October 14, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Al-Qaida proving elusive on the Net

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down Web sites bearing messages from al-Qaida," Zittrain said, "I don't think the government would think anything stood in its way from doing it."

An array of options
What's drawn attention of terrorism analysts recently has been a series of weekly "news" Webcasts put out by a group--purportedly tied to al-Qaida--that calls itself the Global Islamic Media Front. Online advertisements plugging the shows--dubbed "The Voice of the Caliphate"--feature Fox News and Al Jazeera icons engorged in flames.

The pilot show, which surfaced in late September, drew wide attention for its belligerent outlook and apparent attempt to discredit reports from Western and mainstream Arab media. According to a translation circulated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, an Israel-based group, a ski-masked anchor announced: "The entire Islamic world overflowed with joy when Hurricane Katrina struck in America, which seemed to reel from the strength of the hurricane and went asking for aid from all the countries of the world."

The U.S. government and its allies would have an array of options if they were to try to sabotage such a broadcast.

One method, known as a denial-of-service attack, clogs the target server with flood of false requests for information, overwhelming the system. Legitimate users can't connect. Denial-of-service attacks became more frequent about five years ago--with Whitehouse.gov and the FBI's Web site being among the targets.

One problem with that technique, from the government's perspective, is that terrorist-sympathetic Web sites are often unknowingly hosted by Internet service providers. A denial-of-service attack would indiscriminately restrict access to all the company's customers.

"The government can't just hack into those ISPs," said Dorothy Denning, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "Companies like that are generally not trying to support terrorists."

More obvious tactics involve destroying files or network equipment, or intruding into a system and misconfiguring settings so that proper routing to the site can't occur. But experts say such measures tend to be considered a last resort.

"Obviously, when you destroy something your opponent knows that their thing has been destroyed," said Richard Harknett, a University of Cincinnati political science professor who specializes in national security. "That's something that you want to do on a very limited basis (only) when you're actually using information warfare in combination with a military operation."

A more subtle approach is the centuries-old military tactic of disinformation. Government operatives could, for example, gain entry to an opponent's server and manipulate information just enough to befuddle its adversaries or the general public.

The tactic of choice
However, surreptitious monitoring may be the government's tactic of choice. The CIA, for instance, has bankrolled research geared toward spying on Internet chatrooms in an effort to "combat terrorism through advanced technology."

"One of the most difficult parts of dealing with terrorism of this sort is the group conducting it is so remote and insular and it's hard to penetrate the group for intelligence purposes," said Harvard's Zittrain. "More likely, it's the kind of thing where they're happy to see the sites stay up."

More recently, a patent obtained by the National Security Agency indicated that the government may be hoping to find additional ways

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11 comments

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One Obvious Question
If these sites are so illusive, what good are they? If counter-terrorism authorities can't readily find and track these sites and chat rooms, how does their intended audience?
Posted by Eggs Ackley (34 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RE: One Obvious Question
The media in its various forms is a very powerful weapon in its self --The vicious circle of news should be considered as a consumable product.

Hey, if I was to believe everything in the media, I would of commited suicide ages ago and be rolling over in my grove.
Posted by (5 comments )
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Good point
Strange article and good point Eggs. I was scratching my head trying to figure out if 12 year old kids doing music sharing can't hide from the RIAA, how can bad guys hide from law enforcement?

And if these guys are so good at hiding, how does anyone know about them? Have the bad guys hired spammers to help them?

Besides, when it comes to cyber-risks, didn't Richard Clarke say that the risk was more likely to come from attacking the network in the form of viruses and such?
Posted by R. U. Sirius (745 comments )
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Missed the Point?
@ Eggs Ackley - the sites aren't necessarily so illusive to the people who they are targetting; those who can read Arabic. One of the biggest problems that Western intelligence agencies are facing at the moment are enough trained operatives that can read and/or speak Arabic.

@ Barry Dennis - google the term 'signal analysis' and see what you come up with. As was obliquely stated in this article, taking down these sites holds very little value, they will just put them straight back up on another server. What is useful for the intelligence services is to monitor the traffic going into and out of these sites. That traffic will lead somewhere, and when they forget to enable their anonymizer one day, then we'll know exactly who they are and who their friends are. That's how you get to the top of the tree.
Posted by (5 comments )
Link Flag
Hiding in Plain Sight
part of what makes these sites so hard to track is that they are hiding in plain sight.

There is precious little difference, to the average onlooker, between a Muslim and a radiacal muslim, so everu Muslim is a (potential) Islamic terrorist.
Posted by Too Old For IT (351 comments )
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Ephemeral Al-Qaida
First,giving Al Qaida sponsored web sites the "hack" (and the "whack")is OK with me, and just about everyone I know. These guys are "terrorists!" If there's any doubt about their intentions, please reread recent history, or their manifestos, or even their websites.
Interfering with anything and everything they do isn't a subject for debate,it should be accepted as established and necessary policy.
And before you retry that sympathy ploy about the ISPs, remember that they too have the right to restrict "obnoxious and obscene" content of websites, so no second-guessing, okay?
People have to start thinking of the war with terrorists, including but not limited to Al-Qaida, as an ever-evolving strategy; anticipate, restrict, hinder, search and destroy. Those are the tactics of success.
As in the past "apologists" are repainting the factual portrait of Osama and his ilk.
Make no mistake(s), the "Caliphate," the worldwide kingdom of Islam dreamed of, promoted,theorized, is a driving force of the terrorist mvements, here in the US and elsewhere.
We would be fools to pass up any opportunity to surreptitiously or overtly disrupt any or all of their structure; chain of command, financing, secular support, religious support, communications, recruitment, whatever.
We also have to develop "eyes and ears" capable of recognizing and reporting any activity that would or could be deemed suspicious;ANY.
We don't even heavity promote our national toll-free tip line in the way we should. The cumulative effect of statistically analyzed reports from disparate sources can only lead to real "leads" to work with.
From trucks and photographers in the wrong places at the wrong times, to infiltrating and observing in the conclaves of ethnic immigrants is just a beginning.
And in spite of protestatons of leaders of so-called "assimilated" groups, there is no call from these leaders to report nefarious activity occasioned by their countrymen, or other peer-related groups.
Get real,America! Or watch as we lose everything that two hundred plus years of history has taught us is the right form of self-government!
Posted by bdennis410 (175 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Funding And Foot Soldiers
I think that it is a waste to focus time and money on these Islamist propaganda sites. Money would be better spent to turn off the spigot of funding for terrorism and to dry up the supply of jihadi foot soldiers. Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. could not continue with no money and no volunteers to blow themselves up. Turn off the money spigot by getting off Middle East oil and heroin from Afgfhanistan. Put foreign countries on notice that we will cut off ALL foreign aid to countries that are not really serious about shutting down these operations (Egypt, Palestine,). Put prominent Islamic clerics, including U.S. clerics on TV and radio, and on worldwide websites with the message that if you kill other people you will not go to Islamic paradise but to Hell. We are clearly way behind in the battle for the hearts and minds of Islamic youth.
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Who is a terrorist? Who resists occupation is a freedom fighter, right?
If you have a mirror and some logic guess who is a terrorist in Iraq. If my country would be bombed and run down by any foreign army you have one guess what I would do! No suicide bomb bologni! I would nuke the freaking country who ever they might be! No rocket needed. Dirty bombs are fine. No grass will grow there for a decade that's for sure! If anyone occupies US and those who fight back are what? Terrorists? Give me a break! Be honest!Try to look behind the tree and you will see the forest!
What a bunch of narrow minded brainwashed folks are around! USA is not respecting any International law presently. Why should those occupied by US do that? Simple logic right?
A country who's leaders serve corporations only is a corrupt banana republic in my eyes.
No one needs US kind of "democracy"="slavery".
The world is watching! If you want to become the "Fourth Reich" watch out I'd suggest. The "Third Reich" is a good example to learn from!
I am just mirroring the mainstream...!
My two cents ...
Posted by cyberblatt (35 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Who is a terrorist?
Lazlo, While I'm sympathetic with your point, it's intellectually lazy to think that the US involvement in Iraq is old fashioned imperialism. If you've noticed the smiling faces of Iraqis showing off their blackened index fingers, you'll realize they are happy to have been helped towards US style democracy for the first time in decades. Sure the displaced Sunnis are not happy because they have lost power. But that does not make them freedom fighters in the same way that Pashtuns were in Afghanistan. The difference lies in the will of the majority. The desire Self determination for the majority is the test of a freedom fighter; the oppression of the majority by the old tyrannical regime is the mark of terrorism. One could use the arguments you put forth against you. If the US were after oil, Saddam would be in power and they would have supported his regime in exchange for oil, encouraged production and a glut, and watched the price go down. That's much cheaper than the alternative they face now. Your arguments are partisan and illogical. This isn't about oil; it's about freedom in a region which doesn't tolerate democracy.
Posted by zchannel (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Who is a terrorist? US
Helmut you forget that we(US) did support Saddam in exchange for his oil(among other things) but when he refused to kowtow to our every demand we turned a cold hand towards his country. Our imperialistic foreign policy has created this so-called terrorist threat(I am not convinced) and so Lazlo seems to be right on to me, while your response is too simpleton to get behind.

Any decent person who follows politics closely knows that this war in Iraq is not about freedom for Iraqi people. Remember when it was about WMD?
Obviously, the US wants to control the Middle East and we feel threatened by Islamic people controlling the worlds oil supply which we are heavily addicted to. Combine that with some greedy/corrupt politicians and a propagandized public and you have a new American imperialism.

It is time that we stopped being hypocrites about pushing this freedom thing. Especially at a time when our leaders seem to care more about corporations and their own partisan agendas than people.
Posted by tetsuyo (50 comments )
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