Why Terrorists Use the Internet

Terrorism is an example of asymmetric conflict, in which the terrorist organization is the weaker advesary. In asymmetric conflict, the weaker adversary uses inferior resources against the weaknesses of the superior opponent. Terrorists, as small sub-state actors, have less power than the nation-states that they are fighting against, which forces them to use unorthodox means to achieve their goals.

Nation-states (especially democracies, and especially via the internet) and information about them are inherently open and accessible to their citizens, and hence, to terrorists as well. In contrast, terrorists can remain completely anonymous until they commit an act of terror. Terrorists exploit this difference to compensate for their disadvantages against superior opponents. Terrorists have used asymmetric tools such as airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and anthrax-laced mail to further their objectives in spite of their inferior power. The internet is another asymmetric tool available for their use. -http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/de-terror/de-terror.htm

The internet offers terrorists several advantages. Through the internet, terrorists could opperate remotely and anonymously, crossing national borders without being detected or regulated. Cyber-attacks would be cheaper and less dangerous than physical attacks. A computer attack would also garner significant media attention.

However, the internet has disadvantages for terrorists, too. The internet system is highly complex and decentralized, which could make it difficult to control an attack and produce the desired results. The internet is suited to inflict economic hardship, but could not so easily be used to injure people. Attacks lacking the emotional appeal of death and injury would draw less interest, and therefore be less effective terrorism (Denning 281-282).

The determining factor in whether terrorists turn to the internet or not is whether it promotes their goals. There are five goals of a terrorist organization, as defined by Ernest Evans, a research associate at the Brookings Institute. They are:
1. To publicize its cause on a regional and international level.
2. To harass and intimidate authorities to force them to make concessions.
3. To polarize society in order to bring down the regime.
4. To aggravate relations between states or nations.
5. To free political prisoners and secure monetary ransoms to finance their cause.

The internet is well-suited to publicity of any kind, and terrorists have used this aspect of it already to promote their goals. The other goals identified by Evans could also be achieved using the internet. For example, terrorists can harass and intimidate authorities using the internet in addition to or instead of traditional means. For an examination of other ways terrorists may use the internet, see Ways Terrorists Use the Internet.

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Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorists organization al-Qaeda, used television and the internet to publicize his call for Muslims to kill all Americans.

Image courtesy of http://www.pbs.org/newshour/terrorism/international/fatwa_1996.html

























Dorothy Denning. “Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy.” Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy. Ed. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. Santa Monica: RAND, 2001. 239-288.




Ways Terrorists Use the Internet
Defense: IO Cyberterrorism? Useful Links