www.terror.net: How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet

Published: 
March 13, 2004
By: 
Gabriel Weimann

Summary

  • The great virtues of the Internet—ease of access, lack of regulation, vast potential audiences, and fast flow of information, among others—have been turned to the advantage of groups committed to terrorizing societies to achieve their goals.
  • Today, all active terrorist groups have established their presence on the Internet. Our scan of the Internet in 2003–4 revealed hundreds of websites serving terrorists and their supporters.
  • Terrorism on the Internet is a very dynamic phenomenon: websites suddenly emerge, frequently modify their formats, and then swiftly disappear—or, in many cases, seem to disappear by changing their online address but retaining much the same content.
  • Terrorist websites target three different audiences: current and potential supporters; international public opinion; and enemy publics.
  • The mass media, policymakers, and even security agencies have tended to focus on the exaggerated threat of cyberterrorism and paid insufficient attention to the more routine uses made of the Internet. Those uses are numerous and, from the terrorists' perspective, invaluable.
  • There are eight different ways in which contemporary terrorists use the Internet, ranging from psychological warfare and propaganda to highly instrumental uses such as fundraising, recruitment, data mining, and coordination of actions.
  • While we must better defend our societies against cyberterrorism and Internet-savvy terrorists, we should also consider the costs of applying counterterrorism measures to the Internet. Such measures can hand authoritarian governments and agencies with little public accountability tools with which to violate privacy, curtail the free flow of information, and restrict freedom of expression, thus adding a heavy price in terms of diminished civil liberties to the high toll exacted by terrorism itself.

About the Report

Terrorists fight their wars in cyberspace as well as on the ground. However, while politicians and the media have hotly debated the dangers that cyberterrorism poses to the Internet, surprisingly little is known about the threat posed by terrorists' use of the Internet. Today, as this report makes plain, terrorist organizations and their supporters maintain hundreds of websites, exploiting the unregulated, anonymous, and easily accessible nature of the Internet to target an array of messages to a variety of audiences. Gabriel Weimann identifies no fewer than eight different ways in which terrorists are using the Internet to advance their cause, ranging from psychological warfare to recruitment, networking to fundraising. In each case, the report not only analyzes how the Internet can facilitate terrorist operations but also illustrates the point with examples culled from an extensive exploration of the World Wide Web.

Gabriel Weimann is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and professor of communication at Haifa University, Israel. He has written widely on modern terrorism, political campaigns, and the mass media. This report distills some of the findings from an ongoing, six-year study of terrorists' use of the Internet.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policies.

March 13, 2004