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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Battling jihad.com

60 Minutes ran a story March 4, 2007 that addressed the use of Internet based communication techniques by terrorists for publicity and recruiting. Two key themes in the piece were the cunning genius of cyber terrorists working on the other side and the wakeup call it provides to our military in attempting to eliminate the source of would-be suicide jihadists. In other words, the story managed to completely miss the point on both themes.

Jihad as Technological Struggle -- Visual images of Humvees getting blown up or innocent civilians and reporters being beheaded does fill a sick void for over-the-top gore that fits visual mediums well. However, the 60 Minutes piece portrayed techniques used by Al Queda to host propaganda sites and share video / sound files as though they were cutting edge solutions developed by jihadist computer scientists. Taking over computers in the data center of a state government within America to relay video files! How dasterdly!

NOT. It is just as likely the jihadist hacker used readily available tools to scan huge numbers of IP address ranges to find PCs and servers running hackable programs (such as improperly secured mail servers, web servers, FTP servers, etc.) found one, then used readily available "root kit" tools to take over administrative access on the machine to install the jihadist content. These tools don't require a degree from MIT to use, your fourteen year old teenager has more than enough skill to use them. These are the very same techniques used to hijack computers to send spam. The hijacking of computers within the United States for use in propagating Al Queda's message says less about the technological sophistication of their members than the incompetent administration of millions of computers by American businesses and individuals.

One fascinating aspect of the 60 Minutes piece was the lead-in that featured an interview with an Army General stating how we engage and kill teenagers recruited by these jihadist web sites every day in Iraq. Really? Iraq? The country that has power approximately 25% of the day on any given day? Exactly how is the average pre-teen or teenager in Sadr City visiting these web sites? Has there been a sudden influx of DSL, cable and wireless Internet providers in Bagdad to make viewing five megabyte video clips as convenient as visiting the "IEDs R Us" store across the street? I bet Windows Vista upgrade sales are taking off in Fallujah.

Jihad as Really Dumb Ideas -- Obviously, the content on these sites IS getting out to poorly educated youth both in Iraq and other countries in the world and helping to warp minds. Without a doubt, senior leaders of a reconstituted Al Queda make use of standard Internet tools such as email, file servers, web servers, encryption and anonymizers to hide their tracks. However, the biggest source of inspiration for up and coming terrorists is the continual frustration of living in a war zone with no economy and no working justice system and, consequently, no security.

One subject interviewed in the 60 Minutes piece actually touched upon that idea by summarizing the real recruiting approach of Islamic terrorists:

1) find vulnerable youth struggling with their immediate economic / social situation (in the case of poor Muslims) or normal teenage angst (in the case of wealthy Muslims otherwise leading the good life)
2) explode their world by telling them they haven't been living as true Muslims
3) disconnect them from their families by telling them their parents haven't been living as true Muslims either
4) after inducing that chaos, give them the "solution" -- jihadism, battling the sole cause of all of their problems head on in a way that assures you live (and likely die) as a true Muslim

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Charles Manson or Jim Jones recognizes those techniques as more than mere "recruiting," those are classic brainwashing techniques used by cults. The subject who outlined this approach hit the nail precisely on the head. We are witnessing the results of a tiny fraction of nutjobs attempting to hijack a religion and turn it into a cult.

Both the 60 Minutes piece and our government have completely failed to address the disconnect between fighting the spread of really dumb ideas through cult-like techniques and a door-to-door military strategy that not only fails to break the cycle but accelerates it by adding to the chaos that produced it in the first place.