Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 15, 2010

Is the Internet Creating Terrorists?

Filed under: International HLS,Privacy and Security,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on March 15, 2010

Happy birthday today to the Internet as we know it.  It was on March 15, 1985,  that Symbolics Computers of Cambridge, Massachusetts registered Symbolics.com, the first .com domain.   Today, there are more than 84 million addresses and growing as more than 668,000 sites are registered each month.

Interestingly, the Los Angeles Times ran a story late last week entitled “Internet making it easier to become a terrorist,” detailing how the Internet has become a “crucial front” in the battle for and against terrorism, making it easier for potential homegrown terrorists to get and share information.  Potential terrorists no longer have to travel around the world to terror training camps but can become militarized and taught to “wage violent jihad” in their PJs from the comfort of their bedrooms, according to the article.

Much of the article focused on the transformation of Colleen R. LaRose from a bored middle-aged American into her Internet alter-ego, “Jihad Jane.”  The Christian Science Monitor ran a similar story Friday, noting an increase in U.S. terror suspects and how “advances in online communication have made it easier to recruit Americans to radical Islam.”  The publication did a separate story last week about the troubling and possibly increasing ability of Al Qaeda to attract American women to terrorism. The story, however, only noted only two other instances where women have been charged in the U.S. with terror violations:

  • The case of Lynne Stewart who was convicted of helping imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman communication with this followers; and
  • Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist found guilty of shooting at U.S. personnel in Afghanistan while yelling, “Death to Americans!”

Neither of these cases, however, involved the Internet or sophisticated plots to communicate with others via email or technology to commit terrorist acts.  Which leads us to the question – should the Jihad Jane case be of concern or is it an anomaly?

Women are increasingly turning to the Internet, according to a number of studies.  According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 74% of women use the Internet (as of December 2009).  Other studies show that women are increasingly turning to the technology to conduct many daily activities.  A Burst Media study released in March 2009 found that 69.4% of women cited the Internet as the “primary source for information to keep their household running with information on family activities, recipes, health news, and entertainment listings.”  Just over 62% used Internet to research products or services. Those statistics increased for women in the 35-54 range, with 71.1% an 66.6% using the Internet to help run their households and research products, respectively.

A survey by BlogHer, a woman’s blog network, in May 2009 found that approximately 53% of adult U.S. women participate in social media.  The survey found that more than 31.5 million participate weekly in social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, 23 million blog, 16.8 million participate in message boards/forum; and 6.7 million conduct status update (e.g. Twitter).  Given the high rate in which social networking has increased over the past year, especially with more wireless devices now able to allow users to use social media interfaces, these numbers surely have increased as well.

Of course, a mere increase in women online does not necessarily translate into women turning to terrorism.  We do know, however, that marketers and online behavioral advertising experts are increasingly exploring how to market and tailor material to women online.  Why wouldn’t terrorist groups looking for new recruits do the same?  According to expert Gabriel Weimann in his 2006 book “Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the new Challenges” – they already have.  Terrorist groups can narrow their message to a particular audience, appealing to specific sympathies and touch points.

We know that terrorist organizations are also increasingly turning to the Internet to recruit and communicate.   According to a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder on “Terrorists and the Internet,” prepared by Eben Kaplan in January 2009, “terrorists increasingly are using the Internet as a means of communication both with each other and the rest of the world.” Indeed, the number of terrorist organizations using the Internet has increased from 12 in 1998 to more than 4,800 this year.

Kaplan notes that the “most effective way in which terrorists use the Internet is” for spreading propaganda and promoting sympathetic views of terrorist organizations.  As Weimann has noted, the Internet is a perfect tool for a new breed of terrorist. It is anonymous and uncontrollable.

In general, the trends and studies show that terrorist groups are going online and that the use of the Internet by those groups to spread propaganda and recruit potential terrorists is of concern.  The increase in the number of women online and the ease by which information can be tailored to specific demographics should be not be overlooked, especially with the access to populations of potential recruits who may not otherwise be allowed or recruited to attend terrorist training camps abroad.  Jihad Jane is likely not an anomaly but a troubling preview of the future of terrorism.

(Look to Friday’s post to explore how the government can counteract these efforts and the challenges with fighting terrorism and propaganda online).
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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2010 @ 9:57 am

Interesting post and look forwards to Friday post.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 15, 2010 @ 11:18 am

I think this post has the potential to garner a variety of responses. One of the key elements in shaping a new or different point of view or belief system with propaganda is isolation and repetitiveness. There is a psychological element executed by the propagandist to initially lure, hook, and then nurture a relationship.

One could make the argument that our increasing societal exclusion, those who live vicariously on the Internet whether it be in virtual Second Life
with avatars, or simply in chat rooms become consumed and perhaps by definition , addicted to the stimulus. Communities, social interaction, and the way we communicate is undeniably different than 20 years ago. I’m personally aware of several instances where competent, highly educated, professional men and women have been consumed with their fantasy lives to such a degree that their “real life” is now the funding vehicle for the avatar life. No one should be surprised by this.

How we communicate and how we’re communicated to is both revolutionary and evolutionary. The Internet is many things to many people. If, in this particular instance, the Internet is the world’s primary communications platform than there should be no surprise that it is being exploited by a group or demography choosing to exploit, garner, or solicit membership to their point of view. It also becomes a volume issue. The more people that are interacted with touched, and media impressed the more likely a hierarchy or threshold matrix will emerge. It would be interesting if the data mining was available to see the percentages of radicalization versus contacts.
From an objective point of view it’s simply marketing. There’s a reason why infomericals are on the television and commercials on the radio; they reach a lot of people and are very successful. It is also a reason why phishing scams work time and time again. So from the marketing aspect is is all probability and statistics. It’s marketing, human behavior manipulation, and potentially a demonstration of our values and mores becoming less significant internationally and nationally.
I would also state that this is not as much a troubling preview, as a predictable expected progression of what amounts to information warfare; a saturation campaign of disinformation, rhetoric, and degrees of utopian existence and the elements of a sophisticated soft jihad taking place in the West. There’s an active recruitment, messaging, and push to gain first sympathy, than advocacy, and finally, activity on behalf of the movement. The radicalization process or more subtle soft jihad is perhaps happening all around us and we’re either not aware or choose to ignore its signals.
So is the real question should we be afraid of this phenomenon or is it simply several women out of 150 million going astray? Thank you for posting this very interesting subject matter and topic to discuss.

Comment by Quin

March 16, 2010 @ 8:11 am

We might want to look back a few years at probably one of the first terrorists to figure out the internets. This is an issue well over a decade old.


Those who monitor white supremacist and other hate groups said Mr. Hale had been brilliant in using the Internet to recruit young members, luring them through a network of 30 Web sites featuring compelling graphics and interactive games. His church, “dedicated to the survival, expansion and advancement of the white race,” claims 70,000 members in 49 states and 28 countries, though some experts say the movement has just a few hundred adherents.

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