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[ISN] Senators voice alarm over terrorist Net presence


By Anne Broache
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
May 3, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Politicians on Thursday said the U.S. government must do 
more to counteract propagandizing by al Qaida and radical terrorist 
groups on the Internet.

Leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental 
Affairs said they're troubled that extremists are increasingly flocking 
to the Web to recruit, organize, conduct online courses, raise funds and 
plan attacks in a manner that's cheaper and speedier than ever before.

"We cannot cede cyberspace to the Islamist terrorists because if we do, 
they will successfully carry out attacks against us in our normal 
environment," Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said at 
a morning hearing here titled "The Internet: A Portal to Violent 
Islamist Extremism."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee's co-chairman, spoke of the 
need to "resist the perversion of the World Wide Web into a weapon of 
worldwide war."

The use of the Internet by terrorist groups is hardly a new phenomenon. 
But according to the hearing's witnesses, the number of Web sites--many 
of them mirroring information published by leaders on core, 
authoritative sites--has multiplied from a handful in 2000 to many 
thousands today, with more added each week. Most of the 42 groups on the 
State Department's 2005 list of foreign terrorist organizations use Web 
sites "to promote their violent message," Collins said.

Officials from the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense and the 
co-author of a new report on "Internet-facilitated radicalism" told 
politicians at the hearing that it's clear the preferred locale for the 
"war of ideas" perpetuated by terrorist groups is a new 

"The Internet...is more than just a tool of terrorist organizations," 
said Michael Doran, a deputy assistant secretary in the Defense 
Department. "It is the primary repository of the essential resources for 
sustaining the culture of terrorism."

The latest generation of radicals is using password-protected bulletin 
boards to exchange ideas, translating their video and audio tapes into 
various foreign languages, and employing readily available services like 
Google Earth to scheme up targeted attacks, the witnesses said. Some 
sites have become virtual libraries, housing thousands of electronic 
books and articles written by members of a global movement bent on 
waging war against the United States and its worldwide allies.

"Internet chat rooms are now supplementing and replacing mosques, 
community centers and coffee shops as venues for recruitment and 
radicalization by terrorist groups like Al-Qaida," said Frank Cilluffo, 
director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington 
University. He co-authored a report released Thursday (PDF) that details 
the use of the Internet by radical groups, some of whom live by the 
slogan "keyboard equals Kalashnikov."

The question high on politicians' minds Thursday was how to respond. 
Lieberman asked about the extent to which government agents are 
pretending to be potential recruits to get information about potential 

"I for one would like those who are operating those terrorist Web sites 
to know that we are working very hard to infiltrate them," he said.

The government officials declined to comment on specific tactics in a 
public hearing. They repeatedly said the answer to dealing with what 
they deemed a serious threat lies in a combination of approaches: using 
technical measures to shut down sites deemed particularly threatening 
may sometimes be worthwhile, but it's often more prudent to allow sites 
to remain active for intelligence-gathering purposes.

"We can monitor them to follow the networks and assess their operational 
capacity," said Lt. Col. Joseph Felter, director of the Combating 
Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy. "We can sabotage them by 
infiltrating their networks and flooding the Web with bogus 

The witnesses repeatedly likened squelching the terrorist Internet 
presence to a game of "whack-a-mole"--when one site comes down, another 
one is bound to show up. They said it's particularly challenging to root 
out all the propaganda because al Qaida, for one, has established such 
strong online "branding" that its products are easily identified even 
when republished on unofficial sites.

Some suggested another approach would be to attempt to introduce a 
"counternarrative" on the sites: that is, to find ways to "amplify" the 
voices of movement members who express skepticism about the terrorist 
plans, in hopes of discrediting them from within.

"What we can do is get people who are versed in the Koran, we can get 
people who are versed in the culture, to be able to identify how these 
ideas are just flat wrong," Cilluffo said.

The politicians said they won't be satisfied until the government does 
more about the perceived threat. The same committee has scheduled 
another hearing for next Thursday on the same topic, except with 
witnesses from the FBI and the State Department.

"The question I have is, is there something that we can do that other 
countries are doing within the framework of our Constitution that would 
limit what is being delivered here in the United States?" said Sen. 
George Voinovich (D-Ohio). He later remarked, "We aren't doing the job."

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