October 14, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Al-Qaida proving elusive on the Net
- Related Stories
NSA granted Net location-tracking patentSeptember 21, 2005
U.K. cops want to attack terrorism Web sitesJuly 25, 2005
Your ISP as Net watchdogJune 16, 2005
Security guru slams misuse of 'cyberterrorism'April 26, 2005
Security officials to spy on chat roomsNovember 24, 2004
U.S. blunders with keyword blacklistMay 3, 2004
Al Jazeera relaunches English siteSeptember 2, 2003
Geographic tracking raises opportunities, fearsNovember 8, 2000
(continued from previous page)
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
11 commentsJoin the conversation! Add your comment