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September 30, 2010

Jihad being waged online, speaker says

TERRE HAUTE — The announcement this week of an Islamic terror plot to wage attacks in Europe came as little surprise to Aaron Weisburd.

He’s been monitoring jihadi websites since 2002, and is a field instructor for the West Point Academy, traveling around the nation to teach law enforcement about terrorism and jihad, or holy war.

On Wednesday, Weisburd was one of the featured speakers at the International Crime, Media and Popular Culture Studies Conference, hosted by Conference Chairman Frank Wilson and Indiana State University’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Weisburd began monitoring jihadi websites when he was working as a programmer for a website developer, and he said he has found those websites to present more of a culture of violence than a coherent ideology.

“The videos seem to be aimed at getting people beyond the fear of killing or being killed,” Weisburd said after showing one recruitment video that depicted a young jihadist who was part of a military action in the Pakistani frontier.

In the video, the young jihadist is seen living as a soldier, often speaking to the camera and firing an automatic weapon at an “enemy” that is almost too far away to be seen. But then he suffers a fatal head wound. He is shown dead among the rocky terrain, with a comrade closing his eyelids. The message is clear — this is the kind of commitment it takes to wage jihad, and such death is both honorable and desirable.

Jihadi websites are full of violence and death, with beheadings and attacks the norm. Weisburd’s presentation at the conference looked at the consequences of exposure to such violence, and pointed out that a Western understanding of war and martyrdom do not translate into the jihadi motivation.

Weisburd told the Tribune-Star that he became incensed by a 2002 news story about a Hamas charity organization in Gaza hosting a summer camp for children. The youngsters, some of them only grade schoolers, were shown in a video acting out terrorist attacks. He found that the website was being hosted in the United States, so he started researching Hamas websites, and that led him to al-Qaida websites.

He created a blog of terrorist website data that he was uncovering online, and he got the attention of al-Qaida.

A jihad leader issued a “fatwah” or death sentence for Weisburd in October 2002, and he said, “that got me hooked” on monitoring the jihadi websites.

“I’m a native New Yorker,” said the doctoral candidate who works in the Department of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois, Chicago, “and I was upset about 9-11. So [angering] al-Qaida seemed like the right thing to do.”

Weisburd said he has found that the jihadists develop emotional links to their favorite terror websites, and if a website goes offline for some reason, it creates a lot of confusion and chatter on other sites. They also download and share their favorite violent videos. And uploading those videos onto YouTube gives a longer lifespan to the beheadings and executions that would otherwise lost interest on the Internet.

Just how those sites play into the worldwide terror scene, and the intelligence that can be gleaned from them, is one focus of Weisburd’s work.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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