Israeli centre tracks jihadists in cyberspace


Palestinian Islamic Jihad has begun to market its brand of terrorism using Western-hosted websites, despite the fact that it has been declared a terrorist organisation by both the US and the EU, as noted by one of the regular bulletins published by Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.

The importance of the internet as a means of marketing terrorism became significantly greater after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, because the technology makes it relatively easy for groups to overcome obstacles imposed by governments. The internet enables terrorist groups to exploit liberal Western laws ensuring freedom of speech to disseminate their propaganda without effective supervision and with little or no censorship.

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which is based at the Center for Special Studies, north of Tel Aviv, is manned by a small but dedicated staff of 10 people. Dr Reuven Erlich, the director of the centre, is a retired Israeli army colonel who served in the Israel Defense Force's Military Intelligence Branch. The centre, which was founded by Dr Ehrlich in 2001, is dedicated to the memory of fallen members of the Israeli intelligence community and is financed by contributions.

The centre's website, which operates in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French and Russian, logs 120,000 hits per month, of which 40 per cent are from the US and 20 per cent are from Europe, with Britain, Germany and France being the leading users. Israelis constitute about 18 per cent of users and many other users live in the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran.

The primary goal of the centre is to monitor and report on the activities of terrorist organisations and the countries that sponsor them. It focuses on the activities of Palestinian terrorist organisations, financial support transferred by foundations abroad to groups such as Hizbullah, and the connection between Palestinian terrorism and global jihad.

Dr Erlich said: "We believe that information plays a vital role in the fight against terrorism. We do a service by supplying information to the public, the decision makers, media and the academic world. All our information is accessible mainly through our websites."

Among the numerous subscribers to the centre's bulletins are senior government policymakers, academics and institutes specialising in global terrorism. In a bulletin issued in January, the centre revealed that Hamas had launched an experimental TV channel to further its propaganda activities. The bulletin reveals in great detail where broadcasts emanate from, the station's frequency, what its goals are and who operates it. The exact location of the station is unknown but the Palestinian News Agency reported on 9 January that it was located in a mosque somewhere in the Gaza Strip. According to a report appearing the same day in the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat, the organisation plans to launch a satellite station able to reach target audiences all over the world and would probably broadcast from a communications centre in Dubai.

Resources

The centre, which has a computerised information section, boasts a library of 17,000 books about terrorism in all its aspects, making it one of the largest libraries of its kind in the world. Other sources of information include articles from the Arab media, captured documents and intelligence agency documents.

An exhibition complex features an impressive display of documents captured by the Israeli army from various terrorist organisations in the Palestinian Territories during the Intifida. Also on view is a formidable array of weapons seized from a Palestinian ship Karine A by the Israeli navy in 2002, including Qassam rockets, Iranian-made Sagger missiles, equipment for making explosives and a suicide belt.

Also on exhibit are Palestinian maps of the Middle East that do not contain Israel or its cities, except for Jaffa, Acco and Haifa, which were predominantly Arab before 1948, the year Israel declared independence. Posters on the wall show small children dressed up in combat-style clothing and brandishing weapons.

The websites

On 10 October 2005, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center issued a special bulletin concerning the extensive use of the internet by terrorist groups to spread disinformation, disseminate propaganda, incite violence and send operational orders to cells.

According to the centre, one of the main internet sites supporting Hamas' political aims is www.palestine-info.net. It has links to several secondary sites operating under the cover name of The Palestinian Information Center. The main site is in Arabic and has links to sister sites in English, French, Farsi (Iran), Urdu (Pakistan) and Russian. Each link's contents are designed with different target populations in mind. It serves as the group's primary information and propaganda organ and is aimed at both the Palestinians and other target audiences in Muslim countries and communities around the world.

The contents and style of the English link (www.palestine-info.co.uk) differ from the Arabic sites. Tailored for an English-speaking Western audience, the language it contains is much milder than that found on the Arabic site. There is an online children's magazine (www.al-fateh.net) that features comic strips, poems and stories celebrating the "heroism" of the shaheeds (suicide bombers), and pictures of children with headbands brandishing weapons and holding up the Koran. There is also a website featuring video and audio clips, presentations and pictures documenting terrorist activity against Israel (www.palestinegallery.com).

According to the centre, the sites are managed by Nizar Hassan Suleiman al-Hussein, a senior Hamas activist who operates from the group's Lebanese branch in Beirut and receives guidance from Hamas' information office in Damascus. The centre says he operates the websites in Lebanon to conceal the connection to Syria.

David (not his real name), who runs the centre's website, is fluent in Arabic and translates books and newspaper articles from Arabic to English and monitors a range of Arabic websites. His work has given him a very nuanced understanding of how jihadists think.

He said: "Anyone who is able to grasp the language and underlying messages of some of the Saudi sheikhs can understand the background that fanned the flames of hate which played a major role in bringing about the catastrophic attack on 11 September 2001. The West did not understand the undercurrents of hate in the messages coming over the internet and Arabic TV networks, and missed the signals. It is an information war for control over public opinion and the battlefield is the media. This battlefield is no less important than physical battlefields of Gaza or Iraq."

Information about the centre can be found at www.intelligence.org.il and www.terrorism-info.org.il

Joe Charlaff is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem who specialises in homeland security issues

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