Does Al-Qaeda need a Second Life?

Terrorists may look to virtual worlds as a place to meet up and share information

Bad things can happen in Second Life. Just ask presidential candidate John Edwards--whose virtual campaign site was defaced--or the owners of American Apparel--whose virtual store was bombed and invaded by armed avatars who shot and injured several virtual customers. In Second Life, the popular virtual reality game created by Linden Research, these kinds of incidents are referred to as "griefer" attacks.

Griefers are generally considered to be an annoyance: antisocial teenagers who try their best to make the game unpleasant for others with bad behavior or nasty scripts. But Rohan Gunaratna, associate professor with Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, believes that the real bad guys are starting to take a first look at Second Life. "It is a space that is of high interest for a number of organizations, including the jihadists," says Gunaratna. "Until this point, they have not mounted an attack on Second Life, but certainly they are inquisitive. They are interested in knowing about the opportunities in Second Life."

Terrorists would gain little by launching an attack in the virtual world (something that is already a common occurrence, thanks to the griefers), but Second Life could give them a few things that they really do need. "The critical phase in a terrorist operation is the planning phase. That's when you're going to get caught," says Roderick Jones, head of the private intelligence practice of Concentric Solutions International. "If I can walk around my potential target as a terrorist with my other cell members from different parts of the world, and then just fly in and do the attack, that's the scenario that would appeal to [a terrorist]."

With many known online discussion forums and websites now infiltrated by government snoops, the terrorists may look to virtual worlds as a place to meet up and share information. And maybe swap funds, too. Because Linden dollars--used to buy virtual goods and services in Second Life--can be converted into real-world currencies, researchers like Jones also see the game as a possible forum for moving money around the globe to fund terrorist operations.

Of course it's worth noting that Second Life has hardly escaped government notice. The Department of Homeland Security has considered using Second Life as a virtual meeting place for some of its project teams as well as an inexpensive site to run simulations of first-responder exercises. The FBI has also taken an active interest in the gambling operations of Second Life's casinos, though the agency has taken no decisive actions to curb it.

All this talk of terrorists using Second Life as a training ground is purely theoretical at present. According to Jones and Gunaratna, nobody has documented terrorists using the game for illegal purposes, and Linden Research points out that law enforcement isn't even investigating this possibility.

Still, terrorists are "early adopters of technology," according to Jones. "And they likely will use these things in the future. I'd just love to see some evidence."

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Robert McMillan

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