Internet a threat, says new U.N. anti-terror chief

BRISBANE (Reuters) - The threat of global terrorism is starting to roll back in some areas, but the Internet is a potent weapon being used to rally militants and must be better monitored, the new UN counter-terrorism chief said on Tuesday.

“The Internet is a real worry and I don’t think we’ve found the answer yet,” said Mike Smith, an Australian who starts work on Monday as head of the United Nations’ Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate in New York.

“In the old days extremists used to have to cross borders to plan and attack sites,” Smith told Reuters. “Nowadays a lot of that stuff can happen on the Internet, they can give instructions, they can coordinate, they can recruit through these jihadi Web sites.”

Smith, 58, formerly Australia’s counter-terrorism ambassador, takes over at the UN from Spain’s Javier Ruperez and said he would like the world body to lead a global awareness campaign against Internet-aided militancy, using school education and UN agencies like UNESCO.

“People need to be aware, communities need to be aware, people who are running Internet cafes, youth groups and so on, they need to take some measures, or be alert, and prepared to talk to the authorities when they see something happening that they are worried about,” he said.

“I think our answer to the Internet, as in so many things, is going to be a series of strategies that overlap and provide a sort of perimeter defense.”

Smith’s position was created three years ago by the UN Security Council in the wake of the September 11, 2001 airliner attacks on the United States and the start of the Iraq war.


Ruperez, the first UN counter-terrorism chief, had a rocky introduction amid accusations from some countries that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Washington’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict had fuelled Islamic extremism.

The post, classed at Assistant Secretary-General level, is tasked with boosting counter-terrorism capacity among member states and promoting cooperation on measures decided by the Security Council.

Smith, a disarmament expert, said he had seen real progress in counter-terrorism cooperation over the past few years, particularly in Asia where al Qaeda ally Jemaah Islamiah (JI) had been severely disrupted after carrying out bombings in Indonesia.

“In Southeast Asia I think we’ve actually seen a rolling back of the power of the ideology. We’ve seen a loss of ground by JI in its ability to attract recruits and broader community sympathy,” he said.

But the extremist phenomenon generally had not yet peaked, Smith said, particularly the threat posed by attacks carried out by militants armed with nuclear or chemical weapons.

“I don’t say it’s inevitable. But from what we have seen, going back to when al Qaeda was in Afghanistan, we saw an interest in these unconventional attack weapons,” he said.

Smith said al Qaeda, although more widely scattered now by security forces, was actively looking to “franchise” into areas like Sub-Saharan Africa, where Western nations were less able to strike at bases in failed or dysfunctional states.

“By linking in with al Qaeda, local groups which have grown up as a result of local grievances take on a more dangerous and more international character,” he said. “A good example is Somalia and another is North Africa.”

But Smith said the level of international effort against militancy gave cause for greater optimism, with extremists finding it harder and harder to carry out attacks.

“I would venture to suggest that 9/11 today wouldn’t have happened, that these guys would have been stopped,” he said.

Editing by Roger Crabb