Al Qaeda is now a "global brand driven by the power of the world wide web", and media-savvy cyberjihadis are manipulating the internet for training, recruitment and propaganda, according to the first of a three part series on The New al Qaeda broadcast on Monday 25th July) on BBC2. "The internet," says programme-maker Peter Taylor, "has given it wings." These apparent bombshells, however, appear to be based on a number of unremarkable discoveries, such as that terrorists have computers, that cheap video cameras allow them to film attacks and executions and distribute the results via the internet, and that there's stuff on the internet you might not like but can't necessarily get much of a lid on.
Actually the tagline's pretty unremarkable as well, because al Qaeda is a global brand, and that brand is indeed "driven by the power of the internet." Among other things... But Taylor's sensationalised focus on the internet obscures the truth that al Qaeda has other lines of business we should probably be a little bit more concerned about, and his determination to find Al Qaeda connections to bit players merely constructs an electronic version of the simplistic analysis of al Qaeda as a hierarchical, controlling organisation. The reality is a lot more complex and dangerous than that, with even the US administration beginning to talk of the threat as "'Islamist extremism', not just al-Qaeda (see report).
Journalists in particular will note the turns of phrase that serve to pep up Taylor's story. For example: a webmaster thought by MI5 to play "a key role in the internet war" controlled his operations from "powerful computers in his office at Imperial College" (translation - a man accused by the US of recruiting terrorists and fundraising did some admin on his site from Imperial College, where he was at the time). Or, a Lahore "computer expert" is "believed to be at the centre of al Qaeda's global operation". Or there's even the concerned amateur sleuth who "penetrated their networks" (i.e., she hung around on bulletin boards trying to catch terrorists - and succeeded, but more of her shortly).
The core problem Taylor describes actually remains a problem after the hype is stripped off, but he ends up more as a propagandist for the wrong solutions than a provider of coherent analysis. Terrorists in Iraq can video an ambush, unleash it on the internet via a cybercafe ("There are cybercafes in Iraq! You can access high speed internet!") and then it spreads like wildfire across countless sites (using warez-style techniques, which is interesting, but unnoticed by the programme). Terrorist training manuals, bomb-making instructions and training videos can also be had on the internet, while sites promoting jihad encourage young people to take up arms and become suicide bombers.
All of which is true (ish - we're not convinced about the high speed internet, particularly as the context of the quote is what US troops found when they went into Fallujah), but it's in trying to figure out what you do about it that you're likely to come unstuck. Taylor says, with copious supporting quotes, that the US is determined to "crack down on what it calls internet terror", and uses the case of Babar Ahmad (he of the powerful computers at Imperial College) as exhibit A. Ahmad's azzam.com is described in the programme as "the prototype of al Qaeda's internet operations". Ahmad himself is currently fighting extradition to the US on a string of charges, including "providing material support to terrorists" and "conspiracy to kill or injure persons in a foreign country".
The evidence presented in the US indictment of Ahmad (some background and a link here) is actually sketchy. The most apparently damning is email correspondence with a US sailor serving in the Gulf, but while the traffic presented in the indictment appears to indicate some case against the serviceman, it doesn't establish one against Ahmad. We hold no brief for Ahmad, but the point to take away here is that the case for Ahmad's extradition is proceeding (by the terms of the currently one-sided US-UK extradition treaty) on the basis that we in the UK accept that the US Government has a case against Ahmad under US law, and that we are satisfied that he will receive fair justice if he is extradited there. Ahmad's defence points out that he has not been charged with terrorism offences under UK law (if evidence of incitement of a US serviceman existed, then the Terrorism Act 2000 could well apply), and it does not appear that the serviceman, although no longer in the US Navy, has been charged.
Taylor fails to mention Ahmad's release without charge, presenting the matter instead as a continuous process from detention by UK authorities to US extradition, which smacks more than a little of selecting the facts to fit the story. And in portraying Ahmad as a major terrorism wheel, and calling his site "the prototype of al Qaeda's internet operations", Taylor would seem to be doing more than a little uncritical pre-judging.
Of Taylor's other exhibits, one Shannen Rossmiller, amateur sleuth, is particularly interesting. Rossmiller is given a considerable amount of airtime on the basis of her having fingered a subversive in the US National Guard. But there are a couple of things the programme doesn't mention about the woman who "penetrated their networks". During the case, which was heard before a military tribunal, Rossmiller was reported as a city judge and "a member of 7-Seas.net, a global organization that tracks terrorist activity and provides the information to government and military officials." However, this was swiftly refined: "Under questioning and cross-examination, Rossmiller said she is a member of 7/Seas.net, a group of seven amateur 'counterintelligence' Web-surfing hobbyists tracking terrorist activity and providing information to the government. Its members include four in the United States, one in Australia, one in Indonesia and another in Canada, Rossmiller said."
Which is perhaps a little less impressive. The domain name was registered to an address in Conrad, Montana, while Shannen Rossmiller lived in Conrad, Montana. Taylor says she is now at a secret address, under FBI protection, but weirdly, also says she is a magistrate in a small town in Montana. Rossmiller's penetration of terrorist networks amounted to hanging around a chat room, inciting a disturbed young man, and then arranging for him to incriminate himself to the FBI. Enemy within? Maybe. Shouldn't have been in the military? Certainly. But neither he nor Rossmiller were ever anywhere near Al Qaeda's terror internet, whatever that might be.
Taylor, "blindfolded", is taken to the "secret address" of the SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) Institute in Philadelphia, to meet co-founder Rita Katz. Katz, who tells him that bin Laden has "an internet committee that has state of the art technology", is also something of a terrorist hunter, and has a book out with that very title. SITE, Taylor tells us, monitors terrorist video on behalf of the US Government. He doesn't tell us about the book, nor does he tell us about the libel action launched against Katz and CBS by a Georgia poultry company which claimed an excerpt from the book aired on 60 Minutes falsely accused it of illegal activities, including laundering money for terrorists. Two Saudi-backed muslim charities also launched actions. There being $80 million lawsuits around, we'll merely note that there would seem to be some dispute about who's a terrorist here, and swiftly move on.
There probably is a worthwhile programme to be made about the internet's impact on terrorism, but this isn't it. Puffing up what are at most peripheral players and getting them to say scary things on camera certainly gets us viewers, but it doesn't get us anywhere constructive or informative. As you'd expect, the internet is kind of like other popular media in that people who want to get a message across are going to try to use it to maximum advantage, and these people are clearly going to include radicals, insurgents, revolutionaries and terrorists.
Some of this you're not going to like, and some of it, as The New Al Qaeda does indicate, is sufficiently disliked by the US Government for it to want to stop it. How it's trying to stop it, whether it can succeed, and the extent to which it's going for the sewer while ignoring the sewage sound to us like the makings of an excellent programme. And as far as we can see, nobody's made it yet. ®