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Monday, December 10, 2007

Online terror camps cut overhead, teach Google Earth target acquisition

Western governments have ceded the Internet to terrorists, security experts are warning.

Most European Union governments as well as the United States have dismissed pro-Al Qaida websites as merely propaganda without understanding their capability to recruit and carry out operations.

Western experts said Al Qaida's use of the Internet has been so successful that the movement has shut down training camps in Afghanistan. Instead, they said, the Internet is used to teach operatives how to kill and maim.

An image taken from an Islamist Web site shows a hooded man purported to be a Saudi Al Qaida leader.
"Now they meet in cyberspace," Gabriel Weimann, a professor in Israel and Germany, told a conference on Internet security at the headquarters of Germany's Federal Police Office. "They teach people how to become terrorists on-line. Al Qaida has launched a practical website that shows how to use weapons, how to carry out a kidnapping, how to use fertilizer to make bombs."

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Here's how it works: Al Qaida operates a series of websites that covers everything from indoctrination, recruitment, targeting and operations. Those with questions can use Al Qaida's chat rooms.

The Internet has vastly reduced the need for target reconnaissance by Al Qaida. Weimann, regarded as a leading expert in Al Qaida-aligned websites, told the Nov. 21 conference in Wiesbaden that Al Qaida uses Google Earth, which scours satelllite images, to locate targets.

But Western governments have been torn between following Internet crime and terrorism. Several EU states have strict regulations regarding monitoring users on the Internet and reserve their authority to track child pornography, organized crime and espionage.

Joerg Ziercke, president of the German Federal Police Office, raised another issue. Terrorists and other criminals often use laptops in apartment buildings where they latch on to the connections of other wireless users. Ziercke said this often prevents authorities from identifying users of Al Qaida websites.

Olga Maitland, a former British parliamentarian and president of the British Defence and Security Forum, agreed, Maitland said terrorists operate 7,000 websites that remain in operation and uncensored.

"The authorities tend to concentrate on the threats from interception and hacking, which is serious, but I think they should be paying more attention to the use of the Internet by terrorists," Maitland told a Gulf security conference in Manama in late November. "Personally, I think they are going to grow in power and influence as more and more people go online. Government agencies should be spending more and more time finding and monitoring these websites."

Maitland's fear, echoed by strategists in NATO, is that Al Qaida will try or succeed in hacking air traffic control systems or national banks. That could lead to thousands of dead as well as the collapse of national economies.

"We must concentrate on monitoring what they talk about and gain information on what they are planning," Maitland said.

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