The Internet has saved al Qaeda from complete obliteration. Al Qaeda never became the international terror threat that was feared (in the West) and hoped for (in the Islamic world). Under heavy attack for over a decade, al Qaeda has lost most of its sanctuaries and leadership. Thousands of al Qaeda foot soldiers have died, often in futile attempts to strike a blow for Islamic world conquest. Meanwhile, a growing Internet presence has enabled al Qaeda to keep getting its message out, and recruiting new zealots. This activity has been noted, and is now under increasing attack.
Al Qaeda attitudes towards the Internet have changed. Nearly a decade of warning, in the West, about Islamic terrorists using the Internet to launch attacks has come to nothing. At most, there have been some defacing of web pages, often by hackers driven more by nationalism than religion. The Internet Jihad (struggle) has been mostly smoke, and very little fire.
Attempts by terrorists to recruit hackers have had seemingly poor results, but enough people have been attracted to join Islamic terrorist groups, to keep al Qaeda visible. The use of the Internet to keep al Qaeda ideas in the news has become very important. Al Qaeda is, after all a creature that feeds on attention.
There are a growing number of programmers and Internet specialists in the Moslem world, but most of them have legitimate jobs in software firms, or maintaining software and Internet services for companies. Some are involved with Internet crime, and a very few spend some time trying to get some Internet based terrorism going. But nearly all the Moslem blackhats (criminal hackers) are reluctant to get on a terrorism watch list, or worse, join some terrorist outfit. Moreover, Islamic terrorists recruit mainly from the young and clueless (and angry and unemployed). Internet penetration in the Islamic world is very low, as is literacy itself. The Islamic cyber threat is largely fiction, because the potential pool of Islamic Internet Jihadis is so tiny. Al Qaeda has had its greatest success among Islamic expatriates in the West, and among the children of well off Islamic families. These Moslems have access to the Internet, more education than their peers back in the old country and are wealthier (even if they are considered poor in their adopted country.) In Europe and North America, police are finding and arresting more terrorists among Moslem migrants, or their children. Fortunately, most of these expatriate terrorism recruits are reluctant to actually carry out attacks. They are more enthusiastic talking about it, which they do to great length and with much enthusiasm.
Counter-terrorism organizations know why there have not been more Internet based attacks by al Qaeda, or any other self-proclaimed Islamic warriors, nor a huge number of suicide bomber recruits via Internet recruiting. The fact is that the Islamic terrorists are not nearly as well organized or skilled as the mass media would lead you to believe. There are many types of attacks, not just those involving the Internet, that terrorists could carry out, but don't. It doesn't happen because the terrorists cannot get it together sufficiently to do it. That should tell you something. The potential is there, and that is scary. But the reality has to be recognized as well, and that's a lot less scary.