By Yair Amichai-Hamburger
On the Internet, terrorists can find a wide-open playground for particularly sophisticated violence. I have no doubt that the people at the US Department of Defense, when they brought about the inception of the Internet, never thought in their worst nightmares that come 2013, every terrorist splinter group would boast a website and that all the advantages of the Internet would be at the service of terrorists for organizing, planning, and executing their attacks on innocent people.
The Internet helps terror groups in a variety of activities: recruiting members, establishing communication, attaining publicity, and raising funds. Terror organizations direct their messages to their various audiences over the net with great sophistication. The primary audience is the central core of activists, who use the website as a platform for information about various activities. Messages are disguised by pre-agreed codes, and if you’re unfamiliar with the codes, you won’t understand what’s being talked about.
By means of such encoded messages, a global network of terror can operate with great efficiency. It can manage its affairs like an international corporation: the leader passes instructions to various operations officers around the world, and they pass instructions onward to their subordinates. Using the Internet for information transfer, the organization can create a compartmentalized network of activists who cannot identify one another. Even if one cell is exposed, the damage to the overall network is minimal. Ironically, that survivability was exactly the factor that guided the US Department of Defense when it set up the Internet in anticipation of a doomsday scenario.
The second audience that the terror websites speak to is the general community of supporters. Messages for them are open, not disguised, and the operational side is toned down a little. At the site for the general public, the focus is on negative messages regarding the terror organization’s target, and on legitimizing attacks against it without going into specifics. The site presents history in a way that suits its agenda, and often it tries to attract legitimate contributions for its activities by concealing them behind various charitable fronts.
Some of these sites sell souvenirs with the terror organization’s logo, as if it were a sports team. Thus fans can buy scarves or shirts that give them a strengthened sense of identification with the terror organization. The site allows visitors to join discussions, and in some cases it also tries to attract people from the community of true believers into the community of activists. Of course such a process is undertaken with much caution in order that spies not infiltrate the organization. When new volunteers are recruited, there is a great advantage to enlisting people who don’t fit the terrorist stereotype, since such people can serve as couriers without immediately arousing suspicion. On the other hand, the less the new volunteer belongs to the community from which the terror organization sprang, or resembles a member of that community, the greater the suspicion of untrustworthiness. So such a new volunteer will be performing under close watch, or will be assigned to a one-time task that is to end in the grave.
The third audience is the group to be terrorized. In addressing this group, the organization has the objective of arousing fear, and it publicizes its terror operations in order to “win” the audience to the idea that each of them, including their family and closest friends, is likely to be the next terror victim. This baleful message is accompanied by an ultimatum to the audience: if all its demands are not met, the terror organization will make good on all its threats. The terror organization will try to show that because it’s fighting for absolute justice and has no mercy as it makes its way to that goal, it’s unstoppable. It immortalizes its terrorism in well-concocted documentary films that portray successes among its deadly operations, and by documenting executions performed on camera.
Examining the way that terror organizations address their audiences over various channels, we can see that most terror organizations deploy a rather impressive public-relations corps. Many terror organizations, not satisfied with a website alone, expand onto social networks and use other net-based avenues such as e-mail, chats, and forums.
The language of terror is quite interesting. Terrorists lay all the blame on the other party, which they label the aggressor while they present themselves as the real victims who speak in the name of human rights and who champion the oppressed. Take for example the international terror organizations. They explain that terror is the only method they have for striking back defensively at the imperialist aggressor. The terror organizations delegitimize their opponents and describe their enemy as the ultimate aggressor, a perpetrator of criminal actions such as genocide, slaughter, and massacres. Sometimes the fight is considered part of a continuing religious war and the messages bear a religious aura. For instance, a jihad with the prophet Muhammad as the commander in chief, in charge of the courageous legions that the organization represents.
Terror organizations tend to describe their murderous activities as self-defense by a persecuted underdog. They ignore the human side of their victims and use the psychological tool of dehumanization against the opponent, defining it as a group that has no human face. Thus for example, after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, the Al Qaeda organization completely ignored the thousands of murdered people and chose to focus on the indignities that the capitalist Americans had wreaked, and were continuing to wreak, and on the importance of the Twin Towers as a symbol of the western world’s decadence.
Yair Amichai-Hamburger is Director of The Research Center for Internet Psychology, Israel, and author of The Social Net: Understanding our online behavior. This article originally appeared as part of a series on Psychology Today.