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February 26, 2008


Getting Serious about 'Virtual' Terror

Some Informed Comment About Online Hype and Reality

By Michael Tanji | February 26, 2008

Juan Cole lambasts terror-in-cyberspace in an article on Salon. In a certain sense I agree with him, but predictably he joins a long list of experts in varying fields that take aim at this issue and strike far from the bull's-eye.

For starters, I don't know any serious analyst who has studied both the technical and tactile aspects of terrorism and concluded that al-Qaeda is about to go 9/11 on the 'Net. As Cole rightly points out, they derive a number of benefits from keeping things as they are. Why negatively impact your money maker, your propaganda outlet, your means of communicating with friends and operatives worldwide? Cries of hysteria tend to come from those with an incomplete understanding of the issues or newcomers to the game with little sense of history.

Where most analyses of this issue stray – Cole's included – is the trivialization of what can be done online and the way 2.0 Jihadists might leverage the 'Net.

Virtual worlds like Second Life (SL) are extensions of the online mechanisms used by Jihadists today. Email is great unless you're in a terror cell in a country with a strong anti-terrorism stance. You know its use is dangerous because email is easy to monitor. Save for a token presence by some real-world police forces, there are no indications that local or international forces are even capable of doing the same to SL. If you don't want to be seen or heard by your adversaries, you go to where they're not looking or listening: Tradecraft 101.

The unreliability of SL is a factor, but not significantly more than any other virtual medium. Large (and in SL that's a relative term) gatherings in virtual worlds attract people who would launch a rain of phalluses, but two avatars passing down the sidewalk are unlikely to attract much attention, and those few seconds or minutes might be all an agent and his handler need to communicate. That is certainly the case in real life.

The dismissal of the use of virtual worlds to conduct training is terribly short sighted. That you cannot equal the fidelity of real-world training on-line is misleading. If you are building a global terrorist movement or insurgency, the advantages of providing training that is good enough and minimizes the effects of distance and time is a win-win situation. And while most commentators focus on commercial environments like SL, it is important to note that you can assemble tools that allow one to teach or learn to do all sorts of very complicated things online. So the issue is not that you can't do certain things to a given extent in cyberspace; it's what you can do if you are prepared to do the leg work.

I laugh with Cole when he mentions "terrorism experts" who warn about cachets of virtual weapons; unless of course they are talking about computer network attack or exploitation tools, in which case the laughter abruptly stops. Killing people in cyberspace (insert theme to The Matrix here) is a joke; taking down networks hasn't cost lives yet, but such attacks do result in very real-world costs.

How confident can we be that the government actually cares about virtual worlds? For starters consider that you can own "property" and make money in cyberspace, but it's not clear that you can tax it. If there is one thing you would think Uncle Sam would have his head and hands around it would be ensuring that potential revenue didn't slip through his fingers, but that's not the case. Furthermore, "people" are assaulted in SL, they have their property stolen, they have their intellectual property stolen . . . that there is effectively no legal or political response to these events tells you a lot about what the government thinks of virtual worlds.

Those who say you can't plan a terror operation in a virtual world are conflating reality (no pun intended) with their own idea of what it takes to be a successful terrorist or global guerrilla. The observable trend is away from centralized command-and-control or hub-and-spoke networks and towards individual super-empowerment. The "aligned movement" part of "al-Qaeda and aligned movements" (AQAM) don't need direct orders from so-called core-al-Qaeda. It is their largely autonomous nature and the fact that we have few resources dedicated to identifying and tracking them that prevents us from having a clear idea of what they are actually capable of doing. That is the real problem, because without solid information we have no way to effectively warn against – or confidently dismiss – a threat.

We are all, in effect, guessing. And that is how intelligence failures are born.

Virtual worlds are a potential breeding ground for new threats, but as with any sufficiently technically advanced or inherently dangerous prospect, there are real hurdles to overcome. The greatest threat however is not that terrorists will achieve some quantum leap in capabilities by operating online; it is that so many are so quick to dismiss the seriousness of this issue thanks to the hype perpetrated by the ill-informed. Death from the 'Net may never become reality, but there will be no forgiveness if we allow even middling capabilities to develop – and eventually launch – from cyberspace unchecked.

February 15, 2008


Reading al-Qaeda's Cue Cards

Reluctanly Amused by al-Qaeda's Artist Formerly Known As Abdullah al-Naima

By Steve Schippert | February 15, 2008

Counterterrorism and psychological warfare. It's deadly serious business. Yet, it is difficult listen to the latest from al-Qaeda's Iraqi puppet without some amusement.

The Artist Formerly Known As Abdullah al-Naima read his al-Qaeda in Iraq cue cards in an audio message and threatened Israel, laying criticism at the feet of Hamas and other Palestinian groups for having not yet defeated Israel. In the audio message, the Iraqi actor proclaimed, "Israel is a malignant germ in the body of the ummah that must be removed."

He encouraged Hamas' al-Qassam Brigades to break with the rest of Hamas in order to 'liberate' Jerusalem and return it to Muslim rule. After admitting "shortcomings" in al-Qaeda's past material support to Palestinian terrorist groups and the drive to defeat Israel, the al-Qaeda in Iraq message proclaimed, "Every Muslim is responsible for the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque as every Palestinian Muslim is responsible for the liberation of Iraq, Chechnya and other Islamic countries."

And from this all-encompassing proclamation of Islamic duty comes the true purpose of the tape: The Obligatory Abu Omar al-Baghdadi Telethon and Emergency Fund Drive.

While foolish and dangerous to proclaim al-Qaeda 'defeated' in Iraq, they are in dire straits in a country once proclaimed by al-Qaeda senior leadership (AQSL) as the primary front in its holy war. And desperate times often inspire desperate measures. In this case, al-Qaeda's return to invoking the populist approach of co-opting the Palestinian cause.

"We propose that every money-earning Muslim should save $2 a month, of which half would be allotted to our folk in Palestine while the rest goes to other fronts. Secret societies with limited sizes in every street should collect theses funds and preserve them or invest them until an opportunity emerges to deliver them to those who deserve them."

As if to say, “Arise, O' Free Masons of Terrorism, and collect funds in the name of Jerusalem and the Palestinians...and don't forget to give us our cut, because it's all the same fight.” What a deal. Tithe now, and al-Qaeda promises to give half of its funds to the Palestinian terrorists. The other half, of course, will go to trying to stave off al-Qaeda's annihilation in Iraq - at the hands of Iraqis, not simply American 'Imperialists' and 'Crusaders.'

It is ironic beyond amusement that even in Western media America is so often characterized as “imperialist” in its quests. Yet, it is al-Qaeda that is seeking – openly – to conquer lands and carve out new ['Islamic'] states where none previously existed. Is this not the very definition of imperialism? And it does so as part of a religious conviction to war in order to carve out a new Caliphate and evict, convert, subjugate or kill non-believers. Is this not a 'crusade'?

Furthermore regarding the usage of language in Western media, "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi" is not even a nom de guerre. The persona is whole-cloth fiction, a thespian role played by a one-time Iraqi actor. Yet the leading role character name accompanies nearly everything released by and written on regarding al-Qaeda in Iraq's 'Islamic State of Iraq.'

Here's the dirty little secret that no one likes to talk about at parties: When the Artist Formerly Known As Abdullah al-Naima was recognized by leaders of Iraqi insurgent groups when his handlers trotted him before them in order to address his 'followers,' they were not amused. He was no inspired jihadist. He was 'that guy' who appeared in several Iraqi movies and various Saddam-umentaries of days gone by.

There is an organized and pervasive al-Qaeda propaganda campaign with a plethora of regularly released video products. Apply just a touch of common logic and one will arrive at the true reason that "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi" speaks only on audio. On a video, he would be even more widely recognized as the Artist Formerly Known As Abdullah al-Naima reading his terror masters' cue cards. The Iraqis get it.

Yet the rest of the Western media continue to affix the name of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi to its coverage, which is a role, not a man.

February 7, 2008


The Culture of Tyranny

Despite UN Designation, Arab Culture Deserves Better 'Capital' Than Syria

By Guest Contributor, Nir Boms and Jonathan Spyer | February 7, 2008

The ancient city of Damascus received another mark of recognition last week. Following in the wake of Liverpool - which was recognized as the European Capital of Culture, and Stavanger in Norway, which was named the non-EU European Capital of Culture, UNESCO last week designated Damascus as the Arab Capital of Culture for 2008.

In a speech celebrating this decision, Syrian President Bashar Assad chose to highlight a very specific element of his capital city’s culture – namely, Damascus’s self-appointed role as the center of Arab ‘resistance.’ "Damascus is the capital of resistance culture by symbolizing Arab culture” he declared, and went on to define ‘resistance culture’ as “the culture of freedom and defending freedom.”

A closer look at what exactly President Assad means by ‘resistance culture’ might lead one to ask whether the type of activity designated by the term really deserves the acclaim and recognition of an august international body such as UNESCO.

UNESCO's Cultural Capitals Program was launched in the Arab world in1998. It aims to promote the cultural aspects of development and increased international cooperation.

The new Arab Capital of Culture has a unique approach to “international cooperation.” Damascus serves as the headquarters of a long list of designated terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), and an alphabet soup of smaller organizations similarly committed to the practice of violence against civilians. This particular approach to encouraging international cooperation brought the Assad regime to international recognition even prior to its latest accolade from UNESCO. Syria has successfully defended its position at the top of the USA’s list of "countries supporting terrorism" since 1979.

Since the mid-1990s, Damascus has served as the operational headquarters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and as a nexus for the transfer of external funds to operatives of these organizations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Seized documents revealed a series of direct financial transactions from Syria to the two terrorist organizations. Syria, who was quick to recognize the Hamas Government in Gaza (despite the objection of the Palestinian Prime minister) also announced a public donation campaign to support it.

According to the State Department, Syria gives the Lebanese militia Hizballah "substantial amounts of financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid”. Iranian arms bound for Hizballah regularly pass through Syria which effectively occupied and controlled neighboring Lebanon between 1990 and 2005, and which is currently engaged in attempting to regain control in Beirut.

Hizballah's July 2006 missile strikes on Israeli cities - another expression, presumably, of the “culture of resistance,” prompted allegations that Syria and Iran were using the group to deflect international attention from other issues, such as Iran's contentious nuclear program.

Syria is also active in Iraq. David Satterfield, Co-ordinator for Iraq at the State Department, recently noted that the US had received ‘no Syrian cooperation’ in attempting to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. Rather, he continued, “Syria still allows foreign fighters and suicide bombers to pass across its territories into Iraq.” A recent US media report estimated that 90% of foreign fighters entering Iraq to take part in insurgent activity come via Syria.

In Lebanon, Damascus is thought to be behind the wave of killings of anti-Syrian political figures which began with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. Syria is doing its utmost to prevent the emergence of a new president and a stable government in Lebanon. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner last week told Arab reporters in Paris that “Syria wants to appoint the prime minister in Lebanon, the ministers, the distribution of ministries and the governmental plan of action through its allies in Beirut.”

The new Capital of Culture and Resistance also, according to U.S. defense and intelligence reports, maintains an active chemical weapons program. Other reports suggest that Syria was clandestinely working on a nuclear program when these efforts were halted by a successful Israeli attack in September, 2007.

Thus, the ‘culture of resistance’ means acts of terror against civilians, the deliberate subversion of the governments of neighboring countries, the assassination of political opponents and the apparent attempt to stockpile weapons of mass destruction. One wonders if this is what UNESCO – which describes its own goal as ‘to build peace in the minds of men’ had in mind. The title of ‘Arab capital of culture’ is currently held by the capital of one of the most brutal and lawless regimes in the world. Arab culture - which has given so much of lasting beauty and value to humanity - surely deserves a better representative.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Jonathan Spyer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya.

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