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Extremist websites offer intelligence 'gold mine': experts
AFP - Saturday, April 18
EL ESCORIAL, Spain (AFP) - - Western governments are increasingly unwilling to close or filter extremist websites, viewing them instead as an intelligence "gold mine" on terrorist activities, experts say.
"Almost all Western governments are thinking along the same lines -- that it's better to monitor these (sites) than to try to censor everything on the Internet," said Dr Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR).
He spoke to AFP on the sidelines of the two-day Conference on Terrorism and Cyber Security which concludes Friday in El Escorial, outside Madrid, under the auspices of the Council of Europe human rights body and the Organisation of American States.
Raphael Perl, head of the Action Against Terrorism Unit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said extremist websites and forums have now become a "gold mine" of information for intelligence agencies.
"Governments are trying to maximise their efforts to use the Internet as a source of intelligence gathering on terrorists, particularly Al-Qaeda," he told AFP.
"But of course this has human rights implications too, as not everyone who is monitored is necessarily a terrorist."
Mike Smith, the head of the UN Counter Terrorism Committee, agreed.
"It's a window into their operations, but there's a dilemma there that has to be resolved," he said.
In a report published last month, Neumann's ICSR said that closing down or restricting user access to extremist websites is "crude, expensive and counterproductive."
The terrorism expert said many governments had initially believed there was "some technical gadget that allows them to filter out all the extremist info.
"But the more they learn about technology the more they realise it's not actually possible, and they come to the conclusion that what they really should be doing is monitoring things that are going on the Internet," said Neumann, whose book "Old and New Terrorism" is to be published this year.
Terrorists also are avoiding Internet because they believe they are being monitored and this "deters these (terrorist) activities from taking place," he said.
But Perl said Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups are now taking measures to hide their online activities and "stay below the radar screen," including using "steganography", a system of coded messages.
"It's a continual cat and mouse game" between intelligence services and terrorists, he said.
Still, he suggested, there are limits.
Sometimes websites do become "so radical and so dangerous to the public" that they are eliminated, Perl said.
"Sometimes you need to make a show against a particular site.., to show that governments are on the offensive too," he said. But even then, "another site pops up, it's like squeezing a balloon."
Neumann said the "three biggest Jihadist web forums" were closed down late last year, apparently by Western intelligence agencies.
"But there's been a lot of argument about what has happened as a consequence. Some governments say the traffic has simply gone to other sites," he said.
Rather than just closing down such sites when they become too offensive, Neumannl suggested their producers be prosecuted.
He said extremist websites are often based in countries like the United States, where they are legal due to the national laws on free speech.
"We should focus on the people behind the websites not necessarily on the websites," he said.
Neumann also downplayed chances of a major terrorist attack on the Internet.
"Terrorism is about creating a form of theatre, visual attacks. I don't think cyber attacks would deliver that."
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