RIYADH There are now about 5,600 Web sites spreading al Qaeda's ideology worldwide, and 900 more are appearing each year, a Saudi researcher told a national security conference on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, has identified the Internet as a key battlefield with militants who launched a campaign to topple the U.S.-allied ruling royal family in 2003.
"Research shows there are more than 5,600 sites on the Internet promoting the ideology of al Qaeda," Khaled al-Faram told the Information Technology and National Security conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
"There are some 900 news sites appearing every year, and despite the retreat of some media outlets specifically run by al Qaeda, extremist Web sites are constantly on the rise."
He said it was difficult to track most of the sites, though hardcore al Qaeda sites often change addresses to avoid detection or start up again elsewhere once infiltrated.
Faram was addressing a conference organized by the Saudi intelligence agency to encourage the public to cooperate more with the government and share expertise on how to survey the Internet for militant activity.
This week the Saudi intelligence agency launched a Web site in an effort to open up to the public and change the negative perceptions of security services. People can send information anonymously to the site about any suspicious activity.
"Mukhabarat" (intelligence) agencies are generally feared around the Arab world as tools of governments that abuse human rights. Saudi Arabian intelligence uses the name "Istikhbarat" partly to avoid the negative connotation of the traditional term.
"The real battle with al Qaeda is no longer on the ground, but rather a media battle, and it is a real threat to national security," Faram told Reuters.
"For al Qaeda media coverage is more important than the actual operations," he said.
The Islamist network al Qaeda is headed by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, but analysts say al Qaeda has transformed from a close-knit militant group to a brand that disseminates radical ideas for sympathizers to act on independently.
"The Internet, chat lines, text messages -- these are the new warriors," said Alessandro Zanasi, an expert on Internet monitoring known as "text mining".
(Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Giles Elgood)