Terrorists spread their messages online
A growing number of Al Qaeda websites offer instructions for kidnapping and killing victims.
One Al Qaeda website offers chilling details on how to conduct private and public kidnappings. It points out the number of cells essential to target and and hide victims. It details how to handle hostages - force them to taste the food first, for instance. It gives advice on negotiating tactics (gradually kill the hostages if "the enemy" stalls) and on releasing captives (be alert to tracking devices planted in the ransom money).
The Al Qaeda site, called Al Battar, which means The Sword, is posted on the Internet twice a month. It's one of several websites that the terrorist group and its supporters built after the US successfully routed them from Afghanistan in late 2001.
And it is one of some 4,000 websites that, experts say, now exist to carry on a "virtual" terror war - and plan actual attacks.
"When I began tracking terrorist websites seven years ago, there were 12 sites in my database," says Gabriel Weimann, an Israeli communications professor who researches terrorist websites at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. "After [Al Qaeda members] were chased from the camps, they went to the Internet. They began adding two a day, going up to 50, then a hundred, to thousands."
The rapid proliferation of the terror sites provides a dilemma for intelligence officials and terror experts alike.
Should sites be shut down or be monitored for information that might help thwart attacks or provide information about how the groups are evolving strategically?
Intelligence officials say they try to monitor the sites. For one thing, it wouldn't be easy to close them down. Not just because they are ubiquitous, but because they know they are targeted for shut-downs or being monitored.
"I think it is impossible to shut them [terrorist websites] down completely," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "As a terrorism analyst, it is extremely valuable to have access to the sites."
For their part, terrorist websites try to elude their trackers. They feign closures of the sites, often shortly after they're put up, only to move them to different locations on the Web.
Al Qaeda - and now the global movement of terror groups it has inspired - have transferred most of their activities to the Internet. They use it to recruit, raise funds, perform research, coordinate their actions, spread propaganda, and wage psychological warfare. They are found on traditional websites, and in chat rooms and forums that provide links to additional sites.
"You can [now] have three people walk into an Internet cafe and pull up off an Internet site an understanding of how to put together a chemical device," says a senior CIA counterterrorism official.
The CIA official pointed out how they learned information that was strategically valuable about the cell that set off the explosions on the train in Madrid last March.
"We're facing an adversary that's declined in terms of its capabilities, but that is still highly lethal because they are committed. They've spent a lot of time studying us, and ... don't necessarily require the kinds of sophistication we saw on Sept. 11," he said. The Madrid attack was carried out by extremists "who spent mere weeks planning the operation using the cheapest cellphones, stolen explosives, and using obviously over-the-counter train schedules. And they killed nearly 200 people."
Al Battar, the Al Qaeda site that published the kidnapping instructions, has published several other how-to pieces. There are tutorials on all aspects of explosives, including improvised car bombs; poisons, including ricin; intelligence; and executions - "detailed in scary, scary ways," says Weimann. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly attributed Weimann's quote to an intelligence officer.]
The kidnapping tutorial, he explains, is particularly chilling in light of the growing numbers of abductions taking place in Iraq - with a number of them employing gruesome tactics.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi allegedly posted the video of the beheading of American Nicholas Berg in Iraq this past May. A group in Saudi Arabia - totally with no connection to Mr. Zarqawi - kidnapped and later beheaded American Paul Johnson. They, too, posted a video of the horrifying act. And others in Iraq have since done the same.
It's only recently, intelligence officials say, that Zarqawi became adept at building and maintaining a website. In fact, by monitoring the sites, intelligence officials say they've learned a great deal about his operations - how he patterned his organization in Iraq after the Al Qaeda model.
"He first brought in the logistics people, then the fighters," says another senior intelligence official. "Then he brought in the financial people, the trainers, and finally, the media."
Zarqawi's Internet exhortations target two distinct audiences, according to Weimann. He terrorizes Americans by telling them they will be receiving more coffins containing their war dead. And he calls on his Muslim brethren to join the fight.
But there are other websites, Weimann asserts, that have been around a long time and are in some ways more insidious.
He cites Hizbullah, the Syrian-backed party in Lebanon that for years targeted Israeli occupation of Lebanon but has also morphed into a political party, and Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group that also has terror and political wings.
Hizbullah's site, in particular, Weimann says, is extremely sophisticated. Its site is written in both Arabic and English, and even has a special section for the press.
A more disturbing aspect, he says, is that the site entices children - as does Hamas's.
"It suggests they download computer games, war games," Weimann says. "They look like cartoons or comics, but they are preaching sacrifice and are aimed at recruitment. They show children how to shoot Israelis and US soldiers. "
Weimann, who is writing a book about his research, offers recommendations on how to police the websites - some of which would certainly be controversial to proponents of free speech.
• Modify the Patriot Act to allow Internet monitoring similar to the way passengers are screened for airline travel.
• Apply a social responsibility model to Internet Service Providers. Many of the large ones now, he says, have requirements - no violence or pornography. They could monitor for the promotion of terror as well.
• Form an international collaborative of Western countries, the ones that have more stable, advanced Internet services. They could better monitor or prevent these sites from running terror material.
• Offer alternatives. "Don't leave the stage to the bad guys," he says. "We should be presenting alternatives, compete for attention."
• Use the Internet as a stage for peace and conflict management. "Engage them," he says. "There is no talking to Al Qaeda, but others will join a dialog."