Thinking Aloud: “Terrorism on the Internet”

Mar. 30, 2014 by Darius 

[Today’s is a guest blog from a friend who attended an event I could not.]

Earlier this week, I attended a talk by Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communications at the University of Haifa, about the ways in which the internet has revolutionized international terrorism.  According to Weimann, the internet and modern communications have provided terrorists with unprecedented opportunities for propagandizing, fundraising, and recruitment.  Weimann argued that the internet – globally accessible, inexpensive to use, and largely unregulated – has become an essential component of any serious terrorist organization: in 1998, there were only 12 terrorist websites, but today, there are more than 10,000.  In his lecture, Weimann reflected on three main points.

#1 Interactivity and new media 

According to Weimann, terrorist groups have been very quick to adapt to the new world of online communication – in other words, “open source jihad” is the new normal.  Reading the paper or watching the news is largely one-directional, but chatrooms, Yahoo groups, and similar venues allow radical groups to interact directly with potential donors and recruits (“send your questions to Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki”) and to disseminate their ideology and training in a more personalized manner.  Google Earth has also proven to be a particularly valuable resource: the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Hezbollah’s cross-border raids into Israel, and many other terrorist attacks were all facilitated by Google Earth’s free satellite imagery.  For these reasons, a terrorist group’s “assembly line” of software developers, spokespeople, producers, and distributors can be just as important as their fighters, except that the former can be spread around the world and can easily hide in plain sight.

#2 Narrowcasting, not broadcasting

In contrast to broadcasting, in which a message is disseminated to the widest possible audience, terrorist groups have embraced “narrowcasting,” or the targeting of specific messages to specific audiences.  In addition to appealing to the young men who are their typical recruiting targets, terrorists groups are increasingly producing content (comic strips, animations, etc.) aimed specifically at children.  Hamas, for example, featured a Mickey Mouse-like character (Farfour) that instructed children, among other things, about Islamic supremacy and resistance to the West; when Disney complained about the use of their copyright, the show’s producers had Farfour martyred at the hands of Israeli interrogators.  The broader point, said Weimann, is that terrorist groups, like corporations and political campaigns, are now employing highly tailored marketing strategies to reach new audiences and to lay the groundwork for their next generation of supporters.

#3 Lone wolves in cyberspace

Although no terrorist group has managed to attack the American homeland since September 11, there is considerable anxiety over the threat posed by “lone wolves,” or individuals who carry out attacks despite having no formal ties to a larger terrorist organization.  (Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombers, are perhaps the most infamous examples.)  However, Weimann argued that the entire lone wolf concept is misleading: although you may only ever see the attacker, there is a “virtual pack” behind him that provides the necessary training and moral support.  The Tsarnaevs obtained crucial bomb-building information from Al Qaeda’s online magazine and were later featured (in paradise) on that magazine’s cover for their efforts, thereby providing final inspiration to those who hope to follow in their footsteps.

Given the sheer number of terrorist websites/chatrooms/YouTube videos and their Hydra-like tendency to bounce back from disruption, Weimann was pessimistic about the chances of successfully blocking or disabling them to any significant extent.  Rather, he said, governments should (a) study these websites and their purveyors to predict and prevent future attacks and (b) compete with terrorists for control of the narrative by exposing the same target audiences, especially children and young adults, to messages of anti-terror and moderation.

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