e-QAEDA | From Afghanistan to the Internet
Terrorists Turn to the Web as Base of Operations
Sunday, August 7, 2005
In the snow-draped mountains near Jalalabad in November 2001, as the Taliban collapsed and al Qaeda lost its Afghan sanctuary, Osama bin Laden biographer Hamid Mir watched "every second al Qaeda member carrying a laptop computer along with a Kalashnikov" as they prepared to scatter into hiding and exile. On the screens were photographs of Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.
Nearly four years later, al Qaeda has become the first guerrilla movement in history to migrate from physical space to cyberspace. With laptops and DVDs, in secret hideouts and at neighborhood Internet cafes, young code-writing jihadists have sought to replicate the training, communication, planning and preaching facilities they lost in Afghanistan with countless new locations on the Internet.
Al Qaeda suicide bombers and ambush units in Iraq routinely depend on the Web for training and tactical support, relying on the Internet's anonymity and flexibility to operate with near impunity in cyberspace. In Qatar, Egypt and Europe, cells affiliated with al Qaeda that have recently carried out or seriously planned bombings have relied heavily on the Internet.
Such cases have led Western intelligence agencies and outside terrorism specialists to conclude that the "global jihad movement," sometimes led by al Qaeda fugitives but increasingly made up of diverse "groups and ad hoc cells," has become a "Web-directed" phenomenon, as a presentation for U.S. government terrorism analysts by longtime State Department expert Dennis Pluchinsky put it. Hampered by the nature of the Internet itself, the government has proven ineffective at blocking or even hindering significantly this vast online presence.
Among other things, al Qaeda and its offshoots are building a massive and dynamic online library of training materials -- some supported by experts who answer questions on message boards or in chat rooms -- covering such varied subjects as how to mix ricin poison, how to make a bomb from commercial chemicals, how to pose as a fisherman and sneak through Syria into Iraq, how to shoot at a U.S. soldier, and how to navigate by the stars while running through a night-shrouded desert. These materials are cascading across the Web in Arabic, Urdu, Pashto and other first languages of jihadist volunteers.
The Saudi Arabian branch of al Qaeda launched an online magazine in 2004 that exhorted potential recruits to use the Internet: "Oh Mujahid brother, in order to join the great training camps you don't have to travel to other lands," declared the inaugural issue of Muaskar al-Battar, or Camp of the Sword. "Alone, in your home or with a group of your brothers, you too can begin to execute the training program."
"Biological Weapons" was the stark title of a 15-page Arabic language document posted two months ago on the Web site of al Qaeda fugitive leader Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, one of the jihadist movement's most important propagandists, often referred to by the nom de guerre Abu Musab Suri. His document described "how the pneumonic plague could be made into a biological weapon," if a small supply of the virus could be acquired, according to a translation by Rebecca Givner-Forbes, an analyst at the Terrorism Research Center, an Arlington firm with U.S. government clients. Nasar's guide drew on U.S. and Japanese biological weapons programs from the World War II era and showed "how to inject carrier animals, like rats, with the virus and how to extract microbes from infected blood . . . and how to dry them so that they can be used with an aerosol delivery system."
Jihadists seek to overcome in cyberspace specific obstacles they face from armies and police forces in the physical world. In planning attacks, radical operatives are often at risk when they congregate at a mosque or cross a border with false documents. They are safer working on the Web. Al Qaeda and its offshoots "have understood that both time and space have in many ways been conquered by the Internet," said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who coined the term "netwar" more than a decade ago.
Al Qaeda's innovation on the Web "erodes the ability of our security services to hit them when they're most vulnerable, when they're moving," said Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA unit that tracked bin Laden. "It used to be they had to go to Sudan, they had to go to Yemen, they had to go to Afghanistan to train," he added. Now, even when such travel is necessary, an al Qaeda operative "no longer has to carry anything that's incriminating. He doesn't need his schematics, he doesn't need his blueprints, he doesn't need formulas." Everything is posted on the Web or "can be sent ahead by encrypted Internet, and it gets lost in the billions of messages that are out there."
The number of active jihadist-related Web sites has metastasized since Sept. 11, 2001. When Gabriel Weimann, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, began tracking terrorist-related Web sites eight years ago, he found 12; today, he tracks more than 4,500. Hundreds of them celebrate al Qaeda or its ideas, he said.
"They are all linked indirectly through association of belief, belonging to some community. The Internet is the network that connects them all," Weimann said. "You can see the virtual community come alive."
Apart from its ideology and clandestine nature, the jihadist cyberworld is little different in structure from digital communities of role-playing gamers, eBay coin collectors or disease sufferers. Through continuous online contact, such communities bind dispersed individuals with intense beliefs who might never have met one another in the past. Along with radical jihad, the Internet also has enabled the flow of powerful ideas and inspiration in many other directions, such as encouraging democratic movements and creating vast new commercial markets.