Technology has created a virtual sanctuary that makes terrorist training camps obsolete, analysts tell Paul McGeough.
ABU Baraq and Abu Abdullah are insurgency foot soldiers on the front line in Iraq. But they are also becoming cyber warriors in a dot.com jihad. We meet in a private home in the suburbs of Baghdad. The fighters sit on an ornate sofa, explaining their cell leader’s reluctant embrace of the insurgency’s most sophisticated weapon – a powerful web-driven media campaign.
“Did you see us on Al-Jazeera two nights ago?” asks Abu Baraq. “We attacked an American Humvee.”
Abu Abdullah outlines their late inclusion in the jihadis’ burgeoning global propaganda drive: “Our leader used to object to taking the digicam on operations because he saw it as a security risk. But now we record everything because the media are captives of foreign governments. The camera lets us tell the world what we are doing.”
But the recordings are not just for TV. In the 4Â½ years since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, there has been a global explosion in terrorism-associated websites, message boards and chat rooms, enabling terrorists and their sympathisers to bypass the filters of the mass media and to deliver their message direct to target audiences – unqualified and unadulterated.
When Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communications at Haifa University in Israel, decided to monitor the web in the late 1990s, he found a dozen terrorist-related sites. Now he monitors more than 4500.
Rita Katz, the director of the SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) Institute in Washington, says new websites pop up so fast that it is no longer possible to count them.
Loaded as much from caves as cafes around the world, these websites have become what Israeli analyst Reuven Paz describes as “an open university for jihad”. They are used to inform, instruct and indoctrinate, which is why Paz is troubled by a new shift as the terrorists’ cyber campaign goes multilingual. “Just two or three weeks ago about 150 announcements by al-Qaeda in Iraq were translated into French and now they are popping up more frequently in English and Italian too,” he says.