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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hyping The Terrorist Internet: The "You Name It" Problem

As most readers know, I have a healthy respect for the dangers of terrorist use of the Internet. But at the same time, I think U.S. media and policymakers tend to oversell the impact and uniqueness of how Al Qaeda and its admirers and adherents use the Web.

While reading Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda it occurred to me that this is the "You Name It" Problem.
"General Abizaid was the Centcom commander and he essentially felt like we were losing daily, not just the broader battle of ideas, but we were losing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan because the way the terrorists dominate in either putting out beheadings or you just name it," said a counterterrorism official involved in the discussions.
A paragraph or two later, Abaizaid is quoted directly:
Yet when you looked at the enemy, the enemy was moving in the cyberspace world in a way that allowed them to recruit, train, organize, equip, proselytize, educate -- you name it! -- conduct intelligence operations.
"Recruit, train, organize, equip, proselytize, educate -- you name it! -- conduct intelligence operations" is actually just "recruit, train, equip and conduct intelligence operations" when you remove redundancies. Serious, yes, but a shorter list.

Meanwhile, the phrase "you name it" is designed to invoke all manner of mysterious goings-on that we are encouraged not to actually name, so that they can remain mysterious.

The vast majority of work and activity taking place on extremist forums is the same activity that extremist networks engage in offline. The Internet is a magnifier and accelerator, as it is in other aspects of life, but it has not, for the most part, fundamentally changed the work of extremism.

Some things are easier, like exposing people to various sorts of training manuals in dangerous techniques. Other things are harder, like ensuring that recruits are actually competent to perform dangerous techniques. Inspire magazine is a terrorist magazine just like dozens of its predecessors. It's not something fundamentally new, it's just being distributed more efficiently and at lower cost.

We need to be concerned about the ways that Internet use expands the reach and speed of terrorist organizations, but we also need to stay grounded, understand the basics and describe them in clear and concrete ways.

During a recent conversation about the Internet as a "driver" of radical activities, I pointed out that terrorists used printed newsletters and magazines before there was an Internet. Yet no one talks about the role of paper in driving extremist activities.

The Internet is an important tool, but it's just a tool. We should be talking about WHAT extremists are doing online, rather than marveling at the fact they are doing it ONLINE.

For more about Internet radicalization, 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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Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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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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