Web sends call for jihad round the globe in moments




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 17 June 2004

When internet users visited a site called page4free.biz in January this year, its content aroused little concern. Apparently without reason it then changed its name to pages4free.biz, then to hostnow.biz, though without attracting attention.

Then on May 12 a site called al-ansar.biz, operated by the same subscriber, broadcast the beheading of Nick Berg.

The American contractor had been captured in Iraq by a group linked to al-Qaeda, which filmed his decapitation and broadcast the video on the website.

Media and government pressure in Malaysia, where the site was hosted, led to the service provider closing al-ansar.biz, hostnow.biz and other sites operated by the same subscriber.

By then millions had watched the killing. Mr Berg’s violent end made clear how powerful the internet has become as a propaganda tool that gives Islamist movements full control over the image they want to project.

“The internet is so wide and versatile that is impossible to stop it,” said the spokesman of one Islamist organisation who closely monitors extremist groups and their use of the web. “This milieu is open, and whatever the Americans or others do, it will never be closed. The people who run these sites are geniuses.

“These sites are usually up for one or two days, by which time a document or a video will have been downloaded by thousands of people. Then it can be closed down, but by then it will have achieved its purpose,” he said.

According to research by Jane’s Terrorism and Security Centre, which closely follows terrorism developments, the internet has probably become the main global source of literature promoting jihad, or “holy war”.

Richard Evans of Jane’s cites research that concludes: “It is virtually impossible to control the spread of jihad material among similar web pages once it has been published in one location.” All the websites linked to al-ansar.biz were hosted by the same Malaysian company, Acme Commerce, based in Kuala Lumpur. The company says it hosts 5,000 websites from up to 50 countries and cannot be blamed for their content.

“It is actually very difficult for us to determine which website should be disabled unless we receive information or complaints from the public,” Alfred Lim, Acme’s business manager, said. The al-ansar.biz site had been operated by an unnamed client who rented space on the server, he said, adding: “We have no control over what our clients put on their websites.”

Until Acme pulled the plug, the subscriber had operated undetected for more than a year after moving to Malaysia from the US, where several sites traced to the same operator had been closed.

According to Jane’s, they had been used to distribute publications under the title Voice of Jihad, as well as an online jihadist magazine called al-Battar. Issued every two months, it carries essays on religious issues, advice on military strategy and training, and guidance on creating the “basic conditions for successful guerrilla warfare”.

The growth in the number of similar sites and the regularity with which they change addresses while retaining readers who rapidly communicate the new addresses, has overwhelmed law enforcement agencies. In some cases other websites have found themselves hijacked by Islamist programmers who write their material on to existing sites.

“It’s nearly impossible to police them,” said Kevin O’Brien, a terrorism expert with RAND Europe, a think-tank. “It’s a question of whether or not you can find them in the first place,” he said, adding that the cost of establishing the sites was negligible or even nil if service providers offered web space as a free addition to e-mail users.

Saudi Arabian Islamists distributing a web-based jihadist magazine called Sawt al-Jihad are now so confident of outwitting the authorities that the publication is distributed at the same time every two weeks. It has yet to be snared.

But some security experts say they may be left to operate deliberately. “It seems increasingly likely that security agencies are content to let these websites run, because it’s a way of monitoring what these people are up to,” said Bill Durodi√©, a security expert at King’s College, London.

Security officials say information available on jihadist websites has occasionally helped give a context to covert intelligence gathering on extremism, though it is rarely a source of new information because the groups are wary of communicating via the web. But even when web content is detected that seems actionable, there are formidable obstacles to legal action.

Last week an Idaho court freed a Saudi doctoral student accused of aiding terrorists by running an internet network that allegedly recruited fighters for jihad.

Sami Omar Hussayen was the first person to be tried under provisions in the US Patriot Act, which made it an offence to provide “expert advice” to terrorists. Mr Hussayen’s lawyers argued successfully that the right to free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution permitted the broadcasting of the material.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.