By Anne Broache
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
May 3, 2007
WASHINGTON -- Politicians on Thursday said the U.S. government must do
more to counteract propagandizing by al Qaida and radical terrorist
groups on the Internet.
Leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental
Affairs said they're troubled that extremists are increasingly flocking
to the Web to recruit, organize, conduct online courses, raise funds and
plan attacks in a manner that's cheaper and speedier than ever before.
"We cannot cede cyberspace to the Islamist terrorists because if we do,
they will successfully carry out attacks against us in our normal
environment," Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said at
a morning hearing here titled "The Internet: A Portal to Violent
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee's co-chairman, spoke of the
need to "resist the perversion of the World Wide Web into a weapon of
The use of the Internet by terrorist groups is hardly a new phenomenon.
But according to the hearing's witnesses, the number of Web sites--many
of them mirroring information published by leaders on core,
authoritative sites--has multiplied from a handful in 2000 to many
thousands today, with more added each week. Most of the 42 groups on the
State Department's 2005 list of foreign terrorist organizations use Web
sites "to promote their violent message," Collins said.
Officials from the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense and the
co-author of a new report on "Internet-facilitated radicalism" told
politicians at the hearing that it's clear the preferred locale for the
"war of ideas" perpetuated by terrorist groups is a new
"The Internet...is more than just a tool of terrorist organizations,"
said Michael Doran, a deputy assistant secretary in the Defense
Department. "It is the primary repository of the essential resources for
sustaining the culture of terrorism."
The latest generation of radicals is using password-protected bulletin
boards to exchange ideas, translating their video and audio tapes into
various foreign languages, and employing readily available services like
Google Earth to scheme up targeted attacks, the witnesses said. Some
sites have become virtual libraries, housing thousands of electronic
books and articles written by members of a global movement bent on
waging war against the United States and its worldwide allies.
"Internet chat rooms are now supplementing and replacing mosques,
community centers and coffee shops as venues for recruitment and
radicalization by terrorist groups like Al-Qaida," said Frank Cilluffo,
director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington
University. He co-authored a report released Thursday (PDF) that details
the use of the Internet by radical groups, some of whom live by the
slogan "keyboard equals Kalashnikov."
The question high on politicians' minds Thursday was how to respond.
Lieberman asked about the extent to which government agents are
pretending to be potential recruits to get information about potential
"I for one would like those who are operating those terrorist Web sites
to know that we are working very hard to infiltrate them," he said.
The government officials declined to comment on specific tactics in a
public hearing. They repeatedly said the answer to dealing with what
they deemed a serious threat lies in a combination of approaches: using
technical measures to shut down sites deemed particularly threatening
may sometimes be worthwhile, but it's often more prudent to allow sites
to remain active for intelligence-gathering purposes.
"We can monitor them to follow the networks and assess their operational
capacity," said Lt. Col. Joseph Felter, director of the Combating
Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy. "We can sabotage them by
infiltrating their networks and flooding the Web with bogus
The witnesses repeatedly likened squelching the terrorist Internet
presence to a game of "whack-a-mole"--when one site comes down, another
one is bound to show up. They said it's particularly challenging to root
out all the propaganda because al Qaida, for one, has established such
strong online "branding" that its products are easily identified even
when republished on unofficial sites.
Some suggested another approach would be to attempt to introduce a
"counternarrative" on the sites: that is, to find ways to "amplify" the
voices of movement members who express skepticism about the terrorist
plans, in hopes of discrediting them from within.
"What we can do is get people who are versed in the Koran, we can get
people who are versed in the culture, to be able to identify how these
ideas are just flat wrong," Cilluffo said.
The politicians said they won't be satisfied until the government does
more about the perceived threat. The same committee has scheduled
another hearing for next Thursday on the same topic, except with
witnesses from the FBI and the State Department.
"The question I have is, is there something that we can do that other
countries are doing within the framework of our Constitution that would
limit what is being delivered here in the United States?" said Sen.
George Voinovich (D-Ohio). He later remarked, "We aren't doing the job."
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