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Terror Goes Digital By: Omar El Akkad
The Globe and Mail | Thursday, August 23, 2007


Welcome to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia – pivotal battleground in the global jihad.

The town of 7,000 doesn't look the part. Its quietly beautiful downtown lives and dies by tourists. The coastline puts postcards to shame. The New York Islanders have held their training camp here for the past two years. But unwittingly, Yarmouth has become an example of the sort of unassuming places that are serving as relay stations in a virtual war.

The town is home to a branch of Register.com, one of its largest employers and one of the most popular Internet domain-name registration services in the world. For a fee, the company allows users to register website names – the .com, .net or .org addresses you type into your web browser to surf the Internet. Normally, when anyone signs up new domains, they have to provide a name, address and contact information, all of which become publicly available to anyone who's even remotely net-savvy. (The information is copied to one of the central databases that form the backbone of the Internet, to ensure there are no conflicts, such as two separate entities owning the same domain.) But for a few extra dollars, Register.com also offers an anonymous registration service: Try to find out who registered any one of these websites, and you'll be handed the same address and phone number in Yarmouth.

This service is hugely popular: Civil-liberties advocates and anyone else who values their privacy flock to it. But it's also very useful to another group of people, halfway around the globe: On one of the world's largest pro-Hamas websites, viewers can download martyrdom videos that feature the diatribes of masked men shortly before they launch deadly attacks. Look up the registration info for that site, and you'll get that Yarmouth address and phone number.

The challenge this situation poses is not unprecedented. Years ago, authorities noticed that child pornography websites, though often operated from outside North America, made use of North American anonymous-registration services. In response, a large number of watchdog groups began hunting down such sites to force the registration firms to shut them down.

“There's nothing near that level [of public monitoring] with terrorist websites,” says Wade Deisman, Director of the National Security Working Group at the University of Ottawa. Government intelligence services don't have the resources to manage the scale of the problem. “I haven't seen anything that comes even close to addressing this issue,” he says.

The FBI estimates somewhere in the range of 6,000 terrorism-supporting websites are currently active. Last week, the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies published a report stating that, in terms of nefarious online activity, terrorism promotion had eclipsed hatemongering.

This is the new jihad – the evolution of a propaganda effort that, just a decade ago, consisted mostly of Osama bin Laden speeches on video tapes smuggled out of a hideout in Afghanistan. Today, the public-relations arms of terrorist organizations – run less by grizzled warriors than by 20-something computer geeks – deal in digital currency, getting their messages out instantly and universally using the scope and anonymity of the web.

The process is borderless. A beheading video moves from a hideout in Peshawar to a server in London to a computer screen in Toronto unhindered, fuelling a global radicalization juggernaut that intelligence agencies describe as perhaps the biggest threat facing the West today.

All manner of video, audio and even interactive propaganda have found an audience among many disaffected Muslim youth around the world. But while the majority of people who download such content may only fuel a passive resentment of the West, for others the audiovisual diatribes of Mr. bin Laden and his kin have served as a sort of gateway drug to a more violent worldview. That was the case among some of the alleged ringleaders of the Toronto terrorist group arrested during a sweep last summer – a trail led from some of those arrested to a massive, and now defunct, web forum where angry youth traded incendiary content.

In another case, a young British man named Younis Tsouli was arrested in England in 2005 and charged with “conspiracy to murder, conspiracy to cause an explosion, conspiracy to obtain money by deception, fundraising and possession of articles for terrorist purposes.” Mr. Tsouli, now 23, had never so much as fired a rifle – his agitation was purely online. The computer hacker got his start moving propaganda videos around the web for al-Qaeda in Iraq and soon popped up in connection with at least three alleged terrorist plots, including one in Canada. For Mr. Tsouli, it was not a great stretch from posting beheading videos to sending out suicide-bomb-belt manuals.

Besides the anonymous registries, many effective terrorist-propaganda producers rely on the hugely popular public blogging and file-sharing sites used by millions to rant about their bosses and share barbecue recipes. That leaves law-enforcement officials in the uncomfortable position of trying to catch a wisp of an enemy without trampling on everyone else's civil liberties.

And so a battle rages in Ottawa, as Canadian police and spy agencies complain that the legislation governing online crime is a historical relic. Privacy advocates, on the other hand, fear a world where every 0 and 1 is visible to Big Brother.

Meanwhile, terrorist propaganda operations have come to rival the PR departments of multinational corporations, complete with publishing houses, movie-editing studios and video-game developers. This is the ammunition in a battle of ideas that all sides agree may end up being more important than any blood-and-bullets conflict – a battle that, so far, the West is losing.

Al-Qaeda's spin doctor

It started with a single memo, dated June 20, 2000. Abu Huthayfa, a member of al-Qaeda's inner circle, was writing to his mentor, Osama bin Laden, about the importance of public relations. The writer was struck by some of the tactics already in use by Hamas, especially the practice of videotaping statements of soon-to-be “martyrs.” A year earlier, the Al Jazeera television network had aired an interview with Mr. bin Laden, and the public response convinced Mr. Huthayfa that there were many people around the world hanging on the soft-spoken Saudi's every word.

He asked his leader, why wasn't al-Qaeda taking better advantage? Why was it that two years after the U.S. embassy bombings in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi, many people knew little about “the heroes of this magnificent undertaking”?

Abu Huthayfa's solution to al-Qaeda's PR shortfalls would serve as the foundation for the single most important advance in the terrorist group's history. He proposed the creation of a separate informational branch of al-Qaeda. At the time, the group's communiqués flowed freely around much of Afghanistan, but that was a form of preaching to the converted – elsewhere in the world, al-Qaeda was still a small fish.

To remedy this, Mr. Huthayfa set his sights on the Internet, especially e-mail and file-sharing websites. He touted the advantages of instant communication, the massive amount of information that could be sent around the world in a blink.

“The importance of establishing a website for you on the Internet in which you place all your legible, audible, and visible archives and news must be emphasized,” he wrote. “It should not escape the mind of any one of you the importance of this tool in communicating with people.”

It didn't. Within a year, Mr. bin Laden would declare that up to 90 per cent of al-Qaeda's battles would be fought not with guns, but words and images. (The memo, recovered in a raid on an al-Qaeda hideout, is now a public document found on several terrorism-studies databases.)

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a flood of videos glorifying the carnage began appearing online. In many cases the producer was al-Sahab (“the Clouds”), the newly created media arm of al-Qaeda. The hijackers appeared superimposed over images of the planes crashing into New York's twin towers, reading their wills and issuing stern warnings to the U.S. This time, the propaganda opportunity would be fully exploited.

The post-9/11 videos showcased many of al-Qaeda's major talking points. Over and over, would-be martyrs and senior leaders glorified the attacks and the attackers – the idea of a fast-track to eternal paradise being a significant selling point for disaffected Muslim youth and other possible recruits. Another refrain was to warn of further attacks, citing a list of demands that combined legitimate and illegitimate grievances from across the Muslim world in a patchwork of outrage.

“If you look at the messaging and narrative, it's aimed at a Western audience,” says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, and a former special assistant on security to the president. “I look at al-Qaeda as a brand, and you have to look at what makes brands flourish – there has been a big improvement in use of symbols.”

One of the most oft-repeated symbols is the Arabic word ummah, meaning “Muslim nation.” Among many Muslims worldwide, it conjures halcyon images of a global empire ruled by religion, where borders of race, ethnicity and nationality are obliterated and the only common denominator is the word of God. But the ummah also has come to serve a second purpose, as justification for violence. If Muslims everywhere are one, the thinking goes, then a car bombing in Bali is a legitimate response to the killing of a child in Gaza.

In geographic reality, there is no ummah; perhaps the most recent attempt at one was the Ottoman empire. But from another view, there is perhaps the largest ummah in the history of Islam, composed of chat rooms and file servers from Islamabad to Antigua. In this cyber- ummah, race, ethnicity and nationality are invisible; the common denominator is the digitized word of God. There are segments of the cyber- ummah that have nothing to do with terrorism: Many mainstream Muslim youth groups in Canada use web forums. But, as with neo-Nazi and child-porn rings, the qualities that make Internet forums legitimately useful also empower the bad guys.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan scattered much of al-Qaeda's leadership – its literal Arabic name, “the base,” was no longer apt. At that point, al-Qaeda morphed from a group into a mindset: Where there once was one well-defined organization, there sprung up dozens of relatively unconnected cells, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in London and Madrid. The founders of those cells were, in many cases, Western-born young men whose parents were immigrants but who had never set foot themselves in any war zone. Instead, this new generation of jihadis had grown up watching the fruits of al-Sahab's labour – the propaganda and martyrdom videos floating freely across the cyber- ummah.

“You have a group of individuals who are distanced from their parents; don't necessarily feel fully embedded in their current society, so they look to one another to reaffirm their attitudes,” says Mr. Cilluffo. “It really goads the bravado.”

A new generation has taken over the informational arm Abu Huthayfa suggested some seven years ago. As comfortable at the keyboard as the original mujahedeen were with rifles, they have swapped the grainy video of past terrorist communiqués for a far more polished product. But it wasn't only the form of the message that took a generational leap forward. The target demographic also had come into focus: young, angry, Western kids.

Joystick jihad

By almost any measure, Night of Capturing Bush is an unbelievably awful video game.

In the first-person shooter, released in September of last year, you play the role of a hardcore, AK47-toting Islamic warrior. Your goal is to mow down feeble, eerily identical U.S. troops in Iraqi settings – Iraq being composed mainly of various heavily pixilated shades of brown. The difficulty levels are skewed to the point where the cloned U.S. troops could unload entire armouries of bullets on you and still not make much of a dent. As war songs play in the background, you make your way through six levels, culminating, as the title suggests, in a showdown with U.S. President George W. Bush. (Ironically, Night of Capturing Bush is a minor modification of Quest for Saddam, an equally mediocre 2003 game from right-wing U.S. activist Jesse Petrilla.)

But glitchy game-play and atrocious graphics did little to hinder Night of Capturing Bush's primary purpose, which was strictly ideological. In a press release hyping the game, its creators, an anonymous group called the Global Islamic Media Front, dubbed their desired audience “terrorist children.” Within a few hours of its release, across thousands of online message boards, these “terrorist children” passed the game back and forth. The Media Front only had to initiate the craze; thousands of sympathizers around the planet did the rest.

It wasn't the first time Islamic extremist propaganda fused with pop culture. Two years previous, a young British man calling himself Sheikh Terra stepped in front of a camera, his face covered, carrying what appeared to be a pistol, and began dancing. The resulting rap video was called Dirty Kuffar (Kuffar is an Arabic word for disbeliever).

Since its release, Dirty Kuffar has been downloaded onto millions of computers and remixed by many like-minded web jihadists. You can find it on video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

“I saw a number of video games. I saw rap videos with a very good tune to them,” says Mr. Cilluffo. “I can't tell you for a fact we're certain who's designing what, but I can tell you that when it comes to technology and its application, I think the younger generation has a leg up.”

One common method of disseminating anything from a terrorist video game to a bomb-making manual to a beheading video is to make copies available on dozens of free websites at the same time. On these sites, which were created to help people transfer data files too large to e-mail, anyone can quickly create an account – when barred by the administrators of one site, the user just jumps to another. By the time all such sites wise up, the message is all over the world.

On the Global Islamic Media Front site, each newly produced video is quickly uploaded to a dozen or more free sites. The Front's own site is not hosted on an obscure or secret server, but on Wordpress, one of the most widely used blogging services in the world. Because registering with a blogging site such as Wordpress doesn't require domain registration, there is no publicly accessible address or phone number.

That's likely the same thinking behind Press-Release, a website chock full of communiqués from “the Islamic State Of Iraq.” There, users can download high-quality videos featuring attacks on U.S. military vehicles, as well as detailed listings of American casualties. Look up the registration info and you're handed an address in Mountain View, Calif. – far removed from the killing fields of Iraq, but near the headquarters of Google Inc., which owns the popular blogging domain Blogspot, on which “Press Release” is hosted.

Anonymity isn't enough, however. There's an intense emphasis on secrecy evident in the various password-protected forums and message boards where jihad-minded teens gather. One of the most widely visited extremist forums subscribes to the country-club model – the only way in is to have a current member vouch for you.

This security consciousness is in large part due to the new emphasis police and intelligence agencies are placing on infiltrating such forums. But today the level of infiltration is so high that intelligence agencies face a recurring problem: An agent goes undercover on a web forum and finds dozens of users making violent, extremists statements, but to the agent's dismay, it soon becomes apparent that many of them are undercover operatives from other intelligence agencies.

Joining the fray

Frank Cilluffo sat before a dozen or so of the most powerful politicians in the world last May and told them they should consider broadcasting footage of dead children to the public.

Mr. Cilluffo had been called before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee to talk about strategies for combatting online extremism. He presented a simple argument: Extremist videos often leverage footage of civilians killed by Israeli and U.S. troops. Why not show the world what happens to civilians – often Muslim civilians – when Islamic extremist groups carry out their attacks?

“I don't remember exactly [the committee's] response,” Mr. Cilluffo recalls. “I think we did have some silence. It's a pretty provocative statement.

“The idea behind that was to take off any filters and demonstrate that the consequences of terror have a real impact: People are killed. This is not a theoretical set of issues.”

The recommendation was part of a broader argument that if the U.S. government and its allies attempt to fight a war of ideas on their own, they're going to lose.

“Much of the solution comes from people with credibility in these constituencies, I don't think that can come from Western governments,” Mr. Cilluffo says. “We need people who are versed in the Koran, who can show how it's being distorted. We need people who appreciate cultural nuances and norms. I think that governments have a role to play, but by no means the primary role.”

What Mr. Cilluffo was pitching was the construction of a rival narrative to the one circulated in the cyber- ummah – one that would separate out the reasonable grievances from the specious ones circulated by extremists, and be delivered by someone credible. But his pitch wasn't an easy one to make, given that many Western governments, police and intelligence shops had long viewed the war on terror as just that – a war, which will be won or lost with old-fashioned techniques. Producing a rival message has been a low priority.

“This is the tip of a much bigger issue,” says Mr. Deisman of the National Security Working Group in Ottawa. “The reason why we haven't matched the propaganda war is because we consider ourselves states characterized by tolerance and acceptance. For us to be saying what we stand for may be seen as infringing on someone else.”

In England, where the problem of “homegrown terrorism” is far more urgent, Mr. Deisman points out the propaganda war has intensified: “England truly is an embattled country. The government is producing videos about what Englishness means,” he says. “Can you imagine if we did that in Canada? People would be up in arms.”

But even on the traditional counterterrorism front, law-enforcement officials are coming up against a major wall: For the most part, the legal system was not designed for cyberspace, as you can see by looking at the key case of the murder-conspiracy trial of Younis Tsouli in England this summer. Mr. Tsouli was alleged to have lived a double life on the Internet under the name “Irhabi007” ( Irhabi means terrorist in Arabic), distributing tools of extremism. He had become one of the most important terrorism conduits in the world, and his trial marked a watershed moment in combatting cyber-crime.

However, in May, that trial hit an embarrassing bump. Justice Peter Openshaw, the supervising judge, turned to prosecutors and said: “The trouble is I don't understand the language. I don't really understand what a website is.” A university professor was quickly brought into court to explain the Internet.

In the case of child pornography, Mr. Deisman points out, there was a lag of about five to seven years before independent groups began forming for the purpose of shutting illegal sites down. The delay might be equally long with terrorism sites.

“This stuff has happened so quickly,” Mr. Deisman says. “Typically it takes a while to catch up.”

In Canada, the onus is largely on the public to point out such websites – such as the pro-Hamas one registered in Yarmouth – to the domain-name firms.

Register.com is based in New York but has offices in many places; the municipality and province provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in perks to convince it to locate operations in Yarmouth. And it has a very specific policy for dealing with cases where someone reports a domain being used for illegal purposes.

“This policy includes reviewing the content to determine the validity of the report and, if applicable, disabling the domain and notifying the customer of the reason for this action,” says Wendy Kennedy, the firm's manager of public relations and customer marketing. “At times, Register.com has also reached out to law enforcement to report suspicious activity.”

But the servers in Yarmouth are by no means the only ones in Canada where terrorist-related content may be residing. Until a few weeks ago, the website for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the most extensive and regularly updated of its kind, was registered to a building near downtown Toronto. The address belongs to Contactprivacy, the anonymous-registration arm of Canadian domain-name provider Tucows Inc.

After its web-hosting service in Germany was alerted to the Maghreb site and pulled the plug earlier this year, Tucows followed suit. But in an environment where similar sites are popping up daily, it was a small victory.

It has been seven years now since Abu Huthayfa sent a memo to Osama bin Laden extolling the virtues of an online public-relations strategy. Their opponents have yet to catch up.

“We have been slow to recognize that we have to go beyond tactics and recognize there's a war of ideas,” says Mr. Cilluffo. “I believe there's only one side that has stepped up to the battlefield, and it's not us.”


Globe and Mail writer Omar El Akkad shared the 2007 National Newspaper Award for investigative journalism with colleague Greg McArthur for their examination of online activities by accused terrorists.


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