A beloved mouse named Farfur urges Palestinian children to kill the “evil Jews.” An Arab mother fits her own son with a suicide vest. An article in Inspire magazine instructs al-Qaida wannabees “how to build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.”
All are frightening examples of terrorism in cyberspace — and all can be viewed by anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection.
Israeli communications professor Gabriel Weimann outlined that threat May 1 during a talk at Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville. Weimann’s fast-moving lecture, attended by about 50 people, was a condensed version of the research he’s been conducting during the past 16 years on a topic that, until recently, didn’t get much
“In 1998, there were 12 terrorist websites. Today, there are 9,800,” he said. “All terrorist organizations today are online, and some of them have hundreds of websites. Why is the Internet so useful for terrorists? Because they can use it to communicate with their audiences, find potential recruits among their followers and launch psychological campaigns. There is no way you can block them from using the Internet.
They can show up online, then disappear in the darkness — and you’ll never find them.”
Weimann showed his audience images of a Hezbollah bunker captured in August 2006 by the Israel Defense Forces, and a similar office used by the self-proclaimed Afghan Cyber Army. Both were crammed with PCs, monitors, routers and other computer paraphernalia, looking more like high-tech startup companies than rebel camps.
“What we do is monitor terrorist groups’ use of the Internet — text, graphics, coding and analysis — and then prepare our reports,” the professor explained. “In the early years, they used only websites. Later, they moved to a more interactive forum: chat rooms. Today, terrorists use all the platforms we know: Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter and Google Earth.”
Google Earth, in fact, is “a terrorist’s dream come true,” he said.
“Remember the attack on Mumbai? It was planned with Google Earth. Islamic Jihad has used Google Earth to target Sderot. And Google Earth images of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., are posted on al-Qaida websites.”
Thanks to the Internet, said Weimann, there’s no need for would-be terrorists to travel to Afghanistan anymore for training. “There are instructions on using missiles against planes, and how to build a detonator cellphone. There’s also a video on how to make a suicide vest. It’s all online. You don’t have to go anywhere.”
Weimann, who teaches at Haifa University, is currently a fellow with the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. The Wilson Center funds his research along with two other Washington-based nonprofit groups: the U.S. Institute of Peace and the National Institute of Justice. In 2006, Weimann’s book Terror on the Internet was published, and in an ironic twist was even reviewed on an al-Qaida website.
“But it’s not just websites,” he insisted. “Hezbollah and other groups are operating online TV and radio stations, and publishing houses. You can download lectures, and even posters of Nasrallah. And if you put the words ‘Hamas Islamic Resistance Movement’ into a YouTube search, you’ll find over 1,500 videos.”
Likewise, a search for “al-Awlaki” — the extremist cleric who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen — turns up tens of thousands of tribute videos on YouTube. There’s also a “Generation Awlaki” on Facebook, presenting all his lectures in Arabic.
Weimann showed his audience online images of al-Qaida spokesman Adam Yahiye Gadahn, an American “homegrown” convert to Islam who was born Adam Pearlman and whose Jewish paternal grandfather was an ardent Zionist (the Oregon-born militant is on the FBI’s most-wanted list).
“The Boston Marathon brothers were never associated with al-Qaida and never went to any camps,” he said. “But if you go to their computer, you can see the websites they visited. The Tsarnaev brothers learned from Inspire magazine how to use a pressure-cooker to build a bomb.”
Recently, said Weimann, terrorist groups have begun appealing specifically to Muslim women. An online magazine, al-Khansa, teaches mothers how to raise children in order to carry on the jihad. In one video, a woman lovingly places a suicide belt on her son. As to their effectiveness, Weimann points to the rising number of female suicide bombers in Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
“It is very often a common image that terrorists are sick, hopeless, desperate, crazy and violent people,” he said. “The Israelis were involved in many studies to profile terrorists, but all those studies failed. Terrorists can be well-educated, not poor and not crazy. They do it because they have a motive. They don’t do it for the sake of killing.”
One of the most disturbing trends online, he said, are computer games that desensitize children to the act of murder. Kids as young as 3 or 4 are targeted with online comic books, animated videos and quiz games. In one video, Hamas uses a Mickey Mouse-like character named Farfur to teach Islamic supremacy and hatred of Jews. After Farfur is beaten to death by Israeli agents, he’s immediately replaced by Jihad Bee.
Another trend is the rise of so-called “lone wolves” — though Weimann said it’s not as simple as that.
“In the past, terrorists used to act as a group. Today, you see more and more acts committed by one or two people. But they’re not really alone,” he said. “Wolves never hunt alone; the same with terrorists. They seem to be alone, but if you look for their footprints in cyberspace, you’ll find that someone recruited them.”
Weimann said cyberterrorism requires experts, but that extremists don’t yet have the skills to take down airports, banking networks or nuclear facilities.
“To do that, you need professionals. If they want to top 9/11 — the killing of 3,000 people in one day — cyberterrorism is the way,” he said, predicting “dark clouds on the horizon” if one day, terrorists don’t just use the Internet but attack it.
Weimann offered a piece of advice to anyone hoping to get in touch with terrorists online, regardless of the reason: “Never communicate with them. The bad guys will try to recruit you, and the good guys will come knocking on your door.”