I have to admit that in the past I have been guilty of a sin of omission that has plagued many commentators in the cyber arena. I have spoken and written many times about the terrorist threats I see as strong and dangerous possibilities. That danger is the combination of terrorist group intent and ideology with cyber criminal capabilities to execute a real attack scenario. To me, this means using cyber to literally destroy something, irreparably damage some part of our infrastructure or some large critical mass of data, or at least, to use cyber means to augment a kinetic terrorist attack.
I have always mentioned the present terrorist use of the internet as an aside, and so much a lesser issue as to be unworthy of too much worry. I will stand up and admit that I have been WRONG. Yes, the terrorists have not used the cyber world for an attack as we might envision, but the threat presented by what they do now is real and chilling.
A superbly prepared and obviously brilliant young man named Evan Kohlmann disabused me of my previously held belief. On March 9 at the JW Marriott in Washington, DC, Mr. Kohlmann gave a detailed and exhaustive elaboration on how terrorists are using the internet to make up for lost time in radicalizing Americans. He gave numerous examples of the successes Al Qaeda and its affiliates have found in reaching out to Americans, turning them to radical ideas and leading them into joining the violent fight against the United States and the West.
Kohlmann has been an expert witness in trials of jihadists around the world. He dissects their e-mail communications both linguistically and operationally. He had his audience marveling at how much of the communications are totally in the “clear,” aside from language. More of it is in English, as they reach out to disaffected Americans.
He did not discuss Jihad Jane, the American woman who has joined the fight against the West, but the release of the news about her at essentially the same time was a wonderful confirmation. For those interested, a great deal of commentary on Kohlmann’s work can be found at the Web site.
The bottom line is this: Yes, it is true that the terrorists have not YET used the internet for an attack. That does not mean their use of the Internet is benign. What is going on everyday is poisonous and dangerous. They revel in the freedom our laws afford them to preach the ideology that demands our freedoms be destroyed.
The fact that they ONLY use the Internet for communication, fund raising and radicalization is not an indicator that they are not dangerous and that we can put off addressing this use until a later date. We can debate the very valid arguments about who should respond – law enforcement, intelligence or military – but someone needs to respond to this ongoing threat today.