One of the little-noticed facts that connects many recent acts of terrorism - from Nidal Malik Hassan, the Fort Hood Shooter, to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas day bomber, is the growing use of the Internet by terrorists not only to spread their propaganda but also to recruit and raise funds.
Hassan maintained online contacts with radical imam Anwar al-Alwaki while Abdulmutallab told investigators that a Yemeni cleric he contacted through the Internet put him in touch with al Qaeda. Research shows that about 90 per cent of terrorist activity on the Internet consists of using social networking tools, be they independent bulletin boards, Paltalk, or Yahoo! eGroups. These forums act as a virtual firewall to safeguard the identities of those who participate, and they offer surfers easy access to terrorist material, to ask questions, and even to contribute and aid cyber jihad.
There is a consensus that the US military campaign to eliminate al Qaeda’s operational base in Afghanistan produced the subsequent decentralisation of the group, effectively weakening al Qaeda’s operational capacity. However, this has proved to be false. The Internet, in fact, increased the inter-operational and communication capabilities of al Qaeda’s decentralised cells. Today, all active terrorist groups have established at least one form of presence on the Internet and most of them use all formats of up-to-date online platforms - e-mail, chatrooms, e-groups, forums, virtual message boards, and resources like You-Tube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Earth.
Chat rooms and electronic forums enable terrorist groups to communicate with members and supporters all over the world, to recruit new followers, and to share information at little risk of identification by authorities. The free chatroom service PalTalk, which includes voice and video capabilities, has become particularly popular with terrorist cells. In one PalTalk chat room, British Islamic militants set up support forums for the deceased leader of the insurgents in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In another, Arabic-speaking users share personal experiences of fighting Arab-Afghans. And in a third, relatives of Iraqi insurgents praise the “martyrdom” of the terrorists.
In addition to being used to generate support, chatrooms are used to share tactical information. Jihadist message boards and chatrooms have been known to have “experts” directly answer questions about how to mix poisons for chemical attacks, how to ambush soldiers, how to carry out suicide attacks and how to hack into computer systems.
One chatroom is used on a daily basis to post the links for al Qaeda propaganda videos and terrorist instruction manuals. The forums Al-Qalah, Shamikh, Majahden, and Al-Faloja are especially popular among terrorist cells and new recruits are encouraged to refer to the sites to read the jihadist literature. These chatrooms also aim to convince prospective members to join or to stage personal suicide attacks.
There are countless cases of jihadists using the Internet to their advantage, but the story of Younes Tsouli demonstrates the resourcefulness of Internet-savvy terrorists. As one journalist put it, Tsouli, more commonly known by his internet pseudonym Irhabi 007, “illustrated perfectly how terrorists are using the internet not just to spread propaganda, but to organise attacks.”
In 2003, Irhabi 007 joined various terrorist internet forums, where he uploaded and published pictures, videos, and instruction manuals on computer hacking. Shortly thereafter his skills were sought out by al Qaeda leaders who wanted him to provide logistical support for their online operations. In 2005, Tsouli became the administrator of the extremist internet forum al-Ansar, where he published bomb making instruction manuals and details related to suicide bombing operations. He helped Zarqawi’s al Qaeda faction in Iraq and became a central figure in enabling Zarqawi to re-establish the links between al Qaeda affiliated groups after the fall of the Taliban.
When Tsouli was caught in 2006 British investigators found photos of locations in Washington DC that had been emailed to him by colleagues, suggesting he was helping to organise a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill.
An intelligence report released in October of 2008 by the US Army’s 304th Military Intelligence Battalion included a chapter entitled the "Potential for Terrorist Use of Twitter," which expressed the Army’s concern over the use of the blogging services. The report says that Twitter could become an effective co-ordination tool for terrorists trying to launch militant attacks and includes references to several pro-Hezbollah Tweets.
The report also highlights three possible scenarios of terrorist usage of this online format:
- send and receive near real-time updates on the logistics of troops’ movements in order to conduct more successful ambushes;
- use mobile phones to send images of a suicide bomber’s location to a second operative who can use the near actual-time imagery to time the moment to detonate the explosive device; and
- hack into a soldier’s online account and communicate with other soldiers under the stolen identity.