In a landmark case, a court in Germany will decide whether posting terrorist propaganda and calls to violence on the Internet is tantamount to supporting terrorism as it tries a man for conducting a "virtual jihad."
Defining what constitutes terrorism on the Internet poses new challenges for governments
In the first case of its kind in Germany, a man went on trial this week in the northern city of Celle for posting al Qaeda hate messages and audio and video recordings, by Osama bin Laden among others, in an Internet chartroom for Islamists.
The 36-year-old Iraqi-born Kurdish defendant, known as Ibrahim R., is accused of using the Internet as a "terror weapon" and conducting his own "personal jihad on the computer."
German security officials observed the defendant's Internet habits for 18 months
The defendant, who was under observation by security officials for a year and a half, also faces charges of attempting to recruit members and supporters for two terrorist networks, al Qaeda and "al Qaeda in Iraq."
Peter Ernst, the main prosecutor in the case, said the "main propaganda path for al Qaeda is the Internet, where jihad is also carried out virtually."
"Virtual supermarket for terrorists"
Federal prosecutors said the defendant, who was arrested last October and has been jailed pending trial ever since, spent hours surfing the Internet and logged on in the chatroom under seven different pseudonyms.
The audio and video files he downloaded from the Internet and posted in the chatroom contained messages by bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Sarkawi, the now dead leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and include the justification of terrorist attacks and incitement of hatred against Jews. The defendant himself occasionally appealed for participation in jihad, or holy war, prosecutors added.
The case, experts say, underscores the increasing significance of the role of the Internet in global terrorism. Known to offer everything from sources of terror financing, the sale of chemicals and fertilizers, recruitment of members, to a complete terrorist attack how-to guide, monitoring the Web has long been high on counter-terrorism experts' list.
"This trial is a milestone in terms of fighting terrorism on the Internet and will be watched closely," said Rolf Tophoven, director of the Essen-based Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy. "The Internet today has become a virtual supermarket for terrorists, where they can find everything they need to prepare for attacks."
New legal ground?
Yet, the "cyber jihadist" case also raises questions about what constitutes terrorism, and reflects Germany's struggle to deal with new threats with the right legal tools.
Three of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots, including Mohammed Atta, had lived in Hamburg
Germany first toughened its anti-terror laws after it emerged that three of the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide pilots had lived in Hamburg. It started by, among other things, making membership in a foreign terror group a crime. More recently, the foiling of potentially deadly bombings has German politicians pushing for stricter anti-terror legislation to criminalize training for an attack or obtaining weapons or other substances in order to carry out an attack.
But the present case in Celle covers new legal ground, according to Klaus Rüther, Ibrahim R.'s lawyer, because the defendant is solely charged with actions on the Internet.
"This is about distributing speeches online by members of terrorist groups, and not something like building bombs, buying a ticket to Pakistan or funding radical groups," Rüther said, adding there was a difference between general propaganda for al Qaeda and targeted recruiting of members and supporters.
Some of the speeches by bin Laden were broadcast on the Arab TV network Al Jazeera he said, adding that anyone could have seen them if they wanted to.
Downloading such video clips and passing them on to others is legal in Germany, Rüther said, adding that the case risked putting the German justice system on a slippery slope that could lead to "criminal law being broadened to cover laws on political convictions."
Hard to make a case
Experts agree that prosecutors will have a tough time making a case, because they will have to prove that Ibrahim R. had intentions to plan attacks or recruit new members for al Qaeda through the online distribution of hate material and terrorist propaganda.
"Did the defendant do more than simply view bin Laden recordings and pass them on? Why did he do it?" asked Tophoven. "That will be the decisive point in the trial."
Bernd Carstensen, press spokesman for Germany's criminal investigators' union (BdK) pointed out that merely sympathizing with terrorist groups was no longer a crime in Germany.
"Simply distributing terrorist propaganda no longer suffices in Germany for a prosecution," Carstensen said.
Until 2003, sporting a bin Laden sticker would have been illegal in Germany
Sympathizing with terror groups or distributing propaganda was made a punishable offence under section 129a of Germany's penal code in the 1970s, when attacks by groups like the Red Army Faction sparked widespread terrorism fears across the country. That included writings, pamphlets, posters, T-shirts that showed common cause with left-wing terrorist movements.
But, in 2003, the Green party decriminalized it when they shared power with the Social Democrats in the federal government. Earlier this year, in keeping with the liberalized law, Germany's Federal Administrative Court ruled that general calls for jihad were no longer punishable as propaganda for a terrorist group.
A deterrent to "virtual jihad"
"It's an important trial because it will shed light on whether what happens in closed chat groups on the Internet falls under freedom of expression or whether you can penalize it if there's proof of planned attacks," said Carstensen.
Whatever the outcome of the "cyber jihadist" trial, some say it will set a precedent. Tophoven said the trial would be an important step in countering "virtual jihad."
"It will act as a deterrent for future Internet users toying with the idea of playing terrorist."
The trial is expected to continue until January 2008.