Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 25:317 –332, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Taylor & Francis
1057-610X /02 $12.00 + .00
DOI: 10.1080/10576100290101 21 4
www.terrorism.com: Terror on the Internet
Department of Communication
Haifa University, Israel
The nature of the Internet—the ease of access, the chaotic structure, the anonymity ,
and the international charact er—all furnish terrorist organizations with an easy and
effective arena for action. The present research focuses on the use of the Internet by
modern terrorist organizations and at tempts to describe the uses terrorist organiza-
tions make of this new communication technology. Is the use of the Internet by
terrorists different from that of other, “conventional” means of communication? How
can governments respond to this new challenge? The population examined in this
study is defined as the Internet sites of terrorist movements as found by a systematic
search of the Internet, using various search engines. The sites were subjected to a
qualitative content analysis, focusing on their rhetorical structures, symbols, persua-
sive appeals, and communication tactics. The study reveals differences and similari-
ties between terrorist rhetoric online and in the conventional media.
By means of the Internet Hizbollah has succeeded in entering the homes of
Israelis, creating an important psychological breakthrough.
—Ibrahim Nasser al-Din, Hizbollah military leader.
From the Internet site of the organization
(quoted in Yediot Aharonot, 16 Dec. 1998, p. 7)
Communication scholars conceptualize modern terrorism within the framework of sym-
bolic communication theory (e.g., Dowling, 1986). For example, Kraber argues that “as
a symbolic act, terrorism can be analyzed much like other media of communication,
consisting of four basic components: transmitter (the terrorist), intended recipient (tar-
get), message (bombing, ambush) and feed back (reaction of target audience)” (1971,
529). Others have even argued that terrorism is theater, aimed not at the actual victims,
but rather at the people watching on television (Jenkins, 1975; Weimann, 1986; Weimann
& Winn, 1994). Thus, modern terrorism can be understood as an attempt to commu-
nicate messages through the use of orchestrated violence. With this view of terror as
Received 24 April 2002; accepted 16 May 2002.
A version of this article was presented at the 50th Annual Conference of the International
Communication Association, Acapulco, Mexico 2000. The authors thank Amir Iarchy and Ceazer
Hakim for assistance in the Internet searches and analysis.
Address correspondence to Yariv Tsfati, Department of Communication, Haifa University,
31905, Israel. E-mail: ytsfati@com.Haifa.ac.il
318 Y. Tsfati and G. Weimann
theater in mind, this article explores how terrorists use new media technologies to spread
The potential of the Internet for political purposes has fascinated many. Utopian
visions of a “virtual state” in which citizens hold daily common discussions, communi-
cate needs and demands to their representatives, and vote on various referenda (all using
communication by computers) have been raised by thinkers and researchers. They be-
lieved that modern communication technology could be applied to create a Greek-polis
style participatory democracy (see Downing, 1989; Jaffe, 1994). However, with the enormous
growth in the size and use of the network, it became clear that the realization of this
ideal was premature. In addition to the fact that this utopian vision was challenged by
pornographic and racist content on the Internet, it also became apparent that radical
terrorist organizations of various kinds—anarchists, nationalists, separatists, revolution-
aries, neo-Marxists, and fascists—were using the network to distribute their propaganda ,
to communicate with their supporters, to create public awareness and sympathy, and
even to execute operations.
Paradoxically, the very decentralized structure that the American security services
created out of fear of a Soviet nuclear attack now serves the interests of the greatest foe
of the West’s security services since the end of the Cold War, namely international
terror. The nature of the network, its international character and chaotic structure, the
simple access, the anonymity—all furnish terrorist organizations with an ideal arena for
action. The present research focuses on the use of the Internet by modern terrorist orga-
nizations and attempts to describe the uses terrorist organizations make of this new
“The Theater of Terror”
Our analysis of terrorist organizations’ web pages is guided by the dominant theory of
terrorism in communication studies, the theory of the “theater of terror” (Weimann &
Winn, 1994). This approach claims that modern terrorism can be understood in terms of
the production requirements of theatrical engagements. As Jenkins concluded in his analysis
of international terrorism:
Terrorist attacks are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of
the electronic media and the international press. Taking and holding hos-
tages increases the drama. The hostages themselves often mean nothing to
the terrorists. Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual
victims. Terrorism is a theater. (Jenkins 1975, 4)
Terrorists pay attention to script preparation, cast selection, sets, props, role-playing,
and minute-by-minute stage management. Just like compelling stage plays or ballet per-
formances, the media orientation in terrorism requires a fastidious attention to detail
in order to be effective. As Laqueur put it, “The media are the terrorist’s best friend.
The terrorist’s act by itself is nothing, publicity is all” (1976, 104). Numerous terrorist
organizations have realized the potential of media-oriented terror as a means of effec-
tively reaching huge audiences. A study of all incidents of international terrorism during
1968–1980 revealed a significant increase in terrorist acts that victimize Western nations
(though most perpetrators are non-Western) and are designed to attract the attention of
the Western media (Weimann, 1986; Weimann & Winn, 1994). No wonder that Bell
argued, “It has become more alluring for the frantic few to appear on the world stage of
Terror on the Internet 319
television than remain obscure guerrillas of the bush” (1975, 89). Terrorist theory real-
ized the potency of the mass media. Acts of terrorism were increasingly conceived as a
means of persuasion, where the victim was “the skin on a drum beaten to achieve a
calculated impact on a wider audience” (Schmid & DeGraaf, 1982, 14).
The emergence of media-oriented terrorism led several communication and terror-
ism scholars to re-conceptualize modern terrorism within the framework of symbolic
communication theory. Karber has pointed out that “the terrorist’s message of violence
necessitates a victim, whether personal or institutional, but the target or intended re-
cipient of the communication may not be the victim” (Karber, 1971, 529). Dowling
suggested applying the concept of “rhetoric genre” to modern terrorism, arguing that
“terrorists engage in recurrent rhetorical forms that force the media to provide the access
without which terrorism could not fulfill its objectives” (1986, 14). Some terrorist events
become what Bell has called “terrorist spectaculars” (1978, 50) that can be best ana-
lyzed by the “media event” conceptualization (see Weimann, 1987 for a discussion).
The growing use and manipulation of modern communications by terrorist organi-
zations led governments and several media organizations to consider certain steps in
response. These included limiting terrorists’ access to the media, reducing and censoring
news coverage of terrorist acts and their perpetrators, and minimizing the terrorists’
capacity for manipulating the media (Weimann, 1999). However, the new media tech-
nologies allow terrorist organizations to transmit messages more easily and freely than
through the conventional mass media. The network of computer-mediated communica-
tion (CMC) is ideal for terrorists-as-communicators: it is decentralized, it cannot be
subjected to control or restriction, it is not censored, and it allows access to anyone who
Given the growth of Internet research in recent years, it is rather surprising that
previous research has overlooked the online activity of terrorist organizations. Who are
the terrorist movements that use the Internet? What is the rhetoric of the terror sites on
the Internet? Who are the target audiences addressed by the terrorists through the net-
work? Do the organizations use the Internet to mobilize audiences for active operations?
Current research leaves these questions unanswered. The aim of this article is to address
these descriptive research questions.
To study terrorism, on the Internet or elsewhere, the term “terrorist organization” must
be defined. The etymology of the term terror begins with the Latin verb terrere, mean-
ing “to arouse fear.” Although terror, or strategies reminiscent of the phenomenon, was
practiced long ago in the ancient world, it is generally accepted that the term itself first
came into use in France after the French Revolution, under the “reign of terror” of
Robespierre. But although most researchers of the subject may concur regarding the
etymological origins of the term, they find it hard to reach an agreed definition of the
term. More than one hundred different definitions have been offered by scholars (see
Weimann & Winn, 1994, 20). Some of these definitions focus on the special nature of
the victims of terror; some stress the difference between the victims and the true goal of
terror; other definitions focus on the violent act itself, its abnormal nature, or the un-
usual character of its perpetrators (Schmid, 1983, 73–100). One early systematic study
of 109 different definitions attempted to isolate the common and agreed on components
of definitions of terrorism (Schmid & Jongman, 1988). From these, a 200-word defini-
tion developed, which included the following elements: an act of violence; symbolic or
320 Y. Tsfati and G. Weimann
chance victims (innocent people); performance by an organization; methodicalness or
seriality in the operation; advance planning; criminal character; absence of moral re-
straints; political demands; attempt to win attention; use of fear (terror); and unpredictability
or unexpectedness. This definition, employed by many studies of modern terrorism, guided
our present study’s search for terrorist sites on the Internet.
Content analysis was defined by Holsti as “any technique for reaching conclusions
by systematic and objective identification of defined properties of messages” (Holsti,
1968, 601). In the present study, due to the small size of the sample and the descriptive
nature of the research questions, the analysis was mainly qualitative. The population for
this study was defined as the Internet sites of terrorist movements as they appeared in
January 1998 and January 2002. The U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organi-
zations (U.S. State Department, 1996, 2000) was used, which meets the accepted defini-
tion of terror (as elaborated by Schmid & Jongman, 1988). The major problem of reli-
ance on this list is that it represents the official perspective. According to some critical
approaches, the “real” terror organizations are the agencies and satellites of the United
States (Herman, 1982; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Herman & O’Sullivan, 1989). Thus,
the present study’s boundaries must be restricted to those of the official and conven-
To locate the terror sites a search of the Internet was conducted, using the names of
hundreds of organizations in the sampling base. The standard search engines (Altavista,
Lycos, Infoseek, Yahoo, Magellan, and Google) were used. The first search, conducted
in January 1998, yielded 14 organizations and 16 Internet sites. Another search, con-
ducted in January 2002, yielded 29 sites from 18 organizations. The 1998 search was
limited to English websites, whereas the 2002 search included sites in English and Arabic.
Almost all organizations active in 1998 were also online in 2002. However, many of the
URL addresses used by terrorist sites in 1998 had changed by 2002 (mostly due to
moves to different servers).
Who Are the Terrorists of the Internet?
Numerous organizations have entered cyberspace and created Internet sites (for detailed
descriptions see Appendix 1). These include Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Move-
ment), the Lebanese Hizbollah (Party of God), the Egyptian Al-Gama’a al Islamiyya
(Islamic Group, IG), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), the Pales-
tinian Islamic Jihad, the Peruvian Tupak-Amaru (MRTA) and “The Shining Path” (Sendero
Luminoso), the Kahane Lives movement, the Basque ETA movement, the Irish Republi-
can Army (IRA), “Supreme Truth” (Aum Shinrikyo), the Colombian National Libera-
tion Army (ELN-Colombia), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Armed
Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Popular Democratic Liberation Front
Party in Turkey (DHKP/C), the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the Zapatista National
Liberation Army (ELNZ), the Japanese Red Army (JRA), and the Islamic Movement
of Uzbekistan (IMU). One other site, that of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI-
Mujahedin-e Khalq) did not have an English version in addition to that in Farsi, and
thus was not analyzed. These organizations not only pursue the peaceful act of estab-
lishing Internet sites, but also engage in actual violence (some of them with a long
record that includes killings, kidnapping, assaults, and bombings) .
Geographically, most of the organizations that have turned to the Internet are based
in Third World countries (in South America, East Asia, and the Middle East), and only
two are located in Europe. This finding is apparently due to the decline in terrorism in
Terror on the Internet 321
Europe during the 1980s and 1990s and its rise in the Third World. Classification of the
organizations by type (see Wilkinson in Ben-Dor, 1977, 38) shows that those on the
Internet are national, revolutionary, and religious movements (or combinations of these
types). As expected, terror movements of a criminal or psychotic type are absent, prob-
ably because, unlike politically motivated terrorism, they are uninterested in media ex-
Not surprisingly, the websites of anti-regime organizations usually operate from outside
the state against which they are working.1 But geographical distance may be misleading.
It is more than possible that the sites are in practice operated from a place different from
that stated on the site. It is also possible that the domain and the server for the site have
been acquired by supporters of the organization abroad, but the content itself is pro-
duced at the scene of the conflict. In some cases, an explicit connection to the leader-
ship of the organization is mentioned. Some sites declare that they are not official sites
of the organization, some even in their title (“The Unofficial Hamas Homepage”; “The
Unofficial Hezbolla Homepage”). Yet, some connection to the terrorist organizations
and their leadership is evident from the sites’ contents (e.g., communiqués, interviews
The Content of Terrorist Sites
The most common content of the surveyed sites is information. They usually include
information about the history of the organization and biographies of its leaders, founders,
heroes, commanders or revered personalities,2 information on the political and ideologi-
cal aims of the organization, and up-to-date news. Most of the sites give a detailed
historical account of the movement or the organization, a review of the social and politi-
cal background, a selective description of its notable activities in the past, and its aims.
National organizations (separatist or territorial) generally display maps of the areas in
dispute: the Hamas site shows a map of Palestine; the Colombian site shows a map of
Colombia; the Zapatista site has a map of Chiapas and information about it; the Tamil
site presents a map of Sri Lanka.
Almost all the terror sites detail their goals in one way or another. Sometimes this is
done explicitly, sometimes indirectly. Sometimes it is a separate section, and sometimes
intermixed with other content. The most common presentation of aims is through a
direct criticism of their enemies or rivals. For example, the Hamas site presents a his-
torical account of “the birth of the Zionist entity in Palestine;” the Shining Path site has
information about “the crimes of the Fujimori regime” (supported by the United States);
a considerable part of the Hizbollah site focuses on Israeli activity (“Israeli terrorism”
from the Hizbollah standpoint); the Tamil site attacks the Sinhalese regime. Thus, the
terrorist sites do not concentrate only on information concerning their organizations;
direct attack of the enemy is the most common strategy of the Internet terrorists.
By contrast, almost all sites avoid presenting and detailing their violent activities.
Although the organizations behind these sites have a record of bloodshed, they hardly
ever record these activities on their sites. The exceptions are Hizbollah and Hamas.
Hizbollah shows updated statistical reports of its actions (“daily operations”) that display
in minute detail all of the organization’s operational successes. A separate page enumer-
ates the number of dead “martyrs,” along with the number of “Israeli enemies” and
“collaborators” killed. The Hamas site contains lengthy discussions in Arabic of military
“operations” in its news and views sections. However, this detailed depiction of violent
action is unusual. Most organizations, even if they expound at length on the moral (and,
322 Y. Tsfati and G. Weimann
as some of them argue, legal) basis of the legitimacy of the use of violence, refrain from
any reference to their violent actions or their fatal consequences. This reticence probably
reflects the propaganda and image-building motives of the sites.
While avoiding the violent aspects of their activities, the Internet terrorists, regard-
less of their nature, motives or location, usually stress two issues: freedom of expression
and political prisoners. Thus, the Tamil Tigers discuss the legislation of the Sri Lankan
government that limits freedom of expression “in support of the establishment of a sepa-
rate state on the land of Sri Lanka;” the Kahane Lives site calls on visitors to oppose the
legal ban on activity of the organization (in the United States and Israel); the issues of
freedom of expression and restrictions on political activity are central themes on the site
of the Basque Hari Batsuna; and the Colombian ELN site discusses limited freedom of
expression extensively (“Contrary to what official sources state, there is no freedom of
the press or of expression in Colombia. . . . The Sampar government operates censor-
ship and is tightening its hold on the media. . . . Moreover, critical journalists are vic-
tims of death and torture. . . . Every week attacks are made against the journal of the
Communist Party”). It appears that anti-establishment terror enjoys representing itself as
the victim, appealing to the democratic values of the Western public in general and
Internet users in particular. Terrorists aim at Western audiences who are sensitive to the
norms of freedom of expression and emphasize the issues that provoke sympathy in
democratic societies. Restricted expression by political movements is contrary to the
fundamental and sacred principles of democracy. The strong emphasis given to this
issue in democratic societies helps terrorist organizations—which don the innocent cap
of a “nonviolent political group”—embarrass the governments against which they are
struggling. This tactic works particularly well on the stage of the Internet, the symbol of
absolutely free communication.
As noted earlier, another piece of information frequently found on terrorists’ websites
is that of political detentions. The FARC site talks in terms of “the cry of women politi-
cal prisoners”; political prisoners is a subject that often appears on the site of the Kurdish
movement and the Palestinian sites; the DHKP/C site deals at length with the hunger
strike of political prisoners and the torture they endure (which “will not be able to break
the human spirit”); a report on the condition of political prisoners in Peru and calls for
their liberation may be found at the Tupak Amaru site; the Kahane site condemns ad-
ministrative detentions and even presents an interview from prison with Benyamin Zeev
Kahane; the Hari Batsuna site mentions the detention of party activists who distributed a
cassette produced by ETA, the military arm of the movement, “calling for a peaceful
solution to the crisis of the Basque region.” Carlos Marighela in his manual for the
urban guerrilla states that one of his strategies is to push the authorities to act in a way
that will make them hated by the citizens. The themes of political detention and re-
stricted freedom of expression are used for this purpose. The organizations’ websites
emphasize the antidemocratic measures employed against them. In so doing, they at-
tempt to malign the authorities, appealing both to their supporters (“constituents”) as
well as to more remote audiences of “bystanders.” Even among the community of their
“enemies,” namely the public that is naturally hostile to the organization, the terrorists
try, by emphasizing the threats to democracy, to create feelings of uneasiness and shame.
The terrorist sites are made up not only of text, but are also rich in graphic and
visual elements. All of them display their emblems on their homepages. Some of
the sites even offer visitors the option of downloading the emblems. Although the Inter-
net sites usually conceal the violent nature of the terror organizations and stress their
allegedly peace-loving nature, this pacifist approach is not reflected in their emblems.
Terror on the Internet 323
Symbols on the websites’ homepages usually include weapons or other elements signi-
fying the use of force. Hizbollah shows a knife with dripping blood; the Shining Path
and the IRA display masked fighters brandishing weapons; at the Kahane Lives site
there is a raised fist; and at the Tupak Amaru and ELN sites a rifle is held aloft. Some
of these symbols originated long before the Internet and thus do not reflect the new
trend of a nonviolent image. The flags of the organization (or similar national symbols)
also appear regularly on the sites’ front pages. (Incidentally, some sites are designed in
the colors of the flags.) The 2002 sites contain many other nontextual elements—songs,
speeches, and even video clips. These are usually more common on non-English sites.
A common element on the terror sites is the organization’s communiqués and the
speeches and writings of its leaders, founders, and ideologists. The sites often present a
word-for-word series of official statements by the organizations, which the visitor can
browse through, along with selected announcements arranged by date. Tupak Amaru
and the Zapatistas offer such communiqués and even call on visitors to copy, translate,
print, and distribute them (“They are the work of the central command and the site has
no copyright”); the DHKP/C site offers speeches and translations of chapters from a
book by one of its leaders; the Hamas site offers links to translations of interviews given
by Sheikh Yassin to Arab radio stations and newspapers; the Shining Path offers access
to pamphlets by the organization’s spokespeople; the FARC site allows access to press
announcements and letters; Kahane Lives gives a commentary on the weekly Torah
portion by Benyamin Zev Kahane. In general, the Internet sites of terrorists tend to
recycle materials distributed in the past through the mass media and other communica-
tion means. Some terrorist sites house a veritable online gift shop through which visitors
can order and purchase books, video and audio cassettes, stickers, printed shirts, and
pins with the organization’s badges.
The Rhetoric of Terror on the Internet
As Weimann and Winn argued in their study titled The Theater of Terror (1994), one of
the central problems facing modern terrorism is to justify the use of violence. It is clear
that this problem also preoccupies the operators of the terror Internet sites. At most sites
significant efforts are devoted to vindicating the use of violence. Four rhetorical struc-
tures are used on the terrorist sites to justify violence. The first one is the “no choice”
motive. Most sites aver that they do not reject a peaceful solution. Violence is presented
as a necessity foisted on the weak as the only means with which to deal with an oppres-
sive enemy. Thus the Tamil Tigers argue that their use of violence is legitimized by the
Sri Lankan rejection of the rights of the Tamil minority. They cite the UN Universal
Declaration of Human Rights and various reports of external observers (usually from
human rights organizations) about the right of the Tamil people to self-determination,
the Geneva Convention, and UN Security Council resolutions. All these lead to the
conclusion that “the armed struggle of the Tamil people is both right and legal because
the rule of law for the Tamil people has ceased to exist.” The site points out that the
Tamil struggle developed only as a last resort after the Tamils had endeavored to realize
their rights peacefully.
The ELN notes that the armed struggle is legitimate, for “with or without the guer-
rilla, violence reigns in our world day by day: hunger, repression, rape, crime. . . . The
violence of our organization is the result, not the cause, of this reality. This is the at-
tempt of the weak to free themselves. . . . Therefore, the ELN will not abandon the
armed struggle until the causes of our struggle have passed. . . . We are fighting because
324 Y. Tsfati and G. Weimann
we long for a society without violence.” The Hizbollah site argues that the Islamic
resistance is a response to Zionist aggression and the Zionist aim of mastery over south-
ern Lebanon, and that “as noted in the Declaration of Human Rights, it is our right to
fight until our rights and our land are restored to us.” Hamas argues that “just as the
French resistance movement fought the Nazis in the forties, Hamas is a movement . . .
composed of patriots seeking self-determination and struggling to free their homeland,
A second rhetorical structure related to the legitimacy of the use of violence is the
demonizing and de-legitimization of the enemy. The members of the movement or
organization are presented as freedom fighters, forced against their will to use violence
because a ruthless enemy is crushing the rights and dignity of their people or group. The
enemy of the movement or the organization is the real terrorist, many sites insist, and
“our violence is dwarfed in comparison to his aggression” is a routine slogan. The Hamas
site directs the visitor to a page bearing the heading “Who Is A Terrorist?” showing an
illustration of Israeli soldiers holding a child (caption: “We have captured a terrorist,
Sir!”); another shows Israeli soldiers in an armored troop carrier, with the bodies of
women and children visible through the gun sights (caption: “I have won, Levi! I shot
three of those creatures”); and others of Israeli soldiers shooting and beating women and
children, accompanied by cynical headings presenting the Israelis as inhuman brutes.
The message is that the Palestinians are the victims of the Zionists who are the real
terrorists, devoid of moral restraint and ready to hurt women and children. The Hamas
site is replete with many “facts” whose purpose is the de-legitimization of Israel. These
include facts about the connection between Zionist and British imperialism; quotations
from Zionist leaders about “Zionist expansionist aims”; and examples of brutal and vio-
lent acts committed by Israelis.
The Hizbollah site similarly stresses that the Israelis are the terrorists. The site shows
lurid pictures of the killings in the Kana disaster, deaths that in fact were caused by a
mistake by Israeli artillery. A historical survey of the “development of the Islamic resis-
tance” quotes from speeches of Zionist leaders (including Herzl) who held that to ensure
water sources for the Jewish state, its northern border had to be the Litani river (today
deep in Lebanese territory). The site presents detailed information about “Israeli terror-
ism”: information about the “birth of the Zionist entity,” “Israel’s daily aggression,” and
“Israeli acts of slaughter.”
The argument at the Turkish DHKP/C site is that
the ruling classes have adopted a policy of terror and slaughter, hardly to be
found anywhere in the world. . . . Every day thousands of revolutionaries
are murdered by the fascist forces of the state. . . . In the prisons hundreds
of prisoners are tortured. Villages and forests are wiped out and thousands
of people are driven off their land and herded into concentration camps.
Almost every day the state raids the unions and workers’ organizations. . . .
At the same time, members of the ruling class are found almost every day
involved in corruption or other scandals. Most of the senior officials of the
state, including the president and the prime minister, depend on and are
under the thumb of the Mafia and are linked to acts of bribery and corruption.
The Shining Path site gives information about “the crimes of the Fujimori regime, sup-
ported by the United States.” According to this site, “from the start the popular struggle
was obliged to face the most evil brutality that the Peruvian government could apply—
Terror on the Internet 325
from the slaughter and annihilation of whole villages to the execution of hundreds of
revolutionaries and of the Chairman of the organization Gonzalo. . . . The Peruvian
army conducted a campaign of genocide. . . . For all that, the revolution continued to
advance.” Terrorist rhetoric tries to shift the responsibility to the opponent, displaying
his brutality, his inhumanity, and his immorality. The violence of the “freedom” and
“liberation” movements is dwarfed in comparison with the cruelty of the opponent.
The third rhetorical tactic is to emphasize weakness. The organizations attempt to
substantiate the claim that terror is the weapon of the weak. As noted earlier, despite the
ever-present vocabulary of “the armed struggle” or “resistance,” the terror sites avoid
mentioning or noting how they victimize others. On the other hand, the actions of the
authorities against the terror groups are heavily stressed, usually with words such as
“slaughter,” “murder,” “genocide,” and the like. The organization is constantly being
persecuted, its leaders are subject to assassination attempts and its supporters massacred,
its freedom of expression is curtailed, and its adherents are arrested. This tactic, which
portrays the organization as small, weak, and hunted down by a power or a strong state,
turns the terrorists into the underdog. Hizbollah differs somewhat from other organiza-
tions in that it highlights its military achievements, gloating over enemy victims (show-
ing pictures of funerals of murdered Israelis), and publishing detailed statistics about its
military successes. The motive for this unique approach has been Hizbollah’s attempt to
influence the public debate in Israel about withdrawal from Lebanon. The organization
has stated explicitly that its aim has been to exert pressure in Israel in favor of with-
drawal. The organization knows that many Israelis visit the site, whose address is pub-
lished in Israeli media. Hizbollah publishes its records of murdered Israelis, maintains
electronic mail connections with Israelis, and appeals to Israeli parents whose sons serve
in the Israeli army, all with the aim of causing demoralization.
Finally, some of the terror sites are replete with the rhetoric of nonviolence, messages
of love of peace, and of a nonviolent solution. Although these are violent organizations,
many of their sites claim that they seek peaceful solutions, diplomatic settlements, or
arrangements reached through international pressure. Two organizations state that they
are not violent at all—the Basques, who present themselves as searching for a peaceful
resolution, and the ELN. The latter does indeed call for armed struggle, but the site writers
argue that their organization is not militarist and that talk of the goal of the organization
being a military revolution is idle gossip put about by the authorities.
Terrorist rhetoric on the Internet tries to present a mix of images and arguments in
which the terrorists appear as victims forced to turn to violence to achieve their just
goals in the face of a brutal, merciless enemy, devoid of moral restraints. Demonizing
the enemy, playing down the issue of terror victims, shifting blame for the use of vio-
lence to the enemy, and proclaiming peace-loving messages are strategies used on most
terror sites. Is this rhetoric qualitatively different from that of terror organizations in
other communication channels? It appears that the terror organizations that have turned
to the Internet use patterns of rhetoric similar to those used by their spokesperson s
in the conventional media. The justification of violence, the demonizing and de-legiti-
mization of the enemy, and the rhetoric of weakness were all found in press releases by
the terror organizations, in the broadcasts of their radio and television stations, and in
speeches and books by their leaders (see Cordes, 1988; Weimann & Winn, 1994).
The online version of terrorist rhetoric, however, differs from the conventional me-
dia strategy of terrorists in that in the latter, the organizations took responsibility for
violence, and did not avoid it. The rhetoric used by media-oriented terrorism in the
early 1970s threatened the existing order altogether and did not hint at the possibility of
326 Y. Tsfati and G. Weimann
diplomatic or peaceful solutions, as so many of the current organizations do in their
websites. It is probable that perceptions of the medium (the Internet) and of the target
audience (web surfers) dictate this more pacifist rhetorical strategy.
Who Are the Target Audiences?
Whom do the Internet terrorists target at their sites? Are they appealing to potential
supporters, to their enemies (namely the public who is part of the opposing sociopolitical
community in the conflict), or are they targeting international public opinion? Although
it is impossible for us to identify the actual users of the sites,3 an analysis of their
contents indicates an attempt to approach all three audiences. Reaching out to supporters
is evinced from the fact that the sites offer appropriate items for sale, including printed
shirts, badges, flags, and video and audio cassettes. The slogans at these sites also ap-
peal strongly to the supporter public. Of course, the sites in local languages target these
audiences more directly. These sites include much more detailed information about re-
cent activities of the organizations and elaborate in detail about internal politics (the
relationship between local groups).
But an important target audience, in addition to supporters of the organizations, is
the international “bystander” public and surfers who are not involved in the conflict.
This is evident from the presentation of basic information about the organization and the
extensive historical background material (with which the supporter public is presumably
familiar). Similarly, the sites make use of English in addition to the local language
of the organization’s supporters. Most of the sites offer versions in several languages
in order to enlarge their international audience. The Basque movement site offers infor-
mation in Castilian, German, French, and Italian; the MRTA site offers Japanese and
Italian in addition to its English and Spanish versions. The Uzbeki site offers informa-
tion in Arabic, English, and Russian.
Judging from the content of many of the sites, it might also be inferred that journal-
ists constitute another bystander target audience. Press releases by the organizations are
often placed on the websites. The detailed background information might also be useful
for international reporters. One of Hizbollah’s sites (Hizbollah’s press office) specifi-
cally addresses journalists and invites them to interact with the organization’s press of-
fice via e-mail.
Approaches to the “enemy” audiences are not as clearly apparent from the content
of many sites. However, in some sites the desire to reach this audience is evident by the
efforts to demoralize the enemy or to create feelings of guilt. When the terror sites show
pictures of their enemies performing acts of killing, enemy police aiming their weapons
at women and children, or evidence of torture of detainees by those enemies, they are
meant not only to mobilize support and to promote sympathy among neutral visitors,
but also to arouse feelings of unease, guilt, and remorse in audiences belonging to the
opposing political or social group. The organizations try to use the websites to change
public opinion in their enemies’ states, to weaken public support for the governing re-
gime, to stimulate public debate, and of course, to demoralize the enemy.
From the words of the Hizbollah leader quoted at the beginning of this article it can
be gathered that the movement indeed wishes to enter “the homes of Israelis, creating an
important psychological breakthrough.” In 1999, Hizbollah succeeded in this goal when,
on its Internet site, it showed details about the return of the bodies of Israeli marine
commandoes who had fallen in Lebanon. The organization stated that the one returned
coffin contained not only the body of one of the fallen soldiers, Itamar Ilya, but also
Terror on the Internet 327
body parts of other fighters. The statement aroused a furor among the families of the
dead soldiers and a bitter confrontation with the IDF authorities. The “dialogue” that the
Hizbollah organization wants to open with the Israelis by means of the Internet is also
evident in the inclusion of appeals to the parents of Israeli soldiers stationed in Lebanon
(with publication of an interview originally aired in Israel with four mothers of Israeli
soldiers in Lebanon, under the headline “I don’t want my son to die in Lebanon”). In an
article in Yediot Aharonot (16 December 1998, 7) many Israelis, particularly parents of
soldiers serving in Lebanon, reported that they visit the Hizbollah site to get an update
on the news (“I regard these sites as a legitimate source of information,” said one Israeli
father). The Hizbollah site even offers to answer anyone who sends questions by e-mail,
and does indeed reply to Israeli questioners, sending information and news to their
Do the terror organizations try to enroll supporters through the network? Analysis
of the sites revealed a few attempts to enlist new recruits into an active circle of support,
but there was no attempt to mobilize visitors for any actual violence. Kahane Lives (in
which the suggestion appears under the title “How can I help the struggle: A few sug-
gestions”); the Shining Path (“Action alert: What you can do”); the Basque movement;
and the IRA site seeking economic support (including a page for contributions through
credit cards) are examples of pages seeking readers’ active support. The Zapatista site
calls on its visitors to assist the struggle in several ways: to approach members of the
Mexican government (the site offers links to the e-mail address of the president of Mexico),
and to “send letters of support to ENLZ or local refugees. Educate your friends. . . . Join
protest marches outside embassies or diplomatic missions of Mexico near you, or orga-
nize such a rally yourself. . . . Send humanitarian aid to Mexico (link to humanitarian
organizations). . . . Donate money to the organization.” In contrast to the absence of
appeals for active violence, there is a highly conspicuous effort at many terror sites to
obtain supporters for nonviolent activity, especially through the signing of petitions.
Though no direct calls for violence were found, some of the content on the websites
could be viewed as encouraging violence indirectly. The Hamas site included calls for
Jihad (“Jihad is victory or martyrdom,” “an eye for an eye,” “the Jihad will continue till
judgment day”). Of course, the legitimization and justification of violence can also be
interpreted as an indirect call for violence. Glorification of martyrs (and the very use of
the word “martyr”), for example, signals that the perpetrators of violence are rewarded.
However, as mentioned earlier, this is only the subtext. Most sites’ contents ignore vio-
lence, and some of the organizations even imply that they seek nonviolent solutions.
Another activity frequently suggested by the terror sites to their visitors is to navi-
gate to other web pages through links appearing on the site. The sites provided are
usually those ideologically close to the organization (its journals, its solidarity groups,
etc.). In addition, links can be found to organizations offering information on subjects
related to topics of interest to the terror groups—human rights bodies in the case of
some of the revolutionary organizations; Islamic groups in the case of the Islamic and
Palestinian sites; nationalist movements in the case of groups engaged in political struggle
(e.g., the Hamas site to the Pal-Net Palestinian site).
This analysis reveals differences and similarities between the rhetoric used by terrorists
online and elsewhere. A central issue for terrorist rhetoric, regardless of the medium it
uses, is the need to justify and legitimize violence. Many of the arguments used by
328 Y. Tsfati and G. Weimann
terrorists online—the “last resort” argument, the “legal” argument and shifting the re-
sponsibility to the use of violence to the enemies of the terrorists—are found elsewhere
in terrorists’ materials. The similarity between the materials used by terrorist groups
online and in the conventional media is further manifested by the fact that much of the
content of the sites actually makes use of materials that have been previously circulated
elsewhere (e.g., press releases).
However, the content of terrorist organizations’ Internet sites is different in many
ways from the content of mass-media coverage of terrorism. First and foremost, news
coverage of terrorists is almost always related to violence, whereas violence can easily
be concealed over the Internet. Thus, the sites try in many ways to appear like the
websites of legitimate political organizations. In other words, the Internet terrorist rheto-
ric seems much more “pacifist” than the rhetoric used by media-oriented terrorism. Some
Internet pages deny the use of violence (which is the exact opposite of the typical terror-
ist strategy of taking responsibility). Others simply try to ignore it. Instead, the creators
of the sites highlight issues like political detention and freedom of expression, probably
with the intent of winning the sympathy of human rights and free speech–oriented web
A second difference between the content of the sites and media coverage of terror-
ists is that the sites contain extensive information and background, not possible on mass
media channels that operate with more limited space constraints. An abundance of back-
ground information and documents characterize the websites of a variety of other non-
terrorist political organizations. Like political parties, nongovernmental organizations,
and interest groups, the creators of the sites perceive the Internet as an opportunity to
supply interested surfers with an information storehouse. Indeed, this capability might
be more important for terrorists than for other political users of the Internet because the
access of adherents of the groups to such materials is often restricted by authorities.
A third difference between CMC and conventional media is that by using the sites,
the organizations can mobilize people into action, something they cannot do through the
mainstream media because of journalistic standards. However, although the sites offered
visitors ample and varied possibilities to action, violence was rarely one of the advo-
cated approaches. The sites call visitors to donate, disseminate the organizations’ mes-
sages, and protest. Call for violent action, if at all present, was only indirect (e.g., through
calls for Jihad in Islamic sites).
The reasons for the differences between terrorist sites and the coverage of terrorism
in the mainstream media have to do with the communicators, the channel, and the audi-
ence. The communicators of online information are probably more educated and more
familiar with the nature of the Internet than other members of the terrorist organizations.
The channel—the Internet—is a central venue for free speech. The communicators try
to accommodate the message to the values and norms of the medium. In addition, they
are probably influenced by existing Internet formats; thus, the similarity to the Internet
sites of political organizations and the more pacifistic nature of the messages, com-
pared to regular terrorist rhetoric. The communicators’ perceptions of the audience prob-
ably also influence the contents. Web users are perceived to be international, educated,
and mostly liberal; thus, the human rights discourse and the references to international
How should governments respond? Should societies try to restrict the online pres-
ence of terrorist groups? Future prevention of distribution of terrorist content on the
Internet is technologically problematic, legally complex (Karniel, 1997; Oberding & Norder-
haug, 1996), and ethically intricate. Moreover, it does not seem at all probable that the
Terror on the Internet 329
effort here is worthwhile for the authorities, as the damage inherent in the sites, in terms
of public relations, is less than the possible damage arising from attempts to restrict
them (limitation of freedom of expression, invasion of an “open” channel such as the
Attempts by individual hackers as well as by governments to block the organiza-
tions from using the Internet were reported (Shahar, 2001), especially after the 11 Sep-
tember 2001 attacks. While monitoring the websites of terrorist organizations in the past
four years the authors found that many of them change addresses frequently. Some sites
disappeared from the network for a while (as happened to all Hizbollah sites in October
2000 after an attack by Israeli hackers in response to the kidnapping of three Israeli
soldiers); however, these attacks affected the sites’ presence on the Internet only tempo-
rarily. The fact that most of these sites reopened after a while demonstrates the futility
of attempts to block terrorists or their supporters from using the Internet to communicate
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1. The Tamil Tigers operate from London. The supporters of the Shining Path work out of
Berkeley, California; the address of the operators of the Kahane Lives site is the Rav Meir
Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York; the English version of the Tupak Amaru site is operated by an
organization called “Arm the Spirit,” located in Canada. The Spanish version of the site operates
from Europe; the PKK is also helped by Arm the Spirit, and also by pro-Kurdish movements
situated in Holland. The DHKP/C site also works out of Holland. The Zapatista site is operated
from Santa Cruz, California. Although the Sinn Fein site operates from Dublin, that part of the
site concerning the IRA is located at an American University.
2. For example, the al-Qassam site provides the biography of Izz a-Din al-Qassam and in-
formation about other shahids; the Kahane Lives site presents biographies of Rabbi Meir Kahane
and his son Benyamin Zev Kahane.
3. It is also impossible to estimate the extent of exposure of the sites. Some sites provide counters,
ranging between a few hundred to 200,000 entries. However, these are not reliable reports.
Appendix 1: Terrorist Organizations on the Internet
Hamas: Islamic Resistance Movement. Founded in 1987 as a Palestinian branch of the
Muslim Brothers. Its goal is the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state instead of
the state of Israel.
Hizbollah: Radical Shi’ite group founded in Lebanon. Its aim is to establish an Islamic
state in Lebanon and to remove non-Islamic influences from the region.
http://www.Hizbollah.org/ (1998, 2002)
Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso): Peruvian guerrilla organization connected to the Peru
Communist Party (PCP). Has a Maoist-Marxist ideology and opposes the continuation
of the American presence in Peru.
Terror on the Internet 331
http://www.blythe.org/peru-pcp/ (1998, 2002)
http://www.csrp.org/index.html (1998, 2002)
Kahane Lives: Extremist right-wing Jewish group whose declared aim is the reconstitu-
tion of biblical Israel. Suspected of violent acts against Palestinians and threats against
http://www.kahane.org / (1998, 2002)
Hari Batsuna (ETA): Founded in 1959 with the goal of establishing an independent
Basque state in the Basque region of Spain. Although it acts as a political party, it has a
military arm that carries out terror acts against French and Spanish targets.
http://www.basque-red.net /homei.htm (2002)
IRA and Sinn Fein: The IRA is an Irish organization founded in 1969 as the armed
wing of Sinn Fein, a political party, with the aim of achieving British withdrawal from
Northern Ireland and union with the Irish Republic
Supreme Truth (Aum Shinrikyo): A sect formed in 1987 by Asahara Shoko in Japan. Its
goal is to take control of Japan and then the world. In March 1995 members of the
group carried out a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway.
Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN–Colombia): Rural guerrilla group, anti-American,
with a Maoist-Marxist ideology, active in Colombia.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE): Represents the largest Tamil group in Sri
Lanka. It goal is to establish an independent Tamil state on the island.
http://www.eelam.com/ (1998, 2002)
Armed Forces of the Revolution of Colombia (FARC): Revolutionary, anti-American
organization, founded in 1966 as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party.
332 Y. Tsfati and G. Weimann
Tupak Amaru (MRTA): Peruvian Leninist-Marxist revolutionary organization, founded
http://www.voz-rebelde.de / (2002)
Popular Revolutionary Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C): Turkish Marxist organization
founded in 1978 under the name Deverimisi Sol (Dev Sol). It has xenophobic, anti-
American, and anti-NATO views. It acts against Turkish government officials and mili-
tary personnel and American targets.
Kurdish Workers Party (PKK): Founded in 1974 as a Marxist-Leninist group of Turkish
Kurds with the goal of establishing an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey.
Its main targets are the Turkish government and its agencies in Western Europe; it
attacks tourist sites in Turkey and kidnaps foreign tourists.
http://www.pkk.org/ (1998 and 2002)
Zapatista National Liberation Army (ELNZ): Guerrilla movement acting against Mexi-
can army and police forces in the Chiapas region. Its actions include bombings, attacks
on installations, and damage to the infrastructure.
http://www.ezln.org/ (1998 and 2002)
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU): Coalition of Islamic militants from Uzbekistan
and other Central Asian states opposed to Uzbekistani President Islom Karimov’s secu-
lar regime. Goal is the establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. Believed to be
responsible for five car bombs in Tashkent in February 1999.
Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group, IG): Egypt’s largest militant group, active since
the late 1970s; specialized in armed attacks against Egyptian security and other govern-
ment officials, Coptic Christians, and Egyptian opponents of Islamic extremism.
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): Marxist-Leninist group founded
in 1967 by George Habash. Committed numerous international terrorist attacks during
the 1970s. Since 1978 has conducted attacks against Israeli or moderate Arab targets,
including the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister in 2001.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ): Committed to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian
state and the destruction of Israel through holy war, this group has carried out several
attacks against Israeli targets.
Japanese Red Army (JRA): An international terrorist group formed about 1970 after
breaking away from Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction. The JRA’s his-
torical goal has been to overthrow the Japanese Government and monarchy and to help
foment world revolution.