Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 18, 2010

Could terrorists on the internet be the next dot com bubble?

Filed under: Radicalization,Technology for HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on March 18, 2010

Monday’s post about whether the internet is creating terrorists ended with the observation “Jihad Jane is likely not an anomaly but a troubling preview of the future of terrorism.”

The Los Angeles Times article by Bob Drogin and Tina Susman cited in the same post, conveys a similar concern, aided by multiple anecdotes.

I think both essays illustrate the emerging dominant view: The “Internet is making it easier to become a terrorist.”

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A few months ago, I attended a lecture about terrorism by David Tucker, a colleague at the Naval Postgraduate School.   In a passing comment, Tucker suggested there might be less to the perceived relationship between the internet and radicalization than meets the eye.

There was an immediate — and in some ways intellectually hostile — reaction by the audience of public safety leaders. They thought the role the internet plays in radicalization was so obvious that questioning it was akin to — well, challenging the Creation story in the Book of Genesis.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But Tucker’s thought was not well received.

Tucker then did what he often does with such controversaries. He looked for data.

In an article I will synthesize below, Tucker found “some evidence to suggest that the web sites do aid in radicalization.” But he cautions the data is limited and may be misleading. Importantly, without a critical analysis of claims and evidence purporting to demonstrate that the internet is creating terrorists, we may end up wasting resources on the wrong problem, and ignoring potentially more effective ways to mitigate the creation of additional terrorists.

Tucker concludes his article saying there is very little evidence to support the claim “the internet is transforming how terrorists interact …. Perhaps over time, the evidence will emerge. In the meantime, we are stuck with the difficult task of focusing ‘on the social and religious networks’ from which extremists emerge if we want ‘to interrupt or fragment face-to-face recruitment.’”

————————
Below is an extended excerpt (quasi-crypto-mashup may be a better term) of Tucker’s January 2010 Homeland Security Affairs article, “Jihad Dramatically Transformed? Sageman on Jihad and the Internet.”

For this post, I have not included the footnotes or page references from the original document. Nor have I followed the normal convention about the use of ellipses. But I have emphasized parts of the article that I think are especially relevant to the internet-terrorism theme.

The complete, properly referenced, emphasized and formatted article can be found at this link.
————————

“Jihad Dramatically Transformed? Sageman on Jihad and the Internet.”

In his book Leaderless Jihad, Marc Sageman claims…that Jihad in the modern world is changing from a centrally organized and structured activity into a more dispersed, decentralized movement in which small groups self-organize to carry out attacks….

[Not] enough attention had been paid to the claims that Sageman made about the role of the internet in the development of what he calls the leaderless Jihad movement….

Sageman claims it is the internet that “has dramatically transformed the structure and dynamic of the evolving threat of global Islamic terrorism by changing the nature of terrorists’ interactions… Starting around 2004, communication and inspiration shifted from face-to-face interactions…to interaction on the internet.”

Assessing Sageman’s claim is important because if he is right, it would suggest that we switch attention and resources to combating digital recruitment. If he is wrong, then this would be a waste of resources.

Sageman says the interactivity of the internet (particularly forums and chat rooms) is changing human relationships in a revolutionary way and hence, he implicitly assumes, must be changing the way those who become extremists interact online. In support of this claim, Sageman cites one article and six terrorism cases he says show the revolutionary impact of the internet and substantiate his claim that the internet “has dramatically transformed the structure and dynamic of the evolving threat of global Islamic terrorism.”

[Tucker then argues one article and six cases is a too small a sample to make large scale generalizations. Small numbers is a persistent research problem.]

Sound generalization is always a problem in terrorism studies because terrorism is such a rare event that we seldom have a large number of well-understood cases to base our claims on. Any scientific or even simply reasonable and candid analysis of terrorism should acknowledge this problem, however, and be modest in the claims it makes.

Sageman considers … the effect of the internet on human relations in general. He states that “people’s relationships are being completely transformed through computer-mediated communications.” Sageman offers no support for this claim…. He proceeds, however, to draw conclusions about terrorism from these undocumented claims, arguing that the trust and intensity of emotion that is necessary for the sacrifices that terrorism requires can be generated online. At this point he states that “online feelings are stronger in almost every measurement than offline feelings. This is a robust finding that has been duplicated many times”

In support of this broad claim, Sageman cites one article: a review of research on the effects of the internet on social life.

[However], the article does not state that “online feelings are stronger in every measurement than offline feelings” or that this is a robust finding. It states rather that in two experiments “those who met first on the Internet liked each other more than those who met first face-to-face.” (It also reports that, depending on assumptions about the social context, interactions on the internet can be negative, displaying lack of trust, for example. ) Overall, the article offers no support for the claim that the internet is transforming social life. …

Instead of supporting Sageman’s claims, the article suggests that Sageman is wrong in stressing the transformational character of the internet. It reports that people tend to take online relationships offline into the non-internet world, for example. This suggests that whatever the internet’s advantages, individuals still prefer face-to-face social life to online social life. Indeed, the article reports that “international bankers and college students alike considered off-line communication more beneficial to establishing close social (as opposed to work) relationships.”

Other research on the social effects of the internet published since the one article that Sageman refers to does not support Sageman’s claim that the internet is transforming people’s relationships. First, the internet does not appear to be displacing people’s social activity. People who use the internet are not less likely to have other forms of social contact. Internet use “appears to expand activity engagement rather than replace previous personal channel contacts [including face-to-face contact] or media use.”

This research suggests that if Islamic extremists are replacing face-to-face contact with internet mediated contact, as Sageman claims, then they are doing something that others who use the internet are not doing.

….If research on internet use does not support Sageman, neither does the other evidence he uses, the six cases he refers to in his book.

After presenting [evidence about the six cases] in narrative form, Sageman states “this clearly shows the change from offline to online interaction in the evolution of the threat.”

In fact, it does not.

In two of the six cases that Sageman mentions, he tells us only that the terrorists got support from the internet (an inspirational document in the case of the Madrid bombing and bomb-making instructions in the case of the Cairo bombing).

There is nothing new here. Terrorists did not begin using the internet for support in 2004. The 9/11 bombers used it, as did others before them. More important, “support” is not “interaction,” and it is interaction among terrorists that Sageman says the internet has “dramatically transformed.”

Interaction did occur on the internet in the other four cases, but it also occurred face-to-face. How do we know which kind of interaction was more important? If terrorists are meeting as they have always done and then communicating online, which would be consistent with research on internet use, this does not suggest a dramatic change in terrorists’ interactions. It is important to note, then, that only in one case (the German bombing) does Sageman tell us the terrorists met first online.

The reason Sageman does not mention terrorists meeting first online in the other cases is that it did not happen. In all the other cases, it appears the terrorists met first face-to-face.  In fact, the evidence suggests terrorists tend to be friends, acquaintances or relatives, who then become radicalized and carry out an attack.

What about cases that have occurred since Sageman’s book appeared in 2008? There have been a number of cases over the past several years.  Full details on these cases are not available but we can look at what we know about a few of the more prominent ones. [And Tucker's article reviews those cases]

While sketchy and limited, none of the information we have on these recent plots suggests anything like what Sageman claims. Internet images sometimes appear to assist if not initiate the movement to extremism. Chat rooms play a role but rarely are the place terrorists first meet; face-to-face contact predominates. Mosques and other physical gathering places figure more prominently than the internet. In this limited sample, the internet appears to be a useful but by no means a transforming or even dominant means of mobilizing recruits for extremism.

In showing the complex interaction of social relations, the internet and recruiting, all of these cases show a marked resemblance to the summary description one analyst of the Madrid bombing has offered of those who carried out that attack:

It was in Mosques, worship sites, countryside gatherings and private residences where most of the members of the Madrid bombing network adopted extremist views. A few adopted a violent conception of Islam while in prison. The internet was clearly relevant as a radicalization tool, especially among those who were radicalized after 2003, but it was more importantly a complement to face-to-face interactions.

Further evidence suggesting that Sageman’s claims are wrong comes from research done on the recruitment of foreign fighters from the Middle East and North Africa.

Analysis of data captured in Iraq shows that 97 percent of a group of 177 foreign fighters met their recruitment coordinator “through a social (84 percent), family (6 percent) or religious (6 percent) connection.” Only 3.4 percent of the 177 foreign fighters mentioned the internet.

Furthermore, when countries of origin for the foreign fighters were compared to the number of internet users in those countries, “more internet users correlated with lower numbers of fighters.”

Finally, analysis shows that there is no correlation between countries that access extremist web sites and countries that produce foreign fighters. If the internet were an important tool of mobilization and recruitment, we would expect to see a correlation between accessing extremist web sites and numbers of foreign fighters.

What holds true for the Middle East and North Africa might not hold true for other places with greater general rates of access to the internet and less of a supporting social and cultural network for extremists to rely on. In these places, one night argue, the internet might be the only place where would-be radicals could find the contacts and encouragement they need to join the extremist movement. Yet what is true of the Middle East and North Africa appears to be true of North America, judging by the cases Sageman cites and the additional cases discussed above. “The internet plays a minor radicalization role…. Conversations, sermons, print and radio communication, family and social networks present foreign fighters with local justification for joining the jihad.” This finding accords with research that finds internet use tends to “activate the active;” that is, promote engagement and activity among those already inclined that way and focus attention on the local community.

One must conclude, therefore, both that Sageman offers no evidence to support his claim the internet is transforming how terrorists interact and there is little evidence elsewhere to support this claim. Perhaps over time, the evidence will emerge. In the meantime, we are stuck with the difficult task of focusing “on the social and religious networks” from which extremists emerge if we want “to interrupt or fragment face-to-face recruitment.”

————————

Is the internet really creating terrorists?  In the beginning did God really create the heaven and the earth?

Tucker’s contrarian article reminds us — it reminds me — it is important to know what we believe.  It is equally important to examine why we believe it.

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3 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 18, 2010 @ 4:41 am

I certainly have no expertise that would be applicable to this very interesting post. I do know that social controls on anti-social behavior is a productive and interesting field for research.

From what has been documented the largest number of Internet sites and transmissions is in Mandarin. Wondering if Chinese censorship of some sites impacts “anti-social” behavior in China differently than elsewhere. To the extent that the internet allows the dropping of social restraint on anti-social behavior, and apparently there is quite a bit of evidence to that effect, then the Internet does provide concern as to whether this will be one of its adverse fallouts. Time will tell.

I have some idea that phone usage in prisons is restricted? Is internet usage restricted? Perhaps the prisons would be a closed set for study of whether it encourages anti-social behavior or has other impacts?

Again an interesting discussion!

Comment by Nick Catrantzos

March 21, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

The Tucker-Bellavita analysis resonates well as a chastening counterweight to our popular taste for hyperbole in all things cyber. The Internet is as helpful to terrorists as it is to other mortals. This does not mean it is creating terrorists.

Not every change is as instantly transformational as its advocates proclaim. The automobile may have replaced the horse-drawn carriage, but places to go remained about the same as the transition unfolded. Similarly, the Internet appears more tool of convenience than secret weapon. Dr. Abe Wagner*, a former government official tasked with exploring some arcane aspects of the terrorist threat, observed that Al Qaeda et al showed little interest in exploiting the Internet beyond the role of power user. They were not recruiting great IT talent, nor putting a premium on developing it from within. Why then assume they have cultivated extraordinary, Internet-based psychological warfare and brainwashing capabilities for a recruiting drive? Surely Madison Avenue ad agencies, PBS pledge drives, and military recruiters would be light years ahead of them by now, if such online dividends were within easy grasp.

A more likely reality is roughly akin to the migration from posting letters to using e-mail. The Internet is a tool. So is the telephone. So is the daily news. Anyone may use them to pursue an agenda, including terrorists in search of acolytes. But not every tool is necessarily a weapon. As Bill Gates mused in his book, The Road Ahead, an infusion of technology tends to accelerate the discovery of successes and flaws, without necessarily magnifying one or diminishing the other.

I suspect what we are witnessing in Sageman is an impetuous exuberance that is defining as transformational a cyber phenomenon that, in reality, has been largely catalytic — so far. What will mark an actual transformation is a shift in frequencies from mere chatter to actual cases. Until we see cyber recruiting and related attacks taking place with a robust frequency to match their hype, the specter of the Internet as the driving force for radicalization will remain more chimera than danger.

* Abraham Wagner, JD, Ph D., is engaged in the private practice of law and is Adjunct Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and was Visiting Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. He is also engaged as a consultant on national security and intelligence matters to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, serving on the Defense Science Board and other advisory panels. Following 9/11 he was the Chairman of a special task force in the Department of Defense looking at technology responses to evolving terrorist threats.

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