Weighing the Terrorist Threat on the Internet

Evan Kohlmann's article "The Real Online Terrorist Threat" appears in Foreign Affairs. Kohlmann tells Scott Simon that the U.S.-led war on terrorism fundamentally misunderstands the ways terrorists use the Internet to communicate.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The United States is gradually losing the online war on terror, is the arresting first line in an article called The Real Online Terrorist Threat, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. The author of the article is Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism researcher and consultant. He writes that U.S. counterterrorism officials have made a fundamental miscalculation about the dangers of terrorists on the Internet.

Mr. Kohlmann joins us from New York City. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. EVAN KOHLMANN (Writer, The Real Online Terrorist Threat): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You seem to think the danger is not that a terrorist group will penetrate the FBI or the CIA or, for that matter, United Airlines, than it is that the Internet becomes the medium by which they communicate with each other and plan and conduct operations. And even fund raise...

Mr. KOHLMANN: Yeah. No, look, certainly in the future there's always the possibility that an organized terrorist group would marshal the Internet for some kind of nefarious purpose, but the real purpose is here is a social networking tool. The same way that young people gather on the Internet on sites like MySpace and Friendster, terrorists gather on the Internet on Arabic language chat forums and use these forums as ways to distribute propaganda videos, to recruit, to gather donations from individuals in foreign countries. And ultimately it provides them ways to learn how to carry out real terrorist attacks, how to build suicide bomb vests even.

SIMON: Would you - if somehow it could be arranged - shut them down or monitor them?

Mr. KOHLMANN: Well, I don't think that shutting down these sites, generally speaking, is an effective strategy. Because we've seen in the past what happens. You shut down one site and then another site rises in its place, and not just one but two or three. It really very much is a hydra.

It's not just an incidental thing either. You know, in Tora Bora, in late 2001 and early 2002, a number of al-Qaida commanders got together and they realized that fighting the U.S. on a battlefield in Afghanistan simply was not going to be an effective way of waging a comprehensive 21st century war against America. It just wasn't going to work.

So the idea that they came up with was launching strikes against America and American interests and American allies in many countries simultaneously, and the way that that would be done would be to spread al-Qaida's ideology, and not just its ideology but it's know-how, through documents, through videos that would be distributed on the Internet.

What makes sense to do is to take these sites and to very closely surveil them.

SIMON: Let me deal in stark generalities, if I could. You might have a lot of people coming into positions of authority in the espionage network who know about e-mail and know about the Web, but they know about it because they order khakis from J. Crew and they send e-mails to their teenage kids. They haven't been, if you please, raised on the Web the way that perhaps 25-year-olds have. Is there that generational difference?

Mr. KOHLMANN: I mean there definitely is. And I think it's interesting because most of the people that know most about what's going on on the Internet these days, especially in the world of cyber terrorism, pretty much are under the age of 40. You have, first of all, the initial hurdle of language, of culture, of history that most people in the U.S. are completely unfamiliar with.

I mean, the Middle East for most people is a giant black hole. I mean, I can tell you I remember in high school that we never studied basically a thing about it. And you compound that then with the generational gap with regards to technology: not only can you not read the language, you can't even get access to the Web site where the material is being posted.

And that's the issue here, is that it's not so much that there is material out there and that law enforcement or intelligence can't get access to it. In some cases, they don't even know it's there. They don't even know it exists.

SIMON: Evan Kohlmann, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. KOHLMANN: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Mr. Kohlmann is a terrorism researcher and consultant who runs the Web site globalterroristalert.com.

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