Elisabeth Braw has written this for the Huffington Post and Metro International.
Osama bin Laden may be hiding in a cave, but his lieutenants skillfully use the internet to spread his message around the world. And Al Qaeda has plenty of company online: today most rebels and terrorists are masters of the online universe.
Ten years ago, when Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a communications professor at the University of Haifa, started monitoring terrorist websites, there were 12. Today there are over 6,850.
"In the past such websites were very simple; now they're often extremely sophisticated", says Weimann, currently at American University in Washington, DC. "Terrorists are using Western technology to fight Western modernity." In addition to posting messages on Facebook and YouTube, terrorists now run virtual training camps on the internet and use Google Earth to coordinate actions.
Rebel groups in developing countries are internet experts, too. The Muslim Brotherhood has a website; so do the Tamil Tigers and the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice in Niger. The Sudan Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is battling the Sudanese government over the Darfur region; its website is available in several languages.
"Media is the most important vehicle of ideas and tool of war", says JEM spokesman Gibriel Ibrahim. "We're not in a position to do what President Obama did with the internet because we don't have the resources, and because a very small portion of our population has access to the internet. Nonetheless, our website is the place where we can freely express our views and communicate with the world." According to JEM, people from 85 countries have visited its website, www.sudanjem.com, which also has a chatroom.
But there's a war over websites, too. Says Gibriel Ibrahim (a nom de guerre): "JEM is a party at war with a notorious ruthless regime which is relentlessly trying to top the operation of our website and get rid of the people who run it."
Then there are the virtual training camps, where students can access training material, manuals written by veteran terrorists and handbooks from real-life training camps.
"On al-Firdaws ("Paradise") students can access materials and log on to ask questions, which will be answered by experienced terrorists", says Anne Stenerson, a terrorism expert at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI). "They get answers very fast, since people are always logged on." Students ask basic questions like how to make a bomb, or more specific questions, like components of a specific bomb recipe.
Virtual training camps also feature instructional videos, often produced by Hezbollah. In 2004, al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia moved its training online, under the name al-Battar Camp. "But since terrorists are aware that websites are monitored by anti-terrorism agencies, they don't discuss tactics or reveal names", notes Stenerson. Second Life has been accused of unknowingly hosting virtual terrorist training camps, but denies the allegation.