They are Internet addicts. But instead of spending hours trolling adult websites, gambling or shopping, these people socially network with terrorists, an international security consultant said on Aug. 4 at Fordham.
“They are seeking advice, assistance and material support online and many times, they find it,” said Evan Kohlmann of Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York-based security consultancy firm.
Speaking at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on the third day of the International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS), Kohlmann provided a look into this dark, yet right-out-in-the-open, aspect of cyber terrorism.
“The online network for these guys is more important than nationality, tribe or ethnicity. These connections are becoming the glue that ties terrorist networks together,” he said.
Kohlmann, who has spent more than a decade tracking terrorist organizations on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Justice, FBI and others, discussed “Hacking Al-Qaida: Social Networking, Technology and Terrorism,” at the conference, which the University is cosponsoring with the FBI.
Kohlman explained that the most important social networks are being formed entirely online because the Internet offers anonymity, interactivity and a resilient infrastructure. No matter where people are in the world, they can be connected instantly to others who sympathize with their cause.
“It’s like the New Yorker magazine cartoon showing a dog behind a computer telling another dog that, ‘On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog,’” Kohlmann said.
To illustrate how a seemingly quiet family man can be recruited and transformed into a terrorist, Kohlmann told the story of Humam al-Balawi, a young Jordanian doctor who went by the name Abu Dujana al-Khorasani on the Web. In 2009, al-Balawi was recruited by Jordanian intelligence agents and the CIA to infiltrate Al-Qaida’s leadership in Afghanistan.
Instead, al-Balawi duped his handlers and used his online credentials to establish contact with Al-Qaida and the Taliban, volunteering to carry out a suicide bombing, killing seven CIA agents at a base in a remote corner of Afghanistan.
“He was a 30-year-old doctor with a family. He didn’t have connections to terrorist groups. But what he did have was a passion for the Internet,” Kohlmann said. “This person was written off as a computer nerd, but instead he had very serious intentions.”
Perhaps more sobering is that al-Balawi wasn’t hiding his intentions or location, Kohlmann said. He was a fixture on message boards and even gave interviews to online propaganda magazines put out by Al-Qaida and the Taliban.
“He was actually telling people where he was and what he was going to do,” Kohlmann said, as he read from al-Balawi’s postings. “At a certain point this year, so many people on these forums starting joining the jihad in Afghanistan that [the forums]became eulogies, one after the next, for these [online forum]users.”
Kohlmann said the avatar nicknames of these social network forum users are being adopted by Al-Qaida.
“Can you imagine that Al-Qaida’s number three man, in official statements released by Al-Qaida, is referring to individual users on websites by their online avatar nicknames? This is a revolution, and it has permeated to the highest levels of Al-Qaida,” Kohlmann said.
This online world of terrorism via social networking is one that can be exported in a lot of different manifestations of crime, Kohlmann said. It’s not just happening overseas, as online activity has been tracked in places like Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Ore., in a variety of languages, including English.
“These are not places you would consider hotbeds of terrorism, but that’s the reality,” Kohlmann said. “Ultimately it comes down to analysts who are smart enough to pick apart the nuggets.”