Terrorists are using the internet for everything from propaganda to planning attacks, wrote Tom Allard.

The setting is familiar to anyone who watches the evening news. A large, executive-style desk, a laptop perched on top, a logo in the background and a screen showing shifting images to reinforce the newsreader’s message. The only difference is the presenter, who is swathed in an Arab headdress and masked to hide his identity, and the subject of the broadcast, a call for an Islamic state for Iraq and a vow to use Iraq as a launching pad to crush the “Zionists” in Israel. Welcome to the “Voice of the Caliphate”, the latest offering from the Global Islamic Media Front, widely regarded as the mouthpiece of al-Qaeda and the worldwide jihadist movement. Distributed over the internet, the mock news format is just one of many employed by al-Qaeda’s highly sophisticated propaganda arm.

The Jihadists are now well versed in using the Internet for their propaganda, planning and recruitment purposes. It must be countered. But how?

Professor Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University academic and one of the world’s foremost terrorism analysts, says the use of the internet by jihadists has fundamentally changed the ground rules of terrorism. For the first time, the monopoly of commercial and state-owned media over the mass communication of a terrorist group’s message has been usurped. The implications, Hoffman says, are “enormous”, not least because terrorism, at its core, has ultimately been about generating publicity, communicating a message through a violent – and preferably spectacular – act to achieve a political outcome. “The art of terrorist communication has evolved to a point where the terrorists themselves can now control the entire production process,” he says.

Blogs, chat rooms, and video and audio files – there is little from the online world that jihadists have not employed to spread their message.

In September the Global Islamic Media Front released a video game, The Night of Bush Capturing, which can be downloaded off the web. As songs of praise to jihad play in the background, players work their way through six stages, including “Americans’ Hell” and “Bush Hunted Like a Rat”. The final mission is to slay George Bush, in one-on-one combat.

But propaganda and recruitment isn’t the only use of the Internet by Jihadists.

And it is not just the propaganda war, or using the internet to entice new recruits. The internet has also been a crucial planning tool and conduit for command and control for jihadists planning their attacks. The attacks of September 11, 2001, the Iraqi insurgency, the London bombings and the alleged terrorist plot in Sydney and Melbourne uncovered last year all used the internet to plan and execute operations. There is also the use of the web to raise money, everything from T-shirt sales to advice on how to undertake credit card fraud and the details of bank accounts where funds can be sent. More often than not, terrorists can spread their propaganda, plan their attacks and gather funds without being detected.

And some of the ways they use the technology of the Net are very creative.

Some of the techniques of evasion are disarmingly simple. Rather than send emails, some jihadists simply write and save draft emails, storing them in an account with a password that’s known to other members of the cell. Because they are never actually sent, they can’t be detected by intelligence agencies. Raisman points to a recent publication by the al-Fajr group, another communications arm of al-Qaeda and its fellow travellers. He said it contained a very sophisticated manual on internet security, how to avoid hackers, secure personal files and ensure any computer that is captured is of little value to Western authorities. Then there are offensive cyber operations, the possibility of terrorists bringing down critical electronic systems that underpin key sectors such as energy and banking.

So how are we doing? How well are we dealing with the new threat?

In testimony to the US Congress earlier this year, Hoffman warned the US was “dangerously behind the curve” in dealing with the terrorist presence on the web. The message should resonate in Australia, where the internet has wide penetration and is proving pivotal in inspiring militant Islamists. Indeed, when police and ASIO agents swooped on the homes of 19 alleged terrorists in Sydney and Melbourne last year, they found an astounding array of violent material on their computers. Their electronic library was as voluminous as it was disturbing, including recipes for homemade explosives, poems in praise of jihad and grisly video and audio files of beheadings and terrorist attacks.

Like Sean Connery said in the movie ‘Rising Sun’, as usual “We’re playing that most American of games – catch up.”

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