Skip to comments.How Al Qaeda uses the Internet ( Info on the Madrid incident )
Posted on 03/19/2004 12:46:08 PM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach
The Internet has replaced Afghanistan as the main meeting place for radical Islamists, according to experts studying Al Qaeda's presence on the web.
They say the Internet is one of Al Qaeda's key survival tools, through which it is waging a relentless propaganda campaign to incite war against the West.
Thomas Hegghammer, who researches Islamist websites at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, last year found a 42-page document detailing how terrorist attacks timed for the Spanish elections could damage the Western coalition in Iraq.
"Spain can stand a maximum of two or three attacks before they will withdraw from Iraq," the document said.
With hindsight, it suggests a further possible link between Al Qaeda and the Madrid blasts.
"What was surprising both to us and to other analysts was the level of sophisticated analytical thinking in the document," Mr Hegghammer said.
"It is very informed about the internal political situation in Spain, in Britain, as well as in Poland. This is quite unique in the Al Qaeda literature which we've seen so far."
Mr Hegghammer says there may now be tens of thousands of Islamist web sites inciting violence.
He says Al Qaeda is not just a terrorist organisation but sees itself as a global movement, an ideology out to win over the Islamic world.
"The Internet is important in maintaining a certain cohesion among like-minded radical Islamists," Mr Hegghammer said. "It has, in a sense, replaced Afghanistan as a meeting place."
But how easy is it to log on to Al Qaeda?
It often has to shut down or move its websites but Lateline reporter Margot O'Neill yesterday found Al Qaeda's main website functioning freely, off an Internet server in Germany.
The site is not just religious tracts. Al Qaeda now videos many of its actions and puts them online, like the horrific murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
Mr Hegghammer does not believe the West should try to shut down such websites, saying it could learn from them instead.
"The thing that we, the West, might do with the Internet and with all these radical Islamist websites is not to close them down or track them down but rather to read them more in detail and to try to understand the ideology," he said.
"That is where you really get the early signs of the ideological developments, which are later going to affect us, or might affect us, physically."
Former Reuters journalist Paul Eedle is one person who has been examining radical Islamic websites closely, who has become one of the world's leading experts on Al Qaeda's use of the Internet.
In an interview with Lateline's Tony Jones, the award-winning reporter says Al Qaeda is using the Internet to spread a sophisticated propaganda campaign, as well as using it for training and operational purposes.
And he says it is virtually impossible for intelligence agencies to track down Al Qaeda messages because of their simple approach.
A full transcript of the interview follows, or you can watch the interview in the Real or Windows formats.
Tony Jones: How significant was this Norwegian discovery of the extremist website pointing at Spain's vulnerability to terrorist attack and what might happen if it were attacked?
Paul Eedle: I think it's very significant. I think what Thomas spotted is that this document, although it appeared to be just addressing fighters in Iraq, was actually laying out in great detail Al Qaeda's strategy to break America's power in the world.
It explains that Iraq is the crucial battleground. If Al Qaeda can defeat America there it will have a forward base in the heart of the Middle East and as it put it, "the gates of expansion will be open".
How do you read, because we've been seeing evidence of this in Australia since Australia was named in the latest Al Qaeda communique, how do you read this communique that I believe has been placed on something called the Global Islamic media email list by Al Qaeda?
Yes, the Global Islamic Media is the email list that is probably the most credible source of Al Qaeda statements at the moment.
I think this needs to be taken very seriously. Australia is consistently mentioned by Al Qaeda leaders, from Osama bin Laden on down, as in the frontline of its targets.
There's no doubt that this kind of propaganda has its effect. They seem to be saying in the same email, they seem to be suggesting that they've stopped operations in Spain, called a cease-fire to wait and see if the Spanish actually do withdraw their troops. Is that likely that they're really doing that?
It's quite possible that this is just part of the media spin that Al Qaeda is putting on the operations. But make no mistake - the Internet and satellite television are Al Qaeda's tools for its political strategy.
These are not just people who let off bombs. The extreme violence is part of a very careful, long-term strategy to break Western power in the world, to try to do to the West what they believe the war in Afghanistan did to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Do you agree with the analysis we just heard from Norway ... do you agree with his analogy that the Internet has become a virtual Afghanistan, where the most radical of the Islamic extremists meet, exchange ideas and so on?
Yes, it is. It's exactly that and it's even a training camp. Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, which is one of the most active parts of organisation on the Internet, is putting out two fortnightly magazines, one of them general political, the other specifically military training.
They have to replace their physical bases in Afghanistan somehow and so so long as there is a small number of highly trained people to lead groups, then these detailed manuals of writing how to write recipes for explosives are all crucial.
Give us some idea, Paul, of the volume of the material we're talking about here. What is generated in the course of a week or a month?
I think in terms of significant material, we're looking at a reasonable-sized book each month.
That global Islamic media email list puts out 30 to 50 messages, some of them have attachments like these magazines I've mentioned, which each run to 30 or 50 pages each. You're looking at a fair stack each month.
We know that much of it is extreme, some of it is almost pornographic in the violence it displays. I'm thinking particularly of the horrific video that's shown, almost pop video-style, of the beheading of Daniel Pearl, for example, which is still on the net as we speak.
Yes, that was probably the most horrific scene that I've ever seen on the Net but perhaps almost as chilling was the latest, very beautifully put together video about the bomb attack in Riyadh last November, which actually shows the final shot of attackers driving towards their target through the night in Riyadh chanting "God is great".
All propaganda obviously has an aim, a goal. What do you believe is being generated here in terms of the overarching aim of this material?
The overarching aim of all this material is to create a war of civilisations between Islam and the West.
The Al Qaeda view of the world is that the West has been waging a crusader war against Muslims for centuries and that everybody must make up their minds and 'you're either with us or against us'. They often quote George Bush on that. They feel the same way.
They want to create a conflict that will continue long after their own organisation might have been dismantled.
Is it clear from your monitoring of the Net, because the Internet obviously is a two-way thing, how these diatribes are being received in countries all over the world by young Muslim men and women?
You get a good impression of what people think of these diatribes from the many messageboards where Al Qaeda sympathisers and Islamists congregate. There you can see that when one of these messages is posted up people tag on comments saying "God is great", "wonderful news".
You can see how this is going down well with young Islamists, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
You've got to say that dinner party conversation in middle-class tables around the Middle East very much shares Al Qaeda's view of the world, which is ludicrous.
It's ludicrous that Al Qaeda should be able to make the argument that the West is hostile to Islam on issues such as Palestine, for instance, where it's Western American policy there should be a just two-state solution in Palestine.
So, I think that if the West wants to counter Al Qaeda as a political organisation it needs to isolate it politically, deal with some of these issues that are raised and have so much of an echo in the Arab and Muslim world.
Is it possible for the West to deal specifically with these web sites, simply try and take them off the Internet for example? Close them down. I know that's happening but they keep shifting from place to place.
Yes, the Internet, it's not practically possible to deny access to the Internet to Al Qaeda. The Internet was invented to withstand nuclear war. That's the way it was constructed so that if one node is taken down another can pop up.
I think it's much more important for the West to pay attention to Al Qaeda's message and think of the political ways to counter that.
Many of the actions I think that Western governments have taken in the last two years have played into Al Qaeda's view of the West as endlessly hostile to Muslims.
I note, for example, even in today's Al Qaeda email, they seem to focus in on anything that appears to be a perceived hypocrisy or hypocrisy is probably the best way of looking at it from their point of view. For example, they talk about independence being granted by the United Nations to East Timor but not to Kashmir.
Yes, I think that's the continuous theme. I think the lesson for the West is that in the 21st century you can't pick and choose which issues you're going to take a stand on.
You can't go and invade Iraq for the sake of democracy but then pay no attention to horrendous human rights abuses in Chechnya. You can't leave Kashmir festering decades after there was a resolution at the UN saying there should be an independence referendum.
How is the web being used by Al Qaeda leaders? Is it in fact being used for command and control or simply as a broader tool for propaganda?
I think it may be being using for command and control but it's very difficult to tell.
I think in as much as it is being used for command and control I think it's not a matter of encrypted secret messages, anything very high-tech.
Al Qaeda's genius is to use cheap universally available Internet technologies such as web mail, instant messenger, email lists, message boards and hide a leaf in a tree, if you like.
If you have a conversation on instant messenger and you don't use any obvious key words like 'bin Laden' the chances of you being picked up by the West's enormously sophisticated technical monitoring is pretty close to zero, I'd say.
You're saying it's virtually impossible for the intelligence agencies to shake that leaf out of the tree as it were?
Yes, whereas if you send a very highly encrypted message, then intelligence services can pick up the fact that there is a very highly encrypted message crossing the Net and they will pay attention to it and go and crack it.
But if your message is simply a few words on a Hotmail email, I think your chances of being discovered are low.
You were obviously and so were the Norwegian analysts able to look at a lot of this material. You're getting clues in that material as to what might happen next. For example, the Norwegians found that document referring to Spain back in December. It seems no-one put two-and-two together and warned the Spanish authorities that this sort of material was out there, that they could be clear targets. Or perhaps they were and they just didn't manage to stop it anyway?
I think that's a very rare example of where a time element was mentioned in one of these documents. It mentioned, specifically, taking advantage of the run up to the Spanish elections. That's very rare that Al Qaeda mentions a specific time.
It's very clever at making its operations a complete surprise. I think what's important is for Western governments to understand the ideology and political strategy of Al Qaeda.
Much of that information is therefore available in what you're reading, what the Norwegians are reading. Are the intelligence agencies taking sufficient notice of this sort of material?
I think they're taking more notice than they were two years ago. But I suspect it's still not their highest priority.
Their highest priority is trying to intercept information about specific threats and that's fair enough. But I suspect that the analysis of these documents is left to analysts in backrooms whose arguments are not always put right up to the policy makers.
Is there any evidence at all that the actual leadership, or the perceived leadership of Al Qaeda, because it's obviously fractured and quite diverse now, is in any way directing operations using the Net themselves? Osama bin Laden is obviously in some isolated place from what we're hearing. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is also similarly isolated. Are they do you think able to communicate using the means that you're talking about or are they now leaving it up to a diffuse group of others?
I don't think Osama bin Laden is getting on to Hotmail and sending out orders to commit bomb attacks. But I think that the people close to him probably are online. There's no reason why you couldn't have landline access over telephone line in a village. That's perfectly straightforward.
We can see that the leadership is very closely in touch with current events in Europe and in the Middle East. For instance, we saw Osama bin Laden entering the argument in Saudi Arabia of reform of the educational curriculum but in general I think the leadership is being what leadership in any organisation does.
It's making the major speeches, it's setting the policy guidelines for people lower down to follow.
If you look at bin Laden's most recent 45-minute audio address in January you see that this is a call for people in the Gulf to come to together and form what's effectively a shadow government for the Gulf. He says that after Iraq, America is going to attack the Gulf.
The governments of the area, in his view, are not up to the job of repelling it and he calls on religious leaders, business people, intellectuals to form a secret committee to plan a response.
Right. So if we pay attention to those issues and states, AQ will be happy and stop bombing. Uh huh.
You spell Jihad with a "J",not a"G".
INTERNET HAGANAH: "A MESSAGE TO THE SPANISH PEOPLE: THE NEGLECTED THREAT QA'IDAT AL-JIHAD" by Reuven Paz, PRISM Series of Special Dispatches on Global Jihad, No.2/2 (March 19, 2004) (Read More...)
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