When President Bush set out to "take the fight to the terrorists," he probably envisioned the kind of traditional U.S.-led military operations that are currently underway in Iraq and Afghanistan. But four years into the war on terror, another battlefield is proving a vital arena: the Internet. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke at CFR on February 17, he cited al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as saying, "More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of Muslims."
In this fight, one of the most effective weapons in the hands of terrorists is the web, experts say. As cfr.org's Eben Kaplan explains in this Background Q&A, websites provide a safe venue in which terrorist organizations can broadcast their message to the world. By now, most people are familiar with images of hostages and attacks posted on a network of more than 4,000 terrorist websites. Immediately following the failed February 24 attack on a Saudi oil refinery in Buqayq, an al-Qaeda affiliate posted a communiqué claiming responsibility (PDF). A week later, the group posted a booklet outlining "The Laws of Targeting Petroleum-Related Interests." (PDF)
Essential to terrorist media campaigns are webmasters capable of securely acquiring and posting materials. The most prolific of these was the recently captured Younis Tsouli, who went by the pseudonym Irhaby 007 (Terrorist 007). Terrorism experts say Tsouli helped broadcast propaganda (PDF) from terrorist groups around the world until his arrest last October. Evidence of the rise in technological literacy among radical Muslims can be found in the thousands of Danish websites defaced (BBC) in the midst of protests over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. A USIP report outlines terrorists' use of the internet.
There are two approaches governments may take to terrorist websites, experts say. Counterterrorism officials may monitor online "chatter" in hopes of learning more about a group's operations or planned attacks. Alternatively, they may try to shut down websites in order to disrupt the flow. But in terms of controlling the flow of information, Rumsfeld says "the U.S. government still functions as a five-and-dime store in an eBay world."
It seems U.S. efforts to influence the debate are focused on revitalizing U.S. public diplomacy, described in this Background Q&A. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot says these attempts "don't go far enough," while the Economist highlights the difficulties of burnishing the American image.