Computer Crime Research Center


A Web of Terror

Date: June 16, 2004
Source: FrontPage
By: Sarah El Deeb

According to FrontPage - Web sites featuring videos of the beheading of Americans or captives pleading for their lives have become part of an electronic war of incitement, humiliation and terrorist outreach, experts say, providing a window into the minds of militant Muslims who hate the West.

The latest dramatic Web posting came Saturday, a short video that showed no faces but included a voice yelling in English: "No, no, please!"

The video showed a shot fired, then the scene of the falling body of what appeared to be a Western man - identified as Robert Jacobs, an American killed by suspected al-Qaida militants in Saudi Arabia last week. Two gunmen then fired at least 10 more shots, before one of them kneeled and motioned as if he was beheading the fallen man.

An earlier video showed the beheading of American Nicholas Berg in Iraq. The CIA has said the black-clad militant shown on the video decapitating Berg was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a former commander for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden now believed to be leading resistance to Iraq's U.S. occupation.

"The aim is really to spread as much terror as possible and make it available to as many people as possible, especially in the West," where Internet use is more common, said Dia'a Rashwan, a Cairo expert on Islamic militants.

In what Rashwan calls a a war of "ideology, images and perception," the Web is a place for militants and their sympathizers to exchange the latest news, debate their definition of Islam, share how-to manuals, extoll their heroes and vilify their enemies.

Images of American soldiers pointing guns at children, Iraqi prisoners being tortured, and Muslims in the Philippines being decapitated pop up again and again. Contributors sign off with pictures of bin Laden or large machine guns.

Militants can put images on the Internet most TV news producers would consider too shocking to televise. The Internet, though, also can be subject to censorship.

Postings signed by the Saudi branch of al-Qaida - everything from claims of responsibility for attacks in the kingdom to training and diet menus for a fit fighter - started popping up on a sub-domain of a Qatar-based Web-hosting company run by Murad Alazzeh.

Alazzeh told The Associated Press he shut down one of his two servers after his site was repeatedly hacked. He said he has cut subscribers from 48,000 to 4,000.

The Web savvy, though, have ways around the gatekeepers.

The Malaysian company that hosted the site on which the Berg beheading video was first posted shut it down days later, but surfers combing Islamic forums could find it elsewhere.

Contributors on forums or chat rooms alert one another to the latest postings. Links are sometimes written in a kind of code, with letters or numerals missing from addresses. The initiated or the patient can figure out what's missing by perusing the rest of the posting.

Experts say Islamic groups were among the first in the Arab world to realize the importance of staying connected. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood uses dozens of Web sites to post literature banned by the government. Lebanon's Hezbollah is known for the sophistication of the propaganda on its Web site.

Until the site was taken over by an American hacker, one site appeared to be the place where al-Qaida reported on developments in fighting in Afghanistan, and, some law enforcement officials believe, posted low-priority information for its to fighters. Some top al-Qaida operatives were trained as cyber specialists.

The mushrooming of the sites and forums is an indication of the growing number of people who sympathize with militants who argue Islam is under attack in by the West, said Rashwan.

Young, educated, unemployed people can spend hours managing or contributing to such sites from their own homes, rather than traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan to do battle. Their targets are people like them in the developing world - educated and disenfranchised - and Westerners.

"They have no other part in holy war. Electronic holy war is their contribution," said Rashwan, whose book "Electronic Jihad" is to be published soon in Arabic and was to be translated into English soon.

Some say the sites may offer well-hidden clues about coming attacks. Other experts say they have little to do with terrorist operations or planning, but prepare the ground for recruiting.

"Over time, the propaganda is part of the conveyer belt to encourage people to figure out where they can join," said John Pike, director of, an Alexandria, Virginia, research center on security issues.

While Net cops have many monitoring tools, those who want to hide their identities and intentions can do so on the Web.

"It is difficult to know when a statement is posted, it is difficult to know if this is someone who has sworn allegiance to (bin Laden). ... It is difficult to understand who is the ultimate sponsor," Pike said.

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