Internet and terrorism

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Not to be confused with Cyberterrorism.

Internet as an electronic media is being used for terror related activities with nefarious intentions by terrorists. The activities include promotion of terror manifestos and ideology and hence, attracting recruitment, deceptions, communication and networking, fundraising, and attacks on the networks of security authorities.


Directly after 9/11, much was made of the possibilities of a large-scale cyber-terrorism attack by the media. However, several academics in the pending years published papers focussing on the terrorist groups utilize the Internet as it was designed to be; a means to communicate and collaborate, therefore the terrorists have stronger reasons to keep it up and online. Hence the apparently impending large scale cyber-terrorist attack that would cripple the internet has not materialised although Al Qaeda has taken full advantage of this fear[1] - see section entitled Disinformation.

The United States in 2002 encountered cyber terrorism, John Ashcroft would violate the rights of citizens in the United States. With the passing of the USA Patriot Act in order to counter cyber terrorism, the federal government gained the power to record all electronic devices. In other words, installation of devices would be able to record all routing, addressing, signaling information with the appropriate court supervision.[2] This act was put into law to protect the United States from cyber terrorism.[3]

Publicity and propaganda[edit]

As stated by Dr Maura Conway, terrorism researcher:

“Every machine connected to the internet is potentially a printing press, a broadcasting station or place of assembly.” [4]

The internet is an un-paralleled media suite. Terrorists no longer have to have their messages diluted and edited by the media. Instead they can disseminate information of their choice to aid their causes. In most cases, this is achieved by the terrorists focusing on their grievances in order to justify why they are resorting to terrorist activities. This is usually achieved by the publication of various articles combined with pictures galleries, although this may be supplemented by video and audio files in which the terrorists themselves orally defend their actions. An example of this would be a gallery of atrocities against innocent civilians in Iraq supposedly carried out by foreign forces in order to generate local as well as international support for the terrorists.

In some cases, the terrorists choose to distribute information displaying their acts of violence or relating actions although this is not common. Again, these can be through written articles describing the violence, but are more often videos and pictures. Examples of these would be the pre-mission pictures published on the Tamil Tigers website of the Air Tiger squadron that a few days earlier had carried out its successful inaugural air attack on Sri Lankan governmental forces. A rather more extreme example was the distribution of the beheading of the journalist Daniel Pearl by the terrorist organisation ‘The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty’.

Terrorists spread their messages on sites by using symbols and imagery of victimization and empowerment. This, as we all know, rises the emotions of future supporters. On these sites, they portray the West, especially the United States, victimizing the Muslim world. The sites show images of innocent Muslims wounded and dead, the destruction of many homes, Jerusalem and of Abu Ghraib. These sites would then show images of terrorism such as US casualties, images of 9/11, etc. They would state that the Muslim world is being under attack by non believers, which are essentially the people of United States and the West.[5]

The first type of cyber terrorism created by Al-Qaeda was the Al-Neda Center for Islamic Study and Research which was created by the former bodyguard of Bin Laden, Shaykh Youssef al-Ayyiri. He created an Al-Qaeda propaganda video on the internet which had several audio messages from al-Ayyiri in which he stated: “In the first stage, the stage of attrition and engaging the enemy in battle, you need to make your enemy tired more than you need to kill a large number of its members. You need to scatter the enemy, demoralize it, spread it out over a large area, and cause it to get tired. If the enemy is spread out, it will need supply armies and a lot of other things. You need to make the enemy reach this stage. In this stage, you should strike, run, and disappear. Strike at the weak points."(As-Sahab Media Foundation 2003) Also he wrote a book which was published on the Al-Neda Center for Islamic Study and Research site. Thus, Ayyiri, in creating the propaganda video and the book, did, in fact, cyber terrorism acts by trying to recruit more individuals for the cause, and giving instruction for potential terrorists on attacks.[6]

Data mining[edit]

The Internet is a vast resource of information which anyone can tap into and terrorists are well aware of this. According to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, speaking on January 15, 2003, an al Qaeda training manual recovered in Afghanistan tells its readers that:

“Using public sources openly and without resorting to illegal means, it is possible to gather at least 80 percent of all information required about the enemy.”[7]

The Internet allows access to highly detailed maps, schematics and various other sources of data that would allow terrorists gather information for potential targets. More importantly, once this data has been collated, it is compiled into volumes or “How to” manuals that are distributed between terrorist organisations [8] - see section entitled Networking.


Terrorist groups have made full use of the Internet’s ability to create funds; whether legitimately or otherwise. The main methods that the terrorists achieve this is by:

Goods selling: merchandise that is directly related to the terrorist organisation, for example, CDs, DVDs and books from the LTTE.[9]

Website and email based appeals: sending emails to sympathizers who registered interest on a group’s website, posting messages on newsgroups/forums and their own websites that give directions as to how and where donations can be made.

Deception: using seemingly legitimate charities or businesses that unknown to the donator, directs the funds to terrorist organisations.[10]

Criminal activity: Illegitimate means of gaining funds that terrorist groups are known to use include credit card fraud, online brokering and gambling.[9][10]


Terrorist organisations are able to monitor users who browse their websites, capture their profile and information about them and if deemed possibly useful to their cause, are contacted. This grooming process starts from when the user begins to absorb the propaganda on the website, for example the often discussed “charismatic” style of delivery that Osama Bin Laden employs on his video messages.[11] Perhaps motivated by this video, the user seeks answers to questions and goes to internet chat-rooms and discussion boards. Possible recruits are spotted by lurking recruiters who through gradual encouragement of discussion of religious issues to gradually including more political discussions. This grooming leads the recruits to become more and more entangled in terrorist related discussions and are led through a maze of private chat-room’s until personal indoctrination occurs which is often through the use of the secure software

With the proliferation of online platforms and access, terrorist organizations are also increasingly distributing propaganda aimed at encouraging extremists to "self-radicalize" and then providing them directions and suggestions for carrying out attacks in the West.[12]

Communication & networking[edit]

Terrorist groups have changed recently from having a clearly defined hierarchy in the organisations with designated leaders, to having multiple, semi-independent cells with no clear distinct leader in order to allow them to remain hidden. The Internet facilitates communication between cells which allows exchange of information and manuals.

The Internet also assists with internal communication within a cell particularly in relation to the planning of attacks. To avoid being detected and targeted by security forces, Messages are often sent by conspirators through emails which are often sent using public email systems such as Hotmail and Yahoo and may also be sent from public libraries and internet cafes. Chat rooms may also be used for this purpose.

In addition, steganography may be used to hide information embedded within graphic files on websites. Graphic files may also used to send very subtle messages, such as reversing the orientation of a gun graphic may indicate that the next stage of a plan is to proceed. Other methods of concealing instructions and messages may be through the use of coded language, such as that used by Mohamed Atta's final email to the other terrorists who carried out the attacks of 9/11 is reported to have read:

The semester begins in three more weeks. We’ve obtained 19 confirmations for studies in the faculty of law, the faculty of urban planning, the faculty of fine arts, and the faculty of engineering.


This is believed to be in reference to the four targets that the planes were planned to strike; ’architecture’ being the World Trade Center, ‘arts’: the Pentagon, ‘law’: the Capitol and ‘politics’: the White House.

An even more secure method of communication is that which involves using one-time anonymous public email accounts; two terrorists who wish to communicate to open 30 anonymous email accounts whose usernames and passwords are known by each side. To communicate, one terrorist creates a web-based email and instead of sending it, saves it as a draft online. The “recipient” then logs onto this account, reads this message and deletes. The next day, a new account is used; this increases the difficulty of traceability of the users.[14]

The audiences of the terrorist websites[edit]

The first group of people that will frequent these websites are current supporters and future supporters. The websites typically include information relative to their activities, their allies, and their competitors. In addition, many websites offer items for sale.

The second group of people that will enter these websites will be members of the outside community. In hopes of appealing to people all over the world, many terrorist organizations offer their websites in multiple languages. The websites typically include historical background information and general information about the organization itself.

Only some of the websites address the enemy or citizens of a country currently under attack by terrorists. The terrorists hope weaken public support within countries and in some cases will threaten attacks if the government fails to do as they ask.[13]


The use of disinformation by terrorist groups is often used to incite fear, panic and hatred by sending threats, airing videos of brutal executions, creating psychological attacks through the use of threats of cyber-terrorism. Disinformation has been used successfully to incite violence by certain militant groups.[15]

Disinformation may also be used to divert attention from an impending attack by releasing details of a hoax attack so that governmental and law enforcement agencies are side-tracked. However, this may not be wholly effective given the nature of current security climates; that is upon receiving information on a potential attack, the security level on all spectrums across a whole country is increased i.e. from black to black special or similar.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Americas | US warns of al-Qaeda cyber threat". BBC News. 2006-12-01. Retrieved 2009-12-13. 
  2. ^ Dawson, Maurice; Omar, Marwan; Abramson, Jonathan (2015). "Understanding the Methods behind Cyber Terrorism". In Khosrow-Pour, Mehdi. Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology (Third Edition ed.). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference. pp. 1539–1549. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-5888-2.ch147. Retrieved 2014-12-03. 
  3. ^ John D. Podesta & Raj Goyle 2005,"Lost in Cyberspace? Finding American Liberties in a Dangerous Digital World",Yale Law & Policy Review,(Spring 2005): 23 (5) p511-512.
  4. ^ Conway 2003: 271
  5. ^ John A Lewis, "The Internet and Terrorism", Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law)(March–April 2005):99, p112-115.
  6. ^ Evan F. Kohlmann, ""Homegrown" Terrorists: Theory and Cases in the War on Terror's Newest Front", American Academy of Political and Social Science (July 2008):618.
  7. ^ Weimann 2004: 7
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b "". Retrieved 2009-12-13. 
  10. ^ a b Gruen 2003: 298
  11. ^ "Terror's Server". Technology Review. Retrieved 2009-12-13. 
  12. ^ "Homegrown Islamic Extremism in 2013 The Perils of Online Recruitment & Self-Radicalization". ADL. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  13. ^ a b Weimann 2004: 12
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Mumbai riots: Inflammatory messages of Myanmar killings led to violence". Dainik Bhaskar. 8 October 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Weinberg et al. (2004) “The Challenges of Conceptualizing Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 16(4), 777 – 794.
  • Arquilla et al. (1999), “Networks, Netwar, and Information-Age Terrorism” in Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Understanding the new security environment (2004) The McGraw-Hill Companies.
  • Conway M. (2003), “Terrorism and IT: Cyberterrorism and Terrorist Organisations Online” in Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Understanding the new security environment (2005) ed. Rohan Gunaratna. Marshall Cavendish Academic
  • Costigan S. (2007), "Terrorists and the Internet: Crashing or Cashing In?" in Terrornomics (2007) ed. Sean Costigan and David Gold. Ashgate.
  • Gruen M. (2003) “White Ethnonationalist and Political Islamist Methods of Fundraising and Propaganda on the Internet in Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Understanding the new security environment (2005) ed. Rohan Gunaratna. Marshall Cavendish Academic.
  • Weimann G. (2004) How Modern Terrorism Uses The Internet. United States Institute of Peace Retrieved on 09/04/2007.
  • Thomas T.L. (2003) Al-Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of “Cyber-planning” Retrieved on 09/04/2007
  • Hoffman. B (2006) The Use of the Internet by Islamic Extremists. RAND Cooperation. Retrieved on 03/04/2007
  • Ducol. B (2012) Uncovering the French-speaking jihadisphere: An exploratory analysis. Media, War & Conflicts 5(1), 51-70.
  • Kohlmann. E (2008) "Homegrown" Terrorists: Theory and Cases in the War on Terror's Newest Front, "American Academy of Political and Social Science", 618,p. 95-109
  • Lewis, Jeff (2005) Language Wars: The Role of Media and Culture in Global Terror and Political Violence, Pluto / University of Michigan Press, London.
  • Podesta & Goyle (2005) "Lost in Cyberspace? Finding American Liberties in a Dangerous Digital World", "Yale Law & Policy Review", 23 (2).
  • Lewis, J (2005) "The Internet and Terrorism", "Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law)", 99.

External links[edit]

The "Top Ten" list of Salafyist/Jihadist forums. Internet Haganah.