A Digital Haven for Terrorists on Our Own Shores?

If you use one of America’s top Internet service providers, you may share server space with an organization that enables worldwide terrorism, says a new study by Tel Aviv University.

A workshop on terrorist organizations and the Internet was organized for the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) by the Netvision Institute for Internet Studies (NIIS) and the Interdisciplinary Center for Technology Analysis & Forecasting, both of Tel Aviv University. Berlin’s Institute for Cooperation Management and Interdisciplinary Research (NEXUS), affiliated with the Technical University of Berlin, also participated in the workshop.

The findings were presented in Berlin to a closed audience of high-ranking representatives from NATO in February 2008.

Organizing and Recruiting Online

Enlisted by NATO officials to study the web activity of terrorist organizations, researchers found that some of the world’s most dangerous organizations are operating on American turf. Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda all have websites hosted by popular American Internet service providers — the same companies that most of us use every day.

“These websites hosted in America are targeting Muslim mothers in America, Canada, the U.K. and all over the world, convincing them that being ‘Shahid’ or a suicide bomber is particularly good and very important for their sons,” says Prof. Niv Ahituv of the NIIS.

Available in English, Arabic, Spanish and other languages, the websites also provide tutorials on bomb building and enlist impressionable American and British Muslim women and men into a life of terror activity.

Free-Speech for Terrorists

Prof. Ahituv acknowledges the dilemma that America’s First Amendment creates — free-speech protections may foster propaganda directed towards the U.S. “America’s First Amendment protects these websites from being shut down,” he says, recognizing the irony of waging a war on terror when some of the most dangerous propaganda is being created at home.

According to the study, the Islamic Jihad operates 15 websites in Arabic and English, hosted by both U.S. and Canadian companies. Hamas operates 20 websites in eight languages, a portion of which are based in the U.S and Canada, while Hezbollah operates 20 websites, also hosted by companies in the U.S. and Canada.

Limited Successes and American Law

The FBI has shut down a few websites, but American law prevents the closure of most, says Prof. Ahituv. Terrorists could coordinate a 9/11-scale attack via these websites, he warns. There are, however, some people who believe that leaving those websites intact is desired in order to monitor content, trends and policy. It is hard to tell which side is right, adds Prof. Ahituv.

An issue of great concern is that terrorist organizations are using the Internet to bypass the role of the established press, he notes. “Since those organizations do not possess TV stations, radio stations and printed press outlets, they use the Internet to impart their views and events to the public and to the media.”

More information about the Netvision Institute for Internet Studies here.

[George Hunka @ American Friends of Tel Aviv University]