After the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, the United States responded by sending troops into Afghanistan for the express purpose of rooting out the Taliban government which had offered safe haven to the Al Qaeda terrorists believed to be responsible for the attacks. Al Qaeda was –and is- a decentralized organization, so capturing people in Afghanistan who were believed to be members did not destroy the entire organization. Al Qaeda already had cells in other countries, such as the North African nation of Somalia, among others. As Al Qaeda found many of their activities in Afghanistan disrupted, they moved to a new battlefield: the virtual world of the Internet. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are using the Internet to spread their message of jihad, raise money to finance their activities, and to radicalize and recruit new members.
It is the very design of the Internet that makes it vulnerable to use by terrorist organizations. Originally constructed in a partnership between the U.S. military and various educational institutions, the Internet was designed as a decentralized network of computer systems that, because of that decentralization, could survive nuclear attacks or other catastrophes (The Economist, 2007). The decentralized design of the Internet allows virtually any individual or organization to create websites, and to post virtually any sort of information on those sites. Even the most inflammatory materials can be disseminated on the web; by the time service providers or governmental organizations shut a site down, millions of people can view those materials. A video of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi beheading American contractor Nicholas Berg was downloaded half a million times in less than 24 hours; though the original host site was quickly shut down, the video still appears frequently on the web, popping up briefly on servers around the globe before disappearing again (Labi, 2006).
One of the most notorious masterminds of cyber-jihad was a man named Younis Tsouli; aged 22 at the time of his arrest, Tsouli is the son of a Moroccan diplomat (Labi, 2006). At the time of his arrest he was operating in London, though it is believed that he traversed the globe, staying one step ahead of investigators as he spread his message of jihad. Going by the screen name Irhabi007, Tsouli was for years considered to be one of the most powerful and influential jihadists on the Internet, responsible not only for spreading the word about jihad, but also for helping to plan, organize, and finance multiple terrorist attacks (The Economist, 2007). It was not his propaganda that finally led to his arrest; his involvement in planning an attack on a U.S. Naval base in Jacksonville Florida went awry, and the arrest of several suspects in that planned attack also led to the capture of Tsoulis (Labi, 2006).
The fact that Tsoulis was able to function with impunity for so many years was because most of his activities were limited to the spreading of messages and the discussion of abstract ideas rather than specific plans for terrorist attacks. As Irhabi007 (in Arabic, “Irhabi” loosely translates as “terrorist”) Tsoulis rubbed virtual elbows with several senior leaders of Al Qaeda, such as the notorious Ayman al-Zawahiri, who once said “more than half this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” referring to Al Qaeda’s use of the Internet to capture the hearts and minds of young Muslims around the globe (The Economist, 2007).
It is that focus on radicalizing people –primarily young people- that drives the majority of the websites devoted to global jihad (Labi, 2006). While financing and recruiting are important, those who are behind the sites, and the members of the actual terrorist organizations, are well aware that anyone can join in a conversation on the Internet. Some sites have areas that are password-protected; after members of the site’s community have been properly “groomed” they may be allowed to enter the protected areas (The Economist, 2007). These areas often host discussions about specific activities, as well as provide information about bomb-making, concocting poisons, and assassination techniques. Despite the lengths that site hosts go to in ensuring that members are properly vetted, however, it is still relatively easy for investigators to infiltrate online communities; for that reason, many organizations still conduct much of heir business off-site and out of sight (Labi, 2006).
Among the biggest commodities on jihadist websites are videos of various attacks conducted by terrorists and terrorist organizations (The Economist, 2007). Just as the beheading of Nicholas Berg made it to the Internet very quickly, so too do videos of rocket-propelled grenade attacks on U.S. Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan show up on websites around the world within hours of the actual attacks. Governmental forces and Internet Service Providers typically move swiftly to shut down sites that host such videos, but the decentralized structure of the Internet allows new sites hosting the same videos to pop up within hours of the old sites being shut down. It is the expertise of computer wizards like Irhabi007 –and now Irhabi11, who swiftly took his place as a forceful presence on the web after Irhabi007 was captured- that ensures the terrorists stay one step ahead of the authorities (Labi, 2006).
Spreading information about jihad through the Internet is an incredibly effective way of arousing interest in terrorist beliefs and ideals and participation in terrorist activities. The jihad sites host e-books with such titles as “Encyclopedia of Preparation,” which contains information about how to plan and carry out terrorist attacks, or “Questions and Uncertainties Concerning the Mujahadeen and Their Operations,” which purports to show how Islamic teachings support the cause of jihad, even when terrorist activities result in the deaths of fellow Muslims (Labi, 2006). As a 2007 article in The Economist magazine put it, the Internet “provides a low-risk means of taking part in jihad for sympathizers across the globe.”
Realizing that their sites can be easily infiltrated by investigators posing as enthusiastic young jihadists, many of the people behind the sites are making it clear that merely being enthusiastic is no longer enough; the terrorists organizations need money more than they need more willing participants. It costs money to fund terrorist training camps or to plan and carry out attacks; it also costs money just to operate jihad sites and to make sure they stay functional despite the efforts of ISPs and governments to shut them down. Money laundering and financing of terrorist organizations are key components of the way the organizations use the Internet. Pleas for donations can easily be made on public sites, but publicly donated money can also be easily traced.
Here again, the decentralized nature of the Internet proves helpful to terrorist organizations; using encrypted messages embedded in seemingly innocuous files, terrorist organizations can send instructions for moving money anonymously (Campbell et al, 2009). The increasingly global nature of finance and government also works to the terrorists’ benefit, allowing people to more easily cross physical and virtual borders as money is funneled to terrorists (Campbell, 2009). This is a key area in which anti-terrorist organizations in the U.S. and around the globe work to fight terror; by finding and disrupting the flow of money to the terrorist organizations, they can slow, and sometimes even halt, the activities of particular cells or groups (Matthews, 2009). As is the case with other aspects of the terrorists’ activities, however, when one supply route for money is severed, another pops up to take its place, forcing government agencies to constantly scramble in an effort to keep up with the terrorists.
As governments have worked to wipe out terrorist activities, they have sometimes overreached their authority, or even violated legal and moral restrictions. In 2004, for example, the U.S. government accused a young British citizen, Babar Ahmad, of assisting terrorist organizations by hosting websites that contained what they claimed were illegal materials, and by facilitating fundraising effort for the Al Qaeda and other organizations (Rozenberg, 2012). Babar was arrested by British police, but was released four days later when the U.S. refused to provide any evidence against him. Shortly after his release, the U.S. made a formal extradition request to the British government, and Babar was again arrested as the British officials reviewed the case.
Babar has never been charged with a crime in Great Britain, and the evidence against him, as provided by U.S. officials, is practically non-existent. Despite the nearly-complete lack of evidence, Babar has been detained in a British prison for over seven years as he continues to fight extradition. Though he seems to have the weight of British law on his side, the U.S. is apparently placing extraordinary pressure on the British government to extradite him; his case is still pending, and a decision about his fate is expected sometime in early 2012 (Rozenberg, 2012). Unfortunately, Babar’s case is not unique; there are many thousands of accused terrorists imprisoned around the world who have been detained for years without ever being charge with a crime. This is, perhaps, one of the worst side-effects of terrorism: the “terror” engendered by the activities of Al Qaeda and similar organizations often drives individuals and governments to act out of fear, and make decisions that contradict basic human rights that have long been the hallmarks of free and democratic societies.
Government forces have made some in-roads against the organizations and individuals who host use the Internet to spread the message of jihad; they continue to shut down pro-jihad sites, disrupt the flow of money, and indentify and capture the people who operate the sites (Matthews, 2009). Unless fundamental changes are made to the structure of the Internet itself –changes that would infringe on everyone’s freedom, not just that of the terrorists- the Internet will continue to be fertile ground for organizations spreading the message of jihad and seeking to radicalize people around the globe. It is those very freedoms, however, that are at the root of many of the ideological conflicts between jihadists and those they perceive as the enemy, and sacrificing those freedoms would be the ultimate victory for the terrorists.
“A worldwide web of terror- internet jihad.” The Economist. 14 July 2007. 384(8537). 28-30.
Campbell, Joel R.; Kumar, Leena Thacker. “Global governance: the case of money laundering and terrorist financing.” Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table. Report: Spring 2009.
Labi, Nadya. “Jihad 2.0.” The Atlantic Monthly. July/August 2006. 298(1). 102-106, 108.
Matthews, William. “Cyber Sentinels.” National Guard. Fall/Winter 2009. 62(9). 36-40.
Rozenberg, Joshua. “Babar Ahmad ruling is a victory for freedom of expression.” The Guardian UK. 12 January 2012. Accessed on line at guardian.co.uk.