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No, Mr Murdoch, virtual jihad isn’t hitting Second Life

The problem with the Internet is that once a story is out there, it tends to take on a life of a its own – even when it’s been comprehensively debunked, and effectively retracted.

Today’s Sunday Times carries just such a story, in the shape of “Virtual jihad hits Second Life website” (note to Mr Murdoch: Second Life isn’t a website). This story wraps up two of the most most recent non-stories into one easy to digest package.

First up, there’s the hoary old chestnut of “‘virtual’ terrorist attacks in which buildings depicted on the website are blown up”, which is a rehash of that Australian Broadcasting Corporation story:

“Recently, inhabitants of the virtual world have experienced a more sinister phenomenon – virtual terrorist attacks against buildings and avatars. A recent attack took place at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Second Life base. A number of these attacks, known as “griefings”, have been launched by what industry insiders say are “geeky teenagers” giving themselves names such as the Second Life Liberation Army.”

That would be the ABC “attack” which even ABC itself admitted was, in fact, just buggy software. But there’s a twist: the Sunday Times has managed to find someone prepared to say that real-life jihadis are also planning terrorist atrocities:

Some experts, however, believe the “virtual atrocities” may have been committed by real Islamic radicals. Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said that for the past three months he had monitored about 12 jihadists who have assumed identities in Second Life. He said they were mostly based in America and Europe.

Some radicals, he said, had given themselves “innocuous” titles, while others had provocative jihadist names such as Irhabi007 (Arabic for Terrorist007). Gunaratna acknowledged that not all Islamists had any intention of carrying out terrorist attacks in real life, but said that they were using Second Life to build a community of extremists.

In fact, “Irhabi007” was the nom de cyber of Younis Tsouli, the 22-year old Londoner recent jailed for a bit of amateurish hacking and possession of jihadist videos. This has no connection with Second Life at all.

Furthermore, although Dr Gunaratna in extremely prominent in the media as a “terrorism expert”, his claim about terrorist uses of technology need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Take, for example, his 1997 claim about a new “body suit” being developed by the Tamil Tigers:

“In 1997, Gunaratna claimed that the LTTE had developed a new body suit that was specifically designed for suicide bombings. The new suit, he declared in an article published by the Scotland on Sunday, ensured that the terrorist’s head would survive the explosion, becoming a “lethal projectile—sometimes travelling as far as two hundred yards”. No evidence was provided, and in the ensuing six years nothing more has been heard of the deadly suit.”

Then, there was the case of the mini-helicopters:

“In 2000, Gunaratna alleged that LTTE ships had been sighted in Australian waters and that Australian Tamils were exporting “mini-helicopters” to Sri Lanka for attacks on government troops. His claims, which again were made without evidence, were condemned at the time and have since been quietly dropped.”

Next up, the Sunday Times talks about the possibilities of terrorists using Second Life to pass money around the world:

“Europol and the British Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) are concerned that Second Life provides an ideal facility for criminals to launder money through in-world enterprises such as casinos. There are fears that terrorists could also take advantage of difficulties in policing Linden dollar movements to transfer funds between operatives around the world. A Soca source said the agency was looking at ways to address illicit financial activity in the virtual world.”

Of course, what they miss out is that every transaction in Second Life is logged – there is no cash in the virtual world. While it would be simple to pass around a few thousand dollars a day and disguise it, this wouldn’t go far enough to be of interest to a terrorist organisation.

In short, this is a crap story made up of a old Internet rumour which has long been debunked, a quote from a so-called “expert” with a history of dubious claims, and the (true) claim that you can pass money around Second Life.

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