The nature of the Internet–the ease ofaccess, the chaotic structure, the anonymity, and the international character –all furnish terrorist organizations with an easy and effective arena foraction. The present research focuses on the use of the Internet by modernterrorist organizations and attempts to describe the uses terroristorganizations make of this new communication technology. Is the use of theInternet by terrorists different from that of other, «conventional»means of communication? How cangovernments respond to this new challenge? The population examined in thisstudy is defined as the Internet sites of terrorist movements as found by asystematic search of the Internet, using various search engines. The sites weresubjected to a qualitative content analysis, focusing on their rhetoricalstructures, symbols, persuasive appeals, and communication tactics. The study reveals differences andsimilarities between terrorist rhetoric online and in the conventional media.
‘By means of the Internet Hizbollah has succeeded in entering the homesof Israelis, creating an important psychological breakthrough’.
Ibrahim Nasser al-Din,Hizbollah military leader.
From the Internet siteof the organization
(quoted in Yediot Aharonot, 16 Dec 1998, p. 7)
Communication scholars conceptualize modern terrorism within theframework of symbolic communication theory (e.g., Dowling, 1986). For example,Kraber argues that «as a symbolic act, terrorism can be analyzed much likeother media of communication, consisting of four basic components: transmitter(the terrorist), intended recipient (target), message (bombing, ambush) andfeed back (reaction of target audience)» (1971, 529). Others have evenargued that terrorism is theater, aimed not at the actual victims, but ratherat the people watching on television (Jenkins 1975; Weimann, 1986; Weimann& Winn, 1994). Thus, modern terrorism can be understood as an attempt tocommunicate messages through the use of orchestrated violence. With this viewof terror as theater in mind, we wish to explore how terrorists use new mediatechnologies to spread their messages.
Thepotential of the Internet for political purposes has fascinated many. Utopian visions of a ‘virtual state’ in whichcitizens hold daily common discussions, communicate needs and demands to theirrepresentatives, and vote by various referenda (all using communication bycomputers) have been raised by thinkers and researchers. They believed thatmodern communication technology could be applied to create a Greek-polis styleparticipatory democracy (see Downing, 1989; Jaffe, 1994). However, with the enormous growth in the sizeand use of the network, it became clear that the realization of this ideal waspremature. In addition to the fact thatthis utopian vision was challenged by pornographic and racist content on theInternet, it also became apparent that radical terrorist organizations ofvarious kinds – anarchists, nationalists, separatists, revolutionaries,Neo-Marxists, and fascists – were using the network to distribute theirpropaganda, to communicate with their supporters, to create public awarenessand sympathy, and even to execute operations.
Paradoxically,the very decentralized structure that the American security services createdout of fear of a Soviet nuclear attack now serves the interests of the greatestfoe of the West’s security services since the end of the Cold War, namelyinternational terror. The nature of the network, its international characterand chaotic structure, the simple access, the anonymity – all furnish terroristorganizations with an ideal arena for action. The present research focuses onthe use of the Internet by modern terrorist organizations and attempts todescribe the uses terrorist organizations make of this new communicationtechnology.
«The Theater ofTerror»
Our analysis of terrorist organizations’ web pages is guided by thedominant theory of terrorism in communication studies, the theory of the“theater of terror” (Weimann & Winn, 1994). This approach claims thatmodern terrorism can be understood in terms of the production requirements oftheatrical engagements. As Jenkins concluded in his analysis of internationalterrorism:
Terrorist attacks are often carefullychoreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and theinternational press. Taking and holding hostages increases the drama. Thehostages themselves often mean nothing to the terrorists. Terrorism is aimed at the people watching,not at the actual victims.actual victims.Terrorism is a theater (Jenkins 1975, 4).
Terroristspay attention to script preparation, cast selection, sets, props, role-playing,and minute-by-minute stage management. Just like compelling stage plays orballet performances, the media orientation in terrorism requires a fastidiousattention to detail in order to be effective. As Laqueur put it, «Themedia are the terrorist’s best friend. The terrorist’s act by itself isnothing, publicity is all» (1976, 104). Numerous terrorist organizationshave realized the potential of media-oriented terror, as a means of effectivelyreaching huge audiences. A study of all incidents of international terrorismduring 1968-1980 revealed a significant increase in terrorist acts thatvictimize Western nations (though most perpetrators are non-Western) and aredesigned to attract the attention of the Western media (Weimann, 1986; Weimann& Winn, 1994). No wonder that Bell argued, «It hasbecome more alluring for the frantic few to appear on theon the worldstage of television than remain obscure guerrillas of the bush» (1976,89). Terrorist theory realized the potency of the mass media. Acts of terrorismwere increasingly conceived as a means of persuasion, where the victim was»the skin on a drum beaten to ach
ieve a calculated impact on a wideraudience» (Schmid & DeGraaf, 1982, 14).
Theemergence of media-oriented terrorism led several communication and terrorismscholars to re-conceptualize modern terrorism within the framework of symboliccommunication theory. Karber has pointed out that “the terrorist’s message ofviolence necessitates a victim, whether personal or institutional, but thetarget or intended recipient of the communication may not be the victim» (Karber, 1971, 529). Dowling suggestedapplying the concept of «rhetoric genre» to modern terrorism, arguingthat «terrorists engage in recurrent rhetorical forms that force the mediato provide the access without which terrorism could not fulfill itsobjectives» (1986, 14). Some terrorist events become what Bell has called»terrorist spectaculars» (1978, 50) that can be best analyzed by the»media event» conceptualization (see Weimann, 1987 for adiscussion).
Thegrowing use and manipulation of modern communications by terroristorganizations led governments and several media organizations to considercertain steps in response. These included limiting terrorists’ access to themedia, reducing and censoring news coverage of terrorist acts and theirperpetrators, and minimizing the terrorists’ capacity for manipulating themedia (Weimann, 1999). However, the new media technologies allow terroristorganizations to transmit messages more easily and freely than through theconventional mass media. The network of computer-mediated communication (CMC)is ideal for terrorists-as-communicators: it is decentralized, it cannot besubjected to control or restriction, it is not censored, and it allows accessto anyone who wants it.
Given thegrowth of Internet research in recent years, it is rather surprising thatprevious research has overlooked the online activity of terroristorganizations. Who are the terroristmovements that use the Internet? What isthe rhetoric of the terror sites on the Internet? Who are the target audiencesaddressed by the terrorists through the network? Do the organizations use theInternet to mobilize audiences for active operations? Current research leavesthese questions unanswered. The aim of the current research is to address thesedescriptive research questions.
To studyterrorism, on the Internet or elsewhere, one must first define what a terroristorganization is. The etymology of the term ‘terror’ begins with the Latin verbterrere, meaning to arouse fear. Although terror, or strategies reminiscent ofthe phenomenon, was practiced long ago in the ancient world, it is generally accepted thataccepted that theterm itself first came into use in France after the French Revolution, under theunder the ‘reignof terror’ of Robespierre. But although most researchers of the subject mayconcur regarding the etymological origins of the term, they find it hard toreach an agreed definition of the term. More than one hundred different definitions have been offered by scholars(see Weimann & Winn, 1994: 20). Some of these definitions focus on thespecial nature of the victims of terror; some stress the difference between thevictims and the true goal of terror; other definitions focus on the violent actitself, its abnormal nature, or the unusual character of its perpetrators(Schmid, 1983: 73-100). One early systematicstudy of 109 different definitions attempted to isolate the common andagreed upon components of definitions ofterrorism (Schmid and Jongman, 1988). From these, a 200-word definitiondeveloped, which included the following elements: an act of violence; symbolicor chance victims (innocent people); performance by an organization;methodicalness or seriality in the operation; advance planning; criminal character;absence of moral restraints; political demands; attempt to win attention; useof fear (terror); and unpredictability or unexpectedness. This definition,employed by many studies of modern terrorism, guided our present study’s searchfor terrorist sites on the Internet.
Contentanalysis was defined by Holsi as “any technique for reaching conclusions bysystematic and objective identification of defined properties of messages”(Holsti, xxxx 1968: xx601). In the present study, due to the small size of the sample and thedescriptive nature of the research questions, the analysis was mainlyqualitative. The population for this study was defined as the Internet sites ofterrorist movements as they appeared in January 1998 and January 2002. We used the American State Department’s listof terrorist organizations (U.S. State Department, 1996; US State Department,2000), which meets the accepted definition of terror (as elaborated by Schmid& Jongman, 1988). The major problem of reliance on this list is that itrepresents the official perspective. According to some critical approaches, the ‘real’ terror organizationsare the agencies and satellites of the United States (Herman, 1982; Herman & Chomsky, 1988;Herman & O’Sullivan, 1989). Thus, one must restrict the present study’sboundaries to those of the official and conventional perspective which certainly does not representother perspectivesperspectives.
To locatethe terror sites a search of the Internet was conducted, using the names ofhundreds of organizations in the sampling base. The standard search engines(Altavista, Lycos, Infoseek, Yahoo, Magellan, and Google.) were used. The firstsearch, conducted in January 1998, yielded 14 organizations and 16 Internetsites. Another search, conducted in January 2002, yielded 29 sites from 18organizations. The 1998 search was limited to English websites, while the 2002search included sites in English and Arabic. Almost all organizations active in1998 were also online in 2002. However, many of the URL addresses used byterrorist sites in 1998 had changed by 2002 (mostly due to moves to differentservers).
Who are theterrorists of the Internet?
Numerousorganizations have entered cyberspace and created Internet sites (for detaileddescriptions see Appendix 1). These include Hamas (the Islamic ResistanceMovement), the Lebanese Hizbollah (Party of God), the Egyptian Al-Gama’a alIslamiyya (Islamic Group, IG), the Popular Front for the Liberation ofPalestine (PLFP), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Peruvian Tupak-Amaru(MRTA) and ‘The Shining Path’ (Sendero Luminoso), the Kahane Lives movement,the Basque ETA movement, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Supreme TruthPure Truth (Gabi, that’s the wayit appears in the State Department’s list )(AumShinrikyo), the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN-Colombia), theLiberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Armed Revolutionary Forces ofColombia (FARC), the Popular Democratic Liberation Front Party in Turkey(DHKP/C), the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the Zapatista National LiberationArmy (ELNZ), the Japanese Red Army (JRA), and the Islamic Movement ofUzbekistan (IMU). One other site, that of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI- Mujahedin-e Khalq) did not have
an English version in addition to that inFarsi, and hence was not analyzed. These organizations not only pursue thepeaceful act of establishing Internet sites, but also engage in actual violence(some of them with a long record that includes killings, kidnapping, assaults,and bombings).
Geographically,most of the organizations that have turned to the Internet are based in Third World countries (in South America, East Asia, theand theMiddle East), and only two are located in Europe. This finding is apparently due to thedecline in terrorism in Europe duringthe 1980s and 1990s and its rise in the Third World. Classification of the organizations by type (see Wilkinson in Ben-Dor,1977:38) shows that those on the Internet are national, revolutionary, andreligious movements (or combinations of these types). As expected, terrormovements of a criminal or psychotic type are absent, probably because, unlikepolitically motivated terrorism, they are uninterested in media exposure.
Notsurprisingly, anti, thewebsites of anti-regime organizations usually operatefrom outside the state against which they are working. But geographical distance may bemisleading. It is more than possible that the sites are in practice operatedfrom a place different from that stated on the site. It is also possible thatthe ‘domain’ and the ‘server’ for thefor thesite have been acquired by supporters of the organization abroad, but thecontent itself is produced at the scene of the conflict. In some cases, anexplicit connection to the leadership of the organization is mentioned. Somesites declare that they are not official sites of the organization, some evenin their title (‘The Unofficial Hamas Homepage;’ ‘The Unofficial HezbollaHomepage’). Yet, the, someconnection to the terrorist organizations and their leadership is evident fromthe sites’ contents (e.g.. communiqués, interviews with leaders).
The content ofterrorist sites
The mostcommon content of the surveyed sites is information. ItTheyusually includes information about thehistory of the organization and biographies of its leaders, founders, heroes,commanders or revered personalities, information on the political andideological aims of the organization, and up-to-date news. Most of the sites give a detailed historicalaccount of the movement or the organization, a review of the social andpolitical background, a selective description of its notable activities in thepast, and its aims. National organizations (separatist or territorial)generally display maps of the areas in dispute: (the Hamas site shows a map of Palestine; the Colombian site shows a map of Colombia; the Zapatista site has a map of Chiapas and information about it; the Tamil sitepresents a map of Sri Lanka).
Almostall the terror sites detail their goals in one way or another. Sometimes thisis done explicitly, sometimes indirectly. Sometimes it is a separate section,and sometimes intermixed with other content. The most common presentation ofaims is through a direct criticismdirect criticism of their enemies orrivals. For example, the Hamas site presents a historical account of ‘the birthof the Zionist entity in Palestine;’ the ‘Shining Path’ site has information about ‘the crimes of theFujimori regime’ (supported by the United States); a considerable part of the Hizbollah sitefocuses on Israelion Israeliactivity (‘Israeli terrorism’ from the Hizbollah standpoint); the Tamil siteattacks the Sinhalese regime. Thus, the terrorist sites do not concentrate onlyon information concerning their organizations; direct attack of the enemy isthe most common strategy of the Internet terrorists.
Bycontrast, almost all sites avoid presenting and detailing their violentactivities. Although the organizationsbehind these sites have a record of bloodshed, they hardly ever record theseactivities on their sites. The exceptions are Hizbollah and Hamas. Hizbollahshows updated statistical reports of its actions (‘daily operations’) thatdisplay in minute detail all of the organization’s operational successes. Aseparate page enumerates the number of dead ‘martyrs,’ along with the number of‘Israeli enemies’ and ‘collaborators’ killed. The Hamas site in Arabic containslengthy discussions of military ‘operations’ in its news and views sections.However, this detailed depiction of violent action is unusual. most organizationsMostorganizations, even if they expound at length on the moral (and,as some of them argue, legal) basis of the legitimacy of the use of violence,refrain from any reference to their violent actions or their fatalconsequences. This reticence probably the propaganda and image building motivesof the sites.
Whileavoiding the violent aspects of their activities, the Internet terrorists,regardless of their nature, motives or location, usually stress two issues:freedom of expression and political prisoners. Thus, the Tamil Tigers discuss the legislation of the Sri Lankangovernment that limits freedom of expression ‘in support of the establishmentof a separate state on the land of Sri Lanka;’ the Kahane Lives site calls onvisitors to oppose the legal ban on activity of the organization (in the UnitedStates and Israel); the issues of freedom of expression and restrictions onpolitical activity are central themes on the site of the Basque Hari Batsuna,and the Colombian ELN site discusses limited freedom of expression extensively(‘Contrary to what official sources state, there is no freedom of the press orof expression in Colombia… The Sampar government operates censorship and istightening its hold on the media… Moreover, critical journalistsare victims of death and torture… Every week attacks are made against thejournal of the Communist Party’). It appears that anti-establishment terrorenjoys representing itself as the victim, appealing to the democratic values ofthe Western public in general and Internet users in particular. Terrorists aimat Western audiences who are sensitive to the norms of freedom of expressionand emphasize the issues that provoke sympathy in democratic societies.Restricted expression by political movements is contrary to the fundamental andsacred principles of democracy. The strong emphasis given to this issue indemocratic societies helps terrorist organizations, which don the innocent capof a ‘non-violent political group,’ embarrass the governments against whichthey are struggling. This tactic worksparticularly well on the stage of the Internet, the symbol of absolutely freecommunication.
As notedabove, another piece of information frequently found on terrorists’ websites isthat of political detentions. The FARCsite talks in terms of ‘the cry of womenpolitical prisoners;’ political prisoners is a subject that often appears onthe site of the Kurdish movement and the Palestinian sites; the DHKP/C sitedeals at length with the hunger strike of political prisoners and the torturethey endure (which ‘will not be able to break the human spirit’); a report onthe condition of political prisoners in Peru and calls for their liberation maybe found at the Tupak Amaru site
; the Kahane site condemns administrativedetentions and even presents an interview from prison with Benyamin ZeevKahane; the Hari Batsuna site mentions the detention of party activists whodistributed a cassette produced by ETA, the military arm of the movement,‘calling for a peaceful solution to the crisis of the Basque region.’ CarlosMarighela in his manual for the urban guerrilla states that one of hisstrategies is to push the authorities to act in a way that will make them hatedby the citizens. The themes of political detention and restricted freedom ofexpression are used for this purpose. The organizations’ websites emphasize theanti-democratic measures employed against them. In so doing, they attempt tomalign the authorities, appealing both to their supporters (‘constituents’) aswell as to more remote audiences of ‘bystanders.’ Even among the community oftheir ‘enemies,’ namely the public that is naturally hostile to theorganization, the terrorists try, by emphasizing the threats to democracy, tocreate feelings of uneasiness and shame.
Theterrorist sites are made up not only of text, but are also rich in graphic andvisual elements. All of them display their emblems on their homepages. Some ofthe sites even offer visitors the option of downloading the emblems. Althoughthe Internet sites usually conceal the violent nature of the terrororganizations and stress their allegedly peace-loving nature, this pacificapproach is not reflected in their emblems. Symbols on the websites’ homepages usually include weapons or otherelements signifying the use of force. Hizbollah shows a knife with drippingblood; the Shining Path and the IRA display masked fighters brandishingweapons; at the Kahane Lives site there is a raised fist, and at the TupakAmaru and ELN sites a rifle is held aloft. Some of these symbols originated long before the Internet and thus donot reflect the new trend of a non-violent image. The flags of the organization(or similar national symbols) also appear regularly on the sites’ front page(Incidentally, some sites are designed in the colors of the flags). The 2002sites contain many other non-textual elements– songs and speeches, and evenvideo clips. These are usually more common on non-English sites.
A commonelement on the terror sites is the organization’s communiqués and the speechesand writings of its leaders, founders, and ideologists. The sites often presenta word-for-word series of official statements by the organizations, which thevisitor can browse through, along with selected announcements arranged by date.Tupak Amaru and the Zapatistas offer such communiqués and even call on visitorsto copy, translate, print, and distribute them (: ‘Theyare the work of the central command and the site has no copyright’); the DHKP/Csite offers speeches and translations of chapters from a book by one of itsleaders; the Hamas site offers links to translations of interviews given bySheikh Yassin to Arab radio stations and newspapers; the Shining Path offersaccess to pamphlets by the organization’s spokespeople; the FARC site allowsaccess to press announcements and letters; Kahane Lives gives a commentary onthe weekly Torah portion by Benyamin Zev Kahane. In general, the Internet sitesof terrorists sites,tend to recycle materialsdistributed in the past through the mass media and other communication means.Some terrorist sites house a veritable online gift shop through which visitorscan order and purchase books, video and audio cassettes, stickers, printedshirts, and pins with the organization’s badges.
The rhetoric of terrorof terror on theInternet
AsWeimann and Winn argued in their study on The Theater of Terror (1994),one of the central problems facing modern terrorism is to justify the use ofviolence. It is clear that this problemalso preoccupies the operators of the terror Internet sites. At most sitessignificant efforts are devoted to vindicating the use of violence. Fourrhetorical structures are used on the terrorist sites to justify violence. Thefirst one is the «no choice» motive. Most sites aver that they do notreject a peaceful solution. Violence is presented as a necessity foisted uponthe weak as the only means with which to deal with an oppressive enemy. Thusthe Tamil Tigers argue that their use of violence is legitimized by the SriLankan rejection of the rights of the Tamil minority. They cite the UNUniversal Declaration of Human Rights and various reports of external observers(usually from human rights organizations) about the right of the Tamil peopleto self-determination, the Geneva Convention, and UN Security Councilresolutions. All these lead to the conclusion that ‘the armed struggle of theTamil people is both right and legal because the rule of law for the Tamilpeople has ceased to exist.’ The site points out that the Tamil struggledeveloped only as a last resort after the Tamils had endeavored to realizetheir rights peacefully.
The ELNnotes that the armed struggle is legitimate, for ‘with or without theguerrilla, violence reigns in our world day by day: hunger, repression, rape,crime… The violence of our organization is the result, not the cause, of thisreality. This is the attempt of the weak to free themselves… Therefore, the ELNwill not abandon the armed struggle until the causes of our struggle havepassed… We are fighting because we long for a society without violence.’ The Hizbollah site argues that the Islamicresistance is a response to Zionist aggression and the Zionist aim of masteryover southern Lebanon, and that ‘as noted in the Declaration of Human Rights,it is our right to fight until our rights and our land are restored tous.’ Hamas argues that ‘just as theFrench resistance movement fought the Nazis in the forties, Hamas is amovement… composed of patriots seeking self-determination and struggling tofree their homeland, Palestine.’
A secondrhetorical structure related to the of legitimacy of the use of violenceis the demonizing and de-legitimization of the enemy. The members of themovement or organization are presented as freedom fighters, forced againsttheir will to use violence because the rights and dignity of their people or group arebeing crushed by a ruthless enemya ruthless enemy is crushingthe rights and dignity of their people or group. The enemy of themovement or the organization is the real terrorist, many sites insist, and ‘ourviolence is dwarfed in comparison to his aggression’ is a routine slogan. TheHamas site directs the visitor to a page bearing the heading ‘Who Is ATerrorist?’ showing an illustration of Israeli soldiers holding a child(caption: ‘We have captured a terrorist, Sir!’), another of Israeli soldiers inan armored troop carrier, with the bodies of women and children visible throughthe gun sights (caption: ‘I have won, Levi! I shot three of those creatures’), and others of Israeli soldiersshooting and beating women and children, accompanied by cynical headingspresenting the Israelis as inhuman brutes. The message is that the Palestiniansare the victims of the Zionists who are the real terrorists, devoid of moralrestraint and ready to hurt women and children. The Hamas site is replete withmany facts whose purpose is the de-legitimization of Israel.of Israel. These include ‘facts’ about theconnection between Zionist and British imperialism; quotations from Zionistleaders about ‘Zionist expa
nsionist aims;’ and examples of brutal and violentacts committed by Israelis.
TheHizbollah site similarly stresses that the Israelis are the terrorists. The site shows lurid pictures of the killingsin the Kana disasters, deaths that in fact were caused by mistake by Israeliartillery. A historical survey of the ‘development of the Islamic resistance’quotes from speeches of Zionist leaders (including Herzl) who held that toensure water sources for the Jewish state, its northern border had to be theLitani river (today deep in Lebanese territory). The site presents detailedinformation about ‘Israeli terrorism’: information about the ‘birth of theZionist entity,’ ‘Israel’s daily aggression,’ and ‘Israeli acts of slaughter’.
Theargument at the Turkish DHKP/C site is that ‘the ruling classes have adopted apolicy of terror and slaughter, hardly to be found anywhere in the world…Every day thousands of revolutionaries are murdered by the fascist forces ofthe state… In the prisons hundreds of prisoners are tortured. Villages andforests are wiped out and thousands of people are driven off their land andherded into concentration camps. Almost every day the state raids the unionsand workers’ organizations… At the same time, members of the ruling class arefound almost every day involved in corruption or other scandals. Most of thesenior officials of the state, including the president and the prime minister,depend on and are under the thumb of the Mafia and are linked to acts ofbribery and corruption.’ The Shining Path site gives information about ‘thecrimes of the Fujimori regime, supported by the United States.’ According to this site, ‘from the start the popular struggle was obligedto face the most evil brutality that the Peruvian government could apply – fromthe slaughter and annihilation of whole villages to the execution of hundredsof revolutionaries and of the Chairman of the organization Gonzalo… ThePeruvian army conducted a campaign of genocide… For all that, the revolutioncontinued to advance.’ Terrorist rhetoric tries to shift the responsibility tothe opponent, displaying his brutality, his inhumanity, and his immorality. Theviolence of the ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’ movements is dwarfed in comparisonwith the cruelty of the opponent.
The thirdrhetorical tactic is to emphasize weakness. The organizations attempt tosubstantiate the claim that terror is the weapon of the weak. As noted earlier,despite the ever-present vocabulary of ‘the armed struggle’ or ‘resistance,’the terror sites avoid mentioning or noting how they victimize