Early Tuesday morning, reports started circulating that German police had arrested a man they had accused of being Osama bin Laden’s webmaster. It was at that moment that I realized how different a war this is and how the Internet—and particularly its multimedia-friendly Web component—has truly changed all.
Imagine if during World War II, French law enforcement had arrested Hitler’s speechwriter? But that’s not even a clean analogy because a speechwriter would presumably help craft the message. This guy, identified in a Reuters report only as a 36-year-old Iraqi named Ibrahim R., is accused of being a programmer and of helping Bin Laden’s Web sites stay up.
But even German authorities know that taking out one HTML wizard isn’t going to cripple the terrorist kingpin with Page Not Found errors. It is, however, an admission that the Internet has become the world’s best communication tool and that the code-mastering artisans who can handle that are delivering to people a weapon potentially more devastating then a dirty bomb.
Let’s look at this from another perspective. In any other war, the ability to drive the enemy into hiding—complete with TSA RFID systems and satellite ability to monitor and track cellphone communications—would be an extremely effective way to isolate that leader and to prevent troops from being rallied and orders given.
The Internet changes all of that. It’s been said that the U.S. often fights the immediately prior war, while creative, bloodthirsty and low budget terrorists are setting the terms for the next war. Allied forces had much superior weaponry and systems, but the enemy had much better PR, morale, community support and, apparently, better code jockeys. Maybe not better code jockeys, but they certainly embraced and used the Internet to a better advantage than have allied forces.
The Internet is a way to talk with the masses and that—handled properly—is a devastating tool. While smartbombs were being aimed at hideouts, why weren’t American hackers overwhelming every Al Quaeda-friendly web site with denial-of-service attacks?
Yes, this is a very different war today. One where a handgun may be less effective than an HREF.
Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internet’s Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.
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