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Expert: Terrorists Use the Internet Well

August 2, 2007 By:
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Whether the post-Sept. 11 struggle is called "a war on terror" or "a war against radical Islam," the United States is losing the all-important battle for Muslim "hearts and minds," according to Lawrence Husick, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security.

During a July 31 talk at FPRI's Center City offices, Husick argued that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda are using the Internet more effectively than the U.S. government in the war of ideas being waged alongside the conflict. According to Husick, terrorist organizations are utilizing inexpensive tools, such as handheld cameras and lap-top computers, to wage one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in recent history.

Loose conglomerations of terrorist cells are also distributing videos via the Internet to recruit potential adherents in the Middle East and Western Europe, and disseminate tactical know-how, such as methods for building a suicide-bomb vest, continued Husick. He displayed a sample of downloaded videos -- some in Arabic and some in English -- that portrayed Americans as Crusaders intent on subjugating followers of the Islamic faith.

The often graphic segments contained images of American soldiers in Iraq being killed by roadside bombs; one even offered a tribute to the 19 hijackers behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"This will attract young men in their 20s with too little education and too much testosterone," he said, adding that using Internet sites to trace actual terrorists can be tricky, since most of them are removed from the Web quickly, and much of the footage uploading is done in Internet cafes, which have a high volume of users.

Husick -- a patent lawyer by trade with a background in environmental chemistry and microprocessing -- also charged that the efforts by the United States to counter the terrorists' propaganda have been anemic and ineffective, often doing more harm than good.

"The reason the battle is being lost is because we can't get our act together," he said, adding that the American-run Voice of America program -- considered instrumental in fostering pro-American sentiment in Soviet-bloc countries during the years of the Cold War -- did not have a substantial presence in the Arab world until 2004.

He offered several explanations for America's malaise in the propaganda effort, ranging from a fear of producing content that offends American allies, like Saudi Arabia, to major disagreements among top policy-makers as to what the country's overarching message to the Muslim world should be.

Husick stated that America needs to use the Internet to highlight this country's tolerance, religious pluralism and commitment to doing good in the Muslim world.

America as the Enemy

Too often, he added, official footage released by the Department of Defense -- and incorporated into terrorist Web sites -- features the technological power of the U.S. military, such as bombs dropped from 30,000 feet hitting insurgent targets in Iraq. Husick hinted that such images play into the terrorist recruitment pitch of America as an enemy, bent on destruction of the Muslim world.

But Judith Klinghoffer, an FPRI member, had a different take. During the question-and-answer session, she asserted that the United States needs to disseminate more videos that display its military prowess.

"We have to look at this through their eyes," said Klinghoffer, arguing that fear might dissuade would-be terrorists.

She added that highlighting pluralism would not work with a population that holds Islam to be a monopoly on truth; on the other hand, she insisted, brute force is a language that terrorists understand.

Husick countered that while 15 percent of the Muslim world may be hard-core extremists -- no small number, to be sure -- the remaining 75 percent is pivotal to how the next few decades may play out.

"I think," said Husick, that using certain measures, "we can begin to turn the tide."

 

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