Terrorists use net for recruiting

Terrorists are increasingly using the Internet to spread radical ideologies around the globe, and countering that movement will require more sophisticated communications and online investigations, experts testified at a Senate hearing today.

Terrorist groups are exploiting the advantages of inexpensive access to Web sites, chat rooms and message boards and are utilizing password-protected and member-only privileges to maintain secrecy for their activities, Michael Doran, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Support for Public Diplomacy, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Reform.

There were only a handful of terrorist Web sites in 2000. Now there are thousands, he said.

"The Internet allows relatively small organizations with limited resources, like Al Qaeda, to broadcast messages across the globe instantaneously. In past conflicts, only nation states could disseminate their messages so widely," Doran said. "The benefits to terrorist groups of a cheap and anonymous multi-media communications system are obvious."

Doran's office was created in December 2006 to work with the State Department and National Counter Terrorism Center to track the activities of terrorists on the Internet, focusing on foreign-language activity originated by non-U.S. persons.

Terrorist Web sites usually are active for only a short time, but in that time, users distribute the site's video clips and other content to other sites around the world. The speed with which the sites come and go and spread content makes them very difficult to track, Doran said.

The sites are being used to spread "global jihad" propaganda, recruitment and fund-raising appeals and training and planning information. To counter those activities, U.S. authorities must strengthen strategic communications and cultural dialogues with Muslim communities, said Frank Cilloffo, director of the homeland security policy institute at George Washington University. The U.S. government also should use legal means to shut down known terrorist Web sites and have intelligence officers infiltrate chat rooms and create look-a-like Web sites to monitor activity, Cilloffo said.

The government has other challenges too. It needs applications to quickly translate and analyze foreign-language documents that are proliferating online, and to quickly take advantage of vulnerabilities and divisions among the terrorists operating on the Internet, said Lt. Col. Joseph H. Felter, director of the combat terrorism center for the U.S. Military Academy, in testimony.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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