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Terror moves to the virtual world

From CNN's Diana Muriel
The Web site of an alleged al Qaeda group that claimed responsibility for an attack on Mombassa.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When American forces in Afghanistan shut down al Qaeda terrorist training camps, experts say the terror group moved its bases to the virtual world.

The Internet is a powerful tool for the terrorist organization, not just to coordinate operations and launch attacks, but to promote its message worldwide, all at the touch of a button.

Israeli terror analyst Reuven Paz believes the Internet has become the primary communication tool for al Qaeda.

"This process took place mainly after September 11 and it became the main field of activity at least for propaganda, for indoctrination, for recruitment for al Qaeda," Paz, an analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center, says.

"They are trying to build or to create a virtual Islamic nation.

"Actually the Internet turned for al Qaeda to be what I would call an open university."

And, experts say, it is finding interested students, not only among disaffected Palestinians in Gaza, but across the Middle East and further afield.

Its reach is reflected by the sheer volume of al Qaeda material on the Internet -- thousands of articles and one or two manuals published online each week.

Al Qaeda's main Web site is physically located in Germany, but there is some evidence to show it is produced in Saudi Arabia.

Terror expert Paul Eedle says some Internet service providers unwittingly participate in hosting sites and when they are shut down, most pop up in another place.

They are important to maintain, Eedle says, because they are not just a PR tool.

"Al Qaeda uses cheap, easily available software such as Web-based message boards, simple email lists, Web-based email, both for its propaganda and I would be convinced for its operational communications," he says.

But terrorists are aware that highly encrypted codes attract attention, with billions of dollars spent by Western intelligence agencies on Internet surveillance and detection.

It would be much simpler just to use an instant messenger program, with no key words, such as "meet you in the cafe at 3 p.m."

With a message like that the chances of being detected are close to zero, yet al Qaeda often publishes more explicit information on the Internet.

"They put out a whole stream of material justifying their actions and explaining their strategy," Eedle says.

"So for instance a few weeks before the Madrid bombing they put out a strategy explaining why they thought that Spain was a weak link in the coalition in Iraq, why it was crucial to get America out of Iraq ... for the sake of future radical Islamist expansion."

That threat against Spain was very real as the Madrid train bombings all too viciously demonstrated.

Yet the warning was there for all to read, if you know how.

"The major security and intelligence services in the West are missing a lot by neglecting the enormous amount of writing on the Internet, first of all because this is in Arabic," Paz says.

The Internet was designed to survive a nuclear war, and analysts say it would also be impossible to deny access to terrorists.

So in the war on terror it's a weapon the West will need to reckon with.

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