By Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 3/17/2006 7:57:43 PM ET 2006-03-18T00:57:43

In stealth, he infiltrated the Vatican. He has moved freely around Western Europe as an undercover soldier for al-Qaida.

And now, he claims that he is living in the United States and planning a massive attack in this country.

He is also believed to be completely fictitious.

The character named Rakan bin Williams has emerged recently on the Internet. He’s a tough-talking, Western-born Islamic convert with harsh warnings for Americans.

In a message posted March 10, Williams urged Americans to "start thinking about the magnitude of the danger that is coming their way."  He went on to say that "you will be brought to your knees, but not until you lose more loved ones and experience significant destruction."

The harsh messages and their dissemination over the Internet have raised concerns among terrorism analysts that he could become an effective al-Qaida recruiting device.

In many ways, he represents the face of cyberpropaganda. But, as that threat becomes broader, is the United States prepared to thwart it? 

Propaganda steeped in popular culture
Williams’ threats have gotten attention on numerous blogs, prompting people to dig deeper into his identity and origins.

A group called the Global Islamic Media Front, a Toronto-based organization, is posting statements from Williams on Islamic Web sites, ostensibly on his behalf — in much the way that Osama bin Laden’s statements might be broadcast by networks like al Jazeera. The form of presentation is intended to imply that he is a real person, but terrorism experts agree that he is likely a composite character created for the purposes of recruitment.

Many terrorism experts consider the Global Islamic Media Front to be an al-Qaida mouthpiece. According to international terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann, the Global Islamic Media Front is vocally sympathetic to al-Qaida, but is not the equivalent of al-Qaida.

“Al-Qaida is less an organization in the Western sense and more of an ideology,” said Kohlmann. “This group supports that ideology by distributing propaganda.”

In this case, the propaganda comes in the form of a jihadist warrior with a superhuman story.

The significance of the name “Rakan bin Williams” can be found in Middle Eastern popular culture. A comic strip called “Rakan the Lone Warrior” is widely read in the Muslim world.

Rakan, a creation of the Cairo-based company AK Comics, was a crippled child abandoned by his family at a young age after Mongols attacked the tribe. The boy was rescued by a desert cat and raised to become an invincible warrior.

Williams claims to be a convert to Islam. The picture that develops is that of a Richard Reid, Jose Padilla or John Walker Lindh — a Western man moved to join the jihad to support al-Qaida’s goals.

The composite character of Rakan could quite possibly be an effective recruiting device, particularly given the success of the comic in the Middle East.

After an initial communiqué from Williams back in November, terror analysts began a close analysis of the meaning and agenda behind this artifice.

In a December 2005 article from The Jamestown Foundation, analyst Murad Al-Shishani drew the conclusion that recruitment of Westerners is part of al-Qaida's new strategy.

Al-Shishani wrote that this character, with his loner, renegade spirit, appeals to the "disgruntled, marginalized groups," who could be potential al-Qaida sympathizers in America and Western Europe.

Al-Qaida goes dot-com
It is the latest move on the Internet by al-Qaida and its sympathizers, a collection of people who have become quite sophisticated at using the latest technology to further their goals.

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida has developed a well-organized Internet strategy.

As far back as 2001, Alneda, an Arabic Web site used by al-Qaida to send messages to its followers, was a known entity. U.S. authorities tried several times to shut down the site, but it is nearly impossible to prevent such an operation from popping up on another server.

The extent of the terrorist group’s Internet savvy became clear after a key arrest in Pakistan in 2004.

In July of that year, a man who went by the name Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan was arrested in Pakistan. In his possession were a computer and a collection of CDs containing enough credible information to raise the terror alert level thousands of miles away — in the United States.

With Khan’s arrest it became evident that the notion that al-Qaida’s training recruitment was confined to audio and video technology, such as the now-infamous al-Qaida training video that has been replayed countless times on cable news networks since 2002, was a thing of the past. Clearly, the group had graduated to digital technology and the Web had replaced VHS tapes in a big way.

Is U.S. prepared to confront the enemy in a virtual realm?
But is the United States adequately prepared to confront the enemy in the virtual realm?  Not really, experts say.

Cybersecurity efforts by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have focused primarily on protecting national infrastructure, the banking and business networks vulnerable to attacks from viruses and cyberterrorism.

A May 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office stated that the DHS had failed to fulfill its cyberspace goals since its creation in 2003, a black mark that Secretary Michael Chertoff is hoping to improve. His reorganization plan, announced last July, involves the creation of a position for an assistant secretary of cybersecurity.

That position has been created and funded by Congress, but not yet filled. A spokesman for the DHS said that the undersecretary for preparedness, George Foresman, is actively looking, and “it is a priority.”

But there exists another cybersecurity threat, one highlighted by the example of Rakan bin Williams — confronting al-Qaida's propaganda and recruitment abilities on the Web.

To this point, Kohlmann said, “We are five generations behind on this. The authorities have little or no understanding of the issues.”

A sentiment that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shares.  In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last month, Rumsfeld stated that the United States is losing the propaganda war against al Qaida.

Rumsfeld said "the enemies had skillfully adapted" to the age of the Internet and are using media effectively, and encouraged the Pentagon to improve communication strategies to counter that threat.

Tony Maciulis is an MSNBC TV senior producer.

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