News

Debate Rages Over Hacking Jihadist Websites

The al-Qaida's Shumukah-al-Islam website before it went offline.
The al-Qaida's Shumukah-al-Islam website before it went offline.
Gary Thomas

Several al-Qaida chat rooms and forums, including its primary website Shumukah al-Islam, have been offline for several days in what experts believe was a coordinated cyberattack. Reports have speculated the action is the work of government intelligence agencies, which have been reluctant in the past to take down jihadist websites because they believe them to be a valuable source of information.

The debate continues in U.S. intelligence and policymaking circles about the value of attacking terrorist-group websites.  

National security policy and information operations analyst Catherine Theohary, of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said policymakers must weigh benefits against the cost in deciding whether to take down a terrorist group’s website.

"There is an intelligence gain-loss calculus that takes place in deciding whether or not to take down a particular website because it could be used for monitoring and intel gathering, but also there could be a determination that, for whatever reason, a particular site may present a risk, an operational risk, to troops if it is actually being used to coordinate activities that could take place in real time," said Theohary.

Websites could provide clues to intelligence officers

Analysts say terrorist groups use the Internet to disseminate propaganda and pass orders. Jihadist chat rooms are gathering places for terrorists in cyberspace. Some would-be terrorists, such as the accused attacker in the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, are reported to have drawn inspiration from the Internet.  

Theohary said the websites, though, also may provide intelligence to counterterrorism officers.

"You can get a sense of following trends. It can be used to glean identities, to get a sense of upcoming operations that are being planned before they take place, things like that," she said.

Intelligence historian Matthew Aid said that in 2007 the Bush administration thought the Taliban was making propaganda gains on the Internet and wanted the group’s websites shut down. But Aid said the intelligence community, led by the National Security Agency, strongly resisted.

"The intelligence community took the position that you can not take this stuff, you can not take these sites, down.  We are learning more about the Taliban, their capabilities and intentions, by monitoring these sites than any possible advantage that could be derived from shutting them down. And the intelligence community prevailed on this point," said Aid.

The Arabic-language al-Shamouk jihadist website shows promotional material for an animated cartoon that an al-Qaida affiliate said it plans to roll out to help recruit children into the terror network.
The Arabic-language al-Shamouk jihadist website shows promotional material for an animated cartoon that an al-Qaida affiliate said it plans to roll out to help recruit children into the terror network.

Other analysts, however, differ. John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in California, said the intelligence gleaned from jihadist websites has been marginal. He believes random cyberattacks on the jihadist websites is a good tactic because they sow uncertainty among al-Qaida and like-minded groups.

"I want to take away the sense that the enemy has, that they have a virtual haven in cyberspace. I want them to worry that we are watching or listening. And on other occasions I want them to think that they are communicating securely when they are not. So we need to create doubt in their minds. We have given them far too much of a free ride in cyberspace," said Arquilla.

Analysts differ on who caused the outages

If the outages are the result of U.S. cyberattacks, the supersecret National Security Agency, which is the premier U.S. electronic intelligence body, is believed to be the agency that would do it.

But analysts believe an outside group could be responsible. Aid points out the technology to take down websites is not particularly difficult.

"The suggestion is that it is a U.S. government operation because it is comprehensive, meaning all of the sites are being attacked simultaneously and apparently very effectively, which suggests that somebody with a lot of technical know-how and wherewithal is doing it.  But we live in a day when hacker groups like “Anonymous” have the exact same capability as the cyberwarriors up at Fort Meade, which is the NSA headquarters."

No one has claimed responsibility for the purported cyberattacks, though, and U.S. intelligence officials are refusing to comment on the matter.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs