By Seamus Hughes
March 1, 1998
Editor’s Note: We found this article in the War on the Rocks archives and believe it shines light on an important security issue.
Washington, D.C. – Last week, a fax machine in London buzzed with activity. Within five minutes, two pages (three, counting the cover page) were produced. The 1,053-word diatribe was a declaration of war from a little-known son of a Saudi billionaire named Osama Bin Laden. Printed on crisp, off-white copy paper, it stated, “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies ― civilians and military ― is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”
In Washington, government officials, terrorism experts, and congressional leaders all agreed: This was a game changer.
Terrorist propaganda is not new, but the way in which it is transmitted has raised concerns about the potential radicalization fax machines could provide. “In the old days, a terrorist had to speak their message using only their voice, or if they were really innovative, write it on paper,” said Russell Blair, a senior fellow at the Center for Technology and Terror. “The intelligence community has gotten very good at following paper production, leading to important arrests of terrorists leaders but this fax machine thing, it’s scary how little we know.”
Experts say fax machines provide a level of interaction not imagined a decade ago. Messages can be received in near real-time. A senior intelligence official put it bluntly, “You don’t have to wait for the postman to deliver your terrorist content in 4–7 business days. Now just set up a separate phone line, plug it into the wall, and wait to be indoctrinated.” Indeed, a review of recent terrorist cases revealed a disturbing pattern. All have two things in common: violent ideology and the fax machine.
As the U.S. government grapples with this “new normal,” competing ideas on how best to combat the fax machine radicalization (FMR) problem are being discussed in the halls of Congress and the Old Executive Office Building.
The Department of Defense has provided $10 million for a pilot program to combat terrorist use of fax machines. Dubbed, “Project Bain,” after the Scottish inventor of the first fax machine, Alexander Bain, the pilot would buy a little over 2 million fax machines to be used by the U.S. government. A senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the national security sensitivities, stated, “The project is simple. Terrorists have fax machines and we should too. We can’t cede the ideological battlefield on data transmission.” A State Department official said that the Department of Defense pilot doesn’t go far enough. “It’s not enough just to buy clean fax machines. We have to use them to attack the narrative head on.” The official said that State wants to build on the pilot, “every time Bin Laden releases a declaration of war on one fax machine, there’s got to be another fax machine right next to the bad one that transmits our positive message.”
Others say this isn’t the government’s role. A senior government official says, “We shouldn’t be providing counter-faxes. We need to empower other voices to counter-fax themselves.” But members of the community say they lack the tools to compete with the sophisticated use of fax machines by terrorists. “We want to engage in the debate but I keep getting spam faxes, and no one in government will tell me which fax machine number to focus on,” says Kate Blum, a local community activist.
On Capitol Hill, the issue of FMR has reached a boiling point. Four separate congressional hearings are scheduled this week, each one looking at a different angle of the problem. In addition, Senator John Smith of Maine sent a letter to leading manufacturers of fax machines calling on them to block phone numbers from Afghanistan from sending faxes. “As a U.S. company, Xerox has a moral responsibility to stop faxes that are radicalizing our youth. If they don’t step up to the plate, we’ll look at legislative options for Xerox to do the right thing.”
Not to be outdone, Congressman William Mahanty went a step further. “It’s not enough to go after fax machine producers. We need to get to the real culprit: fax machine ink suppliers. Stop the ink, stop the problem.”
Rebecca Young, the former head of the CIA’s Telephonic Terrorist Unit disagreed, “Let them use the fax machines. The more they fax, the quicker we find them.”
The Human Factor
As the debate on Capitol Hill and the White House continues what’s lost is the human side of this phenomenon. David Hammond is a mill worker for South Carolina. He lives in a quiet neighborhood, where everyone knows each other. He says he wished he had recognized what was happening. Last month, without warning, his son Brian boarded a plane bound for Afghanistan to join a terrorist organization. After his son left, David searched his room. What he discovered is similar to what is found in other terrorist cases. “Underneath his bed, there was a fax machine. I thought it was harmless. Now I know. I should have unplugged it.”
This sentiment is sure to be felt by others as the rise of radicalization by facsimile machines continues unabated.