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Visiting professor discusses the changing landscape of online terrorism

Gabriel Weimann, a researcher, author and Professor of Communication at Haifa University in Israel, delivered a presentation about the changing landscape of online terrorism on Feb. 13 at the University of Maryland as part of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies lecture series.

His presentation, titled “Going Darker: New Trends in Online Terrorism,” dealt with the four stages of internet use by terrorist groups. The four stages are website use, forum and chatroom use, social media use and, finally, dark web use.

“They haven’t advanced our internet knowledge, they haven’t invented anything,” Weimann said, “They just learned how to use our Western platform to attack the West, essentially.”

Weimann began his lecture by discussing how quickly terrorist Internet use has evolved. He said in 1998 there were 12 terrorist websites and five years later there were almost 3,000. Now there are almost 10,000 terrorist  websites.

According to Weimann, terrorists use the internet because it is easy to access, there are hardly any regulations, it can be anonymous and it attracts the attention of journalists.

Weimann said that terrorist groups take advantage of all online platforms, from the standard social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, to lesser known entities like the virtual world Second Life, to programs like Google Earth. While having a website requires interested parties to come to them, social media allows terrorist groups to seek out potential recruits.

From social media, Weimann moved on to discussing narrowcasting, which is the opposite of broadcasting. Weiman said that the Internet has given terrorists the opportunity to send specific messages to specific audiences, be them children, women, minorities, inmates, etc.

The narrowcasting of terrorist messages to children, “the naïve ones, the innocent ones,” hit Weimann the hardest during his research.

Terrorist groups have used colorful mascots, similar to those produced by entertainment companies, to promote ideological narratives such as oppression and martyrdom.

“The idea is that you use figures and images that children are aware of and used to seeing, but their stories are different,” Weimann said.

Weiman rounded out his lecture by discussing the dark web: terrorist use of bitcoin, virtual private networks to hide their movements, the black market terrorists use to sell arms and ammunition and how the use of the dark web has made tracking terrorist Internet activity so much more difficult.

“We can see that these trends are merging together,” Weimann said. “Terrorist groups are using social media in the dark web to narrowcast and grow their networks.”

At the end of his lecture Weimann answered the question of what can be done to assuage this Internet surge.

“Don’t destroy their web presence, monitor it to predict attacks and launch counter campaigns using the same methods,” Weimann said.

To Weimann, terrorism is a constant, and efforts to destroy it completely will always be in vain.

“I don’t think we can win the war on terrorism, terrorism has always been, and it always will be,” Weimann said. “We can only minimize it.”

Weimann is a visiting professor at UMD, teaching a course on online terrorism, and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.  He has spent is career researching terrorist use of modern media, online terrorism and cyberterrorism. He has published nine books and over 180 research papers.