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).Skip to next paragraph
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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."