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Terror Networks
Binny and Ayman still in touch with legions via internet
2006-03-11
When they raided what they had been told was "Al Qaeda's command center" in a remote compound in South Waziristan's Shakai valley in June 2004, Pakistani special forces made a surprising discovery.

In a secret basement, the officers collected a treasure trove of computer equipment, including several laptops, printers and CD burners, as well as advanced video equipment.

While this discovery provided Pakistani and American counter-terrorism officials with a unique insight into al Qaeda's operations after 9/11, it only confirmed what they already knew about the organization's heavy reliance on modern information technology and, more specifically, the Internet.

After relying heavily on fixed — and thus vulnerable — Web sites until early 2002, al Qaeda quickly switched to hiding its online operations within more legitimate bulletin boards and Internet sites offering free upload services or connecting through such popular social network sites as Orkut and MySpace.

This technique of "parasiting" Web sites makes it harder for law enforcement services to track them and shut them down.

But while this capacity to network and spread propaganda represents a clear security risk, the most dangerous and stealthiest use of the Internet by al Qaeda is for communication, training and planning purposes.

From the Bali bombing in 2002 to the London attacks last July, every major terrorist operation undertaken by Osama bin Laden's organization since 9/11 involved extensive and clandestine use of the Internet.

British security services have established that the man considered to be the "cell leader" of the July 7 London bombings, Muhammad Siddique Khan, had communicated with several contacts in Pakistan through his own Yahoo! account.

According to Pakistani intelligence sources, the use of free and anonymous e-mail services such as Yahoo! or Hotmail by al Qaeda operatives is widespread.

To avoid being intercepted, the messages are not sent but saved in the account's draft box.

They can then be retrieved by other operatives by simply logging on to the same e-mail address — with a shared password.

This technique makes it impossible for intelligence services such as the British GCHQ or the American NSA to read these messages without hacking into the servers themselves, which they are legally prohibited to do.

And even if they do read these messages, intelligence services worldwide are confronted with a second hurdle: Al Qaeda's operatives speak in code words which makes it impossible for any outsider to understand their true content if they have not penetrated the organization already.

Such "intelligence breaks" are extremely rare, but not unheard of. In October 2001, the British police arrested a French computer engineer linked to a major al Qaeda cell in Europe.

Kamel Daoudi was found in possession of a "codebook" that later enabled Western intelligence services to decrypt thousands of e-mails and phone conversations that they had previously intercepted but had not been able to crack.

Pakistani intelligence sources also tell ABC News that even bin Laden and Zawahiri still use these e-mail services to send their directives through the Internet.

Not directly, of course, but through intermediaries, usually bodyguards, who are sent on foot from the leaders' clandestine locations to the nearest house or cybercafé, where they simply log on and write their messages.

One of the most striking features of the remote Afghan-Pakistan border is the wide availability of Internet services, either private dial-up or cybercafés.

While hardly accessible by land or air, the town of Chitral — in Pakistan's remote Northern Areas — where Pakistani intelligence still believes that bin Laden spends his summers, has several cybercafés.

Beyond communications, al Qaeda is increasingly using the Internet for operational purposes.

Following the loss of Afghanistan as a sanctuary and training ground, the terrorist organization put thousands of pages of its training online.

From the making of an IED or deadly chemical weapons to the staging of an ambush, the Internet has now become al Qaeda's "virtual training ground."

Worse, according to French counter-terrorism officials, existing jihadi networks are taking their reliance on the Internet for operational purposes to a completely new level.

When they dismantled a network of Islamic militants linked to Abu Musab al Zarqawi's "Al Qaeda in Iraq" last fall, French authorities made a startling discovery.

One of the militants, Kaci Warab, had spent several months in a facility operated by Zarqawi followers near Tripoli, Lebanon, to be trained on detonator designs far more complex than anyone had seen thus far.

One of these designs, according to French counter-terrorism sources, involved the use of Web-capable cellphones which could be "activated" (thus detonated) remotely over the Internet from anywhere in the world by punching a password on a Web site.

Because it indicates a strong focus on operations involving the simultaneous detonation of dozens (if not hundreds, as seen in Bangladesh last year) of bombs throughout the world, this brand new usage of the Internet is causing a lot of worries among intelligence and law enforcement officials worldwide.

But beyond these specific operational considerations, there is no doubt that al Qaeda has been highly successful in using the Internet to not only survive the global war on terror but expand its "biomorphic" and deadly nature. It is one of the cruelest ironies that our most ardent enemies have become so skillful at turning our society against ourselves.

It's not much of a stretch to say that when al Qaeda was created in 1988 it became something of a "terrorist Internet Service Provider" linking together various elements of the worldwide jihadi community that had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

To pursue this objective, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri set up a unique structure whose essence was less an ideology than a function: connecting.

At its core, al Qaeda is a worldwide directory, a "global grid" linking together thousands of disparate human, financial, military, intellectual and technical resources around a central mission.

Throughout the 1990s, with its training camps and discreet networking around the world, al Qaeda weaved a complex web linking together businessmen, clerics, fighters, journalists and criminals, some of whom belonged to terrorist groups that ranged from Algeria's "Groupe Islamique Armé" to Pakistan's "Jaish Muhammad."

This function took on a whole new dimension with the advent of the Internet. European and Pakistani intelligence sources say a former militant trained in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan has revealed that al Qaeda started using the Internet as early as 1993, even conducting online conference calls in 2000.

A Pakistani intelligence officer on duty at the border with Afghanistan in late 2001 recently told ABC News that "almost every Arab that we arrested in Pakistan in 2001 and 2002 was in possession of a laptop computer."

Now on the run, bin Laden's organization is even more virtual, which often means more dependent on the World Wide Web to spread propaganda and plot operations.

It is also one of the main reasons why, despite the many blows that it received since 9/11, many analysts believe the organization's operational capabilities have not truly diminished.

As the CIA and its allies closed some of these links, al Qaeda was able to use the Web to either redirect those links or activate others. This has occurred especially in countries such as Pakistan and Iraq, where Western intelligence agencies have considerable trouble operating.

The most visible part of al Qaeda's online presence involves the spread of statements and propaganda, which have spearheaded the explosion of jihadi Web sites in the past four years.

Law enforcement officials in Europe report that the number of such Web sites went from a dozen on Sept. 10, 2001, to close to 5,000 today.

While only a handful are currently operated by al Qaeda officials or militants, they serve a crucial purpose by "spreading activation" and nourishing the outrage or the global Muslim community, therefore laying the groundwork for al Qaeda's fundraising and recruitment activities.
Posted by:Dan Darling

#1  Quick, close all the ports (Internet ports that is).
Posted by: Captain America   2006-03-11 04:41  

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