Al Qaeda is winning the war in cyberspace. Since 9/11 it has established an extensive virtual sanctuary on the Net.
Greatly aiding both planning and execution of terrorist operations, as well as the growth of radical Islamist ideology, Al Qaeda’s dominance of an entire dimension of the war poses a strategic problem for America and her allies.
As the investigation into the London attacks continues, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Internet has become the indispensable instrument by which Al Qaeda and its affiliates encourage, and plan strikes against Western targets. The Web has become Al Qaeda’s communications network, recruiting vehicle, fundraising mechanism and training camp. Every dimension of the global jihad is now conducted, at least in some measure, online. The scope of Al Qaeda’s migration to cyberspace has dramatically outpaced the ability of Western intelligence and security services to formulate responses. Since 1998, the presence of terrorist-related websites has surged from under 20 to more than 4,500. Many of these serve as propaganda mechanisms; they distribute graphic images depicting the various horrors of the Iraq war paired with carefully selected music and artful captions. Others serve as chat rooms or bulletin boards, where those united by adherence to radical ideologies can gather virtually to share thoughts and debate strategy.
The Internet has proven to be a type of sanctuary that Afghanistan could never have become. Without ever leaving their jobs, homes, or communities, radical followers of Osama bin Laden can receive training in operational tradecraft, training that will become increasingly widespread until a systematic approach to disrupt it is found and executed. Evidence also suggests that Al Qaeda and its affiliates can use the Internet to research and survey potential targets, transfer money, set up logistical networks and safe houses.
Of all its dimensions, the radicalizing effect of the Internet may be the most threatening long-term challenge. It has profound implications for the future of the ideological struggle. The efficiency with which the Internet has been used to globalize regional conflicts is astounding. The ease by which the insurgents in Iraq are employing a sophisticated media strategy via laptops and digital cameras is indicative of the scope of this problem.
While Al Qaeda has used an aggressive Internet strategy, Western governments have taken an ambivalent approach to countering the presence of terrorists. Some analysts argue that by allowing Al Qaeda to conduct its online activities, Western intelligence agencies can discover plots and provide more effective warning intelligence to policy-makers. As the many thwarted attacks since 9/11 attest, valuable information is gained from monitoring uninterrupted jihadist activity online. But a better balance must be struck between meeting the collection needs of the intelligence community and obstructing the growth of Al Qaeda.
The Internet demonstrates the inherent asymmetry in the battle against global terrorism. Its openness and near-infinite access pose unique and daunting challenges for the intelligence agencies. It has become clear that Al Qaeda’s regeneration and recovery from attempts to thwart its online activity have been rapid. It is obviously unrealistic to strive for the complete removal of terrorist websites. But it is realistic to expect a degree of success in slowing their proliferation.
A strategy to challenge terrorist networks in cyberspace begins with the recognition of its centrality to this conflict. The Internet is not simply a tool for terrorists ï¿½ it constitutes a type of central nervous system for Al Qaeda that remains critical to its viability as both an organization and a movement.
There is little evidence allied governments have made the adoption of a more aggressive posture in cyberspace a strategic priority. Policy-makers must address the need for a new strategy to combat Al Qaeda on the Internet. Terrorists will always have a presence on the Web, but we can surely make it more difficult and complicated for them to operate effectively in the virtual world. From co-operative agreements with Internet service providers, to more aggressive hacking of specific websites, the technological expertise to devise innovative approaches must be harnessed more effectively.
Recent reports of the rapid disappearance of some Al Qaeda-affiliated sites following the second round of attacks in London suggest that a more aggressive approach is possible.
Al Qaeda’s continued dominance of the Internet will undermine other efforts to combat Islamic terrorism until it is challenged. While the global war against terrorism will continue for years, the length of the campaign is, in many ways, contingent on the will we demonstrate in confronting terrorists wherever they may hide ï¿½ including the dark expanse of cyberspace.