The Jihad Online

By Matthew Harwood

Terrorism and Internet experts detailed the threat posed by Web savvy jihadists before a congressional subcommittee hearing yesterday, confirming earlier national security assessments about the importance of the Internet to terrorists.

Their testimony was a direct confirmation of September 2006's National Intelligence Estimate which stated, "We judge that groups of all stripes will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, propagandize, recruit, train, and obtain logistical and financial support."

Sizing up the problem for the hearing, Rita Katz, founder and director of the SITE Institute, told the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment that the "United States has done little to contest jihadists' use of the Internet, arguably one of the most crucial tools that enables modern terrorist networks to exist."

This fear that jihadists would use the Internet to radicalize young American Muslims and persuade them to join the jihad against the West received even more attention when The New York Times profiled Samir Khan last month.  Khan is a 21-year old man living with his parents in North Carolina, who runs one of the most popular English-language jihadist sites on the Internet where viewers can watch insurgents attack American soldiers in Iraq.

Khan, according to The Times, is part of a growing phenomenon.

While there is nothing to suggest that Mr. Khan is operating in concert with militant leaders, or breaking any laws, he is part of a growing constellation of apparently independent media operators who are broadcasting the message of Al Qaeda and other groups, a message that is increasingly devised, translated and aimed for a Western audience.

Terrorism experts at West Point say there are as many as 100 English language sites offering militant Islamic views, with Mr. Khan’s — which claims 500 regular readers — among the more active. While their reach is difficult to assess, it is clear from a review of extremist material and interviews that militants are seeking to appeal to young American and European Muslims by playing on their anger over the war in Iraq and the image of Islam under attack.

The most prominent American to embrace al Qaeda's mission and promote its propaganda is Adam Gadahn—a Jewish convert from California who became Osama Bin Laden's spokesman and now goes by the nom de guerre Azzam al-Amriki. In September 2006, he released "An Invitation to Islam," a 45-minute video where he explains al Qaeda's ideology, rationale, and motivations, all presented in a familar American accent.

Mark Weitzman, director of the Task Force Against Hate and Terrorism for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says that self-styled Western jihadists are being influenced by a convergence of technology and ideology that promises inclusion.

[The Internet] allows individuals who are isolated and alienated, both physically and psychologically, to feel that they are linked, empowered, and members of an international movement. For some young Muslims in the West...the Internet provides access to a radical form of Islam that gives seekers the virtual environment that they are searching for.

The Internet doesn't just provide a communicative channel for like-minded jihadists the world over to spread their radical message--it provides platforms for recruitment, training, and financing, which are the components needed to go operational.

"Attempted homegrown terrorist attacks on the West have increasingly included an online component," said SITE's Katz, "whether the assailants were using the Internet to coordinate the transfer of information, download military manuals, watch jihadist videos, or participate on jihadist messageboards."

According to Bruce Hoffman, what we initially labeled"homegrown" terrorism, such as the 7/7 suicide bombings in London, is in fact an international campaign of terrorist subversion engineered by al Qaeda. During his testimony, Hoffman listed a number of failed plots in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States that reached back to al Qaeda.

"The threat, therefore, is not just of jihadi radicalization," he said, "but of deliberate, longstanding al Qaeda subversion."

While it's not news that  jihadists are using the Internet to instruct and train potential terrorists in arms and tactics, Katz spoke of a new financing mechanism, called online remittance service, that terrorists are using to finance their operations over the Internet.

Katz explained to the subcommittee how the service worked.

As an example, a donor could purchase $100 worth of online virtual money from a physical store and then email the value of that money to an intermediary jihadist. That intermediary, now $100 richer, will give a jihadist group $100 in cash out of his own pocket. The intermediary, however, now has $100 worth of virtual money to spend online, while the jihadist group now has $100 in cash.

If the United States wants to combat jihadism effectively, Katz said, it must put its resources into understanding how jihadists use the Web. By understanding which sites receive and distribute jihadist leaders' messages, the United States will be better positioned to intercept critical intelligence, study what makes jihadists tick, and use that information to exploit its enemies' weaknesses.

Hoffman agreed.

Until we recognize the importance of this vital prerequisite [knowing our enemy], America will remain perennially on the defensive: inherently reactive rather than proactive, deprived of the capacity to recognize, much less anticipate, important changes in our enemy’s modus operandi, recruitment and targeting.



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