It used to be that guerrilla fighters lugged AK-47s and sent battlefield news in rolled-up scraps of paper, faithfully carried by couriers through treacherous jungles and mountain passes.
Today's revolutionary carries a laptop, and plugs into the Net.Ever since Mexico's Zapatista National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish acronym EZLN, took up arms against the Mexican state in Chiapas two years ago and broadcast its revolutionary message on the Internet, rebel groups have discovered the information highway as a cheap and effective way to promote their cause and disseminate information, usually without the interference of state censorship.
Today, every group from the Irish Republican Army to Hamas and Peru's Shining Path has taken its struggles to the Internet, and in the process they have radically altered the nature of guerrilla action and civic protest around the world.
Net surfers can now learn everything about the revolutionary struggles in Mexico and Peru, and even how to construct a pipe bomb.
"It's a cheap, easy way to communicate," said John Thompson, director of the Mackenzie Institute in Toronto, which studies organized violence and political instability. "Although terrorists who are out there planting bombs will not use the Net because it is not that secure, they will use it for fund-raising and propaganda purposes."
Communications experts say the use of the Internet has allowed rebel groups to wage revolutions, many in isolated parts of the world, in "real time."
In Mexico, the Zapatista rebels used the Internet to provide up to-the-minute information about their battlefield positions, and called on supporters throughout the country to demonstrate against the Mexican government.
The rebels' web site, "Ya Basta!" (Spanish for "enough"), features updates on the political situation in Chiapas, and opportunities to contribute financially to the EZLN.
The group's leader, known as "Subcomandante Marcos," reportedly plugs a laptop computer into the cigarette-lighter socket of a truck and types out communiqus, which are transferred onto disks and given to others for scanning and web insertion.
"At the very least, it is clear that the direct communiques from the guerrilla leadership (in Mexico) served as a block against disinformation," said Deedee Halleck, who teaches in the communications department at the University of California at San Diego.
Halleck noted in a recent article that the Internet has revolutionized guerrilla communication in isolated, underdeveloped regions such as Chiapas.
The use of the Internet in Chiapas forced Televisa, Mexico's largely state-controlled television network, to report the official demands of the guerrillas, who were able to get their side of the story across during crucial moments in the group's negotiation process with the Mexican government, Halleck said.
Moreover, Zapatista supporters around the world acted on Internet calls for action to send faxes to the office of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to protest against the army's crackdown on the rebels in February 1995.
"The Zapatistas have the means to disseminate information through a widely based electronic network," Halleck said, adding that the difference compared with past rebel uprisings in Latin America is striking.
For instance, until The New York Times published Herbert Mathews' 1957 interview with rebel leader Fidel Castro in his Sierra Maestra stronghold, Cuban revolutionary activity was virtually unknown outside the Caribbean island.
National liberation groups usually gain Internet access through an international organization that works as their mouthpiece in North America or Europe, experts say.
The Shining Path, which is also known as the Communist Party of Peru, launched a web site in April thanks to the efforts of a magazine that supports the shadowy Maoist group.
In the past, it has been difficult for journalists and scholars to obtain official documents from the Peruvian guerrilla group, which launched its war on the state in 1980.
Since 1992, possession of Shining Path literature has been illegal in Peru and government repression has become so severe that one man was jailed as a suspected terrorist for six months after being caught making a copy of a book written by a British journalist on the Shining Path.
"These groups all have intellectual supporters abroad who are at the forefront of new communications technologies," said Bruce Goslin, Latin-American director for Kroll Associates, a U.S. organization that gathers intelligence about terrorist groups around the world. "The Internet has long been a great medium of communication for the extreme right-wing groups, such as neo-Nazis, so it should be no surprise that the extreme left are now on line."
The Shining Path home page, which has portraits of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, conveys neo-Maoist political guidelines to supporters worldwide. The site includes a profile of the group's jailed leader, Abimael Guzman, and information about how supporters can send financial contributions to the Shining Path's cause to turn Peru into a peasant-worker state.
Although the Internet has allowed revolutionary groups scattered in isolated parts of the world a wider audience, experts say they are unlikely to win new supporters.
"Whether it's the Aryan Nation or Shining Path, I don't think these radical groups are winning a lot of converts on the Internet," said David Charters, director of the Conflict Studies Center at the University of New Brunswick.
"People who are already predisposed to these philosophies will be interested in following the messages, and the Internet will help sharpen and focus their opinions, but they're mainly just preaching to the converted."
Security officials say they're more concerned about bulletin boards that offer instructions on how to build bombs than they are about fringe revolutionary groups.
In the United States, authorities say there has been a recent rash of bomb incidents sparked by curious teenagers who are consulting other like-minded adolescents on the Internet about how to make bombs using such readily available products as tubing and fuses.
The overall number of pipe-bomb incidents in the United States has risen 20 percent from 1990 to 1994, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Experts blame information available on the Internet for the increase.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)