Recently the Bush administration acknowledged that al Qaeda is reorganized and gaining strength. As correspondent Scott Pelley reports, that's been possible, since the fall of Afghanistan, through the explosive growth of al Qaeda on the Internet. Last week, word spread on the web that Vice President Cheney was in Afghanistan. In hours the base where he was staying was bombed. It's not clear the bomber was targeting the vice president, but U.S. Intelligence noted the coincidence.
It is certain that virtual reality is doing real damage with intelligence, recruiting, fund raising and the spread of Islamic extremism. This assault may start with bytes, not bullets, but American generals will tell you, it's a hot war all the same on a battlefield called "jihad.com."
"Without a doubt, the Internet is the single most important venue for the radicalization of Islamic youth," says Army Brigadier General John Custer, who is the is head of intelligence at central command, responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Custer says he knows where the enemy finds an inexhaustible supply of suicide warriors. "I see 16, 17-year-olds who have been indoctrinated on the Internet turn up on the battlefield. We capture 'em, we kill 'em every day in Iraq, in Afghanistan," he says.
Asked if the Internet is training up new battalions of those young people, Custer tells Pelley, "It's a self-fulfilling prophesy that's exactly what the jihadist Internet is there to do."
And this, Custer told 60 Minutes, is just how they do it. "You start off with a site that looks like current news in Iraq. With a single click, you're at a active jihad attack site. The real meat of the jihad Web site, Jihad Internet. Beheadings, bombings, and blood. You can see humvees blown up. You can see American bodies drug through the street. You can see small arms attacks. Anything you might want in an attack video. Next link will take you to a motivational site, where mortar operatives, suicide bombers, are pictured in heaven. You can you see their farewell speeches. Another click and you're at a site where you can download scripted talking points that validate you have religious justification for mass murder," he explains.
"It's ironic, isn't it, this whole idea of martyrs living forever. Turns out to be true," Pelley remarks.
"It is," Custer remarks. "Every martyr craves immortality. And on the Internet, they can have it."
The number of Internet sites has exploded since 9/11. It's estimated there are 5,000 today. Custer says anyone watching them could actually believe the U.S. is on the run.
"It's a war of perceptions. They understand the power of the Internet. They don't have to win in the tactical battlefield. They never will. No platoon has ever been defeated in Afghanistan or Iraq. But, it doesn't matter. It's irrelevant," Custer says.
That's what Abu Musab al Zarqawi understood when he used the Internet to promote himself as head of al Qaeda in Iraq.
"When Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a street thug, beheaded an American businessman he became a rock star over night," Custer says.
"Nicholas Berg was beheaded just to provide material for broadcast," Pelley remarks.
"Exactly, Custer agrees. "The same with American contractor's bodies in Fallujah in April of '04. The same is Daniel Pearl havin' his throat slit havin' a gun put to his head. The power of the Internet is unbelievable."
That power is so menacing, General Custer wouldn't say anything at all about how the U.S. is fighting the Jihadi Internet online. But 60 Minutes found other Americans who have started their own counter attack. Aaron Weisburd joined the battle from his home in Illinois.
"I'm in Carbondale. In the middle of middle America. Waging war against them. It makes a very small world. What works in a cave in Afghanistan, you know, works in a living room in Carbondale," Weisburd says.
Weisburd was so angered by what he saw on the Web that he quit his job as a programmer and now spends every day attacking extremist websites.
His goal is to mess with them online. "Absolutely. In as many different ways as I can," he says.
And he says he's "sowing seeds of distrust."
Weisburd cooperates with the FBI, Homeland Security and British police, all of whom know him as unrelenting. He blows the whistle on the Web sites and asks Internet providers to take them down. He says he's helped shut down nearly a thousand.