Do Cybersleuths Fight Terrorism or Cause Trouble? Jun 19th 2008
By Howard Altman
Howard Altman is now Courts and Cops Team Leader/Editor for The Tampa Tribune
If you haven't noticed, YouTube features much more troubling fare than old clips of "The Muppet Show" and comedy routines about the history of dance. Jihadi fighters regularly post deaths of U.S. soldiers, assassinations of civilians and other images intended to encourage violence against the West.
In late May, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn) called for Google to take down these videos that include incendiary speeches by al-Qaida leadership."Islamist terrorist organizations use YouTube to disseminate their propaganda, enlist followers, and provide weapons training," the senator wrote in a letter to Google. "YouTube also, unwittingly, permits Islamist terrorist groups to maintain an active, pervasive, and amplified voice."
Responding on the YouTube blog, the editors thanked the senator for alerting them to videos that violated their policies, but stopped short of removing videos that don't have violence or hate speech: "[R}ather than stifle debate we allow our users to view all acceptable content and make up their own minds."YouTube may be the biggest site where pro-jihadi videos are posted, but it's far from the only one.
For more than seven years, a small cadre of civilians, who often agree with Lieberman's stance, have taken it upon themselves to wage war on al-Qaida's hijacking of the information superhighway.But many in the intelligence community say these amateur detectives -- who spend their time trying to offending sites shut down or go online pretending to be terrorists to capture the real ones -- are doing more to cause trouble than solve crimes.
Shortly after 9/11, Glen Jenvey, an unemployed truck driver living near Stonehenge, began pretending to be a Pakistani man who believed in violent jihad. His counterterrorism, which took place in the second-floor study of his stone house, helped lead to the arrest of Abu Hamza al-Masri, one of Europe's most vitriolic clerics. "You have to hand it to these people," says an Indian military official who spoke on the condition that he only be identified as "the brigadier."
Jenvey and other cybersleuths have "done some real work that has had some real results."Working as a private investigator in Sarasota, Fla., Bill Warner spends part of his day chasing errant spouses and the rest of his time tracking down jihadis. Playing a game of Internet Whack-a-Mole, Warner has helped take down nine jihadi Web sites in the past six months, including one of the most important, Alhesbah, a principal forum for supporters of al-Qaida.
"I started with the Islamic Thinkers Society site in June of 2005, before it became all private and password protected," recalls Warner. "I downloaded a lot of their information and photos posted of U.S. servicemen being killed or their bodies mutilated after a firefight in Iraq or Afghanistan. I know what is posted on these Web sites; they need to be shut down."
Beyond patriotism, cybersleuths state four main reasons for getting involved in the fight:
Disruption of jihadi Web activities--
Amateurs are not bound by the legal restrictions governments are--
Western governments aren't doing enough--
Yet government, military and counterintelligence officials counter that cybersleuths may be doing more harm than good.
Everyone knows that you never really know who you are talking to on the Internet.
Cybersleuthing opponents say that's one of several reasons to leave the work to the professionals:--
Cybersleuths can interfere with government activities.--
There's potential to do more harm than good.--
The work can be dangerous.
Some cybersleuths report ongoing violent threats."I do not believe it is a good idea for an amateur to pose as a jihadist to gain entry into a site such as Alekhlaas," says Paul Henry from SecureComputing.com, which routinely works with government officials investigating jihadis."If the site is actively being monitored by a government agency, your action could result in wasted cycles of the agency taking a look at your activities that perhaps could be better spent investigating a real 'bad guy.'"
FBI spokesperson Richard Kolko concurs. "There is inherent danger in conducting undercover operations and extensive training is required. ... Furthermore, for evidence to be used in court, it must be collected in ways that strictly follow the appropriate laws. Those who are not trained in this area may collect information or evidence that would not be admissible in court."But is the government doing enough to fight the war online?
When al-Qaida's No. 2 man Ayman al-Zawahiri wants the world to know about the group's latest terrorist attack, he uses the web as his bullhorn. A recent Senate report highlighted a letter to the former al-Qaida commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, from Ayman al-Zawahiri: "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our people."
Al-Qaida members go online to recruit jihadis, raise money and train members with a combination of videos and manuals that teach bomb-making, combat techniques and building nuclear and biological weapons.
"The propaganda war is being fought by al-Qaida and its affiliates on the Internet, and the USA hasn't even stepped onto the court," cautions Warner. Pro al-Qaida Web sites are filled with more than anti-U.S., Israel and Christian vitriol. There are beheading videos, images of American vehicles being blown up in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for the slaughter of U.S. and Israeli citizens and predictions of imminent terror attacks.
Warner's frustration with government "inaction" has inspired him to take the fight into his own hands by tracking Web sites and getting IP providers to shut down online terrorist destinations. Cybersleuths like Warner have infiltrated well-funded jihadi Web sites and wrought havoc. He says cybersleuths like him are stepping up to a job the government should be doing.
A Dallas housewife, who asks that she be identified only as Mrs. Galt, spends her days going online and chatting with, among others, lovelorn jihadis. A chain-smoking woman with big hair, Galt sits in a wood-paneled den pretending to be a Muslim-American sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. Using rough, software-created Arabic translations, she's gathered a great deal of actionable intelligence, according to the brigadier, that was used by Mumbai in its ongoing battles with Muslims in Kashmir.
Her work has also gotten the attention of powerful forces close to home. One day, the FBI knocked on the door wanting to know why she was online talking about plans for terror attacks. That was the day Mrs. Galt's husband learned what she'd been doing during all that time at the computer.
Former Montana judge Shannen Rossmiller says she has been involved in more than 200 operations as a cybersleuth. On Shannenrossmiller.com, she lists some of her successes:-- Convincing a man in Pakistan that she was a male, extremist arms-dealer. After he offered her stolen U.S. stinger missiles for the jihad, he was arrested. --
Acting as a "terrorism banker" in an al-Qaida chat room, Rossmiller met a disgruntled American oil engineer named Michael Curtis Reynolds. The man claimed he was organizing a cell of Asian Muslims to truck-bomb three critical oil-storage hubs in the U.S., including the Alaska Pipeline.
In 2006, Reynolds was sentenced to 30 years in prison.-- Meeting "Amir Abdul Rashid" in an al-Qaida chat room. He revealed himself as an American Muslim convert in Seattle, whose real identity is National Guard Specialist Ryan Anderson. Four months of e-mails snared Anderson, who was offering army battle plans and weapon secrets to al-Qaida. He was arrested and eventually convicted at court martial of trying to assist terrorists.But do these anecdotal success stories add up to a cohesive plan of attack?
Amateur counterterrorists can't agree on whether it's wiser to keep jihad sites up in order to infiltrate them, or take them down to stop dissemination of propaganda.Warner fights to take down jihadi Web sites. Rossmiller wants sites like www.Alehklaas.info and www.Alhesbah.info -- main jihadi conduits for recruiting, training, fund-raising and propaganda -- to stay up so she can gain the trust of real-life jihadis and find out their plans.
Rossmiller (and other like-minded cybersleuths) cite three main goals when pretending to be jihadis:-- Intelligence gathering: Learning what the jihadis are doing by talking to them.-- Stings: Rossmiller's online activities have resulted in several arrests, including that of a soldier in Washington State who thought he was selling classified data to al-Qaida.-- Mis/Disinformation: By posting erroneous information, cybersleuths hope to disrupt jihadi activities and create discord among groups and individuals.Despite the success of Rossmiller and others, many counterintelligence experts think these sites should be taken down as soon as possible.
Jihadi watchers agree that sites like Alehklaas.info and www.Alhesbah.info provide a key communications platform for far-flung groups like al-Qaida, which lack any real hierarchy or command-and-control apparatus. According to the recent Senate study "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat," Web sites and chat rooms provide "the most accessible source of information" for connecting "interested individuals with extremists around the world."For the most part, military, counterintelligence and law enforcement want these sites taken down immediately.
Keeping jihadi sites online, they say, allows al-Qaida, Hizballah, Hamas and other fundamentalist groups to continue spewing propaganda, raising funds and staying in touch."The intelligence value of these sites is misguided," argues intelligence investigator Joseph Shadaha. "You cannot have a forum up, spreading information about how to behave like a terrorist, hoping to catch someone by luck."Shutting down the sites accomplishes two main goals, government investigators say.-- Disrupting jihadi operations-- Reducing propaganda and recruitment
The Web offers a rare and valuable portal into jihadi activities that often take place in areas impossible to strike physically. Jihadis take advantage of open U.S. communication technology by having some of their sites hosted by U.S. service providers, says Rossmiller, and we should continue to let them. "What is important to keep in perspective is that the jihadis are an enemy out of our reach in the real-world context, and in the online context they facilitate the use of the Internet as their weapon.
This is where the inherent value in not disrupting the jihadi sites presents itself."Dr. Reuven Erlich, director of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies in Israel, agrees the sites should stay up."Taking sites off the Web is only a tactical, short-term solution," he says. "The terrorist and jihad organizations quickly find alternatives and go back online. Only a closely monitored cooperative international effort can improve the situation."Despite Erlich's assertions, those who want the sites down say their approach is more successful.
As director of the Jihad and Terrorism Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI.org), Eli Alshech spends his days monitoring jihadi Web sites. What he sees is terrifying. The Web sites help induce more people to blow up more targets and amplify the justification. "Those who advocate leaving those sites up -- e.g., intelligence agencies -- to allow better monitoring, assume that words, articles, and indoctrination have a less destructive force than a bomb. As an expert on religion and extremism I find this premise very odd. Whereas a bomb is undoubtedly destructive, its destruction radius is limited. In contrast, the negative effect of indoctrination is potentially endless.
It is indoctrination that produces an ever-growing number of bomb carriers, and, no less importantly, the necessary audience that legitimizes and thus helps perpetuate the use of bombs against civilians. Hence, without indoctrination, jihad groups would find it more difficult to recruit bombers -- especially in Western countries -- and may find themselves operating in an Islamic audience highly critical of their actions. Our experience shows that such critical environment almost always restrains jihad organizations -- even in Iraq."But even Alshech agrees that the question of what to do with the sites is separate from whether average citizens should get involved.
Fighting jihadis, says the intelligence community, is complicated, dangerous work that takes training and skills -- including fluency in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and other languages -- far beyond the capability of cybersleuths.Amateur cybersleuthing, for the most part, "has no real value to it," says Carlos Paez, a counterintelligence planner at U.S. Central Command in Tampa who includes monitoring jihadi communications on his daily to-do list. "The most you can do is knock a Web site off line. I can tell you right now if I got knocked off line, I would go to another service provider and in an hour, be back up."
There is another concern. Men and women working on their own time make finding bad guys a self-fulfilling prophesy, according to Clint Watts, former FBI agent and terror analyst at West Point."These sleuths often search and find connections that aren't there," says Watts, now a principle at international security firm PJ Sage. "They create virtual networks that don't add up on the ground and overstate the connections between AQ affiliates and AQ central because that is what they are looking for.
On the Internet, if you look hard enough, you'll always find what you are looking for." Worse, says Dean Boyd, spokesperson for the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, is that cybersleuths can endanger ongoing investigations or cross the line into illegality."There is always a danger that members of the public could unknowingly stumble across, disrupt, or even impede a federal investigation should they attempt to conduct undercover investigations on their own," Boyd says. "And, if a member of the public knowingly commits a crime in conducting an undercover investigation, he or she could be held liable. For these and other reasons, we recommend that undercover investigations be left to trained law enforcement professionals."
In mid-May, cybersleuth Bill Warner posted a video on YouTube of a suicide bomber blowing himself up at a checkpoint in Iraq to make a point about what's happening "in the war for minds with jihad propaganda that incites would-be terrorists to violence against the USA."The result? YouTube removed Warner's video for having inappropriate content.