During a recent visit to Washington D.C., New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told insiders and media that future terrorist attacks in the United States will resemble the failed car bombing in Times Square. While lacking the ferocity of 9/11, these small-scale attempts will be carried out by U.S. residents who are radicalized over the Internet, he said.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs looked at how the Internet has propelled violent Islamic extremists and the homegrown terrorist threat. The committee found that defeating domestic terrorism required efforts beyond classified intelligence and law enforcement programs.
Social scientists, computer whizzes and mathematicians have offered to help. Since 9/11 the academic community has produced countless theories, methods and formulas in an attempt to help federal agents combat terrorism. Some of these professors will hit on something, and the rest will end up in blind alleys, they admit.
“At the end of the day, finding terrorists is not an easy job,” said V.S. Subrahmanian, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland who invented an algorithm to find patterns in social networks.
As networking sites like Facebook grow in popularity and make it easier to access information about Internet users, new methods for rummaging through data and connecting dots will emerge, Subrahmanian said. His team has come up with COSI, short for cloud oriented subgraph identification, a computer program that within seconds can find complex connections among billions of links in a social network.
Beyond simply finding another person interested in basketball, COSI could locate someone who not only likes basketball but also shares three mutual friends, plays video games, reads Ernest Hemingway and speaks Spanish. In a research paper, Subrahmanian’s team provides examples of these “complex queries.” One scenario takes a stab at a financial network involving a shady bank and pairs of alleged criminals: “Find all vertices (v1, v2) such that v1 wired money to Bank1 and Bank1 received a wire from v2 and both v1 and v2 have a common friend v3 who has been labeled suspicious.”
For average Facebook users, this means that search engines could better match them with friends and suggest groups with more closely aligned interests and concerns. For terrorists communicating in a secret network, it means having to find trickier ways to hide. Dutch researchers previously developed mathematical models to show what the structure of a covert network looks like — the proverbial needle. Now, COSI specifies how to find it — in the haystack.
“I’d say we’ve solved one part of a much bigger problem,” Subrahmanian said. COSI works best, he added, when searching through a large network with multiple unknowns.
Terrorists use the Internet to spread propaganda, recruit, raise money, communicate and plan attacks, experts say. While much of the cat-and-mouse game stays classified and under wraps in various government agencies, Internet use by terrorists and those tasked with keeping them in check has been a lightning rod topic in the academic and policy communities.
Some experts say terrorist exploits on the web have been overstated. Citizens also fear the government could spy on them as it monitors the threat in cyberspace. The Department of Homeland Security recently toyed with the idea of developing a program to browse social media for information related to the planning of terrorist attacks.
The DHS solicitation states: “As the use of the Internet by terrorists has increased, blogging and message boards have played a substantial role in allowing communication among those who would do the United States harm. In order to better counter the use of improvised explosive devices, it is necessary to identify speech acts in near real-time which proceed the decision by terrorists to use an IED.”
After 30 companies signed up to help, DHS officials withdrew the solicitation and decided “more basic social and behavioral science research aimed at identifying intent is necessary in order to achieve our program goals.”
So the federal government has reached out to old-school social scientists and researchers who might be able to piece together a violent patchwork without the aid of an Internet connection. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency recently enlisted the help of Cornell Assistant Professor of Sociology Matthew Brashears, who will spend the next three years developing ways to identify secret social networks.
The difficulty in piecing together terrorist networks — online and off — lies in finding the first person, Brashears said. “Once you locate the first person, there are all kinds of surveillance and investigation methods you can use.”
Brashears plans to look at U.S. teenagers, many of whom harbor secret connections involving sex, drugs and vandalism. From there, the professor will study Aleph, the new name for Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult that carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The experiments will avoid expensive and invasive intelligence-gathering techniques, relying on publicly available unclassified information.
Despite technological advances, old-fashioned shoe-leather work may provide the most effective method for tracking terrorists and the connections between them. Nobody will ever be able to “put some algorithm on a computer and find Osama,” Brashears noted.
Still, possible solutions keep coming.
Last year, a Japanese duo introduced a way of analyzing social networks that they said might have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Social networking journals have devoted entire issues to ways the industry could help fight the war on terror. The University of Arizona Artificial Intelligence Lab has collected a “Dark Web” of terrorist Internet forums, chat rooms, blogs, social networking sites and videos. The object of the program is to provide the tools and space necessary for computer, information and social scientists to mine data. The project creates a virtual lab in which these experts can try out their theories on real extremist networks. DHS, DTRA, Air Force Research Lab, National Science Foundation and Library of Congress have funded the research.
“There definitely is a ‘gee-whiz’ aspect to terrorism and the Internet,” said Eric Larson, a Rand Corp. senior policy researcher who focuses on national security. “Things get hyped a lot.”
Of course terrorists use the Internet, Larson said. It’s a communication tool available to everyone just like the telephone. But the number of Internet users influenced enough by propaganda to actually commit an act of violence probably compares to the percentage of sociopaths in a given population, Larson said. And that number is small. Many visitors to terrorist websites are “jihobbyists” who want to do jihad from their living room. They talk the talk but have no desire to join an actual fight, he explained.
An increased presence on the Internet shows weakness, not strength, for a terrorist group, Larson noted. Terrorists resort to the Internet because they can’t trust mainstream media to deliver their message unfiltered, he said. They also go online because their physical bases have been destroyed by military actions, and the Internet provides a forum where they can connect under a veil of anonymity.
“The growing use of the Internet to identify and connect with networks throughout the world offers opportunities to build relationships and gain expertise that previously were available only in overseas training camps,” former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2008.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told the same group of senators that the wildcard threat comes from “self-radicalized, homegrown extremists in the United States. While not formally affiliated with a foreign terrorist group, they are inspired by those groups’ messages of violence, often through the Internet, and because they lack formal ties, they are often particularly difficult to detect.”
The FBI employs a unit that targets terrorists on the Internet. Though the unit did not respond to several interview requests from National Defense, its chief in May told CBS News that radical groups have increased their use of social networking sites like Facebook.
That doesn’t account for the “lone wolves,” one of the FBI’s primary concerns, Mueller testified. These individuals do not maintain ties with groups but still use the Internet as a “guidebook.” One website even provided 10 steps for how the “Lone Wolves of al-Qaida” could operate in the United States. The list took part of its inspiration from “D.C. Sniper” John Allen Muhammad, who, along with a teenage accomplice, randomly shot people in and around the nation’s capital during a three-week killing spree in 2002.
Internet chat rooms and other online discussion forums supplement, and in some cases, have replaced mosques, community centers and coffee shops as meeting spots for jihadists, experts say. Access to these chat rooms is tightly controlled and usually requires several layers of validation, according to “Violent Islamic Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat,” a report issued by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Jihad-related websites appear and disappear frequently, sometimes to ensure secrecy. Other times, authorities shut them down. The Ma’arik Islamic Network, which is still online, has nearly 2,000 members on its Arabic forum, which also includes an English section and technical advice on web development, encryption and hacking. Most jihadist message boards follow the same pattern. The national security community continues to debate what to do with these sites — monitor them for information or dismantle them before they can play a role in facilitating an attack.
The idea of terrorists communicating in cyberspace has some countries concerned. The United Arab Emirates recently threatened to ban BlackBerry Messenger, e-mail and web-browsing services by Oct. 11 if it can’t access encrypted messages sent across those applications. The growing use of BlackBerry smart phones, which supports much stronger encryption than its rivals, poses a threat to national security, supporters of the proposed ban say. Though it has criticized the UAE on the matter, the U.S. government has struggled to balance national security and privacy concerns. Federal law enforcement agencies can monitor domestic phone calls, e-mails and web-browsing activities with the proper court authorization.
The private sector also has been “trying to muck around in this world,” said Jarret Brachman, an independent analyst who studies al-Qaida for clients inside and outside government. “There are a lot of people watching. The question is, ‘Are they watching the right things?’”
Military officials knew that Islamic extremist Anwar al-Awlaki communicated with Nidal Malik Hasan for almost a year leading up to the latter’s alleged shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, Brachman noted, so it’s not always a matter of connecting dots.
“There’s no silver bullet,” he said. “This is a long hard slog; us against them in the trenches.”
Though some experts caution against making too much of Internet use by terrorists, the online world has inadvertently become a powerful tool in the hands of clerics like Anwar al Awlaki, who routinely posts lectures and essays on the web. Internet jihad is not a myth, Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation Senior Investigator Evan Kohlmann wrote in a recent column in Foreign Policy magazine.
“Because the message is spread to individuals scattered across the globe, the violence comes in seemingly random bursts from unexpected sources — like pizza delivery boys or even an Army psychologist,” Kohlmann wrote.
It will be a challenge, though, to draw the line between free speech and incitement to murder. The FBI and other agencies must ramp up their efforts to share intelligence in a timely and effective manner, Kohlmann noted.
“Surely, if homegrown extremists can train themselves to be al-Qaida aficionados using only their own home computers, then it is within the capabilities of a determined U.S. government to thwart them,” he added.