The Truth About

A Q&A with Michael Kenney on how extremists are really using the Internet

4 min read

Much has been made of terrorists’ and Iraqi insurgents’ use of the Web. They’re posting how-to manuals on constructing a dirty bomb! They’re giving away secrets on how to attack chlorine tanks! But Michael Kenney, an assistant professor of public policy at Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg and author of From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation (Penn State University Press, 2007), says much of the importance attributed to such Web sites is unwarranted. Robert N. Charette, IEEE Spectrum contributing editor, spoke with Kenney in August about what he has come across while monitoring various insurgent Web sites.

CHARETTE: What is the evidence of the insurgents using the Net to coordinate activities, to learn or to recruit?

KENNEY: Basically, what I found is that although the Internet is definitely important to the bad guys—i.e., Islamic extremist organizations—it has been overplayed in some quarters, by the media and also by some of the self-styled counterterrorism experts whose research appears to consist solely of scouring terrorist Web sites.

What do you find when you do that, when that’s your methodology? You find that there is a lot of stuff out there, which isn’t surprising because the Internet is full of information. And as anybody who has done some research on the Internet on any topic knows, there is no quality control. There is a lot of junk out there. What I am finding [in looking at extremist Web sites] is there’s no difference here.

There certainly is a lot of activity. They are putting a lot of information out there on the Web. And some of their Web sites look great—there’s lots of eye candy, videos, flashing graphics. But when you dig in to some of that information and try to analyze how useful it is, you begin to run into some doubts.

What I am looking at specifically are some of the manuals that are available on the Internet, some which have received a lot of attention in the media. There is a lot of concern about these manuals, because anybody can download them from anywhere and because they contain recipes for making bombs, for making explosives, for making all sorts of things that could cause a lot of havoc.

At least in the small number of manuals that I have seen with my own eyes and have read over with the help of an explosives expert, for every four or five recipes, one may work. The rest are essentially rubbish, containing lots of mistakes that quite frankly only a trained eye can catch.

So unless you already have an explosives background, unless you have that knowledge and expertise already, you are going to be hard-pressed to be able to actually make a bomb just following the recipes.

Here’s just one example: Several of the recipes we looked at contained the term ”yellow sulfate.” The explosives expert I was working with was kind of scratching his head, saying, ”Sulfate? Sulfate? You don’t want to use sulfate there.” Finally, after reading about five recipes, he realized what they really meant was sulfur.

I would never have picked up on it. If it were me, I would have tried to follow the recipe using yellow sulfate. This guy already has the expertise, so he’s able to correct the manual. But someone who already has the knowledge wouldn’t need to read the manual.

So I think a lot of what we’re hearing from the press and so-called experts is hyperbole.

I do not want to suggest that the Internet is not important, though. It is. The Internet remains a very important tool for the bad guys. It allows them to propagate their interpretation of Islam. It allows them to try to reach new supporters. And it allows them to try to raise funds for their campaigns. The Internet remains an important and useful tool for these guys. But as a source of learning, as a source of acquiring the knowledge that you need to engage in terror acts or guerrilla warfare, it’s not that useful.

There’s still no substitute for training camps, and there’s no substitute for learning by doing. Building bombs with your bare hands is still the best way to learn how to build bombs. Shooting a firearm over and over and over again is the best way to become a sharpshooter. These are skills that cannot really be learned from recipes that you can download through the Internet. To learn how to become an effective terrorist or an effective guerrilla fighter, at some point you have to learn by doing.

CHARETTE: Is there any indication that terrorist groups are starting to figure out that the information online is of poor quality?

KENNEY: I saw a transcript from an insurgent chat room, and it was interesting because reading what people were saying showed that they were clearly aware that government intelligence agents might be monitoring this chat room. So one of the people in this online chat put out the question, ”Do you trust the information?” and he made reference to a specific forum, implying that the information there might have been planted by his enemy. So from what I have seen, they are aware that governments are infiltrating these discussion forums, and they are definitely wary of the information. But their level of dependence on the information is affected by other factors. Most important is if they have access to other information. If they can go to a training camp, then their dependence on Internet sources would decline. But if they don’t have the right contacts to go to a training camp—in other words, if the Internet is their only source—then their dependence would remain the same, even if they are questioning the veracity of the information.

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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