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PAUL DAVIES: It’s how al-Qaida and its various associative groups recruit new members: A message of hatred and violence; a teach yourself guide for would-be suicide bombers, and it’s available on a computer screen near you.
NEIL DOYLE: When new videos from Iraq come out all the time, sometimes you get two or three, four, in a day sometimes.
PAUL DAVIES: Neil Doyle is an author who’s made a career studying the way terrorists use the Internet and modern technology. Most days monitoring their Web sites, he sees footage boasting of attacks on American targets and America’s allies, most of the images too gruesome to broadcast here.
NEIL DOYLE: Quite often these films come out within hours of the attacks taking place. And yeah, they hot foot it back to upload the video to the Internet, and it gets beamed and broadcasted to essentially millions of people around the world.
PAUL DAVIES: He showed me one Web site encouraging young men to join the jihad, and showing them how.
NEIL DOYLE: And this is a video of a guy who’s suspected of possible involvement in the London bombings, and he’s running, at the moment, a virtual online Jihad training camp. And it’s a complete indoctrination course. And you can effectively become a terrorist by distance learning.
PAUL DAVIES: Neil Doyle says despite the determined effort it’s proved almost impossible to close down Web sites like this.
NEIL DOYLE: So you might find that there’s a site based in say Qatar, and it goes down under pressure from the authorities, then they’ll pop up, you know, almost randomly anywhere in the world, it could pop up in Brazil or Malaysia.
PAUL DAVIES: Easy access and worldwide availability. The very qualities that make the Internet so attractive to the rest of us make it a potent weapon for the terrorists.
JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Internet as a tool for terrorists, and focus of intelligence agencies. We look more at that now with Rebecca Givner-Forbes, an Arabic speaker and intelligence analyst who tracks the Internet for the Terrorism Research Center, which offers research to the private sector and national security agencies; and Michael Vatis, an Internet security expert who served in government at the Justice Department, and as director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center. He’s now in private legal practice. And welcome to both of you.
Mr. Vatis, starting with you, how easy is it to set up Web sites like the kind that we just saw and how easy is it to access them?
MICHAEL VATIS: It’s extremely easy to set up a Web site from anywhere in the world. You or I could do it in a matter of minutes just by going to one of the many Web-hosting companies around the world. And once a Web site is up, anyone with access to the Internet can access that particular Web site. So it’s extremely to do.
JEFFREY BROWN: Rebecca, you were just nodding your head as we were watching that little video because you’ve seen that particular Web site. You watch these things. What are they used for? What is the Internet used for by terrorist groups?
REBECCA GIVNER-FORBES: Well, essentially what happened was when al-Qaida and affiliated Jihadist groups lost their base in Afghanistan, they recognized that there was a need to decentralize operations and open what they referred to as new fronts in the global Jihad.
The Internet has been a key tool in achieving this. And thus we’ve seen all kinds of activities that they used to carry out in Afghanistan, continued virtually put online. That includes developing the political ideology and propagating it so that they can recruit more active operatives as well as committed supporters.
That includes the kind of training videos and training manuals and materials of the sort that we just saw in that clip. It includes discussions on different kinds of attacks to carry out: Targeting, what countries to target, people to assassinate. We’ve seen basically all kinds of operational activities such as that moved online.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Vatis, what can you add to that, especially about the operational aspect, do we know that the Internet is used for operations?
MICHAEL VATIS: Well, there are really three different ways that the Internet is used or can be used by terrorists. One, as your clip showed, is to use it as a resource for spreading propaganda: For disseminating the ideology of violence and hatred and for recruiting people.
The second use is for operational communications, terrorist leaders communicating to terrorist cells to give them instruction as to what to do, when to do it, how to do it. And the third, which is really not something we’ve seen much of yet, is to use the Internet effectively as a weapon to attack critical cyber resources such as financial networks, communication networks, to attack them as targets themselves.
Now, one of the things that’s so difficult about the Internet and trying to shut down any of these uses is that it’s so easy for the terrorists to simply replicate their Web site or their communication methods as soon as a government — such as the U.S. government or the British government or the Pakistani government — shuts down their original communications method.
And so it almost becomes a matter of whacking the mole or chasing our own tail if we pursue that as our principal method. In my view it’s far more effective to use these Web sites or these communications methods as an intelligence gathering mechanism to try to get inside the terrorist communication loop to find out what they’re planning and to thwart it directly.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Rebecca, in trying to gather intelligence through the Internet, are we aware of the use of codes or coded messages on the Internet that are hard to pick up?
REBECCA GIVNER-FORBES: I haven’t seen evidence really of coded messages, although there has been some reportage on that sort of thing. What I’ve seen a lot of is terrorists relying on the language barrier to protect them. There aren’t a lot of Arabic speakers, they know our intelligence agencies lack enough Arabic speakers to successfully monitor all these sorts of sites.
And further, some of these Web sites are made, password and user name accessible only, and they rely on that to protect them. We have been able to infiltrate some of those sites, however.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Vatis, is it difficult to take down or take off the Web, a site once it’s up? Explain to us how that actually works.
MICHAEL VATIS: Well, it’s not difficult as a technical matter to take down a Web site. After all, we see hackers doing it all the time to U.S. government sites or company sites. But it is difficult as a policy or a legal matter first of all, because in the United States the advocacy of violence is protected by the First Amendment unless there’s the incitement of imminent violence. So somebody just preaching Jihad, preaching violence against the U.S. or against the West generally, is going to be protected by our First Amendment protection of freedom of speech. So that’s going to interfere with efforts by the U.S. government at the very least.
And as I said earlier, even if one of our allied governments was legally able to bring down a site, terrorists are simply going to have the site reappear under a different guise, within hours, and so I don’t think that that ultimately is an effective strategy. As I said, it’s far more effective, I think, to try to penetrate their communications, understand what their methods of fundraising and communications are, and to get at it that way. But as Rebecca said, translation difficulties have plagued us for years, and while we’re making some progress, we’re not making nearly enough, and that’s where I think we need to put a lot more effort, rather than trying to chase Web sites and shut them down.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about the efforts that have been made by governments and intelligence agencies to monitor these Web sites?
REBECCA GIVNER-FORBES: Well, I’m mostly aware of the private sector efforts such as what our company is engaged in, and I imagine that the agencies have similar efforts. I can definitely support what Mike has said. What I see is when a site goes down, users or visitors just switch to five, six, seven other sites that have almost identical content. There’s a lot of redundancy in the system.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s that easy to just start it up again somewhere else?
REBECCA GIVNER-FORBES: Well, what they do is they have six or seven sites that all carry the same sorts of content, you know Al-Qaida manuals and statements of responsibility will be circulated among a number of sites. So if one goes down, while that administrator is just finding another little space in the Internet to pop this site back up, everyone else can gravitate to one of the other sites that carries the same content. So because of the redundancy and because of the problems that Mike’s discussed with policing the Internet in general, I don’t think trying to shut down the Internet jihadist presence is really feasible.
As for monitoring these Web sites, that’s extremely helpful. They’re really a boon to analysts. I feel like I can monitor first hand the up to the minute evolution of jihadist political dialogue; how they have react to daily events. I could go online today and see for instance how this community was reacting to the death of Saudi King Fahd, for instance. I can monitor their operational discussions, what kind of attacks to carry out. I can look at their training manuals. I can then disseminate this information to military, law enforcement who would be likely the people to prevent such attacks.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. All right. Rebecca Givner-Forbes, Michael Vatis, thank you both very much.