July 14, 2005
In this week's Economist (subscription content, unfortunately), the notion of "Radicalism by Internet" was brought up as a potential explanation for how disaffected second- or third- generation Muslim youths seek out and discover online mentors who possess both the ideological and practical skills necessary for orchestrating terrorist attacks in Western countries:
As an incipient extremist group grows more obsessive, and its weaker brethren fall away, hard-core members often withdraw from the mosques. Indeed, a big recent trend in European Islam, says Mr Roy [Olivier Roy is a noted scholar in this field, not as cool as my favourite Frenchman Gilles Kepel, but this is just my opinion] is the mass withdrawal by militants from mosques that are under surveillance. This has made extremism even more elusive, and the internet’s influence even greater. To a large extent, “the internet has replaced Afghanistan” as a source of training and inspiration for militant Muslims, says Stephen Ulph, a scholar working for the Jamestown Foundation, an American think-tank.
Now it's fairly easy to come across Muslim fundamentalist message boards (even if they've been shut down, Google's cache is always available) or general forums with a strong fundamentalist slant. Possible that some of them are honeypots run by intelligence agencies, but I doubt that every single English-language Islamist board is a CIA front.
Still, finding these mentors online is not an easy task. The article notes that "several terrorist plots uncovered [in Britain] since 2001 have been striking for their incompetence and lack of outside expertise" and goes on to describe amateurish (and failed) attempts to build bombs using internet recipes.
Most policymakers and analysts cited in the media have acknowledged the difficulty of identifying radicals (or more precisely, distinguishing between the extremist who takes pains to hide his "piety", and other Muslims). Greater surveillance of mosques certainly increases the incentive to communicate and collaborate online, in a relatively anonymous environment, rather than risking meetings in more public spaces. Further, while it's common for people in Western countries to make assumptions about low internet/PC penetration in developing countries, it's important to recognize that even small towns have internet cafes, with hordes of teenagers and young men playing PS2, surfing the internet and chatting on MSN. Sure, the PCs are shitty and most places can't offer better than dialup speed, but it doesn't take much to go online, connect with any number of like-minded people and discuss topics of interest. That is, after all, how 'Aqoul.com came about in the first place.
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I still like Ken MacLeod's description of the internet based jihadi. Even though he's disclaimed it based on actual information subsequently discovered, it's still great invective:
Imagine creationist electrical engineers taking up abortion-clinic bombing. That's the level of people we're dealing with here. The Sekrit Jihad Organization of Al Qaeda in Europe most likely consists of speccy, spotty nerds whose sole reading is the Koran and computer manuals, whose only chance of getting laid is an arranged marriage, and who don't even allow themselves a wank to ease their zits. In a better life they would have found science-fiction fandom.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 15, 2005 01:07 AM
I personally believe that a lot of the media attention on "cyberterrorism" is actually a massive NSA disinformation campaign, with only a faint basis in reality. The NSA has banks and banks of the most complex and advanced computers on the planet, all designed to cull information. Largely from text. Its been admitted as much.
Convincing terrorists to use the internet is basically convincing them to fight on America's intelligence home ground (and honestly, as much as I hate America, I hope the terrorists are too dumb to figure it out). The US has traditionally had craptastic HUMINT, and very, very good ELINT.
By the way, two stories basically illustrate the above point, both involving Cuba:
- During the Cold War, the Cubans basically infiltrated the entire Cuban section of the State Department.
- During the Cold War, the NSA and the CIA smuggled electronic parts to Cuba, so they could keep eavesdropping on electronic transmissions.
Posted by: ascendance at July 15, 2005 04:25 AM
Unfortunately, Arabic-speaking people have the irritating habit of communicating in Arabic on the internets.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 15, 2005 06:09 AM
Arabic, Farsi or Urdu, even. And they may even use English characters, which makes it even more bizarre.
I'm sure NSA spiders are constantly crawling the internet for flagged words/word combinations, at the very least. One would hope.
Posted by: eerie at July 15, 2005 08:55 AM
inshallah. bil nafs, bil dam, nafdeeki ya eerie.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 15, 2005 01:45 PM