Al Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of "Cyberplanning"

Article excerpt

We can say with some certainty, al Qaeda loves the Internet. When the latter first appeared, it was hailed as an integrator of cultures and a medium for businesses, consumers, and governments to communicate with one another. It appeared to offer unparalleled opportunities for the creation of a "global village." Today the Internet still offers that promise, but it also has proven in some respects to be a digital menace. Its use by al Qaeda is only one example. It also has provided a virtual battlefield for peacetime hostilities between Taiwan and China, Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and India, and China and the United States (during both the war over Kosovo and in the aftermath of the collision between the Navy EP-3 aircraft and Chinese MiG). In times of actual conflict, the Internet was used as a virtual battleground between NATO's coalition forces and elements of the Serbian population. These real tensions from a virtual interface involved not only nation-states but also non-state individuals and groups eit her aligned with one side or the other, or acting independently.

Evidence strongly suggests that terrorists used the Internet to plan their operations for 9/11. Computers seized in Afghanistan reportedly revealed that al Qaeda was collecting intelligence on targets and sending encrypted messages via the Internet. As recently as 16 September 2002, al Qaeda cells operating in America reportedly were using Internet-based phone services to communicate with cells overseas. These incidents indicate that the Internet is being used as a "cyberplanning" tool for terrorists. It provides terrorists with anonymity, command and control resources, and a host of other measures to coordinate and integrate attack options.

Cyberplanning may be a more important terrorist Internet tool than the much touted and feared cyberterrorism option--attacks against information and systems resulting in violence against noncombatant targets. The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) has defined cyberterrorism as the unlawful destruction or disruption of digital property to intimidate or coerce people. (1) Cyberplanning, not defined by NPS or any other source, refers to the digital coordination of an integrated plan stretching across geographical boundaries that may or may not result in bloodshed. It can include cyberterrorism as part of the overall plan. Since 9/11, US sources have monitored several websites linked to al Qaeda that appear to contain elements of cyberplanning:

* alneda.com, which US officials said contained encrypted information to direct al Qaeda members to more secure sites, featured international news on al Qaeda, and published articles, fatwas (decisions on applying Muslim law), and books.

* assam.com, believed to be linked to al Qaeda (originally hosted by the Scranton company BurstNET Technologies, Inc.), served as a mouthpiece for jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Palestine.

* almuhrajiroun.com, an al Qaeda site which urged sympathizers to assassinate Pakistani President Musharraf.

* qassam.net, reportedly linked to Hamas.

* jihadunspun.net, which offered a 36-minute video of Osama bin Laden. (2)

* 7hj.7hj.com, which aimed to teach visitors how to conduct computer attacks. (3)

* aloswa.org, which featured quotes from bin Laden tapes, religious legal rulings that "justified" the terrorist attacks, and support for the al Qaeda cause. (4)

* drasat.com, run by the Islamic Studies and Research Center (which some allege is a fake center), and reported to be the most credible of dozens of Islamist sites posting al Qaeda news.

* jehad.net, alsaha.com, and islammemo.com, alleged to have posted al Qaeda statements on their websites.

* mwhoob.net and aljehad.online, alleged to have flashed political-religious songs, with pictures of persecuted Muslims, to denounce US policy and Arab leaders, notably Saudi. (5)

While it is prudent to tally the Internet cyberplanning applications that support terrorists, it must be underscored that few if any of these measures are really anything new. …