Saturday, August 06, 2005

Terrorism Meets Technology

Ever since 9/11, we’ve seen an increasing number of stories documenting the ways in which terrorist networks like al Queda exploit the technology of the Internet to carry out their attacks. The Sunday print edition of the Washington Post will feature a thoroughly researched article that describes in grim detail just how adept terrorists have become at making the Internet a virtual battleground for jihad.

Al Qaeda suicide bombers and ambush units in Iraq routinely depend on the Web for training and tactical support, relying on the Internet's anonymity and flexibility to operate with near impunity in cyberspace. In Qatar, Egypt and Europe, cells affiliated with al Qaeda that have recently carried out or seriously planned bombings have relied heavily on the Internet.

Such cases have led Western intelligence agencies and outside terrorism specialists to conclude that the "global jihad movement," sometimes led by al Qaeda fugitives but increasingly made up of diverse "groups and ad hoc cells," has become a "Web-directed" phenomenon, as a presentation for U.S. government terrorism analysts by longtime State Department expert Dennis Pluchinsky put it. Hampered by the nature of the Internet itself, the government has proven ineffective at blocking or even hindering significantly this vast online presence.

The Internet has long served as a forum for circulating Islamist propaganda, but the Post article notes that Web-based terrorists are using the Internet for increasingly pragmatic and specific ends.

Until recently, al Qaeda's use of the Web appeared to be centered on communications: preaching, recruitment, community-building and broad incitement. But there is increasing evidence that al Qaeda and its offshoots are also using the Internet for tactical purposes, especially for training new adherents. "If you want to conduct an attack, you will find what you need on the Internet," said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a group that monitors and tracks the jihadist Internet sites.

Just how specific are these training materials?

An al Qaeda video library discovered on the Web and obtained by The Washington Post from an experienced researcher showed in a series of high-quality training films shot in Afghanistan how to conduct a roadside assassination, raid a house, shoot a rocket-propelled grenade, blow up a car, attack a village, destroy a bridge and fire an SA-7 surface-to-air missile.

There is something bleakly ironic about al Qaeda’s forays into cyberspace. It is a group bent on leading civilization into an intellectual dark age of draconian theocracy. And what means have they chosen to bring about their worldview? The Internet, a culmination of countless hours of research and experiment, probably the most important technological development of our time. In short, they are using a triumph of science to attack its very foundations.

--Matthew McCoy