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Summary: Fears of a “digital Pearl Harbor” — a cyberattack against critical infrastructure — have so preoccupied Western governments that they have neglected to recognize that terrorists actually use the Internet as a tool for organizing, recruiting, and fundraising. Their online activities offer a window onto their methods, ideas, and plans.
Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism researcher and a consultant to the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers Foundation, is the author of “Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network.” He runs the Web site www.globalterroralert.com.
WORLD OF WARCRAFT
The United States is gradually losing the online war against terrorists. Rather than aggressively pursuing its enemies, the U.S. government has adopted a largely defensive strategy, the centerpiece of which is an electronic Maginot Line that supposedly protects critical infrastructure (for example, the computer systems run by agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration) against online attacks. In the meantime, terrorists and their sympathizers, unhindered by bureaucratic inertia and unchallenged by Western governments, have reorganized their operations to take advantage of the Internet’s more prosaic properties.
The U.S. government is mishandling the growing threat because it misunderstands terrorists. For more than a decade, a host of pundits and supposed experts have traded in doom-and-gloom predictions that cyberterrorists would wreak havoc on the Internet — or, worse, use computer networks to do damage in the offline world (for instance, by hijacking systems that control the water and power utilities of major metropolitan areas). Such warnings were bolstered by the occasional acts of terrorist groups such as the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has staged dramatic but ineffectual cyberattacks, such as its hacking into the Indian army’s Web site in 2000. Although such incidents had only symbolic impact, they scared technophobic Western policymakers. Fearful of a digital Pearl Harbor, governments embarked on a frantic campaign aimed at “locking doors.” As the former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke explained, Washington’s strategy has been simple: keep terrorists from breaching sensitive government networks.
In truth, although catastrophic computer attacks are not entirely inconceivable, the prospect that militants will be able to execute them anytime soon has been overblown. Fears of such science-fiction scenarios, moreover, have led policymakers to overlook the fact that terrorists currently use the Internet as a cheap and efficient way of communicating and organizing. These militants are now dedicated to waging an innovative, low-intensity military campaign against the United States. Jihadists are typically organized in small, widely dispersed units and coordinate their activities online, obviating the need for a central command. Al Qaeda and similar groups rely on the Internet to contact potential recruits and donors, sway public opinion, instruct would-be terrorists, pool tactics and knowledge, and organize attacks. The RAND Corporation’s David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla have called this phenomenon “netwar,” which they define as a form of conflict marked by the use of “network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies.” In many ways, such groups use the Internet in the same way that peaceful political organizations do; what makes terrorists’ activity threatening is their intent.
To counter terrorists, the U.S. government must learn how to monitor their activity online, in the same way that it keeps tabs on terrorists in the real world. Doing so will require a realignment of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, which lag behind terrorist organizations in adopting information technologies. At present, unfortunately, senior counterterrorism officials refuse even to pay lip service to the need for such reforms. That must change — and fast.
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