In 2001, Mark Last, an information systems engineer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, stumbled on the official website of the Chechen rebels. Though the insurgents based themselves in remote hideouts strewn throughout the rugged Caucasus Mountains, their website was incredibly fast and sophisticated.
“It was better than my own university’s site,” Last recalled. “The server was obviously hosted somewhere far from the actual location, but it didn’t matter. They had a very efficient way of communicating their position and view to people in different parts of the world.”
Just as sites dedicated to personal blogs and social networking popped up in the early 2000s, terrorists also began taking advantage of the web and all it offers. Like so many other organizations, terrorists then and now use the Internet for online forums, file sharing, fund raising and recruitment. But they also exploit the web as a means of exchanging information on forgery, preparing explosives and other unsavory activities.
Today, many terrorist sites parade as religious forums or news portals. A reader who comes across one of these sites would likely gather that it has something to do with Gaza and a specific set of people there, but are not likely to find any official statement affiliating it with Hamas. Most of these sites can be visited by anyone.
“For most sites, there is no official ‘Welcome to the Hezbollah’s Website’ message,” said Last, referring to the Shiite terrorist group. “Instead, they usually try to pretend to be another information outlet.”
Many terrorist groups launched websites after 9/11, including Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas. Versions in different languages likewise expanded from Arabic to Hebrew, English and Farsi. Many rely on remote servers, just like the Chechnya site that Last found.
No one knows how many jihadist sites exist. There were about 5,000 such sites five years ago. Today, the number has probably climbed into the tens of thousands, Last said.
While a YouTube video of a terrorist beheading or a message from the late Osama Bin Laden may be easy to classify as terrorism-related, other content posted behind deceptive facades can be hard to detect.
To get around this obstacle, Last developed a way to identify terrorist writings on the web automatically. The new method he and his colleagues created, called the Advanced Terrorist Detection System, allows researchers to sort through massive amounts of multi-lingual content.
The system is rooted in algorithms that categorize documents into different pre-set genres. Such algorithms — called characterization models — had been widely used to sort sites into groups, such as sports or science, but Last began tailoring them to sniff out terrorist activities. He and his colleagues first started with English documents attained from terrorist sites on the web, and then moved on to Arabic.
Their models revealed several surprising twists. Terrorists, it turns out, use specific vocabulary to deliver messages. Of the tens of thousands of different words that appear on any given site, only a select handful suggests terrorist authors. Most Arabic-writing terrorists never use any version of the word “Israel,” for example, opting instead for “Zion.” Conventional Arabic media sites, on the other hand, usually only use the term “Zionist” once, if at all, in a single article. Hezbollah is an exception to this rule.
On such terrorist pages, suicide bombers become shahid, or “martyrs,” and the practice may also be referred to as “human bombing.” The word “enemy” also speckles terrorist documents with uncanny frequency.
“Terrorists apparently need enemies,” Last said. “If they don’t have enemies, it seems they don’t have a reason to exist.”
When optimally tuned, the detection system achieved near-perfect success rates. The program should be capable of simultaneously monitoring hundreds of thousands of users in real-time, though issues with scalability need to be worked out for those goals to be realized.
Despite the advances in detection, terrorist sites are likely here to stay. Hezbollah’s webmaster, Ali Ayoub, once said his organization “will never give up the Internet.” The persistence of terrorist-run sites suggests he’s right.
Yet Last sees another possible outcome. In Fighting Terror in Cyberspace, he and co-author Abraham Kandel write that extremists could abandon the web and turn against it.
The authors say, “This situation may change abruptly once the terrorists decide that the net does not serve their purposes anymore, and like any other invention of our civilization, deserves destruction.”
Rachel Nuwer is a freelance science journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian and Science. She lives in Brooklyn.Tags: Business,Education,Technology