LONDON (Reuters) - From behind a computer keyboard at his London home, Younes Tsouli used the Internet to spread al Qaeda propaganda, recruit suicide bombers and promote Web sites that encouraged the killing of non-Muslims.
The Moroccan-born student and two accomplices, one of whom he had never met in person, went on to become the first to be jailed in Britain for inciting terrorism over the Internet.
Last month a Scottish student, described as a “wannabe suicide bomber”, was imprisoned for eight years for owning terrorism material and distributing it via Web sites.
Western authorities believe the Internet’s role in spreading extremist propaganda and recruiting sympathisers to Islamist militant causes is expanding, but have struggled for a response.
On Tuesday, the European Commission urged the EU’s 27 states to get tough with militant Web sites.
It said the Internet was “one of the principal boosters of the processes of radicalisation and recruitment and also serves as a source of information on terrorist means and methods, thus functioning as a virtual training camp”.
New York’s police chief has called the Internet “the new Afghanistan”, and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said potential al Qaeda recruits no longer needed to travel to remote training camps.
But tough words come easier than effective action.
Johnny Ryan, Senior Researcher at Dublin’s Institute of International and European Affairs, said users could easily circumvent any restrictions imposed by the authorities.
Web sites could relocate from one country to another, while controversial content was often distributed through services that are hard to block, such as legitimate chat rooms.
CENSORSHIP NOT THE ANSWER
“A workable Internet censorship system, even if one were desirable, is not possible within the EU, or anywhere else in the world with a comparable infrastructure or legal norms,” said Ryan, author of a book entitled “Countering Militant Islamist Radicalisation on the Internet”.
“In China, where censorship is a more serious business, users have developed a series of tools to break through government Internet blocks.”
Dr Akil Awan, of the University of London’s Royal Holloway college, agrees.
“The virtual Jihadists are very net-savvy and generally are always two steps ahead of the authorities,” he said.
Radical preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed, banned from Britain after the government ruled that he was not “conducive to the public good” after the 2005 London bombings, said banning or blocking radical Web sites would anyway be counter-productive.
The Syrian-born Bakri, who has been named at several British terrorism trials as a leading influence on young militants, said it would be seen as part of a campaign against Islam.
“I don’t think what they are doing is going to stop the Islamists or the Muslims from conveying the Islamic message,” Bakri said by phone from his home in Lebanon.
“They should open debate, discussions, dialogue with the Islamists. There is no need to censor. If you think it is bad, why do you not debate it and destroy it in national media?”
A simple Internet search shows how easy it is to find material that could concern the authorities, from speeches by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda leaders to inflammatory videos.
Despite his exile, Bakri has continued to communicate with his followers in Britain via Internet chat rooms.
“I don’t preach much on the Internet like before. But I know very well Muslims worldwide are succeeding in using ... the Internet, and I think they are doing very well.”
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