February 07, 2005

How Islamic Extremists Are Turning the Web into Terror.com

SPIEGEL ONLINE - February 7, 2005, 03:41 PM
URL: http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,340599,00.html
Al-Qaida on the Internet

How Islamic Extremists Are Turning the Web into Terror.com

By Yassin Musharbash

"Posted on an Islamist Internet site" is a phrase that often comes up in connection with violent terror attacks in Iraq and elsewhere. Groups often take credit for the crimes in Internet postings. But what does it mean? The Internet, as it turns out, is vital to al-Qaida's propaganda machine. Last week's "kidnapping" of a soldier doll shows why.

The image, supposedly of a kidnapped American soldier, posted last week on the Internet. It turned out to be a fake.
The message that terrorists have to communicate is not a complicated one. Violence. Death. Hate. Clouds of smoke rising above a city skyline, images of bloody death and destruction at the scene of a suicide bombing, videos of kidnapped victims pleading for their lives -- all are the currency used by terror to reach the world. Yet the arsenal of terror would be incomplete without one further weapon -- one that allows terror groups to control the message they send out. The weapon is the Internet.

Indeed, when Abu Musab al-Zarkawi -- Osama bin Laden's representative of terror in Iraq -- wants to catch the eye or ear of the world, he doesn't just rely on journalists who report on the bombs he sets off or the attacks he perpetrates. The images his deadly assaults generate sometimes need captions -- and al-Zarkawi wants to be the one to write them.

His cyber-pseudonym is "Abu Maisara al-Iraqi", and a number of times daily, pictures or statements originating from Abu Maisara are posted on the Web. He used to run a Web site himself, but that proved to be more trouble than it was worth and is now offline. Instead, Abu Maisara's messages reach the public eye quickly and reliably through postings in a popular, Islamist forum -- from there, al-Zarkawi can be sure that his musings will soon be in newspapers and on televisions around the world.

Using the Internet to spread the message

Al-Zarkawi's method of spreading his message via the Internet follows one of the basic rules of terrorism: It creates maximum effect with a minimum of effort. Even the horrifying videos of hostage executions follow this pattern. When al-Zarkawi or one of his followers murders somebody before the running cameras, he is able to spread disgust, fear and revulsion around the globe without investing much in the way of planning or organization. The beheading of two Iraqis on a public sidewalk as happened recently was, for shock value, just as effective as a medium-sized attack somewhere in Iraq. Making sure the public knows who was responsible for such a coup of terror is, for al-Zarkawi and other terrorists, just as important as the act of violence itself. The Internet is the preferred method.

The soldier Cody is produced by Dragon Models USA.
"Abu Maisara's" favored forum is called "ansarnet." But other sites, including "al-Qala" and "Islah" are used by terrorists, who often use the cites as a means of taking credit for terror attacks, execution videos and terrorist-strategy papers. News agencies, international secret service organizations and Arab speaking journalists scan such sites a number of times each day; it is generally these three forums that are meant when a report says a statement or document was found in the Internet or "on an Islamist Web site." When something new is posted, it becomes a news story almost immediately.

One of the most recent examples of this propaganda machinery in action was last Tuesday. The following message was posted on the Qala Web site: "Our heroic Mujahedeen of the Jihad unit in Iraq has succeeded in kidnapping the US soldier John Adam." Attached was a photograph showing a US soldier sitting on the ground, his legs stretched out before him, hands tied behind him and a rifle pointed at his head. He would be killed within 72 hours, the terrorist posting threatened, if the US did not immediately release all the prisoners being held by the army.

At first glance, the claim of responsibility and the attached picture had all of the standard elements of these sites: In the background of the picture was an Islamic creed printed in Arabic and the letter was written in the style one has come to expect.

Bloggers smelled a rat

But a closer look revealed that the terror announcement was false. Attentive bloggers made the discovery and journalists were forced to admit they jumped at the story too quickly and failed to catch a fake. "Something about that picture doesn't look right. Not sure what though," wrote one participant in the discussion forum of the conservative anti-terror Web site "homelandsecurityus.com" immediately after the publication of the picture. "It looks like they superimposed the man's head on someone else's body," agreed a second participant. They were both right and there is now little doubt that the picture of "John Adam" is actually a doll from the toy manufacturer Dragon Models USA. A further indication: The US army has said it is not missing anybody by the name of John Adam.

Blindfolded US hostage Paul Johnson, who was later killed, from summer of 2004. Posted on the Internet.
The fake in this case was relatively easy to recognize -- a picture of a doll instead of a real human is a difficult sell -- and the news agencies quickly reacted by retracting the story of the kidnapping. But there were a number of other indications that something wasn't quite right with the story.

It is difficult to imitate the material and style of Islamist terror groups. Al-Qaida and Co. have managed to achieve a high degree of professionalism in the realm of publicity. They regularly publish an online magazine dedicated to the waging of holy war, for example. Likewise, strategy papers are occasionally posted. They know how best to use the Internet and how best to reach their followers, many of whom access al-Qaida messages from Internet cafes across the Arab world. They sometimes urge followers to use the Internet for disinformation as well. Last year, for example, a message was posted on a Saudi al-Qaida site urging terrorists to establish as many pseudo-organizations as possible with the goal of confusing the West and its secret services.

Authenticity is key

But one lesson the terror groups have learned well is that media interest generated by an Internet posting and the ensuing publicity is only possible if observers and reporters can be relatively certain of a given posting's authenticity. And because such postings have become vital to the terrorists' cause, they attach great value to remaining easily and unmistakably recognizable. Distinctive letterhead is often used and characteristic sayings are frequently spelled out using recognizable fonts. The Saudi al-Qaida group's trademark on its communiqu├ęs is a logo saying "the voice of the Jihad" and often includes a white horse logo as well. Another strategy is that used by al-Zarkawi. Postings in his name always come from the same forum username -- Abu Maisara al-Iraqi -- which, because the sites he uses require user registration, makes it difficult for others to hijack his identity.

Of course while Internet messages have a role to play, it's the videos that have the most sweeping effect. Not only can they be used to prove that a murder has actually taken place, but images of hostages pleading for their lives have a huge effect on the public -- a terrorist's message of fear and violence can immediately reach a wide audience. The strategy worked almost to perfection with the autumn kidnapping of the British aid worker Margaret Hassan.

An execution video from Iraq.
One final tactic used by terrorists is to photograph passports and other personal documents of their victims. Pictures of a business card and passport belonging to Paul Marshal Johnson in connection with his filmed decapitation in summer 2004 -- the first such video posted on the Web -- went a long way toward proving its authenticity. Al-Zarkawi and the terror group "Jaish Ansar al-Sunna" likewise use this strategy to establish proof of their claims.

None of these pertinent elements were part of last Tuesday's "John Adam" claim. No proof of his identity was offered, and his uniform was suspiciously clean. In addition, the posting was signed by a group calling itself Mujahedeen Units Iraq. A group with the exact same signature took responsibility for kidnapping three Japanese and a Brazilian last year. (The Japanese were later let go but the fate of the Brazilian remains uncertain.) But the name Mujahedeen Units Iraq is more interchangeable than the uninitiated might think: Mujahedeen Units is used for Islamist fighters the world over. Those taking responsibility for Tuesday's "kidnapping" therefore seemed to want to conceal, rather than flaunt their identities.

For this reason, a number of terror experts discarded the document the moment they saw it. Too bad the news media wasn't as careful.

No comments: