Israeli study shows US a digital haven for terrorists

Unwittingly, American ISPs host some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations: Prof. Niv Ahituv, of Tel Aviv University.Terrorist organizations are exploiting well-known Internet Service Providers to get their messages out, according to a new study by an Israeli researcher. …

Unwittingly, American ISPs host some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations: Prof. Niv Ahituv, of Tel Aviv University.Terrorist organizations are exploiting well-known Internet Service Providers to get their messages out, according to a new study by an Israeli researcher.

Prof. Niv Ahituv, academic director of the Netvision Institute for Internet Studies (NIIS) at Tel Aviv University (TAU), said that some of the world’s most dangerous organizations, including Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, host their web sites on servers owned by popular American and Canadian ISPs used by most North Americans.

“Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah are among the dozens of terrorist organizations and hundreds of terrorist blogs that abuse the web. They use the same well-known service providers that we all use,” Ahituv tells ISRAEL21c.

“The coordination of 9/11 was partially done by e-mail, written in plain English,” Ahituv continues. The terrorists disguised the logistic information in coded messages, which ostensibly dealt with normal kinds of information, such as registering for a degree at a college. They did this right under the eyes of the FBI.

In February this year, Ahituv was invited to present his study at a closed workshop in Berlin to representatives from NATO (the North American Treaty Organization), and European Security Services.

NATO, which has set up a Counter-Terrorism Technology Unit focusing on nine areas, including cyber-terrorism, commissioned the workshop from the NIIS and the Interdisciplinary Center for Technology Analysis & Forecasting (ICTAF), both at Tel Aviv University, and Berlin’s Institute for Cooperation Management and Interdisciplinary Research (NEXUS), affiliated with the Technology University of Berlin.

Israel is a member of the Mediterranean Group (affiliate members of NATO) trying to increase the prospects of peace in the Middle East.

At the workshop, “Old Threats, New Channels: the Internet as a Tool for Terrorists,” Ahituv told participants that Islamic Jihad operates 15 websites in Arabic and English, using US and Canadian service providers (among others); Hamas operates 20 websites in eight languages (including Hebrew), some based in the US and Canada, as well as Russia, Malaysia, and the PA; and Hezbollah operates 20 websites in five languages using service providers from the US, Canada, Iran and Syria.

Aside from general propaganda and training, Ahituv said that terrorist organizations are also using the Net to coordinate missions or call meetings; provide tutorials on bomb building; and to recruit impressionable American and British Moslems to become believers, soldiers and even suicide bombers.

Websites target specific population groups. “We can see how they target vulnerable Muslim mothers – in the US, Canada, Great Britain, all over the world – persuading them of the virtues of having their sons be a suicide bomber, and how to educate their sons to be a ‘Shahid.’”

Some websites are directed at the children themselves, inculcating them with terror messages.

No less insidious, says Ahituv, is the use of the Internet for disinformation. During Israel’s second Lebanon war, citizens of south Lebanon were shown on the Net suffering Israeli attacks. Later, it was discovered that photographs were staged (a man killed in one incident, appeared two hours later in another.) Disinformation is also apparent in the promotion of so-called humanitarian organizations that are often fronts for terror organizations.

So should terrorist websites be shut down? Paradoxically, in the US, the First Amendment to the Constitution, protecting free speech, also protects the terrorists, says Ahituv, recognizing the irony of waging a war on terror when some of the most dangerous propaganda is being created at home.

“The main feeling at the meeting was that if the website is not used to develop a terrorist operation, why shut it down? This way we don’t have to play hide and seek. We can follow what and where they are preaching,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

On the other hand, he adds, it is absurd that the free world hosts terrorist organization websites.

Unfortunately, in the wired world, the base location is a technical matter. Geography is not a limiting factor. “A half an hour after a website is shut down in the US, it is registered in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. The FBI has shut down a few websites, but it is like chasing the wind,” warns Ahituv.

The NIIS was established in 2003 as an interdisciplinary research institute that supports and coordinates research in a number of schools in TAU. It does not belong to one particular faculty. NIIS is also very active in offering seminars and lecture to the public.