Two weeks ago I wrote about an English newspaper report that Islamist websites had been taken down wholesale by British intelligence after the London tube bombings. The report was exaggerated; two such websites turned out to have been taken down more or less permanently among the estimated 4,500 terrorist URLs.
A sidebar question remained unexplored: Would it be a good strategy for Western nations to attack terrorist communications in this fashion? It would seem obvious. A blogger wrote, back when the erroneous report appeared, that "causing those websites to go offline is far more significant than it may appear":
To a normal army or even the older sort of terrorist organizations we have dealt with in the 1960s through the 1980s, this would be irrelevant. But many terrorist organizations today are little more than a website and people who read the website and then take action.
This is not something that is uniquely Moslem in any way. The so-called "Earth Liberation Front" has evolved into this same pattern in the United States....The websites are one of the few things which connects these people and their attacks at all.
...Losing these websites may be as important a problem for the jihadist movement as the loss of radio communications is for a conventional army."
Contrast that view with establishment opinion. "Taking the websites down is not necessary," says Mike Kern, a senior analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based SITE Institute, which tracks terrorist activity on the Internet. "It's an advantage, especially with those on U.S. servers, to leave them up, because there's a lot of valuable information that can be subpoenaed."
In addition, just as penetrating Japanese and German communications in World War II helped the allies win, leaving Islamist websites up and running keeps the intelligence community in the West ahead of the game. It makes defense easier.
But consider Islamist web techniques as described by Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser's recent three-part series in the Washington Post, the article from which the figure of 4,500 websites is attributed to University of Haifa Professor Gabriel Weimann. The Islamists devote most of their web space and time to open recruiting, instruction, motivation, brainstorming, and advertising. And that is a very different thing from military communications, which are secure, originate in a single command structure, and are designated for certain recipients only. Military communication also requires acknowledgement and feedback.
Not so with open web warfare. It doesn't matter who picks it up. Anybody can act on it, and with its help. Many do, and more will. Recent reports suggest the London tube bombings came about in this way, not by any direct orders. The D.C. snipers could have been inspired in the same way, and look how effective they were.
If it's a good idea to relegate Osama and his cohorts to the wilds of Pakistan, why not put the websites to flight, too, by constant nation-sponsored hackery and destruction? It would certainly reduce the troubling metastasis of terror. To put it another way, it would shut down radical Internet evangelism.
Yes, as Mike Kern points out, closed websites "often reappear within 24 hours, even using the same URL." So? Hit them again.
I SUSPECT THE ESTABLISHMENT types would resist. I suspect that when officialdom tells of "increased levels of chatter," what they mean is a blizzard of open messages of one sort or another. And I suspect, given the general passivity and recalcitrance of the U.S. intelligence establishment, that if the U.S. were to destroy Islamist websites wholesale, the Department of Homeland Security would have very little left to say.
If it would get the DHS off its butt, all the more reason to take those websites down. And if doing so destroys some embedded secure communications critical to al-Qaeda operations, better still.
Want to get tougher on terror? As hundreds of bloggers commented after the erroneous report two weeks ago of a wholesale web offensive, it's about time.