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“IT” Now Stands for Internet Terrorism

How Are Terrorists Using the Internet to Spread Their Message of Hate? Part 2                

By Robert Kaye

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Ah, yes, our World Wide Web. Where would most of us be without it these days? For many of us, it’s difficult to imagine a life without the interconnectivity and instant interaction of the Internet. The Internet is a powerful tool that most would agree is now an indispensable part of everyday life. But this powerful tool is a double-edged sword.  Benevolence and crime live side-by-side in the spaces of the World Wide Web. It provides power to those who are good and those who are evil. And a new evil has reared its ugly head: Internet Terrorism.

Since its origins and rapid-fire growth starting in the early 1990s, the Internet was heralded as a conduit for an emerging “global village” where businesses, governments and private citizens could interact with each other the world over. However, what most people think of as "the Internet" are just the sites listed in the commercial search engine directories.  The Darknet (a.k.a., Deep Web) makes up the other 98% of the Internet. (I’ll discuss more about this in a subsequent article in this series).

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Over time, the exponential growth of the World Wide Web has ushered in not only the promise of an interactive medium, but also a sinister place where criminals ― and yes, terrorists ― do their business and communications. These are the same terrorist groups you hear and read about in the news. While they may have different political and/or religious agendas, these malevolent groups are similar in their desire and ability to use the Internet to distribute their propaganda, interact with supporters, raise operating capital, create awareness of and sympathy for their raison d’être (reason to live), and even to launch operations. Some of this is done on “the normal” Internet, a lot of it is done on the Darknet.

In our first segment, you may recall I spoke about the continual threat to the U.S., the West and Israel from militant Islamic terrorists. I identified some of the major jihadist groups operating today (the U.S. State Dept. says there are nearly 60 terrorist organizations across the world). I pointed out some of their major state sponsors and also discussed how some of them are funded, including theft and usury. (See Part 1 of our previous blog, “How Are Terrorist Using the Internet to Spread Their Message of Hate?”) Along with this segment, subsequent articles will also delve more closely into the specific ways and means that terrorists use the Internet. 

Cyber Jihad


Over the past decade, nearly all active terrorist groups have established their presence on the Internet and are using it in a multitude of ways. In addition to setting up their own dedicated websites, they also use chat rooms, bulletin boards, blogs, forums, video sites, discussion groups and more. Why use the Internet? Because it’s an easy, affordable method for disseminating information (and misinformation, when it suits them) across the world instantly. And ― surprisingly ― a lot of it goes relatively unchecked.

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Case in point: Earlier this week, three young women from Denver, Colorado were arrested in Germany as they were trying to fly to Syria to join ISIS. Also, a chilling video recently emerged featuring an Australian who had traveled to Syria to join ISIS. How were these four young people recruited? The Internet. "ISIS constantly cranks the PR machine, making expert use of slick videos and social media,CNN states in its coverage of these recent headlines. “ISIS' global digital reach has terror experts in the United States worried about security at home as well.”

Affirms Gabriel Weimann PhD, former senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in the introduction to his report entitled “ ― How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet.”:“Today, terrorist organizations and their supporters maintain hundreds of websites, exploiting the unregulated, anonymous, and easily accessible nature of the Internet to target an array of messages to a variety of audiences.”

Dr. Weimann says Internet-based terrorism is “a very dynamic phenomenon.” Websites can appear suddenly, then alter their formats, then only to disappear just as rapidly. In some instances, they change their URL or encrypt it, but still promulgate the same hate-filled content and messages. He points out the terrorist websites are focused on three main audiences: current and potential supporters, swaying international public opinion, and enemy publics.

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According to Weimann, “By its very nature, the Internet is in many ways an ideal arena for activity by terrorist organizations.” The Internet offers them:

  • Easy access
  • Little or no regulation, censorship, or other forms of governmental control
  • Potentially huge audiences worldwide
  • Anonymity of communication
  • Rapid flow of information
  • Inexpensive development and maintenance of an Internet/web presence
  • A multimedia environment (with the ability to combine text, graphics, audio and video and allowing users to download films, songs, books, posters, etc.)
  • The ability to manipulate news coverage in the traditional mass media, which increasingly uses the Internet as a source for stories
  • The ability to engage in untraceable business transactions and money transfers to help perpetuate their terrorist infrastructure.
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Dr. Weimann also authored the book, “Terror on the Internet.” In a review of that book for the “New YorkTimes’ Sunday Book Review,” author Robert F. Worth wrote, “Weimann argues that jihadist groups see the Internet not only as a way to reach followers and recruits, but as a broader link with mainstream Arab and Muslim populations. In one sickening example, he describes a Hamas Web Site that is aimed at children, with cartoon-style graphics, songs and stories.” Welcome to the era of instant inter-generational e-Hate, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Websites created and managed by terrorist groups are set up for different reasons and may include their organizational history and hierarchy; key biographies; speeches; blogs; express their ideological, political or military aims; issue field reports, maps and news. The fact the Internet has now become a media-rich environment also means terror groups can post sometimes graphic photographs and videos of their conquests and celebrated “achievements,” such as the torture of U.S. soldiers and the recent beheading of U.S. and U.K. journalists. Certain sites glorify different types of violence, however other groups may use that as propaganda tool against a rival organization or a foreign power, against which it’s fighting. Some sites even include gift shops, where one can buy paraphernalia and by doing so, support the terrorist groups monetarily.

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Al-Qaida Hasn’t Been Defeated


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Just this past August, Al-Qaida members were using online chat rooms and encrypted Internet
message boards for planning attacks. Experts took the chatter seriously enough to close down nearly 20 embassies across Africa and Middle East for over a week. The Associated Press reported: “The unspecified call to arms by the al-Qaida leaders, using a multi-layered subterfuge to pass messages from couriers to tech-savvy underlings to attackers, provoked a quick reaction by the U.S. to protect Americans in far-flung corners of the world where the terror network is evolving into regional hubs.

“For years, extremists have used online forums to share information and drum up support, and over the past decade they have developed systems that blend encryption programs with anonymity software to hide their tracks. Jihadist technology may now be so sophisticated and secretive, experts say, that many communications avoid detection by National Security Agency programs that were specifically designed to uncover terror plots.”

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While many terrorists do use the Internet, some of Al-Qaida’s (and other groups’) top leaders stay off the grid so they can’t be found. By doing so, some of its most-wanted ring leaders, like bin Laden-replacement, Ayman al-Zawahri, his chief lieutenant, Nasser al-Wahishi, and other senior Al-Qaida leaders stay hidden. In Yemen, other senior Al-Qaida leaders such as Qassim al-Rimi and top bomb-maker, Ibrahim Al-Asiri have managed to survive in hiding for years. In fact, the CIA was so exasperated over its attempts to locate and eliminate these senior terrorists, the agency had contemplated assassinating the couriers that were passing messages among them. Often times these leaders create encrypted messages, which are then downloaded to thumb drives or CDs, and these get handed off to couriers who then spread the messages using secure websites.

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“Earlier this year,” the article continues, “an al-Qaida-linked extremist propaganda organization known as the Global Islamic Media Front released an encrypted instant-messaging system known as ‘Asrar al-Dardashah,’ or ‘Secrets of the Chat.’ It was a texting version of the organization's end-to-end encryption program that followers had been using for years. End-to-end encryption means messages are put into code so that only senders and receivers can access the content with secure ‘keys.’

“After the NSA programs were revealed in June, jihadi websites began urging followers to also use software that would hide their Internet protocol addresses and, essentially, prevent them from being tracked online. That aimed to add another layer of security to the online traffic.”

Surprisingly, encryption technology, which was once regulated and overseen by the U.S. for national security reasons, is today a free-running industry and has been available to the general public since the 1990s. (Say what?!)

Knowledge Base of Operations

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The Internet is also teeming with information that can be taken advantage of and used by terrorists. Think about it: Readily available online are maps, satellite photographs (i.e., Google Earth), blueprints and key information about transportation routes, power and communication grids and infrastructures, pipeline systems, and dams and water supplies. Also online are explosive device instructions, information about biological weapons, and even more. After 9/11, the U.S. and other international governments were in haste to reclassify and delete key information that had previously been easily accessible online. According to an Associated Press report, the U.S. government made over one million documents go “404 Page Not Found.” However, since some of this critical information had already been archived in a variety of ways, those who had the intent and wherewithal to uncover it could do so with relative ease ― and, even more disconcerting, may already have. Furthermore, once these types of documents, diagrams and information are downloaded, the Internet serves as an ideal environment for sharing such key data among operatives and like-minded groups that are in collusion with one another. 

A subsequent article in this series will look into detail about what steps governments, agencies and the military are doing to stop the proliferation of jihadi websites and terrorists’ Internet use in general. However, in the meantime, what can you and I do? Several things:

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  • Be Vigilant – If you come across a suspicious site, or are spammed by one, report it.
  • Know Who to Contact – The FBI and the CIA both have online contact forms and phone numbers.
  • Hold Politicians Responsible – Ensure your elected officials are doing all they can to stop terrorism, both online and “on the ground.”  
  • Educate Yourself – For example, in researching material for this series, I had no idea that terrorists’ use of the Internet was so widespread; nor did I know about the Darknet or its size.
  •  Share This Series – Forward it to your family, friends and colleagues. 
The Internet has become a mega-sized megahorn for terrorist organizations.  It’s no wonder “IT” can now beconstrued to stand for Internet Terrorism.

In this second segment, I began to explore in detail why and how the Internet has become such a key tool and medium of choice in the arsenal of jihadist terror organizations. I also discussed some of the ways in which terrorists have been effectively using it for over a decade.  Subsequent segments will continue to investigate this proliferating practice among jihadist terrorist groups.  If you found this article interesting, please share and forward. If you’d like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below.

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Robert Kaye is an internationally published, multi-award-winning writer and editor.  To date, he’s been published over 450 times in numerous print and electronic media (Internet, TV, radio, and podcasts) covering a wide variety of subjects. He currently serves as the Associate Producer for Working the Web to Win.
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  1. The information in this article (and series) is straight from today's headlines. Relevant, timely, important, and eye-opening. Keep up the good work! More people need to become aware of this issue.

  2. Excellent follow-up article to the first one in this series re: Internet terrorism. The subject matter is right out of today's (often disturbing) headlines.

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