TRUST ME and The Dark World

by Jeff Abbott on July 18, 2009

When we think of heroes in fiction, they are defined by their willingness to enter a dark world–a place where their greatest fears and danger may overwhelm them. Think the dragon’s cave in the legend of St. George, the DeathStar for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or the snake pit for Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The dark world for Luke Dantry is his research into terror online. Luke masks himself as a fellow extremist and enters the chat rooms and sites, determined to ferret out those who will move beyond angry words to murderous actions. Basically, Luke is finding the various “Facebook for Bad Guys” sites that exist and infiltrating them. Thinking he will be safe on the other side of the computer screen, he’s dead wrong.

We’ve all heard of videos being posted online to propagate particular ideologies. But the Dark Web project at the University of Arizona has been tracking the pervasiveness and reach of online extremism, and the statistics make your jaw drop:

 - there are about 50,000 sites of extremist and terrorist content 

 - including: web sites, forums, blogs, social networking sites (along the lines of a Facebook or MySpace-style site), video sites, and virtual world sites (e.g., Second Life). 

 - the largest increase in is in various new Web 2.0 sites (forums, videos, blogs, virtual world, etc.) in different languages (i.e., for home-grown groups, particularly in Europe). 

- significant terrorism content exists online in more than 15 languages.

- monitoring groups have found over 500 million uploaded files/pages/postings from 10,000 such sites 

- some terrorist forums (of which there are at least 300) can include over 30,000 members

- over 50,000 videos have extracted from terrorist-related sites; over 50% of those deal with bombmaking

Those are simply staggering numbers.

Consider this: Timothy McVeigh talked with fellow extremists for three years before he detonated his bomb. It can take weeks for a group to identify, recruit, convince, and train a person to become a suicide bomber. But now–these conversations and recruitment can take place instantly, and at a distance. Don’t know how to make a bomb? A video will show you how. Don’t know how to forge an identity paper? Someone lays out the steps online. Not sure you want to commit to whatever cause? A whole new set of friends will be happy to sell you on their vision of a new world, born through violence.

Hamas, widely considered a terrorist organization in the West, has built their own film studio. (This after Hamas’s own version of YouTube, designed to share training and propaganda videos, was shut down–but only temporarily, apparently reappearing on a Russian server.) Extremist groups of every stripe are not only going to be sharing information between like-minded individuals, but between groups. Instructions on how to hack critical government servers, posted by an Islamist extremist, can work as well for an eco-extremist or a white supremacist or anyone else.
The sites are incredibly difficult to shut down. Data can be moved off servers and moved from nation to nation. Just last week two British extremists inciting hatred against Jews were sentenced, even though their (lame) defense was they’d committed no crime in the UK since their site was hosted in the US.
This situation is going to get worse before it gets better. In real life, not many people want to delve into this dark world like Luke does. Aaron Weisburd, a computer programmer, has infiltrated, identified, and brought down via server attack several alleged terrorist sites; but as someone operating without a badge, there have been concerns he may have disrupted investigations. (It can be argued that a forum, left online, may provide valuable information for a while before authorities shut it down.). And NBC this Monday will be broadcasting The Wanted, a new reality show where a team of retired military investigators and a journalist track down alleged terrorists and war criminals. It will be interesting to see how this group is viewed: as saviors cutting through bureaucratic inaction or as vigilantes flouting the rule of law. (I have not seen the show yet.) And of course law enforcement has an interest in not trumpeting the ways they identify and shut down these sites: if they do, the sites may adapt to evade discovery by the authorities and the public.
Next up: why Luke Dantry has such a personal stake in stopping extremists.

    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    Kristan July 18, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Wow, the numbers really are staggering, and scary. I have a hard time figuring out what I think about those who do good outside the boundaries of the law… I’m looking forward to the rest of your posts.

    Jeremy July 18, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I agree. You present some staggering–and worrying–figures.
    Now for some more positive feedback. I learned of you from Nathan Bransford’s blog where yesterday he mentioned TRUST ME. Based on the posts you wrote yesterday and today, I will buy the book. You’ve done a great job of setting it up, and the premise is excellent and timely.
    Another thing I should tell you: yours will be the first fictional book I’ve purchased, other than the new DUNE series, that is published in the past forty years or so. I am a little behind in that way.
    I look forward to the date, which I believe is July 23.
    Lastly, as a writer, I am very interested to see what you’ll post regarding your story. It should be a fascinating insight. Keep it up!

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