NEW YORK - Al-Qaida-linked terror groups and their sympathizers have in recent months made a big splash on the Internet, making it their communications channel of choice.
They’re benefiting from free discussion boards, e-mail accounts and other online forums for propaganda, recruitment, fund raising and even planning.
If law enforcement has done little to squelch these outlets, it’s only in part because of the difficulty of catching moving targets. More importantly, these online soapboxes can provide investigators with crucial leads.
‘‘It’s a game of cat and mouse in which the cat is always going to be behind,’’ said Michael Vatis, former cybersecurity director at the FBI. ‘‘It’s a more effective strategy to actually use these sites for gathering intelligence rather than engaging in a futile effort to shut them down.’’
Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department computer crimes prosecutor, said he wouldn’t be surprised if law enforcement set up some of these forums — much as undercover investigators create phony businesses to lure mobsters.
When such sites do get shut down, it’s generally the work of hackers or the private Web hosting companies that unwittingly allow them to publish online, said Gabriel Weimann, who studies terrorism online at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
In recent weeks, sites and discussion boards carrying gruesome images and video of beheaded Americans quickly went offline. At one, a message from the kidnappers of Paul M. Johnson Jr. was replaced by a disclaimer saying the hosting company does not support terrorism and had removed the material for violating its use policies.
But it doesn’t take long for word to spread through chat rooms and discussion boards about new locations. By the time an extremist venue closes, its messages have likely been duplicated at many other forums.
A discussion forum that went down shortly after the appearance of images of Johnson’s beheading in Saudi Arabia re-emerged later with new links to the images as well as those of a slain Korean captive in Iraq.
FBI officials in Washington declined requests for interviews for this story, citing continuing investigations. Saudi authorities also would not talk about their efforts to monitor Internet discussions, including those connected to Johnson’s kidnappers.
Separate research conducted by Weimann, Dartmouth College and The Associated Press found terrorists to be using the Internet in several ways:
• Propaganda — Terrorists make demands, try to elicit sympathy, attempt to instill fear and chaos and to explain themselves. The Web lets them offer up gruesome video images that broadcasters would reject.
• Recruitment — Chat rooms are monitored and questionnaires sent to prospects, though recruits must often pass many tests online and offline before they are accepted.
• Fund raising — Sites solicit donations to charities that may serve as fronts for terror groups, in many cases by providing mailing addresses and wire-transfer accounts.
• Planning — Free e-mail accounts connect members around the world. Messages are often encrypted, and Dartmouth researchers say online manuals even discuss ways to avoid detection. Following a security crackdown in Saudi Arabia, one poster warned ‘‘fighters’’ to avoid a certain geographical location.
‘‘Politicians and, of course, commercial interests effectively use the Internet to convey their message, appeal for support and attract . . . financial contributions,’’ said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. ‘‘These (terror) groups behave in the same way.’’
It is difficult to tell when online extremists are active fighters or simply
sympathizers, but it’s clear that many hitch on to free resources that anyone can sign up for and where legitimate discussions also take place.
Dia’a Rashwan, a Cairobased expert on Islamic groups, said the mushrooming of extremist sites and forums indicates the vast pool of sympathizers that such groups have attracted, with some seeing technology as their contribution to the cause.
Rather than directly seeking to incite violence, many of the extremist postings online are general declarations that may be laced with hatred and anti-American slurs but are not in themselves illegal.
The Justice Department scrutinizes such sites but takes action only when one is directly linked to known terror groups or conducts money laundering or other illegal activities, said Marcus Sachs, a former White House counterterrorism official.
Jenkins said that rather than try to remove online links to fund-raising efforts by terrorist groups, law enforcement resources may be better spent trying to shut down such groups directly.
In Idaho, federal prosecutors recently went after the webmaster of some forums, rather than individual posters. His lawyers argued that he was a Muslim volunteer who had little to do with the creation of postings, and a jury acquitted him June 10 of charges that he used his computer expertise to foster terrorism.
Allowing extremist forums to thrive may risk helping terror groups advance their goals.
‘‘But again, there are so many ways for them to communicate,’’ said Vatis, the former FBI official. ‘‘To try to shut down every Web site and e-mail address they might use is just futile. I can go to Yahoo! or Hotmail right now and create 10 new IDs in a minute.’’