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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.

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