Al-Qaeda: Venture Capitalists of Terror

A Q&A with Lawrence Husick on how insurgents spread their message via the Web

7 min read

To judge from events in Iraq during the last several years, insurgent groups are learning and adapting their methods of attack much more quickly than U.S. coalition forces can respond. Lawrence Husick, a Senior Fellow in the U.S. Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Homeland Security, has been looking at terrorist tactics and counterterrorism responses, with a focus on how modern terrorists leverage technology. In August, IEEE Spectrum contributing editor Robert N. Charette spoke to Husick about what he’s finding out.

SPECTRUM: How are insurgent groups using the Internet to coordinate, to learn, and to recruit?

HUSICK: I tend to focus on al-Qaeda more than narco-terrorist groups, Russian mobs, the Shining Path, or the ETA. I generally consider those other groups criminal organizations in the classic sense—that is, they are moving money, they’re moving drugs, they’re doing extortion, that kind of thing. Or they’re political in the classic sense, namely they have a localized political agenda, tied to a particular place.

Al-Qaeda doesn’t fit those molds. Al-Qaeda is, if you will, the venture capitalists of Islamic terrorism. Their job is not to be operational anymore, even if it once was. Their job is to figure out a way to gain leverage just like a venture capitalist: put a little resource in for a large amount of bang out and co-opt other people to be the operators, to be the planners, to be the messengers and provide a variety of resources, money, training, encouragement, and tradecraft.

They are not geographically tied, since their audience is young, disaffected males in Islamic societies and also lots of people in the West who they are looking to radicalize. That is why you now have to deal with what’s going on in places like Birmingham, London, Paris, Marseilles, and Madrid, because there are substantial indigenous Muslim populations there, whether they are immigrants or children of immigrants, that are capable of being radicalized.

And to a great extent al-Qaeda has tried to reach into the United States with their message, but they have largely been unsuccessful because they don’t understand the difference between an American Muslim and a Muslim who has roots in either the Middle or Far East. Many American Muslims are people who converted to Islam while in prison. It is a particular brand of affiliation. Also, most American Muslims don’t speak Arabic, and that is a real impediment.

The use of the Internet for propagandizing is tremendous. It comes from a number of different places. Al-Qaeda has an entire media affiliate that produces branded videos and audios that are distributed throughout the Net. A very popular method of distributing them is to put them on a Web site for only so long as it takes for that Web site to be crawled by the Wayback Machine [see]; the Wayback Machine then archives them, and then the Islamic sites can point to the archived copy on the Wayback Machine. This creates a permanent repository with a high bandwidth. It is a very clever trick.

But there are lots of other hosts that they use for their sites, including online file-serving hosts that are pretty anonymous.

You’ll often find a blog site that is in Arabic that contains pointers to multiple copies of the same videos encoded in a dozen formats, from those you can load on your phone to those you can watch in large-screen formats.

SPECTRUM: So they are relatively technically savvy?

HUSICK: They are really technically savvy. They are starting to shoot in HD [high definition]. Most of them are editing their video on Windows laptops, doing it in the field. Then they’re taking a disc or USB stick with the video and carrying that to an Internet café, and then uploading it using an anonymous account.

So these videos are being shot on the battlefields of Afghanistan, the battlefields of Iraq, and being uploaded from these countries, as well as from Pakistan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

SPECTRUM: How else is al-Qaeda using the Internet?

HUSICK: At the same time you are getting recruiting, and posting of radical materials, they are also being pretty successful in distributing pretty sophisticated tradecraft and training. For instance, I have downloaded detailed videos on how to construct a suicide vest.

SPECTRUM: Explosives experts claim that many of the bomb recipes on the Web don’t work. Have you seen al-Qaeda upgrade its training materials?

HUSICK: They stay ahead of us faster than we can respond, particularly in IED technology. They are also getting very good at using low-tech machine shops to build pretty sophisticated rockets. Nothing is going to win any prizes from the Department of Defense, but the stuff is deadly. They don’t particularly care if it is clean or if they blow up a couple of guys trying to get it right.

The tradecraft is crude. It all relies on sound materials, and they’re doing a pretty good job of outlining some very simple but very deadly attacks.

It is not just the hardware—it’s also the tactics for employing IEDs that are being disseminated. They are outlining more and more sophisticated types of IEDs, more and more sophisticated ruses for how to choke traffic.

What we have seen in the past several months is that they are getting much better on sequenced and timed attacks: they set off a small bomb and then wait for the rescue forces to arrive, and then they set off another one.

Our jammers are not very effective against IEDs because the insurgents have learned how to adapt. They are using a huge variety of cheaply available stuff. Something that is coming, according to people I’ve talked to in the theater, are Chinese-made wireless doorbells. They’re sloppy as hell—they are AM transmitters around 400 kilohertz—but they are really hard to jam because their receivers have no selectivity at all.

SPECTRUM: Was al-Qaeda exploiting the Internet five years ago in any way other than putting out videos?

HUSICK: I think al-Qaeda has increased its use of the Internet at roughly the same rate of penetration as seen in Western societies. Five years ago it was less usual to find people who would go directly to Google, rather than pick up a copy of the yellow pages. Now it is pervasive. Al-Qaeda has ridden the technology curve just like everybody else.

Five years ago they were beginning to publish videos, but they weren’t that good, and the bandwidth wasn’t there. But now they have much better production values. They have learned how to do much more artistic camera work, and they have learned how to do much better editing. They have co-opted people who are good English speakers to do some of their voice-overs. They have done some amazing title graphics worthy of Fox News.

Five years ago they were publishing newsletters that looked like church newsletters. Now they’re doing things that look like a full-blown magazine. They’re getting better with desktop-publishing software.

They are getting better as the technology gets better, riding that technology curve with everybody else.

SPECTRUM: Have you seen any evidence that al-Qaeda is coordinating its activities through the Net?

HUSICK: That is really hard to track, in no small part because if there is some coordination, I am convinced that they are doing it in some very simple coded forms of communications. I tend to believe they use signaling methods more than anything else. The mere appearance of a file on a download site triggers a prearranged kind of activity.

So I don’t think they are coordinating in the same way you would think of a command and coordination system.

SPECTRUM: Do you think al-Qaeda will start moving toward coordinating activities more overtly?

HUSICK: You would think so, but I doubt it. I tend to believe that they are really focused on what they call the individual duty of jihad. This is not the kind of thing that is going to result in a grand hierarchical army scheme where you’ve got some generals and other people really in control and masterminding things.

I think it is going to be a very long war of attrition in which the actions are going to be very difficult to predict and interdict.

SPECTRUM: Given that al-Qaeda is riding the technology curve, what do you expect to see in the next year or two?

HUSICK: I think you will see a lot more of the same. The propaganda war is being fought by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. We haven’t even stepped onto the field. We are simply not fighting that war. Everyone has said this is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of Islam, and yet we haven’t even suited up. We probably aren’t in the locker room. We are just in the parking lot.

I think you’ll see us playing catch-up in a big way, if we wake up to this stuff. I have been doing my best to advise the policy guys about it, but strangely they don’t want to listen too much.

SPECTRUM: Why not? Is their view that if we win on the battlefield, the hearts and minds will follow?

HUSICK: There are a lot of military thinkers who believe that you win with raw strength, and that is what they respect. There is a grain of truth to that.

Another competing school of thought is that the United States has never done a good job at propaganda, and so we shouldn’t even try. Of course, this is flat wrong. Go back to the Second World War and look at the propaganda that Disney put out. It was masterful. It may be, however, that we have become a too liberal and sophisticated society to want to dehumanize and caricature our enemies. There are subtler things that we could do, but we tend to run away from them.

We need to learn how to use the same tools and channels that al-Qaeda uses. Right after 9/11, for instance, we recognized that the Internet was a problem. The U.S. government set up a counterhacking group, but then it came to light within a few months that the guys hired had criminal records, and they were fired immediately. Well, if you don’t hire a hacker with a criminal record, you’ve either hired the best hacker in the world who has never been caught or you’ve got a second-rate hacker. We need to change our culture really quickly, and it is very hard to change.

Another thing I see coming is that al-Qaeda will become more brazen. Their Web sites will become much more public. They will put public faces on them, in an attempt to legitimize themselves in the Islamic world. All the experience they are gaining in media and on use of the Internet is going to translate directly into a massively powerful effort in that direction, so powerful that the state-operated media in the Islamic world and even organizations like al-Jazeera are going to find themselves at a huge disadvantage.

These guys are going to have boots on the ground. They are going to get feeds that are real-time, they are going to produce it beautifully, and it’s going to be tremendously persuasive. And the more penetration of the Internet and of satellite that you get in the Islamic world, the easier it is going to be to get that message out.

SPECTRUM: Do you think it is a coincidence that the insurgents are copying briefing techniques that the U.S. military was using during Gulf War I?

HUSICK: Well, media breeds media, so imitation is a sincere form of flattery. They probably copied them, but for different purposes. With Gulf War I in particular, we were showing bomb-drop video and gun-camera video in order to reassure the American population that this was a video-game war. There were no Americans in harm’s way. We can do this from 30 000 feet, so there is no need to worry.

Now the insurgents are using the IED videos to demonstrate that there is no such thing as a clean war. That is the direct response.

To Probe Further

For more on how on how terrorist and insurgent groups are leveraging information technology to organize, recruit, and learn see Open-Source Warfare

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