The arrest of alleged Pakistani terrorist Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, captured this summer with 51 optical discs and three computers chock-full of terror intelligence, is the most recent indicator of just how technically adept terror groups have become.
Computer and terrorist experts say Khan is one of many central nodes in a decentralized network of terrorists who have been using the Internet and cutting-edge technology as a way to organize terror campaigns and promote their cause online.
"In the post-September 11 climate, Islamic extremists see the Internet as a vital tool to communicate, indoctrinate, and spread their message," says Mark Rasch, former Justice Department (news - web sites) computer crimes prosecutor and current chief security counsel for Solutionary, a managed computer security provider.
"They are very tech savvy and they know how to avoid being caught," Rasch adds.
But while terrorists can work invisibly online, Khan's arrest illustrates that technology can be turned against them. Technology can make it easier to conceal information and communicate covertly using digital tools such as encryption. But it also leaves digital trails of evidence. For example, police hunted down the suspected kidnappers of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl by tracking e-mail that was designed to be anonymous.
Computer intelligence found on Khan's computers was instrumental in the arrests of Pakistani and UK terror suspects. Its discovery is credited for disrupting planned terror strikes in the United States. Subsequent arrests in Britain, which stem from intelligence gathered from Khan, led investigators to confiscate more than 1000 discs, according to reports from the New York Times.
"Unfortunately, there is no single computer mastermind behind Al Qaeda, just as there is no single Al Qaeda group," says Gabriel Weimann, a terrorism and communications expert and author of The Theater of Terror. He says Khan was one of many Al Qaeda information touchstones spread across the globe and connected by the Internet.
For the past ten years, dissidents from the Middle East, Chechnya (news - web sites), and Latin America have used the Internet to further their cause, says Josh Devon, a senior analyst at the SITE Institute, a terrorism research group that monitors the Web. Al Qaeda is fundamentally no different, he says.
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) is tracking nine "pro-Al Qaeda" Web sites out of a watch list of 25 Islamist Web sites and message forums.Al Qaeda's Tech Traps