When German police this week arrested bin Laden's Webmaster, it became clear how different a war this is and how the Internet is being used as a fierce weapon.
Early on the morning of Oct. 10, reports started circulating that German police had arrested a man they 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— truly has 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 presumably would 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 helping bin Laden's websites 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. The arrest is, however, an admission that the Internet has become the world's best communication tool and that the code-mastering artisans who can capitalize on that are delivering to people a weapon potentially more devastating than 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 Transportation Security Administration RFID (radio-frequency identification) systems and the ability to monitor and track cell phone communications by satellite—would be an extremely effective way to isolate that leader and to prevent troops from being rallied and orders given.
The Internet changes all that. It's been said that the United States often fights the immediately prior war, while creative, bloodthirsty and low-budget terrorists are setting the terms for the next war. The United States military and its allies have superior weaponry and systems, but the enemy has better PR, morale, community support and, apparently, code jockeys. Maybe Al Qaeda does not have better code jockeys, but they certainly have embraced and used the Internet to a better advantage than have U.S. forces and their allies.
The Internet is a way to talk with the masses and that—handled properly—is a devastating tool. While smart bombs were being aimed at hide-outs, why weren't American hackers overwhelming every Al Qaeda-friendly website with DoS (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.