Terror With an Olive Branch

A new study shows that terrorist groups with Web sites make little or no mention of their violent activities and portray themselves as peace-lovers. Only the Hezbollah and Hamas display pictures and video of atrocities.

At first glance, the official Web site of the ELN, an underground group in Colombia, looks like it's owned and operated by a respectable think tank. At second glance, as well. Unthreatening links to "the peace process," "human rights," "ideas and debate" and "drugs and corruption" lead to pages with well-written essays that analyze the crimes of the Colombia government against its citizenry.

There are illustrations reminiscent of Amnesty International's, pictures of children and drawings of a peace dove with an olive branch in its beak. Nowhere does the site mention the hundreds of people the ELN kidnaps every year, using the ransoms to pay for its activities. There's no mention of the judges, politicians, businessmen and many other civilians who have been killed by the ELN since their uprising against the government began in 1964.

The Web site run by the Tamili Tigers, who are fighting for Tamili independence in Sri Lanka, complains about harm done to Tamili women. There's no mention of terror, including suicide bombers, assassinations, and massacres. And when there is mention of the organization's violent operations, it's always in the context of anti-government actions and against military targets.

The Turkey's Revolutionary People's Liberation Front, a Marxist group operating since 1978 against government and American targets in the country, carries a letter on its Web site directed to the European Union. The letter refers to the EU's decision not to include it and the PKK on a terrorist list as proof that the real terrorist element in the country is the Ankara government.

The sober reality presented to Net travelers by the ELN and other groups is not unusual. It is an accurate reflection of the main thesis of a three-year-old study by Prof. Gabi Weiman and Dr. Yariv Tzfati from the University of Haifa's Communications Department. The study was updated in January 2002, following September 11. The researchers, who sum up their findings in an article to appear in an upcoming issue of Rand, the American think tank's journal, decided to examine the Web-based rhetoric of terror groups and found that almost all the groups either hide their violent activity or make no mention of it.

The reason, they believe, is that the terrorist groups perceive the general Western public, but particularly Internet users, as educated and liberal. So, they emphasize those subjects that Western democracies would find sympathetic. Government actions against terrorism, like harming freedom of speech, arrests without trials, and torture, contradict the basic values of Western democracies, and are emphasized at the sites. From the PKK to the ETA, the Tamili Tigers to the Shining Path, the Web sites are devised to embarrass their government enemies, and on the Internet, a liberal means of communication that is both chaotic and decentralized, the tactic works beautifully.


"The similarity between the terrorist rhetoric on the Internet and other media is the wealth of propaganda techniques, transferring the guilt to the other side and justifying the use of violence," says Weiman. "The difference is that terrorist rhetoric on the Net is much more pacifist and liberal, and uses terms that we found more on the Internet than elsewhere."

Weiman says that "the terrorists assume that the Net carries its own non-violent message of freedom of speech, liberty, open globalization, and certainly not violence, so they adapt themselves to the nature of the medium and the audience."

A good example that Weiman and Tzfati point to is the Web site run by the Zapatistas, the Mexican underground fighting for Chiapis independence against the federal government. Their site promises that it was designed to be viewed properly with Mozilla, Opera, and Linux browsers - alternative Web browser's to Microsoft's, and therefore a dig at the corporate giant, and by implication, announcing to the site visitor that this is an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate site. It's not atypical of alternative Web sites trying to reach millions of Web travelers who are fed up with Microsoft's domination of the PC. Visitors to the site will therefore identify with the campaign against globalization and especially the Nafta agreement between the North American countries.

But the Zapatista perception of the global village is not limited to technical affairs like which browser to use. The organization pushes issues like freedom of speech, human rights, social justice, and opposition to corporate globalization, no less than it emphasizes the messages of its charismatic leader SubCommandante Marcos, who already in the mid-1990s was using a laptop, modem and e-mail to send his message to supporters worldwide. Two years ago, at his prompting, hundreds of hackers conducted digital warfare on the official Web site of the president of Mexico, planting pro-Zapatista messages on its pages.

Who are these visitors to the terror group Web sites? Potential supporters? International Web surfers? The enemy? Weiman and Tzfati believe its a combination of all three, but not in equal measure.

Third World countries do not have widespread Internet penetration, and the Net is certainly not the preferred method of communication yet in those countries where the terror groups are based. So, there's an emphasis on the international visitor to the site, as evidenced by virtue of the site's often being in at least English and French, and sometimes German.

Those using native languages are rarer, and are an indication of the groups' efforts to drum up local support. Weiman and Tzfati say those sites tend to carry detailed historical information, and much material on local issues. Some of the sites they examined - 16 sites owned by 14 groups in 1998, and 29 sites run for 18 groups in 2002 - also ran small online shops to sell T-shirts, flags and other items with the organization's logo. And it's rare to find a link to the "enemy" sites at the terror group Web sites.

Hamas and Hezbollah are different

Unusual in all these respects, therefore, are the Hezbollah and Hamas sites, aimed at the "enemy" and rife with violence. Both organizations are well-aware of the spreading influence of the Internet in Israel and made a deliberate choice to use the Net as a propaganda tool in their cause. They appeal directly to an Israeli audience, and in their presentation, says Weiman, "Let the chips fall where they may."

Both Web sites make no effort to hide their violence against the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli pubic. On the contrary, they provide a lot of information on violent activity by the organizations, sometimes even in real time, as in the case of the three soldiers kidnapped from Mt. Dov in October 2002. They carry video clips - not always authentic - of attacks on Israelis, as well as horrific images of bodies.

"They are conducting psychological warfare," says Weiman, "which means trying to frighten and demoralize the enemy," and he goes on to quote one of Hezbollah's leaders, Ibrahim Nasser a-Din, who was quoted at the site as saying "through the Internet the Hezbollah has entered Israeli homes, creating an important psychological breach."

Weiman says the "Hezbollah and Hamas Web sites carry daily reports, some of which are invented and inflated, about their operations. But you can be sure that if something important happens, the Web sites will carry it. As propagandists, they are playing between the desire to frighten the Web site visitor and the desire to demoralize the visitor.

They try to make the visitor believe that his own leadership is untrustworthy and if only he accepted the `enemy's' goals, `everything will be fine.'" Their rhetoric, says Weiman, "is direct. Other groups, no less violent, display doves and songs. The Hamas and Hezbollah aren't interested in the international community. They are interested in the local audience and believe they are having an influence."

Qaida vanishes

In the last three years, since the first study and its follow-up, some organizations have disappeared from the Web, while others have changed address and servers, often in other countries from where they started. The most interesting of the sites to have disappeared between 1998 and 2002 is, unsurprisingly, Qaida. It used to keep its servers n Indonesia, but a few days after September 11, the site vanished from the web under mysterious circumstances. Nowadays, Osama in Laden's messages are issued via sympathetic sites, but their credibility is in doubt. There is no real Internet representation for America's greatest enemy.

Another change that took place between the two survey periods was the growth in content at the sites. While in 1998, most of the sites were limited to text-only materials, now they carry songs, speeches, and video. But most interestingly, there are few that carry any interactive areas - no forums, chats, discussion groups. "Anyone can get into a chat or a forum," says Weiman, "and they don't want to encourage that. They want to control the discourse. They don't want someone to expose the fact that a photo might be counterfeit, and they certainly don't want someone articulate enough to start a discussion that is more articulate and coherent than their messages. They aren't really proponents of interactivity and open discourse."