The Kosovo conflict has begun to spread to the Internet, turning cyberspace into an ethereal war zone where the battle for hearts and minds is being waged through the use of electronic images, online discussion group postings and hacking attacks.
Just as television brought the Vietnam War into the living rooms of America, the Internet has brought a surprisingly intimate view of this conflict to computer users--but one that may or may not be true.
The conflict in Kosovo is, in many ways, the first Internet war. And even when the cyber battles stoop to juvenile antics, they bear the seeds of the future of information warfare.
"This is only the very, very beginning," said Winn Schwartau, a computer security consultant and author on the subject of information warfare. "It's going to grow exponentially, and eventually it will have a major impact on war."
This week, the NATO Web site, usually a sleepy spot on the Internet, was assaulted by hackers from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, who inundated NATO's computer system with e-mail and computer queries that made accessing the site difficult.
At the same time, a group of hackers, working under the name MacroHard Group, attacked a site called World-Albania.com, replacing the site's information with a link to a banned Belgrade radio station.
"If you're looking for the truth, visit WWW.B92.NET," read the new version of the Web page. The hackers left a defiant message, in hacking vernacular, to boast of their exploit: "SAMURAI RULLEZ!"
As the battle by Serbian forces on the ground and NATO forces in the air continues in Kosovo, governments and private citizens have embraced the Internet as a way of waging their own propaganda war. Because of the ease of publishing on the Web and the anonymity allowed by electronic communications, the Internet has become a prime site not only for propaganda and news, but also to attack and harass the enemy.
The hacking attacks have occurred sporadically since the beginning of NATO bombing in Yugoslavia. The damage caused by the hacking has been minimal. In the case of NATO's computers, the worst appears to be that accessing the page has been more difficult.
"Since the 28th of March, the service from our Internet home page has been erratic, to say the least," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said at a news conference earlier this week.
Schwartau said that the power of these hacking attacks is not in the attack itself but in the media frenzy that immediately follows, hyping a minor technical assault into a propaganda coup.
"You're not messing up NATO," he said. "But after a hundred media organizations pick up on it, it becomes a huge issue. It isn't the hack--it's the CNN effect. It becomes a very effective tool."
Schwartau said that at this point, the most powerful aspect of Internet war is not its ability to cripple vital computer systems but rather the ability to control the flow of information and propaganda. In past wars, the flow of information could be controlled by governments and media organizations; the conflict in Kosovo has presented a new realm of possibilities.
The flow of news and messages on the Internet has highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the medium as a direct, unfiltered source of information.
Dozens of Serbian Web sites have sprung up, providing a steady flow of news reports from Tanjug, the official Serbian news agency.
The Serbian Information Ministry has been running its own Web site, SerbiaINFO, which refers to Western forces as "NATO criminals."
Ethnic Albanian sites have launched their own information attack, with headlines about "Serbian terrorists."
Even with the expulsion of most foreign journalists from Kosovo, the news has continued to flow outward in numerous Web site, e-mail and online discussion group accounts of the fighting.
In an e-mail message that circulated on an electronic mailing list, a Serbian Orthodox monk, Father Sava Janjic, has been providing his account of the conflict to the world.
"Despite official promises--that the attacks will be launched against military targets only--several civilian areas have already been hit, including the village of Gracanica, where one of the most sacred Serb Orthodox monasteries is situated. We do not know anything about our sisters in Devic, where the new KLA [the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army] attacks were reported," he wrote.
One message that was posted Wednesday in an Internet discussion area from an anonymous writer gave a sense of the closed-in fear of the conflict.
"The planes flew really low [Tuesday] night, and for every one, antiaircraft fire responded from the ground, shooting into the sky. On the streets, [you] could hear lots of shouting: cursing at Albanians, NATO, America, Britain, [President] Clinton, [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair, Muslims, Turks--everyone who doesn't speak Serbian.