Europe facing radicalization over the Web
A few months ago Bernard Squarcini the head of the DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire), the French equivalent of the FBI, told the French daily Libération regarding Islamic radicalization: "An ideological transformation can be done in three months on the Web. An individual can at night auto-radicalize himself via the Web and get in touch with leaders of terrorist organizations." This assessment shows how dire the situation is in Europe when it comes to al-Qaida's use of the Web.
Al-Qaida uses the web for four different tasks: propaganda; communication, mostly to instruct those in the field; training future combatants, a kind of online university of terrorism; and to send messages to the enemy, mostly to the West.
For instance, one of the most popular jihadist sites in France is one which translates books on the jihad in French and gives lessons on urban guerilla tactics. (This site got more than 3 million visits from France alone). Another Web site explains how to get weapons in the West (hide, assemble and breakdown) and how to manufacture bombs from products found in supermarkets.
The propaganda primarily targets youngsters. Some of them join the virtual jihad or "webtifada", i.e. cyber criminality.
In March 2006, the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Exterieure), the French equivalent of the CIA, tracked down a forum where jihadists recruited hackers to destroy "infidels'" Web sites and government sites. The jihadists recommended: "If you can't slash their throats, then at least destroy their sites." And on May 15, 2006 the Metz, France police arrested a young man who, under the alias Yanis, had attacked 1,161 sites including 710 linked to the Muhammad cartoons controversy.
Fortunately in Europe, even though the number is growing only a minority is actually joining the virtual jihad. According to Louis Caprioli, ex-boss of the anti-terror unit of the DST, the number of French volunteers in Iraq is in the tens. Confirming this, expert Walter Akmouche states that statistically, to get one jihadi, you must contact an average 45,000 people.
Which vehicle do the jihadis use on the Web? According to the DST, the chat room Paltalk is regularly used to hide operations. They also use Instant Messaging services such as Messenger or Skype and "dead e-mail boxes" which allow them, with the username and password, to retrieve unsent messages. But they also exchange information and coded files on forums devoted to soccer, music or any topic totally unrelated to Islam.
It is important to note that to access true terrorist sites; one has to be an insider and needs to know the real number-coded URL address, which often changes.
Also after years of research, al-Qaida has developed software called "Secrets of Mujahedin," that allows secure exchange in Arabic on electronic networks. It has allegedly been in use for over a year on clandestine forums close to al-Qaida, especially for jihadist groups in Iraq and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. This has been a formidable weapon for al-Qaida and numerous intelligence services and private companies have been trying to break it.
How is Europe facing this threat? First by closely monitoring jihadist Web sites. For instance, last year, Holland devoted 10 million euros (about $15 million) to fighting extremism. Thus, more than 150 Internet sites broadcasting extremist ideology were the subject of complaints and were restricted.
In France, about 30 potentially dangerous sites are monitored by some units of the UCLAT (Unité de Coordination de la Lutte antiterroriste), the French counterterrorism coordination unit. Software allows them to trace back the origin of a server or the IP address of a user and if they act fast, they can trace the network and use it against the Islamists using it. For instance, the recent monitoring of a forum allowed the unit to trace a couple of Salafist groups in the suburbs of Paris that were recruiting jihadis and organizing their trip.
One of the main problems facing European authorities is that simply shutting down Web sites is not very efficient since these sites just end up operating under new names.
European countries are also using the legal tool to fight al-Qaida's use of the Web in Europe. In a first, a Swiss court last summer sentenced several individuals including the widow of the killer of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's Northern Alliance's leader killed by al-Qaida on September 9, 2001, and her boyfriend, for having created and operated four Web sites and chat rooms for extremist propaganda and exchange of information by terrorist groups.
European authorities are taking this issue very seriously. On Feb. 1, France's interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie told the French daily Le Figaro that the use of the Web by terrorists was "one of my major concerns, and one of the priorities assigned to the [security] services. This requires additional material, forces specialized in fighting cyber-criminality, legal resources. I want us to be able to stop the terrorist propaganda, find the operational networks, track them down and prevent them from acting."
Olivier Guitta, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant, is the founder of the newsletter The Croissant (www.thecroissant.com).