Al Qaeda’s propaganda and recruiting capability has obtained an almost mythical status. The group communicates worldwide via the Internet with a miniscule budget and deprived of the complex IT infrastructure available to the United States. There is no question that its brazen acts of violence and its new brand of terrorism that seeks not to negotiate but simply to kill has placed al Qaeda at the top of the list of terrorist threats. But while the national security apparatus in the United States has acknowledged the new operational tactics put into play by al Qaeda, there is a disconcerting lack of recognition of the group’s unprecedented use of intelligence, communications and propaganda online. This is a critical failure given that the real power of any terrorist act is not the act itself but the capability to transform that act into a powerful message to advance an agenda.
In fact, as tragic as it was, Mumbai may finally serve as a catalyst to overcome the government’s inertia and skepticism regarding the role of New Media as a valuable tool to be used, rather than feared.
Some of the first communications out of Mumbai, came via sources like Twitter, an online social networking site that allows people to share short bursts of information about what they are doing.
Some of the first photographs of what was going down, also in real time, were posted to the online photo-sharing site Flickr, where a Mumbai resident began snapping pictures only moments after the terror began.
The same technologies that allowed the attackers of Mumbai to meticulously and accurately map out their operations – online satellite technology, online mapping tools and vast databases of information detailing down to the local Starbucks on the corner of K and 16th streets in Washington, DC – is available for relief efforts. In fact numerous sites coordinating aid to the victims and families in Mumbai popped up almost immediately, before the standoff was even complete.
The real value New Media offers in the homeland and national security environment, however, will lie less in the reporting and eyewitness accounts that garnered such attention during the attacks in Mumbai; its real value will fall into three broad categories:
1. Emergency response
2. Open-source intelligence gathering
3. The ideological struggle for hearts and minds.