Web 'replaces training camps'
Selim Saheb Ettaba
Paris - A new proposed anti-terror law in the US, presented on Wednesday, aims to clamp down on terrorist activity carried out via the internet as the al-Qaeda network develops increasingly dangerous online activities.
The proposed law would introduce measures such as extending the period for which cybercafes have to keep records of internet connection data, but faces a tough battle against "cyber-jihadists" who avoid being tracked through cunning and the fluid nature of the internet, according to experts.
Terrorists use the internet for "communication, recruitment, planning" and, importantly, for military instruction, said Rita Katz, head of the Washington-based institute Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE), which monitors Islamist websites.
"Everything is there, it replaces the training camps," she said.
One method attributed to the suspected head of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, is the "dead letter box" system: someone creates an e-mail account, gives the password to several members of a group and communicates by saving messages in a draft messages folder without sending them.
Communication by this method cannot be monitored because government systems for tracking e-mails work only if someone sends an e-mail, said Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism research at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
The people behind some sites promoting terrorism "are more savvy than a lot of us normal typical internet users",, said Rebecca Givner-Forbes, an intelligence analyst who monitors the internet for the Terrorism Research Centre, a company employed by the US government.
"They often use Japanese and Chinese upload web pages because they don't ask for an e-mail address or any information from the person uploading a file," she said.
"They've become very savvy about how they evade detection on the web."
According to Givner-Forbes, the most common method used by serious Islamist websites is password-protected online message boards that only members can use.
"Most recently they have been leveraging the net more and more to circulate terrorist tactical instructions, training manuals, explosives recipes," Givner-Forbes said.
"We've seen recently more sophisticated material such as instructional videos where you see someone going through all the steps needed to make a device or an explosive and instructions are printed very clearly on the screen," she added.
If terrorist sites are attacked, the people running them can republish copies.
Many internet trackers are disadvantaged by not speaking Arabic and people running terrorist sites "may just change the colour of their site and change the writing at the top, call it something else and change the format. It's the same material," she said.
Cyber-jihadists also have techniques to hide their identity and hack into sites, like the germ weapons expert Mustapha Setmariam Nassar who circulated a manual via an American commercial server.
"When you take down a website, from my own experience, the next day it's up again from a new server and not only that, it's not from the US any more but it turns itself to a password-protected website," said Katz.