Over the past decade, I’ve written a couple of book chapters about the use of the internet by transnational political activists. Environment, human rights, and peace organizations, for example, utilize the internet to communicate instantly with thousands of like-minded people around the world. Technology helps overcome resource mobilization costs for social movements.
This use of the web generally helps progressive organizations promote their causes, typically in the face of well-funded corporate and national political opponents.
Of course, the technology has a dark side as well — and this has been apparent, literally, since 9/11.
“The world is just starting to understand the real influence of the Internet as an open university of jihad,” says Reuven Paz, the head of the Project for the Research of Islamic Movements in Israel. “Like the attacks in Madrid, the bombings in London should be viewed as an export of the war in Iraq to Europe, based on local adherents of global jihad rather than on volunteers from the heart of the Arab world.”
the confluence of America’s decision to invade Iraq and new communication technologies that has created the most powerful machine for recruiting new terrorists in history, says Evan Kohlmann, an American terrorism consultant who has tracked jihadi websites since the late 1990s.
Terror expert Peter Bergen wrote last year that the web emerged as the main terror home base before the Iraq war began:
To the extent that Al Qaeda — “the base” in Arabic — has a new base, it is, to a surprising degree, on the web. According to a U.S. government contractor who specializes in analyzing jihadist chat rooms and websites, web traffic was “tremendously energized” in the period before the Iraq war.
The security experts discussing this issue recognize the virtues of the internet: speed, wide distribution and low cost. Back to Murphy’s story:
Insurgent[s] in “martyrdom operations” appear on websites within days of attacks in Iraq, and the latest calls to carry jihad to Western capitals from the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s No. 2 and Al Qaeda’s chief ideologue, spread around the globe within minutes.
“Whatever framework we use to talk about Iraq – take Afghanistan for instance – it’s whatever happened there, but on steroids,” says Toby Craig Jones, a political scientist and analyst of events in Saudi Arabia for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “It seems to be proceeding much more quickly this time.”
The Bush administration often worries publicly about the effect of Aljazeera TV broadcasts on “the Arab street,” and I’m confident that the CIA is watching back-alley jihadist blogs and websites, but it’s not clear to me that even close scrutiny of communication outlets can do much to stop future attacks.
In the case of the London bombs, intelligence and government officials were apparently taken by surprise because they did not detect an increase in terror “chatter” prior to the attacks.
Unfortunately, the web may be so vast that jihadists will remain at least a step ahead of those trying to monitor their activities.