Al-Qaeda’s Cyber Warfare: The Virtual World of Extremism

The recent case of the 3 men convicted of terrorism offences in Birmingham highlights how easily people can be radicalised through the Internet by websites and online videos/sermons. Evidence in the trial of the men showed that they were frequent visitors to online sites where they were listening to various sermons. In Britain, the fight against cyber terrorism has become of pivotal importance for the coalition government. The Strategic Defence and Security Review in October 2010 highlighted a grave warning that the UK was facing a serious threat from cyber terrorism. The fear is that terrorists may be able to play the role of hostile actors capable of conducting a cyber terrorist attack. In a joint statement the coalition government in Britain stated that; “We are entering an age of uncertainty. This strategy is about gearing Britain up for this new age of uncertainty – weighing up the threats we face and preparing to deal with them”.

Cyber terrorism is capable of reeking actual damage on critical infrastructures of society, such as telecommunications, water supply, and economic and financial institutions. Therefore, terrorist use of the Internet as a facilitator to get instructions on building a nail bomb, mounting to an explosion could be part of a cyber terrorist attack. David Copeland, for example, unsuccessfully used online material to make a nail bomb with the intention of blowing up various locations in London. He used the Internet to facilitate his aims which were to kill and maim. Though he used cyber technology to aid his bomb making, it is questionable whether he would fall within the definition of a terrorist in the usual meaning of the word today.

Similarly, in July 2009, a Muslim convert by the name of Andrew Ibrahim attempted a suicide mission by making explosives which he intended to detonate in Bristol’s busy city centre and cause mass casualties. He also, like Copeland, had found material on the Internet which had helped him get the ingredients and create these explosives. One question is, therefore, if somebody gets instructions on the Internet on how to make a bomb, are they a cyber terrorist? Clearly, extremist groups are now increasingly using cyber space to create a theatre of psychological fear that they hope will cause pandemonium and instil a sentiment of despair amongst vulnerable individuals.

Recruiters therefore may use more interactive Internet technology to go through and play around with online chat rooms and cyber cafes, therefore looking possibly for enlisting support for the most weak and vulnerable; namely young people. Sageman (2008) states that this form of interaction and chat rooms helps build and maintain ideological partnerships and act as a recruitment model for radicalising the youth. The nature of participation on the Internet, participation in online discussion could be deemed as cyber political activism. The recent events in the Middle East show the murky lines between participation in social media and physical demonstrations.

Indeed, in February 2011, Internet Haganah, a project devoted to researching the impact of cyber terrorism identified a list of top ten Jihadi forums for radicalisation purposes, which include: (Shmukh (www.shamikh1.net); Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic Forum (www.as-ansar.com); Majahden, (www.majahden1.com); Tahadi (https://www.atahadi.com/vb/); Luyoth (https://leyoth.ws); Tawhed [wal Jihad] (https://www.tw7eed.com/vb/); Jahafal (https://al-jahafal.com/vb/); Amanh (www.al-amanh.net/vb/); Qimmah (https://alqimmah.net/) and Jahad (aljahad.info/.net/.com).

Therefore the Internet is a safe haven for terrorists as they can remain anonymous, do not need to travel to Iraq or Pakistan, do not need to show their passports but with the click of a mouse they can send their messages of terror. For example, the online terrorist Younis Tsouli who used the name Irhaby (terrorist) 007 to hide his details ran extremist material online, promoting the cause for terrorist groups and was planning a major terrorist attack. In 2007, he was convicted in the UK for inciting terror through the use of the Internet. He had helped prepare the propaganda campaigns (including translation of al-Qaeda’s online e-book into English) that were an integral part of the vision of al-Qaeda which was for him to distribute videos of executions online.

Websites are also a powerful tool for extremist organisations. They can secure membership without directly approaching potential recruits. The messages on websites can also reach thousands of people across the world. Online recruitment by terrorist organisations using websites and chat rooms is said to be widespread. These websites contain crucial information with historical accounts, statistics and pictures and images of terror that can be downloaded and sent to millions of people. This creates support and act as a recruitment tool. The key to such extremist ideology over the Net is to create websites that cause resentment for the West and allows international support to reach to millions.

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