Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges
Internet DIY for Terror Bombs

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

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 violence.
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 censors.
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 history.