Leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs said they're troubled that extremists are increasingly flocking to the Web to recruit, organize, conduct online courses, raise funds and plan attacks in a manner that's cheaper and speedier than ever before.
"We cannot cede cyberspace to the Islamist terrorists because if we do, they will successfully carry out attacks against us in our normal environment," Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said at a morning hearing here titled "The Internet: A Portal to Violent Islamist Extremism."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee's co-chairman, spoke of the need to "resist the perversion of the World Wide Web into a weapon of worldwide war."
The use of the Internet by terrorist groups is. But according to the hearing's witnesses, the number of Web sites--many of them mirroring information published by leaders on core, authoritative sites--has multiplied from a handful in 2000 to many thousands today, with more added each week. Most of the 42 groups on the State Department's 2005 list of foreign terrorist organizations use Web sites "to promote their violent message," Collins said.
Officials from the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense and the co-author of a new report on "Internet-facilitated radicalism" told politicians at the hearing that it's clear the preferred locale for the "war of ideas" perpetuated by terrorist groups is a new cyberbattlefield.
"The Internet...is more than just a tool of terrorist organizations," said Michael Doran, a deputy assistant secretary in the Defense Department. "It is the primary repository of the essential resources for sustaining the culture of terrorism."
The latest generation of radicals is using password-protected bulletin boards to exchange ideas, translating their video and audio tapes into various foreign languages, and employing readily available services like Google Earth to scheme up targeted attacks, the witnesses said. Some sites have become virtual libraries, housing thousands of electronic books and articles written by members of a global movement bent on waging war against the United States and its worldwide allies.
"Internet chat rooms are now supplementing and replacing mosques, community centers and coffee shops as venues for recruitment and radicalization by terrorist groups like Al-Qaida," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. He co-authored a report released Thursday (PDF) that details the use of the Internet by radical groups, some of whom live by the slogan "keyboard equals Kalashnikov."
The question high on politicians' minds Thursday was how to respond. Lieberman asked about the extent to which government agents are pretending to be potential recruits to get information about potential plots.
"I for one would like those who are operating those terrorist Web sites to know that we are working very hard to infiltrate them," he said.
The government officials declined to comment on specific tactics in a public hearing. They repeatedly said the answer to dealing with what they deemed a serious threat lies in a combination of approaches: using technical measures to shut down sites deemed particularly threatening may sometimes be worthwhile, but it's often more prudent to allow sites to remain active for intelligence-gathering purposes.
"We can monitor them to follow the networks and assess their operational capacity," said Lt. Col. Joseph Felter, director of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy. "We can sabotage them by infiltrating their networks and flooding the Web with bogus information."
The witnesses repeatedly likened squelching the terrorist Internet presence to a game of "whack-a-mole"--when one site comes down, another one is bound to show up. They said it's particularly challenging to root out all the propaganda because al Qaida, for one, has established such strong online "branding" that its products are easily identified even when republished on unofficial sites.
Some suggested another approach would be to attempt to introduce a "counternarrative" on the sites: that is, to find ways to "amplify" the voices of movement members who express skepticism about the terrorist plans, in hopes of discrediting them from within.
"What we can do is get people who are versed in the Koran, we can get people who are versed in the culture, to be able to identify how these ideas are just flat wrong," Cilluffo said.
The politicians said they won't be satisfied until the government does more about the perceived threat. The same committee has scheduled another hearing for next Thursday on the same topic, except with witnesses from the FBI and the State Department.
"The question I have is, is there something that we can do that other countries are doing within the framework of our Constitution that would limit what is being delivered here in the United States?" said Sen. George Voinovich (D-Ohio). He later remarked, "We aren't doing the job."