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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Internet Provides Terrorists With Tools -- Just Like Everyone Else

Last week, I attended a National Counterterrorism Center conference on "The Changing Face of Al Qa'ida." I was honored to take part in a panel on Internet radicalization with some great thinkers in this space, Will McCants and Daveed Gartentstein-Ross, as well as Scott Carpenter, head of Google Ideas, who made a persuasive case for that project, although I continue to have some reservations and look forward to further conversations. What follows is an abridged and edited version of my talk.

Terrorists use the Internet in many of the same ways that everyone else uses it – to communicate, collaborate and achieve critical mass.

Jihadists in the U.S. began using email to distribute propaganda as soon as it became available. They replaced paper newsletters such as Al Hussam, published out of Boston, with e-mailed newsletters like the Islam Report, by Kifah Jayyousi with the American Islamic Group in Florida. Al Hussam later went online as well both in email and Web page form. These were just practical decisions. It cost about $1,000 a month to publish Al Hussam on paper. It cost virtually nothing to email Islam Report.

Jihadis switched to digital video fairly early as well, for similar reasons. It was much cheaper and easier to distribute files on video than on videotape. Prior to 9/11 most of these initiatives were extensions of the earlier formats – basically the same newsletter or video in digital form.

The rise of the Web and social media have made it possible for people with all sorts of fringe interests to find community where they never could before, whether it's fans of low-rated TV shows, people with unusual sexual fetishes or people who are fascinated by jihad.

Since 9/11, use of the Interent in general and by jihadists specifically has increasingly been about relationships. Many or even most of the relationships people institute online will remain online forever. But some people will make connections that lead to real-life interactions.

The jihadist Web is of greatest concern to us when relationships established online become relationships in the real world with real-world consequences. There is a tremendous amount of radical activity online. Very little of that activity will translate into real-world threats. But the volume of activity gives us a great (albeit imperfect) view on the temperature and interests of the movement.

The Internet is also seen, correctly, as an incubator for incipient radicalism and a transmission channel for jihadist and Al Qaeda propaganda. These are important factors, but not as important as the relationships. Relationships forged online have led to attempted terrorist attacks and violent radical activity in a number of cases (including Zach Chesser, "Jihad Jane" Colleen LaRose and Faisal Shahzad).

In contrast, despite a constant flow of specific threats generated on the forums, there is not a single case known to the open-source world where a scheme developed on the forum evolved into an operational success. It is extraordinarily rare for such conversations to become operational at all, even as failures.

One area of obvious concern is Al Qaeda's Inspire magazine, which urges American Muslims to take up arms at home and carry out attacks under the concept known as "individual jihad." This message has been reinforced by messages from American Al Qaeda member Adam Gadahn.

With some notable exceptions, the individual jihad has mostly resulted in embarrassing failures. Recent events in Norway may serve to spur additional efforts on this front, as Anders Breivik has now demonstrated that a single person can successfully mount a spectacular terrorist attack.

Although Inspire has been touted as a new initiative by Al Qaeda, it is in reality an old-style jihadist propaganda magazine, albeit with a few new twists. Most notable is the addition of direct instructions on how to carry out terrorist attacks, which have not traditionally been combined with propaganda pieces.

Last week we saw the first case of someone directly following the instructions in Inspire, former U.S. soldier Nasser Abdo. He won't be the last. It's important to continue monitoring the continued evolution of Inspire, while avoiding hyperbolic comments about its alleged power (which Inspire's editors routinely republish).

We're seeing social media increasingly used by jihadists, but a similar dynamic applies. Social media is not necessarily a source of radicalization but a way to make connections and build toward offline relationships.

For instance, Khalid Abdul Latif, who was plotting an attack on a military installation in Seattle, uploaded propaganda videos to YouTube expounding on his views. There is no evidence his videos managed to radicalize anyone, although they provided a significant service to prosecutors. Only a handful of people even saw his videos prior to his arrest.

Fan pages centered around jihadist/terrorist groups on Facebook have, to some extent, succeeded in establishing a wider reach, but these pages also expose users to potential negative action in a more substantial way than the forums.

For practical purposes, we should be thinking about violent radicalization as a problem set that has to do more to do with violence and less to do with talk, beliefs and attitudes. We can't control or regulate how people think. We can interdict them when they start to move toward violent action.

For more about American jihadists, including a chapter devoted to their use of the Internet, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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