BBC, Dec. 12, 2002
By Mark Ward, BBC News Online technology correspondent
The web is becoming a potent weapon in al-Qaeda’s bid to win supporters to its cause.
A widespread network of websites are energetically feeding information from those at the top of the terror organisation to supporters and sympathisers around the world.
Videos of terrorist attacks, proclamations by al-Qaeda’s leaders and calls to Muslims to take action against the West are being spread by the disparate group of sites.
With net access spreading swiftly in the Middle East, the audience for the propaganda is steadily growing.
Tools of terror
“The internet is an ideal tool for a network like al-Qaeda,” said Paul Eedle, a journalist and expert on the Middle East who tracks the growing number of al-Qaeda websites.
“It is not a matter of a few radical sounding messages posted on the odd bulletin board,” he said, “it’s a very wide array of internet sites and message boards.”
Mr Eedle said a distinction had to be drawn between al-Qaeda terrorists and the campaigning arm of the organisation that distributes material to sympathetic sites.
Some sites represent other terror groups and Muslim terror groups and are happy to pool resources and share information.
“Al-Qaeda has much wider ambitions than just setting off explosives,” said Mr Eedle, “it is trying to mobilise the whole Muslim world against the West.”
He said the sites help al-Qaeda shape perceptions of what it does and the conflict it is engendering.
Many of the sites spreading al-Qaeda’s message gain credibility by demonstrating their close links with the terror group.
Mr Eedle said the context and content of the information the sites possess shows they have links with the terror group.
His opinion was echoed by Aaron Weisburd, who has spent months tracking al-Qaeda sites around the web.
He said evidence of direct links were hard to find but there was little doubt that the group was pumping out propaganda to sympathisers.
The statement by Sulaiman abu Ghaith claiming responsibility for the recent attacks in Mombassa first appeared on an al-Qaeda website, before being broadcast by the al-Jazeera television station.
The sites also publish the proclamations of al-Qaeda leaders and their denunciations of Western culture. They also host religious texts, arguments justifying terrorism, videos and audio files as well as provide chat rooms and bulletin boards where people can debate religion and politics.
Many of these online debating rooms are free of the restrictions some Middle Eastern regimes impose on their citizens.
Some al-Qaeda sympathisers use net cafes offering cheap net access. But, said Mr Eedle, many al-Qaeda supporters are educated, urban professionals who have their own PC at home.
Running a site sympathetic to al-Qaeda has its problems.
Mr Weisburd said many sites regularly have to move because they are found and cracked by opponents.
One such site, called alneda, now shows a graphic saying it is “Hacked, tracked and now owned by the USA”.
Although the sites move regularly, informal networks exist to pass on details of where sites have moved to.
Often they have to move because the company hosting the site decides it no longer want to be associated with the group.
To protect their anonymity most operators of al-Qaeda sites prefer to use net service and hosting providers in the West because it is easier to hide where resources are abundant.
Many site operators actively seek out vulnerable hosts and secretly install their web pages until they are detected and deleted, said Mr Weisburd.
Often they can remain active for months before they are noticed and removed.
“Cluelessness and inattentiveness are widely distributed and abundant resources on the worldwide web,” he said.