/ 22 October 2008

Cyber-attack theory as al-Qaeda websites close

Websites being used to disseminate propaganda by al-Qaeda appear to have come under systematic cyber-attack, forcing the closure of three for well over a month and fuelling speculation that governments are targeting them in a shadowy new front in the ”war on terror”.

Al-Ekhlas, al-Buraq and al-Firdaws, all linked to al-Fajr — the media distribution arm of al-Qaeda — have been down since just before September 11, when the broadcast of a video commemorating the 2001 attacks was inexplicably delayed.

All have suffered occasional disruption but this is the longest period they have been out of action. Al-Fajr blamed technical problems and denied that the sites had fallen ”into the hands of the enemy”.

Yet suspicions of a deliberate disruption campaign have been fuelled by the fact that a fourth website, al-Hesbah, continues to operate unimpeded, with several experts suggesting it may be being used by Saudi intelligence to monitor and entrap jihadi militants.

But the episode remains shrouded in mystery. All four sites posted material produced by as-Sahhab, al-Qaeda’s slick media production arm — mostly video clips of ”martyrdom operations” in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — as well as statements by Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Access to the sites is typically password-protected and they have different levels of entry: the most public are statements issued by al-Qaeda-linked groups as far afield as Uzbekistan and Algeria. There are also member-only forums where participants use pseudonyms.

All are monitored by academics who study jihadi groups and presumably by Arab and Western intelligence agencies. Two of the sites suffered problems in June but then resumed normal service. ”I think what happened in June was a trial run for what took place in September,” said William McCants, a consultant at West Point military academy who runs the Jihadica.com website.

Rumours of joint Anglo-US operations have surfaced but neither government will confirm involvement. Such sabotage would be illegal. UK security officials have spoken of an ”aggressive” new effort to counter al-Qaeda internet propaganda.

”I think it’s probably being orchestrated by several governments and it would have to be on the black operations [illegal but deniable] side,” McCants said. ”Whoever is doing this knows what they are doing. They are being surgically precise.”

”I think the Americans are behind this,” said Dia Rashwan, an Egyptian expert. ”I believe there has been a decision by the US to close down these internet forums as part of their strategy of defeating al-Qaeda and to stop it getting attention in the Arab world.”

Anne Hennesen, of Norway’s Defence Research Establishment, said: ”There must be a big organisation behind this. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to assume that this is the work of an intelligence agency.”

A rival theory, backed by Mustafa Alani, of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, is that the websites have fallen victim to Shia groups engaged in tit-for-tat sectarian cyber warfare with Sunnis. ”Governments have no reason to attack now as they’ve been capable of doing this for years,” he said. Still, in other cases such groups have claimed responsibility for their actions.

The puzzle, analysts say, is that these sites have gone down and stayed down for a relatively long time.

Another theory is that al-Qaeda sympathisers closed the forums themselves because they were too good a source of intelligence for their enemies.

McCants argued that the danger of the sites is not in providing information on weapons or coordinating attacks. ”They are dangerous because they provide a community to reinforce ideas and an audience to applaud action,” he said. ”A young man in Tunisia who is motivated by propaganda but whose community disapproves of suicide bombings might be dissuaded from action. But if he is part of a forum that will celebrate his deeds in song, video and biography, he is more likely to act. This is the forums’ true power.”

Independent internet vigilantes deny they are responsible, as some suggest. Aaron Weisburd of Internet Haganah told the Guardian by email: ”Governments are certainly in hot pursuit of anyone and everyone involved with al-Qaeda. The stress this must cause al-Qaeda may be enough to cause some of them to act in strange and unpredictable ways. I say that AQ is primarily responsible for their recent problems. It’s a self-inflicted wound. My guess is that they are simply too embarrassed to admit to their followers what it was that happened.

”I can only imagine what excuses they made to Bin Laden and Zawahiri.” He declined to elaborate. – guardian.co.uk