Those practical steps range from strengthening state capacity to better coordinating UN counter-terrorism activities.
European Union states share monitoring of militant websites, including sites linked to al-Qaida. Keeping track of jihadi sites requires vigilance as statements and videos by individuals and groups may appear only for a short period of time. The Internet increases in volume each and every day, and its security is difficult to maintain.
In Part I, I mentioned the links between terrorism and organized crime. Narcoterrorism, the confluence between drugs and terrorism that simultaneously advances distinct and mutual interests of terrorists and criminals, is a real concern. The cooperation between unlawful elements is designed to facilitate their respective activities and is instrumental in devising ways to overcome national and international efforts to stifle them.
The EU police agency, Europol, has built an information portal to allow exchange of information on militant website monitoring. The portal includes a list of links of monitored websites, statements by terrorists, and information designed to fight down terrorism.
The Internet is the single most important factor in transforming largely local jihadi concerns and activities into the global network that characterizes al-Qaida today. The Internet is ubiquitous, interactive, fast and decentralized. The ease of access, low cost and high speed, its chaotic structure (or lack of structure), the anonymity which individuals and groups may enjoy, and the international character of the Internet furnish all kinds of individuals and organizations with an easy and effective arena for their partisan interests.
Law-enforcement agencies throughout the world can learn from each other and cooperate in the fight against illicit and anti-social activities online. Indeed, there are many similarities between counter-online terrorism activities, counter-online child-pornography activities and counter-online racism activities.
As the years pass, there is growing awareness of the threats, and of the need to provide social security. Ignorance, whether circumstantial or normative, cannot serve as an excuse.
With the right cooperation, the international community has the capabilities to address the formidable challenges and provide appropriate answers.
Indeed, to have effective results in fighting down terrorism, cooperation is vital. Failure to do so is inexcusable.
Without responsible cooperation, Internet abusers will prevail, and our children will suffer.
Nations and responsible Netcitizens are obliged to ensure that future generations will be able to develop their autonomy, their individuality and their capabilities in a secure environment, both offline and online.
The author is chair in politics at the University of Hull, UK. Among his books are Speech, Media and Ethics (2001, 2005), The Scope of Tolerance (2006, 2007) and The Democratic Catch (Hamilkud Hademokrati, 2007, Hebrew).