Terrorism, destabilization, and the modern global environment
Modern terrorism is often said to have a very unique and particular character, not the least of which is the dominant influence of the Internet in shaping and supporting its activities. Of course, it could be argued that on a very basic level certain aspects of terrorism have remained unchanging across the eras, namely terrorists' desire to inflict fear upon a population by using indiscriminate violence against civilians and the desire to garner publicity for a cause. However, the tools available to terrorists have changed, just as the social and political environment is constantly undergoing shifts and alternations that give rise to new motivations for violence. The decentralization of the 21st century balance of power combined with decentralized methods of communication has created a uniquely toxic environment fertile for terrorism, in contrast to previous eras.
The Internet: A new tool for terrorism
Many people keep abreast of new security developments in the field of terrorism online. However, while the Internet offers additional resources for people wishing to expand their base of knowledge and awareness, it has also offered terrorists a new weapon through which to disseminate their message and to perpetuate their actions. The source of this, ironically, is the fact that the Internet was intentionally created as a decentralized rather than a centralized system: "out of fear of the Soviet Union" at the time "when the U.S. Department of Defense was concerned about reducing the vulnerability of its communication networks to nuclear attack" (Weimann 2004: 2). Decentralization seemed to be the safest available option. However, this "now serves the interests of the greatest foe of the West's security services since the end of the Cold War: international terror" (Weimann 2004: 3).
Terrorists have exploited the Internet's decentralization to serve their own needs. Terrorists can use the Internet to disseminate their views in an unfiltered fashion that is difficult to censor. Many of the reasons the Internet is such a useful means of communication, namely its accessibility due to its speed, cost, and timeliness; relative lack of regulation due to its international, borderless quality, and above all its anonymous nature make it conducive to illegal activities and the spread of terrorist propaganda (Weimann 2004: 3). For example, as early as 1998, the anti-Israeli pro-Palestinian Hezbollah "was operating three web sites: one for the central press office (www.hizbollah.org), another to describe its attacks on Israeli targets (www.moqawama.org), and the third for news and information" (Denning 2001: 252). Both Hezbollah and Hamas update their websites to note the causalities their actions have generated (Weimann 2004:4).
Although the common expression is that 'words cannot hurt you,' there is widespread agreement that much of the propaganda disseminated by terrorists has been very destructive in a meaningful fashion. For example, terrorists "can use the Internet to spread disinformation, to deliver threats intended to distill fear and helplessness, and to disseminate horrific images of recent actions, such as the brutal murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl" (Weimann 2004: 5). Additionally, terrorists can also use the online medium as a means of connection with other terrorists and to recruit new persons to their cause. In many instances, it is virtually impossible to shut down such sites because of free speech laws: especially when the terrorists often do not broadcast plans to the world, or threats, merely stoke the fires of radicalism with rhetoric.
To avoid detection, terrorists online have undertaken a number of precautions. One is to avoid explicitly discussing terrorist actions at all and simply to use propaganda to discuss the evils of the enemy. "Even if they expound at length on the moral and legal basis of the legitimacy of the use of violence, most sites refrain from referring to the terrorists' violent actions or their fatal consequences -- this reticence is presumably inspired by propagandist and image-building considerations" (Weimann 2004:4). Another is to use the fluidity of the medium to take down websites and put up new ones with relative ease, to avoid oversight by authorities. Thus in its current incarnation, the Internet provides an ideal portal for terrorists to spread their message in an unfiltered fashion, further galvanizing them to engage in publicity-seeking stunts to spread their reign of terror. As evidenced in the horrific video shown of the Daniel Pearl execution, even the death of one person can become powerfully symbolic of the ability of terrorists to enact a reign of terror. The Internet also allows terrorists and those that support terrorist causes and ideology to 'spin' new events to suit their agenda. For example, "Al Qaeda has consistently claimed on its websites that the destruction of the World Trade Center has inflicted psychological damage, as well as concrete damage, on the U.S. economy" (Weimann 2004:4).
The Internet is a surprising force of terrorist fundraising: just like legitimate retailers, terrorists can use the Internet to engage in market research to target likely sources of lucrative donations. "Al Qaeda, for instance, has always depended heavily on donations, and its global fundraising network is built upon a foundation of charities, nongovernmental organizations, and other financial institutions that use websites and Internet-based chat rooms and forums" (Weimann 2004:7). Seemingly legitimate websites and charities have also solicited donations and used them to fund terrorist activities (Weimann 2004:7).
Finally, the web has become a notorious site of sources of 'instruction' to not only formal members of terrorist groups but also to their sympathizers in the 'art' of constructing homemade explosive devices (Weimann 2004:9). In previous eras, this information was often extremely difficult to find: today, it can be easily shared through private online videos and message boards. This can be one of the most deadly hidden dangers of the Internet, given that the users of such information may not be monitored by law enforcement agents at all but are operating like rogue actors.
Terrorism and the problem of failed states
Just as the creation of the Internet unintentionally generated an ideal form of decentralized communication for terrorists, the increase of failed states in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the bipolar balance of the superpowers likewise created fertile grounds for terrorism. The superpowers had less of a strategic interest in propping up potentially failing states. "Failing and failed states are generally countries that are the most disconnected from the process of global economic, political, and cultural integration and least prepared for the challenges of interacting with the larger world" (Garrett & Adams 2004: 5). Failed states are ideal sources of potential terrorists as well as provide areas in which terrorists can train and prepare themselves to attack.
Now there is growing awareness about the need to address this problem. "Preventive measures would focus on heading off state failure in weak states through the use of a wide variety of political, diplomatic, economic, and legal means….remedial measures would include both near-term crisis steps and long-term reconstruction responses to state failure" (Garrett & Adams 2004: 5-6). Greater cooperation may be necessary between the U.S. And other regional powers such as China with whom it might have historic differences but which can provide valuable assistance in improving world security (Garrett & Adams 2004). Military interventions may be necessary at times, although preferably under the guise of international bodies like the UN which provide objective legitimacy for the need for self-defense when attacks are launched from failed states (Garrett & Adams 2004: 7)
The forces of economic globalization have further destabilized the world environment and facilitated the creation of difficult-to-monitor terrorist cells. "The traditional model of the [terrorist] hierarchical organization dominated by a central headquarters was already considered outdated, having been replaced by transient cells often connected through cyberspace" (The diplomacy of counterterrorism, 2002, USIP: 3). Globalization and the destabilization of the post-Cold War world has…