Cyber Threats: Terrorist Use of the Internet

Cyber-terrorism is a real threat to the countless countries facing the ever expanding war on terror. However, the general and immediate concern is not attacks in cyber infrastructure or hacking attempts. Those should not be ignored, but the reality is that terrorist organizations are using the internet to spread propaganda, justify attacks, fundraise, recruit, and reach a global audience. Recent attacks show the capability and reach these websites are having on people around the world. Therefore, monitoring and learning about the enemy through their own websites should be a key policy of governments around the world. Moreover, it is necessary to build up abilities to properly disseminate their own propaganda and counter the radical ideology these websites present Just as the battle will be fought on the ground with military power, it must also be fought in the minds of the people involved and most affected.

Terrorists use their websites to disseminate propaganda, raise funds, entice and persuade new recruits, and reach a global audience. They also offer the speeches and interviews of organizational leadership in multiple languages. These are important tools, but they do not necessarily violate any laws or incite violence. A key goal of these organizations is to appear as legitimate political organizations that offer justifications for their actions. Although these may be indirect calls for violence, taking judicial action becomes problematic and may violate clear civil liberties of free speech. Unfortunately, there is much more than rhetoric on the internet. Manuals can be found on these websites, including the Terrorist’s Handbook and Anarchist’s Cookbook, that give detailed instructions for building various explosives, bombs, and poisonous gases. Furthermore, the ability to offer fundraising opportunities and ways of sending contributions remains a concern. This greatly enhances the organization’s range of influence and ability to carry out attacks. Finally, the internet offers the rhetoric necessary to self-radicalize and answer calls to action. This tactic, despite not relying on direct orders or operational ties, fuels the rise of the lone wolf attack and provides a new threat for counter terrorism officials.

With use of the internet becoming a symbol for free speech and gathering assemblies, it is necessary to carefully balance between democratic values and security. Although terrorists primarily rely on guerrilla tactics and insurgency, use of the internet cannot be ignored. The Boston Marathon Bombing is a prime example of this phenomenon. The Tsarnaev brothers were reportedly self-radicalized and gained most of their materials from the internet. Most importantly, the brothers learned how to make the bomb from Inspire magazine, the online publication of the AQ affiliate in Yemen. Even without direct ties to any organization, internet access gave them all the tools they needed to carry out an attack.

As policy makers, security specialists, and military leadership assess the current cyber threat they must recognize that the threat is not solely on hacking and infrastructure attacks. The current situation represents and ideological attack that is successfully radicalizing and influencing individuals around the globe. This new “internet mosque” disseminates dangerous propaganda at a rate much faster than ever before. Tracking individuals and users is a difficult process and many of the methods violate civil liberties and privacy of innocent people. Terrorist organizations may not have advanced cyber kills to hack and cause psychical damage, but the rise of the so-called lone wolf has certainly been fueled by terrorist networks increasing use of the internet.

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