October 14, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Al-Qaida proving elusive on the Net

An American-led military invasion of Afghanistan took just months to uproot al-Qaida from the rocky slopes of Tora Bora and the White Mountains.

But nearly four years later, even the combined might of the United States and its allies has had a far more difficult time scouring the Internet for the shadowy network of Islamic fundamentalists. The British government's announcement in July that it planned to clamp down on people who run Web sites that incite terrorism has had no noticeable results to date.

"For al-Qaida, the survival of the ideology is a lot more important than the survival of any of their physical assets or members, and the Internet is a way to ensure the propagation of that ideology," said Rebecca Givner-Forbes, an analyst for the Terrorism Research Center, which provides research services to the federal government.

Al-Qaida hides online, too

Analysts say that thousands of terrorist-affiliated sites exist on the Web, but unless you understand Arabic, good luck in identifying them. They're also constantly shifting. "Some of the sites are able to kind of hold onto their server space more often than others," said analyst Rebecca Givner-Forbes of the Terrorist Research Center, which provides research services to the federal government. "Others will move around as often as every two weeks or every week. They'll go down for a couple days, they'll pop up somewhere else."

It's most useful to track the sites by their titles, not their ever-shifting addresses, Givner-Forbes said. One such site, called "Al-firdaws" ("Paradise"), appears to be making its home at Alfirdaws.org. A passage from its forums was translated from Arabic to English recently by the Middle East Media Research Institute, which claimed the suspected jihadist site was housing an "Encyclopedia for the Preparation of Nuclear Weapons."

Other al-Qaida-linked sites, Givner-Forbes says, have gone by such names as Al-sas and Al-nosra.

--Anne Broache, CNET News.com

Al-Qaida has adopted online tactics that mirror its offline techniques for evading discovery: reliance on a constantly shifting collection of Internet sites and hostile takeovers of Web servers where propaganda can be posted. Last year, a server operated by the Arkansas highway office was hijacked and used to distribute 70 files including videos featuring Osama bin Laden.

During the past few years, according to terrorism analysts, al-Qaida has embraced the Internet as a new tool for organizing, training and propagandizing. A group believed to be al-Qaida's Web-based propaganda arm recently debuted a weekly state-of-affairs Webcast and is reportedly searching online for recruits to aid with the coverage--meaning that the group will need to find more hijacked computers to distribute the additional content.

What remains unclear is how the U.S. government will respond to the increasing visibility of its far-flung nemesis.

"Obviously, these Web sites, there's more and more of them, and it is a matter of ongoing interest to U.S. intelligence," said an official with the federal government's National Counterterrorism Center, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They have proliferated...Al-Qaida sees the propaganda value in terms of developing these sites."

That leaves the U.S. government with two obvious choices: attempt to sabotage the Web sites that appear to have the closest ties to al-Qaida's leaders, or monitor them closely to unearth who might be behind their operation. (The National Counterterrorism Center, created by President Bush last year as an offshoot of the CIA, would not comment.)

Most analysts interviewed by CNET News.com believe the federal government has chosen the watch-and-learn approach.

"It is very useful to monitor the content of these sites," Givner-Forbes said. "If you shut down these sites, they would find a way to continue...The community would kind of find a way to continue and would just make it harder for us to access and to eavesdrop on the sites." Some of the Web sites are already protected from the public by usernames and passwords, she said.

If the U.S. government did choose to engage in a limited form of what pundits used to call an "infowar," there may be few legal barriers standing in the way.

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said he suspected such a practice could happen legally. Intelligence operatives could classify the deed as a covert operation that would be reported later to Congress, he said.

"If the government chose to conduct an operation overseas to bring

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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 )
Link Flag
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 )
Link Flag
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 )
Reply Link Flag
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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