Book Review: *Terrorism in Cyberspace*, by Gabriel Weimann, Woodrow Wilson Center Press & Columbia University Press, 2015

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(Editorial Note: In this book review, Elias Davidsson does the work of deconstructing one particularly egregious example of the sort of pseudo-scholarship that is put out to back up these absurd terrorism narratives. In this case, we have some subnarrative about how the evil terrorists are using the Internet in such clever, devious ways. Of course, as the review shows, any serious attempt to verify anything in the book leads one nowhere. Hardly surprising, since it is all just fanciful storytelling!)

Gabriel Weimann, Professor at the University of Haifa, is considered one of the leading scholars on what is designated as cyber-terrorism, or more accurately, the use of cyberspace (internet) by Islamic terrorists. Jane Harman, CEO of the Wilson Center where the author is employed, hails him as “gifted scholar with his finger on the pulse.”

For that reason, it is worthwhile examining in some detail the evidence he presents in his writings, and in particular in his last book, Terrorism in Cyberspace, published by the notoriously prestigious Columbia University Press.

The author’s book is introduced by Bruce Hoffman –- a self-styled “terrorism expert” –- who hails “the hallmarks of Weimann’s decades of scholarship: presenting a comprehensive, thoughtful, and sober analysis -– supported by voluminous empirical evidence and trenchant, revealing examples.” As can be seen in the present essay, Gabriel Weimann’s book does not deserve any such ode. One of the elementary tasks of a scholar is to substantiate the facts he or she is presenting by verifiable and trustworthy sources. Another elementary task of scholarly writing is to refrain from omitting relevant facts. As shown below, Weimann’s book represents a collection of unsubstantiated claims and significant omissions. His book lacks therefore scholarly value.

The following are merely selections from Weimann’s unsubstantiated claims and significant omissions, with the page number indicated:

Page 4: “Today, all terrorist organisations, large or small, have their own websites, Facebook pages, or uploaded Youtube videos” [The author failed, upon my written request, to indicate a single source [URL] for such websites]

Page 5: “Al-Qaeda core have publicly discouraged sympathisers from travelling to conflict zones in order to join them.” [The author does not provide any evidence for such call by Al-Qaeda]

Page 9: The author explains as follows how he and his team succeed in locating terrorist websites:

“To locate the online terrorist websites, frequent systematic scans of the internet were conducted using the various keywords and names of organisations in the database [that preexisted the search for these organisations…] First, the standard search engines (e.g. Google, Yahoo!, Bing) were used. The Internet is a dynamic arena: websites emerge and disappear, change addresses, or are reformatted. Years of monitoring the terrorist presence online has provided information on how to locate their new sites, how to search in chatrooms and forums of supporters and sympathisers for the new ‘addresses’ and how to use links in other organisations’ websites to update existing lists. This was often a Sisyphean effort, especially since in certain instances – for instance, al-Qaeda’s sites – the location and the contents of the sites changed almost daily.”

[Going by this explanation, only people in his situation can through “Sisyphean efforts” locate jihadi sites whose location “changes almost daily”. One may ask: Who has a motive to create a “jihadi” website, that is not known to anyone and delete it almost immediately, if not those intending to prove that such websites had existed?]

Page 10: “In 2003 there were more than 2,600 terrorist websites. The number rose dramatically, and by October 2013, the project archive contained more than 9,600 websites serving terrorists and their supporters.” [For these figures, the author provides not a shred of evidence, nor does he explain what he means by “terrorist websites”. Certainly organisations such as Hamas and Hezb’allah, designated by some Western states as “terrorist organisations”, maintain websites, but this designation is widely challenged.]

Page 21: “The anonymity of the internet is very attractive for modern terrorists.” [The author fails to explain why anonymity is attractive to organisations that allegedly seek members and sympathizers. The author fails to mention that anonymity is rather the hallmark of intelligence operations].

Page 22: “An abundance of more sophisticated measures and technologies also increase the difficulty of identifying the originator, recipient, or content of terrorist online communications. These include encryption tools, and anonymising software that are readily available online for download.” [See comment above]

Page 28: “On its website, AQIM [Al-Qaida in the Maghreb] published a computer game called ‘Muslim Mali’, in which players operate a military aircraft carrying AQIM’s black flag to attack and destroy French aircraft in the Sahara.” [The author does not indicate the source]

Page 30: “In the planned attempt by terrorists to blow up fuel tanks at New York’s John F. Kennedy International airport in 2007, court records indicate that the plotters utilised Google Earth to obtain detailed aerial photographs of their intended target.” [The author fails to mention that this “planned attempt” was led by an FBI informant]

Page 30: “‘It is not necessary […] for you to join a military training camp, or to travel to another country […] you can learn alone, or with other brothers, in [our arms] preparation program”, al-Qaeda leader Abu Hajir al-Muqrin announced in 2004.” [The author mentioned earlier the difficulty in locating jihadi websites. Now he claims that wannabe terrorists do not need to travel to another country but can “learn alone” to use weapons, presumably from websites whose locations “change almost daily”. The author does not provide the source for this alleged announcement and appears to believe such absurd statement.]

Page 31: “In November 2008, the SITE Intelligence Group reported that al-Nusra Media Battalion, a jihadist media group, had compiled into a single file a collection of explosives manuals totaling over a thousand pages and posted the file on jihadist forums.” [SITE does not provide evidence that a jihadist media group by the name of al-Nusra Media Battalion actually exists. [SITE Intelligence Group is anyhow run by Rita Katz, an Israeli, and is thus no objective source on Islamic terrorism.]

Pages 32-33: “The eleventh issue of [the magazine] Inspire published online in June 2013, devoted almost all of its forty-odd pages to glorifying what it calls the BBB: the ‘Blessed Boston bombings’ …The main takeaway from the June 2013 issue is that its editors are unabashedly pleased that copies of their magazine were found in the Tsarnaev brothers’ home.” [The author does not provide the source for this allegedly jihadi magazine – Inspire – whose publisher has no name, address, phone number or website]

Page 33: “Al-Qaeda operatives relied heavily on the Internet for the planning and coordination of the 9/11 attacks. Numerous messages that had been posted in a password-protected area of a website were found by federal officials on the computer of arrested AQ terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who masterminded the 9/11 attacks.” [The author appears to be completely ignorant about the 9/11 attacks. First, there is no evidence, whatsoever, that Al Qaeda operatives, whether Abu Zubaydah or any other such operative, planned, coordinated or carried out these attacks (see my book Hijacking America’s Mind on 9/11 for details). This fact alone disqualifies the author from claiming the title of a scholar. Second, not even the US government has claimed that Abu Zubaydah has masterminded the 9/11 attacks. According to the official US legend, itself fraudulent, the 9/11 attacks were masterminded by one Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who allegedly confessed from his prison in Guantánamo to have mastermind 9/11 as well as some other 30 terrorist plots, including an attempt on the life of the pope.]

Pages 33-34: “Mohammed Atta’s final message to the other 18 terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks is reported to have read: ‘The semester begins in three more weeks. We’ve obtained 19 confirmations for studies in the faculty of law, the faculty of urban planning, the faculty of fine arts, and the faculty of engineering’ (quoted in Fouda and Fielding, 2003, 140)” [The author cites controversial authors, who in turn provide no credible source for this bizarre message. No official source is known to have corroborated the above claim. As for the participation Mohammed Atta and “other 18 terrorists” in 9/11, see above comment]

Page 34: “Following a popular business trend, many [terrorists] have turned to e-commerce, selling CDs, DVDs, T-shirts, and books as a means of raising cash.” [The author fails to produce a single verifiable example of such commerce]

Page 34: “Many terrorist organisations have added links to their sites which advise visitors on how to donate funds electronically via bank transfer.” [The author fails to produce a single verifiable example of such attempts at collecting money]

Page 35: “The terrorists who carried out the July 7, 2005 attacks on the London transportation system were also self-financed, in part through credit card fraud.” [The author does not provide any evidence to this claim].

Page 37: According to the author Osama bin Laden remarked in 2002: “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90% of the total preparation for the battles.” [The author does not cite any verifiable source for this alleged remark by Osama bin Laden, who may have been dead by that time. This statement would not either make any sense, as neither bin Laden nor ‘Al Qaeda’ owned media with which to pursue its war]

Page 40: “The most visible part of AQ’s online presence involves the spread of propaganda, which is created by the group’s media production branch, As-Sahab. [The author does not produce any evidence that this “media production branch” exists.] “This organisation uses modern technology and semiprofessional hardware to produce its video statements and distribute them worldwide.”[The author presents no source for these claims] “Al Qaeda also operates radio and television broadcasting online along with its online production facility, the GIMF, one of Al Qaeda’s mouthpiece groups.” [The author produces no evidence for this claim, either. Joshua Devon of SITE Intelligence Group, by pretending to be a member of AQ, induced young Muslim Germans to upload jihadist videos on a server he provided to them under the label GIMF. The deception was authorized by the FBI and German intelligence (BND). After being entrapped, these young people were arrested, tried and sentenced. Their trial provided the necessary evidentiary feed to scholarly prostitutes]

Page 45: “A simple search for jihadi videos on YouTube, will reveal hundreds of AQ video clips.” [The author fails to refer to a single example of a video clip on Youtube that was produced by Al Qaeda]

Another piece by Weimann is entitled “Terrorist migration to the Dark Web, published by Perspectives on Terrorism, June 2016, jm139. In the Introduction he claims that “[b]eneath the familiar online world that most of us know and use, […] lies a hidden network of sites, communities, and platforms where people can be anyone or do anything they want. This is the Dark Web…[It] can only be accessed through specialized browsers”, such as TOR (The Onion Router) “initially created by the U.S. Naval Resaerch Laboratory as a tool for anonymously communicating online.” The author adds that on the Dark Web, “a visitor must know where to find the site in order to access it. A few search engines have been developed for the Dark Web, but they are limited in scope and usefulness.”

Here again, the author attempts to create the impression that only experts can discover jihadist websites and forums. But this theory does not accord with the claim that jihadist organisations seek volunteers and sympathizers and wish their messages to be read by everyone. Something does not add up in this argumentation.

Weimann claims that following the Paris attacks of November 2015, “ISIS has turned to the Dark Web to spread news and propaganda in an apparent attempt to protect the identities of the group’s supporters and safeguard its content from hacktivists.” Apparently, as the author seems to know, “ISIS’s media outlet, Al-Hayat Media Center, posted [somewhere] a link and explanations on how to get to their new Dark Web sitte on a forum associated with ISIS.” Here again, an explanation is being cooked up in order to justify the lack of sources.

The following table illustrates the paucity of sources regarding media products that the author imputes to jihadi or terrorist organisations and individuals. TIC =”Terrorism in Cyberspace” Columbia University Press, 2015.

Designation of document Designator Source
“39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” by Mohammad bin Ahmad al-Salem Weimann, TIC, 37 Appeared online in 2003 (No source given) Links found: Israel News Agency, Sharia Finance Watch, Dafka Com
“Encyclopedia of Jihad” Weimann, TIC, 31 “Available online” [Where?] (No link to that document appears to belong to a Muslim organisation)
“Lone Mujahid Pocketbook” Weimann, TIC, 73 AQ in Yemen, March 2013
“Mujahideen Poisons Handbook” Weimann, TIC, 31 “Available online” [Where?]
“Some jihadists attacked Al-Zawahiri and demanded his removal” Weimann, TIC, 97 “On AQ-affiliated password-protected forums” (No source given)
“The destruction of the American destroyer [USS] Cole” video Weimann, TIC, 39 “As-Sahab Foundation for Islamic Media Publication, 2001” (No source given)
“The Digital Majestic Woman” magazine Weimann, TIC, 60 MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, 2011b, 2012
“Workshop of the Granddaughters of Safiya”, jihadist media group Weimann, TIC, 58 “Online posting” (No source given) Links to SITE
12. issue of INSPIRE magazine Weimann, TIC, 74 No source
2011 issue of Al-Shamika (AQ) magazine Weimann, TIC, 60 “Al-Fajr Media Center” (No source given)
A spokesman for the Islamic Front vowed that it will continue battling the Islamic State Weimann, TIC, 96 (No source given)
Abu Ibrahim Mustafa, Salafi Griup for Call and Combat (AQIM), signed a fatwa Weimann, TIC, 115-6 “Was circulated on jihadist websites” (No source given)
Adam Gadhan argued that jihadi factions in Syria … Weimann, TIC, 97 “Online messages” (No source given)
Al-Awlaki’s videos Weimann, TIC, 20 Youtube (no URL given)
Al-Battar Media Batallion Weimann, TIC, 130
Al-Battar Training Camp magazine Weimann, TIC, 31, 238
Al-Fallujah Forum Weimann, TIC, 32, 38, 100
Al-Fallujah jihadist forum launched a media campaign on October 7, 2009 Weimann, TIC, 100 (No source given)
Al-Faloja Forum Weimann, TIC, 58, 60, 132, 141-42
Al-Hesbah Forum Weimann, TIC, 38,44, 57-61, 102
Al-Ikhlas Forum Weimann, TIC, 32, 38,60
Al-Qaeda’s online instruction called “Al Battar Training Camp” Weimann, TIC, 31 “Online magazine” (No source given) All links to that magazine found by a Google search belong to counter-terrorism and/or Zionist outfits, such as: MEMRI, Jihadwatch, WND, Survivalism, Stratfor, Jamestown Foundation, Terrorist Media, Teaching Terror, Washington Institute
Al-Zawahiri made similar accusations [as Gadhan] Weimann, TIC, 97 “In a speech released online” in April 2014″ (No source given)
Al-Zawahiri speech entitled “the leadership of Hamas surrenders to the Jews most of Palestine” Weimann, TIC, 100 “As-Sahab, March 11, 2007” (No source given)
All posts in the discussion threat for the speech were deleted Weimann, TIC, 97 “By administrators of the top-tier jihadi forum Shumukh al-Islam. A few hours later, the forum went down on ‘maintenance’” (No source given)
Anti-Hezbollah campaign Weimann, TIC 101 “AQIM online campaign in 2013. Messages issued to the Twitter account of al-Andalus Media Foundation” (No source given)
Anti-Shi’a incitement Weimann, TIC 101 “Members of the password-protected jihadi forum Mohajroon, Jan. 18, 2007” (No source given)
Audio message by Sheikh Mustafa Abu Yazid, an AQ commander in Afghanistan Weimann, TIC, 60 “As-Sahab, March 6, 2008” (No source given)
Audio message from Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Weimann, TIC, 96 “Online message surfaced in June 2013” (No source given)
Audiotape by Ayman al-Zawahiri criticizing Hamas Weimann, TIC, 99 “Released online” (No source given)
Brigades of Tariq ibn Ziyad Weimann, TIC, 165 (No source given)
Collection of explosives manuals by al-Nusra Weimann, TIC, 31 Zionist site: SITE Intelligence Group, 2008
Colleen LaRose (Jihad Jane) used MySpace, YouTube and email Weimann, TIC, 67 (No source given)
Computer game called “Muslim Mali” Weimann, TIC 28 AQIM website (no URL given)
Do-it-yourself plan to make a ‘dirty bomb’ Weimann, TIC, 106 “Alma’sadah al-Jidadiah, March 2005” (No source given)
Extremist internet forum “Sada al Jihad” Weimann, TIC, 69 (No source given)
Fatwa on the use of WMD by Saudi Shaykh Naser bin Hamad al-Fahd Weimann, TIC, 105 “Posted online by Global Islamic Media Center on May 21, 2003” (No source given)
First volume of Inspire magazine Weimann, TIC, 26 “Downloaded from the internet”
GIMF Weimann, TIC, 40, 42, 54, 100
GIMF launched a media campaign on October 7, 2009 Weimann, TIC, 100 (No source given)
Horror citation on Jews Weimann, TIC, 57 “Posted on the al-Hesbah forum, July 2007” (No source given)
INSPIRE magazine Weimann, TIC, 70-1 AQAP, online magazine, “jihadist forums”
INSPIRE Magazine Weimann, TIC, 26, 30, 32-33, 70-74, 139, 143, 68
INSPIRE magazine published by AQAP Weimann, TIC, 32-3 “Published online” (No source given)
ISIL supporters lashed out at AQ leadership Weimann, TIC, 96 “On militant websites” (No source given)
Letter addressed to the “Al Qaeda organization in the Land of the two rivers” Weimann, TIC, 94 “A jihadist website”
Manual on explosives Weimann, TIC, 31-2 “Written by explosives expertAbdullah Dhu al-Bajadin and distributed by the Islamic Media Center” (No source given) Links found: SITE Intelligence Center, Jihadology, Jihad Intel
Message attributed to AQ Abu Musab al-Suri against Hezbollah Weimann, TIC, 102 “Surfaced online” and “circulated among jihadist forums, incliuding the password-protected al-Qaeda affiliated al-Hesbah Network” (No source given)
Message from Umayma Hassan (Al-Zawahiri’s wife) Weimann, TIC, 58 “Al-Fajr Media Center, June 2012”, Links to Jihadology
Mohajroon forum Weimann, TIC, 101
Ninth issue of Sawt al-Jihad (by AQ) Weimann, TIC, 57 “Online magazine” (No source given)
OBL’s statement Weimann, TIC, 24 “Posted online”
Online magazines, such as Al-Qaeda’s Inspire Weimann, TIC 31 No source given
Pimentel maintained “a massive website on Blogger and a YouTube channel featuring hundreds of radical works” Weimann, TIC, 68-9 Pimentel’s website, TrueIslam1.com His Youtube channel had more than 1,500 subscribers
Recording of the murder of Daniel Pearl Weimann, TIC, 24 “Several terrorist websites”
Second issue of Al-Shamika Weimann, TIC, 60 “Jihadist forums, Febr. 3, 2012” (No source given)
Shamukh al-Islam forum Weimann, TIC, 38,41, 44
Sheikh Hammoud al-Uqla al-Shuyabi, published a fatwa in 2001 Weimann, TIC, 116 “Posted online” (No source given)
Text authored by AQ member Abu Jihad al-Masri Weimann, TIC, 69 “Circulated widely in jihadist fora” (No source given)
Two part video calling for lone wolf attacks in the West Weimann, TIC, 65 “As-Sahab, December 2013” (No source given)
Video by Gadahn “Do not rely on others, take the task upon yourself” Weimann, TIC, 70 “June 2011” (No source given)
Video entitled “A Call to Arms” featuring Adam Gadahn Weimann, TIC, 69 “As-Sahab, March 2010” (No source given)
Video on suicide bomber Ummu Usman Weimann, TIC, 59 “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” (No source given)
Video on suicide bomber Ummu Usman Weimann, TIC, 59 Uzbek language video by Jundullah Studio on Youtube and on Jamia Hafsa Urdu Forum on July 9 and 10, 2013
Video released by AQ’s core group in Pakistan in June 2011, entitled “You Are Only Responsible for Yourself” Weimann, TIC, 27 No source given
Video with instructions to prepare explosives Weimann, TIC, 32 “Posted on Ekhlaas, an al-Qaeda affiliated forum” (No source given)
Videos with instructions to prepare explosives Weimann, TIC, 32 “Posted on the Al-Fallujah jihadist forum” on October 27, 2008 (No source given)
Women’s forum encouraging suicide attacks Weimann, TIC, 58 Al-hesbah.org, shmo5alislam.net, al-faloja.info/vb (No source given)
Women’s magazine Al-Khansa Weimann, TIC, 57 “Online magazine on a specific website” (No source given)

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