Politics & Policy

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E-Groups abused by jihadists.

It’s no secret that al Qaeda and terrorist groups like it have availed themselves of the Internet to spread their propaganda, plan attacks, and recruit new members. The Internet is perhaps al Qaeda’s most effective way of communicating and continuing their jihad given the world’s increased vigilance on their activities. They continue to use the Internet increasingly, despite all the success we have had as we attempt to chip away at the amorphous terrorist network, not unlike the Internet itself — disjointed yet connected. Ironically, a company that virtually represents the Internet (and the United States) has been hijacked by radical Islamic fundamentalists, seeking to suffuse their tentacles of hatred throughout cyberspace from a home base in Sunnyvale, California.

Yahoo! has become one of al Qaeda’s most significant ideological bases of operation. Utilizing several facets of Yahoo!’s service, including chat functions, e-mail, and most importantly, Yahoo! Groups, al Qaeda and its supporters have inserted themselves like a cancer into a company that screams, “American pop culture,” and made it as much their own as a training camp in Khost. For the uninitiated, Yahoo! Groups are electronic groups (e-groups) dedicated to a specific topic whereby members of the group can discuss the topic, post relevant articles and multimedia files, and provide a meeting place for those with similar interests. Creating a Yahoo! Group is free, quick, and extremely easy, and al Qaeda and its supporters have wasted no time in starting up several Yahoo! Groups with topics related to the terrorist group and the downfall of Western civilization. Very often, the groups contain the latest links to jihadist websites, serving as a jihadist directory, and are sometimes the first to post al Qaeda communiqués to the public.

With Yahoo! Groups called “Jehaaad” and “The Jihad Group,” for example, al Qaeda supporters chronicle the terrorist group’s victories, disseminate hatred of non-Muslims, and provide a multimedia jihad frenzy for sympathetic viewers and other al Qaeda members. Through these Yahoo! Groups, one can view sickening media presentations posted by al Qaeda zealots. Videos of Russian soldiers being tortured by Chechen mujahedeen, mujahedeen vehicle-bombing operations, sermons by jihadist sheikhs, homages to bin Laden, and glorified, mutilated bodies of mujahedeen fill these Yahoo! Groups. The groups are almost all exclusively in Arabic, making their discovery very difficult for most Americans.

These groups all violate Yahoo!’s “Terms of Service” for the groups, which states in its very first guideline for using the groups that, “You may not harass, abuse, threaten, or advocate violence against other members or individuals or groups.” Almost deliberately defying every guideline, al Qaeda’s Yahoo! Groups harass, abuse, threaten, and advocate violence against other members, individuals, or groups. These websites have a profound effect on would-be terrorists. Captured operatives, like Imam Samudra who aided in the terrible Bali attack in October 2002, have admitted to being inspired by the Internet to wage jihad.

Investigations into the activities of captured members of an Al-Jihad splinter group in Egypt called Jundallah (Soldiers of God) indicated that they utilized the Internet to recruit new members and to aid operatives. A Jundallah website is hosted on Geocities, which is owned by Yahoo! and provides free webpages to individuals. Despite this revelation and evincing the difficulty in tracking these websites, the site remains online, creating some sort of relic that future terrorists can rely upon for inspiration and encouragement, where diagrams of grenades and odes to martyrs are no doubt accessed every day. Yahoo! has provided a Terms of Service for Geocities as well, which states that any user of Geocities agrees not to “upload, post or otherwise transmit any Content that is unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortious, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.” The website is filled with pictures of weapons, suicide bombers, and calls for jihad.

Tracking these abuses is “nearly an impossible task,” according to Yahoo!’s director of communications, Mary Osako, due to the sheer volume of data moving on and through Yahoo’s free services. Yahoo! is unaware of most of these groups or websites and implements a passive approach when it comes to identifying these harmful websites — it relies on abuse reports by Internet users. Yahoo! encourages users to report abuses, Osako says, who also notes that the Terms of Service for the groups and websites are clearly displayed when utilizing a service. Any abuse reported to Yahoo! is reviewed within 24 hours affirms Osako. To its credit, Yahoo! has shut down several groups and websites that were identified as promoting hate speech or supporting terrorist ideology.

Nevertheless, when one website comes down, several more are ready to take its place, due to the free, unrestricted access Internet users have to Yahoo!’s services as well as the services of other companies similar to Yahoo! Most of the services offered by these types of companies are utilized for benign purposes, but the few that abuse the privilege of the services put society at risk by promoting terrorism. Though the Internet is a relatively new mainstream medium and has not been subject to the same societal and legal rules by which other media are constrained, Yahoo! and companies like it have fiduciary obligations to citizens around the world whom the terrorists target. Just as other media like film, television, radio, and print self-regulate themselves for the benefit of society, Yahoo! and its peers must do the same for the Internet and control how people are using their services.

If Yahoo! and companies like it are willing to offer a service for free, they must be willing to regulate and monitor that service to ensure that no harm comes to others as a result of that service. Perhaps requiring individuals creating these groups to put a credit card on file or verifying the contact information of the creators will deteriorate the ability of individuals to manufacture hate-filled forums. Hiring multilingual reviewers to scan the various groups with search technology (which Yahoo! develops) might aid in pinpointing abusers. While these may not be the best solutions, there must be a solution. These jihadist websites are like loaded guns, providing not only the ideological basis for instilling hatred into the minds of individuals all over the world, but also providing the technical know-how. Al Qaeda is very aware of the power of the Internet as a tool for propaganda. Yahoo! and companies providing similar services must not provide terrorist groups with a voice.

Rita Katz, author of Terrorist Hunter, is the director of the SITE Institute, based in Washington, D.C. Josh Devon is a senior analyst at the SITE Institute.

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