Would-be Islamic terrorists increasingly are looking to cyberspace for operational training, says Paris-based McAfee Labs Threat Researcher and blogger, Francois Paget. According to Paget, the trainers to whom these individuals look:
"wish to create a 'jihad virtual university' with the creation of a worldwide caliphate as its ultimate objective. Through the Internet they attempt to indoctrinate and encourage people to commit themselves to violent activities against their enemies."
Inspired by the analysis of Canadian Crown Prosecutor, Dominique Dudemaine, at the 2010 Francopol conference on cybercrime in Montreal, Paget elaborates on how this shift is a significant move away from traditional – and as Dudemaine says "in-the-field" – training in camps around the world. As we previously noted, it is clear that the danger posed by the virtualization of terrorism has devolved far beyond radicalization, theological justification for jihad, and propaganda. It now also includes actual tactical planning and military training.
While Paget's focus is on the rapid spread of online links to terrorist plots and prosecutions in Canada, the pervasiveness of the threat is, in reality, global. He mentions a number of cases, including that of "Toronto 18" member Zakaria Amara, "considered the ringleader of the…extremist Muslim group," who is said to have "learned how to construct a fertilizer bomb over the Internet and planned to use it on the Toronto Stock Exchange."
Similarly, Paget notes the case of Saïd Namouh, video maker for the al Qaeda-linked Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). According to Paget, Namouh:
"was found guilty of conspiring to commit a bombing attack in Europe, attempting to extort the governments of Austria and Germany with video threats (in March 2007), participating in a terrorist group, and aiding terrorist activities."
Outside of Canada, the examples of aspirant terrorists taking to the Internet to translate radical religious beliefs and anti-American zeal into violence have become all too common. A 2005 ABC News report discussed how online training manuals were appearing online that detailed to jihadist recruits how to become a sniper and "how to inflict the maximum damage" against U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
The evidence of this type of cyber-based terrorism is not simply academic or propaganda. People are acting on it, as demonstrated by criminal investigations and prosecutions.
In the trial of Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Sadequee, both men were said to have recorded "casing videos" in Washington, DC, which were then sent via the internet for tactical planning to later-convicted terrorist, Younis Tsouli, AKA Irhabi007.
Even more disconcerting was the June 2008 acknowledgement by Ahmed Mohamed that he had used the internet to broadcast a self-made video showing how to build a makeshift detonator for an explosive device. According to the plea agreement, the video was meant to:
"teach 'martyrdoms' and 'suiciders' how to save themselves so they could continue to fight the invaders…He said he intended the technology demonstrated in his audio/video recording to be used against those who fight for the United States."
What future role the internet will play in the actions of jihadists is, at this point, unclear. There are some who argue that "not putting their recruits through a more formal training regimen…makes it more difficult for groups to thoroughly indoctrinate recruits with jihadist ideology," which could impact the success of plots.
However, if what Paget and Dudemaine argue proves to be the case – that "along with real-world activities, the jihadists use the Internet to pursue a psychological war, communicate and coordinate, finalize their strategies, and obtain financing" – then we are in for a long fight against a new breed of impassioned, well-organized, and well-trained jihadists.