"Virtual Al Qaida" was the main topic of a seminar held in Washington about three months ago. At issue was the appearance in cyberspace of Web sites, forums and chat rooms set up by bin Laden supporters, who preach his message of jihad against the West, heretics, "the Crusaders and the Jews," and their toadies in Arab countries and the Muslim world.
The purpose of the conference, which was attended by 15 experts, most of them American, was to examine how the Al Qaida organization and its supporters have changed since the September 11 attacks. Organized by a private company owned primarily by CIA alumni, the seminar was essentially meant to give the CIA an opportunity to listen to more views and hear a range of outlooks.
"For the radical fundamentalist Islamic movements, the Internet is a gift from heaven," says Reuven Paz, who researches these groups. "I call it `the open university.' It's available to anyone who is interested."
The radical Islamic movements' use of Western technology - created by the culture they are railing against - is nothing new. From his headquarters in Paris, the Ayatollah Khomeini once produced and distributed audio-cassettes throughout Iran, with sermons that called on the Iranian masses to rebel against the shah's regime. Osama bin Laden's network of dormant cells of activists who lay low until called into action has used the Internet to transmit messages, coded and otherwise, via e-mail.
This week, a correspondent from Al Jazeera TV reported that, about a month ago, he interviewed two of bin Laden's senior aides at a secret location in Pakistan. The two were among the planners of the New York and Washington terror attacks. They presented what they said was the final message sent to Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of the September 11 attacks, who flew the first plane into the Twin Towers.
The message, sent about three weeks before September 11, was in such a simple code that, in retrospect, it probably could have been deciphered had it been discovered in time. The four targets - the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill (which the hijackers failed to hit, as their plane was brought down in a Pennsylvania field) - were referred to as "faculties." The message said: "The semester begins in three more weeks. We've obtained 19 confirmations for studies in the faculty of law, the faculty of urban planning, the faculty of fine arts and the faculty of engineering."
Today, however, Internet use is of a different nature. As Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Al Qaida and Afghanistan, says, it's quite likely that, because of their fear of having messages intercepted, Al Qaida operatives keep their communications to a minimum. They certainly stay away from telephones, and from cellular ones in particular, but also avoid using e-mail. They know that the U.S. National Security Administration (NSA) possesses the world's largest and most sophisticated wiretapping system, which could easily intercept and decipher their transmissions.
Nonetheless, many Qaida people, and especially their sympathizers and supporters, are setting up Web sites, on which they express their support for bin Laden and his ideas about a holy war.
"The sites are mostly used to disseminate propaganda, to create solidarity and to increase the feeling of brotherhood among Muslims," explains Reuven Paz, who has closely followed such sites over the past year. "For Al Qaida and its supporters, the Internet is a terrific substitute for the loss of their bases and territory in Afghanistan, from which they used to be able to operate quite comfortably."
The organization's members and supporters are now being tracked by most of the world's intelligence services and are even being sought in much of the Muslim world, which makes it impossible for them to operate freely. Like animals fleeing from hunters, they have found shelter on the Internet, where they can exchange views, enlist support and draw inspiration. The phenomenon of increased use of the Internet stands out sharply, particularly in view of the trend toward globalization that the West is trying to spread in the world.
Says Paz: "Basically, this is what the radicals in the Muslim world are saying to the West: You have your globalization and we have ours. You could also describe it as a brotherhood of the ideas of worldwide jihad."
In fact, most experts now believe that Al Qaida has practically ceased to exist as an active organization with operational capability or, at least, that it has decided to refrain from action for now. But this void is quickly being filled by the various Web sites. The most prominent are alneda.com, jehad.net and aloswa.org. They feature many quotes from the tapes of bin Laden that have been aired during the past year by Al Jazeera, words of praise for the 15 Saudis who were among the hijackers, and sometimes statements from anonymous spokesmen promising more terror attacks.
"On the Web sites, I found several religious legal rulings that justify the terror attacks," says Paz. "There was also an opinion signed by one Abu Salman al-Falastini that could be of special interest to Israel. The author condemns Yasser Arafat for his treachery and also condemns the Fatah people in the Ein Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon." Al Qaida sympathizers and supporters recently arrived in this camp.
These Web sites frequently cite the teachings of Mohammed Al-Muqaddasi, a Palestinian from the West Bank now imprisoned in Jordan. Muqaddasi is an ideologue from the Wahabi movement (the puritanical stream that originated in Saudi Arabia and to which the Saudi royal kingdom adheres). His books were found in Mohammed Atta's Hamburg apartment.
Down but not out
These Web sites tend to crash for a period of time every so often. It is believed that American intelligence - the NSA, apparently - is behind the attack on these Web sites. The Web site belonging to the Iz a Din al-Kassam brigades of Hamas has experienced similar problems lately.
But the Web site operators know how to recover. It's a kind of wild game of cat and mouse. They switch servers, which are moved from one country to another, and keep getting the Web sites back up - from Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia and even the United States.
But the operators of these Web sites aren't content to be on the defensive. Recently, Paz has noticed something new: They have set up a new site that is a kind of database or encyclopedia for the dissemination of computer viruses. The site - 7hj.7hj.com - aims to teach surfers the art of the computer attack, to train them to be hackers in the service of Islam and to encourage them to try to bring down "enemy" sites. Two Saturdays ago, the site belonging to the World Jewish Congress was supposed to be the target of one such attack. The virtual soldiers were set to attack at a particular hour, but failed in their mission. The WJC's Web site did not crash.
The idea of hackers in the service of jihad holds great attraction for some Muslim youth living in the West. It gives them a way to develop a sense of belonging and to feel that they, too, are contributing to the struggle. And they can do it all from the comfort of their homes in London, Paris, Los Angeles or wherever. No need to go to Afghanistan and risk their lives.