Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges by
Gabriel Weimann. Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace.
242 pp. not including notes. Hardcover, $24.95.
Tim Jackson is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for The
Economist, The Independent and The Financial Times.
In April 1999, David Copeland, aged 23, murdered three people and
injured 129 others by planting three bombs in markets and bars in
London. The bombs, each packed with 1,500 four-inch nails, were
targeted separately at blacks, immigrants from Asia and gays. At
his trial, it was said that Copeland, who had dreamed that he was a
reincarnated Nazi SS officer, had been prescribed anti-depressants
the year before the attack, after complaining to his doctor that he
was "losing his mind." More importantly, Copeland, who acted alone,
reportedly testified that he had learned how to build the bombs
from a terrorist handbook published on the Internet.
In May 2005, Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communications at the
University of Haifa, carried out a Google search to find out
whether that handbook and others like it that show how to assemble
bombs or poisons, were still freely available on the Web. The
result was an emphatic "yes": Weimann found 7,900 Web pages that
included "references to guidebooks, manuals and instruction books."
He also found on-line training courses from both Hamas and
Al-Qaeda, and a 26-minute video "of high quality and polished
presentation" showing how to assemble a suicide-bomb belt.
Weimann's book, Terror on the Internet, makes it clear that despite
the efforts of governments to fight back against terrorists' use of
the Internet, removing this kind of material from the Web is harder
than getting toothpaste back into the tube. For no matter how
quickly government lawyers might work to close the Web page down
via the hosting companies - often located in America - that have
unwittingly published the material, the individuals who are their
customers can simply republish their material elsewhere.
The lesson for the rest of us is clear: Contrary to President
George W. Bush's talk of "victory" in the war against terror, we
should continue to expect murderous attacks against civilians for
as long as there remain even a handful of madmen or extremists
anywhere in the world. Lack of expertise is no longer a barrier to
Weimann's book, funded and published by the United States Institute
for Peace, an independent think tank funded by Congress, has the
air of a research report. Non-academic readers will not find it a
racy read, and journalists will find much of its contents familiar
from their clippings files. Sometimes, Weimann seems to go beyond
self-parody: He reports, for instance, that in a survey, 83.5% of
experts asked to define the word "terrorism" included references to
force or violence in their definitions.
But the book does make it clear that terrorists, like
pornographers, have taken advantage of the Internet more quickly
than most governments and companies have. It makes little sense now
to encumber the Internet with regulatory obstacles in an attempt to
stop the terrorists from using it. This would not only impose great
costs on hundreds of millions of honest users around the world, but
it would also ultimately fail.
Weimann also raises uncomfortable questions for media executives,
particularly in television. He argues, convincingly, that the media
serves as the "theater of terror" - the primary mechanism by which
terrorists achieve their twin objectives of gaining publicity for
their cause and scaring voters into rejecting politicians who might
stand up to them.
When beheadings can be made public only by delivering a videotape
to a television station, there is a chance of denying the
perpetrators their objectives: broadcasters can choose not to put
on the show. But once the Web becomes an alternative distribution
channel, terrorists are free to open their own theaters.
Some broadcasters have taken this as an excuse to publish
increasingly gory and revolting footage, on the grounds that the
material is "out there anyway." More thoughtful media people will
see the other side of the coin. The rise of Internet video gives
them a chance to reconsider the "news" value of video showing the
death of an innocent. Does the act of publishing it serve to inform
viewers? Or simply to do the terrorists' PR for them?
Given that there is so little that can be done to combat
extremists' use of the Internet, it may be tempting to draw
pessimistic conclusions. But in the long term, the Internet is a
less useful weapon for terrorists than for the open societies that
are their enemies. For totalitarians, once they get to run the
country, always want to stop their citizens from obtaining other
sources of information; that is why Iran, for instance, confiscates
satellite dishes and China employs tens of thousands of Internet
Both efforts are, in the end, doomed. For only hermit kingdoms like
North Korea or Myanmar can seriously contemplate keeping the
Internet out altogether. And societies that admit the Internet,
even censored or blocked, have opened the door to the most
efficient mechanism for exchanging ideas ever devised in human