In what has to be one of the most sensationalist and fuzzy pieces of journalism I've read in a long while, The Australian newspaper has published an article that links terrorist training with the virtual world of Second Life.
Terrorist organisations al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah traditionally sent potential jihadists to train in military camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. But due to increased surveillance and intelligence-gathering, they are swapping some military training to online camps to evade detection and avoid prosecution.
Now there is no doubt that terrorist organizations utilize the Internet to spread propaganda and organize their activities, but this is nothing new -- which the article tries to make it out to be, by playing on the simulation offered by Second Life.
For example, the fact that you can buy weapons in the virtual world means that you can rehearse using them in real-life or you can scope our reconnaissance missions because the application features 3D graphics. Second Life allows users to pipe in streaming video and chat in realtime, ingredients, the article says, that are perfect for conducting a bomb making lesson. Other "evidence" cited are the virtual terrorist attacks that have occurred in Second Life against some of the multinational brands that have set-up-shop in the virtual world. Somehow these must be linked to al-Qaeda, the article tentatively implies. And how is any of this different to computers games that have existed for years, or the traditional World Wide Web?
What's particular alarming about the piece is that there are quotes pulled from some seemingly credible sources backing up the story.
Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaeda, says it is a new phenomena that, until now, has not been openly discussed outside the intelligence community.
But he says security agencies are extremely concerned about what home-grown terrorists are up to in cyberspace. He believes the dismantling and disruption of military training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan after September 11 forced terrorists to turn to the virtual world.
The question begs to be asked: have any of the people associated with this article ever actually used Second Life? It's primitive graphics and simulated physics, along with serious lag, hardly make it a candidate for practicing real-life anything, let alone terrorism. This will, as the technology matures, more than likely change. And a better article might have been one that focused on the potential ramifications of the next-generation of virtual worlds, as they become accessible by the masses. As it stands, video sharing sites and Google Maps are probably just as much, if not more, of a tool which could be used in terrorist activities, such as spreading propaganda or planning campaigns.
I fail to see how Second Life, in its current state, brings anything new to the idea of the Internet being a vehicle for terrorism. Am I missing something?