Rational Security

How to Defeat Cyber Jihad

Taking the war on terrorism to the Internet.


A great paradox of the conflict with al Qaeda is that the terrorists, largely driven by 14th century Islamist ideology, make such skillful use of 21st century information technology. Whether to tell their story of a sacred mission to reduce the shadow cast by American power over the Muslim world, to motivate recruits to join the jihad, or to provide a form of "distance learning" in terrorist tradecraft, al Qaeda operatives have made extensive use of cyberspace-based connectivity. And somehow, after more than a decade of being so relentlessly hunted, they still enjoy the largely unobstructed use of this virtual haven. It is just as important as their somewhat harried physical havens in the mountains of Waziristan, Yemen, and a few other remote fastnesses.

The Boston bombing once again reminded the world of the benefits al Qaeda reaps from cyberspace, as it appears that the Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized and trained via jihadist websites. In this they were hardly alone. The London bombings in 2005 (which killed 52), the fizzled Glasgow Airport attack in 2007, the foiled plot against Fort Dix in 2007, Nidal Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood in 2009 (which killed 13), and the failed attempt to bring down a Northwest Airlines plane that same year all featured terrorists who made extensive use of online motivational and training materials. Information from and links to websites of the late Anwar al-Awlaki — killed in a drone strike in 2011 — and Abu Mus’ab al-Suri were found in each of these cases.

While al-Awlaki’s influence as a propagandist seems to have died with him, al-Suri’s strategic concept about the rise of a "leaderless network" of small jihadist cells — thoroughly exposited in his 1,600-page web tract, The Global Islamic Resistance Call — has become a principal al Qaeda playbook. He was taken into custody several years ago, interrogated by American intelligence personnel, then "rendered" to the Syrians, of all people. From there the trail goes dark, save for the tantalizing message from the Assad regime, released shortly after the start of the uprising, that he had been released. Who knows? The important point is that his blueprint is the one being followed. It is what to watch for: the rise of little terrorist teams in unexpected places. Not particularly skillful jihadists — there are limits to how much can be learned online — but motivated, dedicated, and skilled enough to cause damage that captures world attention.

The questions now before the global counterterrorist coalition are the same ones that have resonated for the past decade, but are now perhaps more urgently voiced in the wake of Boston: How is online jihad to be stopped? Can al Qaeda be driven from its virtual haven in cyberspace? The United States has played a leading role in strategy formulation, focusing primarily on efforts to present and disseminate a more moderate view of Islam, as well as to highlight the heinous acts of the terrorists. The simple problem with each of these efforts is that neither works. Over 95 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims already reject al Qaeda and other extremists — but the jihadists don’t need massive popular support to fill their ranks, just a sliver of Islamic society, still numbering in the many tens of millions, from which to draw recruits. Our moderate messaging won’t sway them. With regard to highlighting acts of terror, the jihadist rebuttal — featuring scathing indictments of the invasion of Iraq, abuse at Abu Ghraib, the killings of innocents by drones, and more — has proved quite effective.

As to attempts to disrupt or shut down jihadist websites, these too are ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive, undertakings. It is all too easy for material on sites that have been shut down to pop up again quickly on new sites. This sort of cat-and-mouse game has been going on for many years, with all too little to show for the effort. Besides, many intelligence professionals make the point that there is more to be learned from keeping these sites up and monitoring them than from taking them down. Clearly, though, not enough is being learned about al Qaeda’s intentions, about the identities of potential recruits, or even, after all these years, about money flows. If intelligence gleaned from cyberspace had given the counterterrorist coalition anything like the "information edge" enjoyed by the Allies against the Axis powers in World War II, the age of terror would already be over.

Perhaps it is time to follow the example of the British "boffins" of Bletchley Park. They broke the codes of the German Enigma cipher device and enabled great victories — even at a time when the Nazis still held the material advantage in the war. In that conflict, some 70 years ago, the key was to create the world’s first high-performance computer. Today, at a "New Bletchley Park," the challenge would be not so much to crack a complex code as to discern ways to "back hack" and geo-locate both those posting jihadist information and those accessing it. The first boffins included mathematicians, chess masters, even magicians — among many others. Twenty-first century boffins would no doubt require master hackers, software designers, and probably still chess (and Go) masters — and magicians, too.

Several years ago, I met with senior intelligence officials to pitch the case for a New Bletchley Park. No dice. They were already doing just fine, I was told. I then took the matter up inside the Pentagon, finally reaching a then-serving member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was very supportive of the concept, and expressed concern that jihadists were being "given a free ride in cyberspace." But he felt that the matter had to be carried forward by…the intelligence community. No joy. Fast forward to the present: The old three-prong strategy of website-based observation, ideological disputation, and selected site disruption continues, despite the fact that al Qaeda still enjoys that virtual free ride.

At a time when it is glaringly apparent that post-bin Laden terrorist networks will thrive, rise up, and strike at the world, largely thanks to their continuing confidence in being able to rely on web-based connectivity for recruitment and training, it is simply unacceptable for the counterterrorist alliance to continue to pursue a strategic approach that clearly does not work. Maybe senior leaders should convene a meeting at Bletchley Park, where the unquiet ghosts of the boffins may scare some sense into them.  

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