Tracking Al-Qaida: Terrorism and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century

Earlier this month, the International Peace Institute hosted a lunchtime policy forum on “Tracking Al-Qaida: Terrorism and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century,” with speakers Dr. Marc Sageman, Scholar in Residence at the New York Police Department, and Mr. Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant. The event, attended by diplomats, practitioners, and researchers, focused on the changing nature of recruitment and social interaction among violent extremists due to the growing use of the internet.
Describing such communities as “blobs,” due to their amorphous, porous nature, Dr. Sageman argued that the internet has allowed networks to develop in environments where relative anonymity and comparatively low risks encourage the development of intense relationships. These then fuel peer pressure and moral outrage (at often vicariously shared grievances), which in turn moves participants to support or engage in violent, radical activities.

Mr. Kohlmann described the more operational activities of terrorist groups–primarily al-Qaida–online, and highlighted the internet as a vehicle for the creation of social networks, which, in the case of many terrorist groups, were formerly formed on street-corners, in community centers, or in other social venues, but have now migrated to chatrooms and other internet fora. Furthermore, he pointed out the elusive nature of these fora, noting that many of the sites that were active as recently as 2006 have since been shut down and replaced by new sites, posing a challenge to lawmakers whose approach is often to target particular domains. Both experts noted, however, that of the many thousands who visit extremist internet chatrooms, only a small minority ultimately engage in violent activities.

This timely discussion followed the release of a report by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force’s Working Group on Countering the Use of the Internet for Terrorism Purposes, as well as a report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence on “Countering Online Radicalisation: A Strategy for Action”. In addition, this event builds on IPI’s ongoing work on the international responses to terrorism and violent extremism, and the role of multilateral organizations, such as the UN, in this effort.

Welcoming Remarks
Mr. Warren Hoge,
Vice President and Director of External Relations, International Peace Institute

Mr. Richard Barrett,
Coordinator, Al Qaeda/Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Team

Dr. Marc Sageman,
Scholar in Residence, New York Police Department

Mr. Evan Kohlmann,
founder, Global Terrorism Alert; Senior Investigator, NEFA (Nine Eleven Finding Answers)