Researchers say tool could trace online posts to terrorists

ByABC News
November 11, 2007, 2:01 PM

TUCSON -- The quivering images and militant writings are frightening: an exploding Humvee blankets passing cars with dust; a lab technician makes explosives, step by step; hatred oozes from "A guide to kill Americans in Saudi Arabia."

Tens of thousands of Web pages are now devoted to terrorist propaganda designed to attract followers. On the surface, the messages and videos reveal little about their creators. But programmers and writers leave digital clues: the greetings and other words they choose, their punctuation and syntax, and the way they code multimedia attachments and Web links.

Researchers at the University of Arizona are developing a tool that uses these clues to automate the analysis of online jihadism. The Dark Web project aims to scour websites, forums and chat rooms to find the Internet's most prolific and influential jihadists and learn how they reel in adherents.

Lab director Hsinchun Chen hopes Dark Web will crimp what he calls "al-Qaeda University on the Web," the mass of websites where potential terrorists learn their trade, from making explosives to planning attacks. Experts said they are not aware of any comparable effort, though some said the project may have only limited applications.

The project in the university's Artificial Intelligence Lab will not identify people outside cyberspace "because that involves civil liberties," Chen said, preferring to let law enforcement and intelligence analysts take over from there. Instead, it will help identify messages with the same author and reveal links that aren't obvious.

"Our tool will help them ID the high-risk, radical opinion leaders in cyberspace," Chen said.

Chen said a few agencies are on the verge of using some of his team's techniques but he wouldn't name the agencies.

Former FBI counterterror chief Dale Watson, who noted that terrorist websites and communications are now analyzed manually, said the ability to sort through so much data electronically "would be a great asset in the fight against terrorism."