The Internet is becoming an increasingly vital medium for Islamic militants. Whether through websites featuring videos of Americans being executed or texts inspiring attacks, the Internet has become a key tool for propaganda and for the exchange of ideas among militants.Prague, 16 June 2004 (RFE/RL) — In one of the latest videos posted on the Internet by Islamic militants, a man speaking English identifies himself as a U.S. defense-industry employee who was abducted in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on 12 June.
“Paul Marshal Johnson Junior. I’m American. I work for Apache helicopters,” he said.
In the video, Johnson is blindfolded and wearing an orange shirt. Later, a hooded militant dressed in black with a Kalashnikov assault rifle says that Johnson will be killed unless all militants held in Saudi Arabia are released within 72 hours.
The militant also defends the kidnapping, saying gunfire from aircraft made by Johnson’s employer is responsible for killing Muslims in Afghanistan and Palestine. “Don’t think that you are protected from God’s soldiers,” the hooded man says in Arabic. “God put out for you a gang of mujahedin who fight for God without fear. God put out for you mujahedin who love death and ask for martyrdom, as you love life.”
The video is the latest in a series of dramatic images and messages posted on the Internet as part of a campaign against the West by Islamic militants. Far more gruesome videos have shown the brutal killing of The Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002 and the recent beheading of Nicholas Berg, an American contractor working in Iraq.
Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on terrorism and political violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland, told RFE/RL that militants have exploited the Internet since it first began to be popular in the mid-1990s. “Cyberspace is a fantastic, passive medium to project your ideology, to project your messages in an uncensored format,” he said. “It is a fantastic medium to really sort of perform psychological warfare against the West, but at the same time recruit, mobilize the [Islamic] community.”
Experts say there are now thousands of websites that act as rallying points for militants and extremists of all types. Thomas Hegghammer researches such sites at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment in Oslo. He said these sites have helped Al-Qaeda maintain itself not so much as a terrorist organization, but as a global ideological movement bringing together like-minded militants from Riyadh to Rome.
Hegghammer said Internet chat rooms provide the ideal place for militants to share their ideas. They also help researchers analyze trends in the thinking of extremists, which could offer clues to their future actions.
Late last year, Hegghammer and a colleague found a 42-page document on the Internet detailing how terror attacks ahead of Spain’s general election could drive Madrid to pull its troops out of Iraq and thus hurt the U.S.-led coalition. A few months later, on 11 March — just prior to the election — Madrid was rocked by train bombings that killed 190 people. Partly as a result, Spain’s conservative government, which supported the Iraq war, lost the vote to the opposition Socialists, who later pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq.
Hegghammer said the bombers must have been aware of the document, given its depth of detail and widespread distribution. “[The document] presents a detailed understanding of Spanish politics which indicates that the people who wrote the text must at least have lived in Spain for a while,” he said. “The documents also refer to the necessity of carrying out attacks against Spanish interests during the elections. And this was a document which was written months before, so people would have had time to read it.”
But while Hegghammer believes the document may have inspired the Madrid bombers, he does not believe militants use the Internet to plan and coordinate their attacks. “I think that sort of planning is done in secret, and it’s done very, very carefully, and people are paying a lot of attention to operational security,” he said. “I think what the Internet is useful for is precisely to understand the ideology and the debates and the general direction in which people are looking.”
Others disagree. Terrorism expert Ranstorp said the men who carried out the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States used basic e-mail and what he calls “idiot code” to discuss their plans. He added that after the attacks, there were cases reported of militants exchanging blueprints on the Internet of critical infrastructure sites apparently targeted for attack in the United States. “There were a number a different cases after 9/11. They were casing different targets in terms of layout,” he said. “You can be sitting in Pakistan and get the blueprints for different [sites].”
Ranstorp says militants also use more sophisticated technologies, such as encryption programs, in a bid to hide their plans from authorities monitoring the Internet. But he adds that such tactics often tend to draw the attention of authorities and may not be widely employed.
Hegghammer, for his part, believes militants mainly use the Internet to share ideas and to spread propaganda. In monitoring chat rooms, he said a key current debate among militants appears to be whether the attacks in Saudi Arabia are distracting attention from the fight against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia says it has arrested and killed scores of militants in a crackdown on Al-Qaeda. The group — led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden — has vowed to destabilize Saudi Arabia and drive Westerners out.
Late last month, 22 civilians were killed when militants went on a shooting spree and took dozens of foreign hostages in the oil city of Al-Khobar. A number of foreigners have been targeted in individual attacks over the past few weeks in the kingdom.
Hegghammer believes the latest video of kidnapped American Paul Johnson shows that the Internet will likely play an increasingly important role for militants as they intensify their campaign in Saudi Arabia, which hosts several Muslim holy sites. “I think [Internet videos are] most certainly aimed at the Americans or the Westerners in general,” he said. “It’s supposed to create fear in the expatriate community in Saudi Arabia and to cause some kind of exodus from Saudi Arabia. I think that is at least the immediate aim of the terrorists in Saudi Arabia today.”
(RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel and Sergei Danilochkin, acting director of Radio Free Iraq, contributed to this report.)
© 2004 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. This article was first published on 16 June 2004 by RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty). Posted with permission. Website: http://www.rferl.org/