Hackers Suspected in Al Qaeda Web Stoppage

Published December 1, 2008

Most events this year commemorating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred without incident, except one—the release of al Qaeda’s heavily promoted 9/11 propaganda video, which was delayed by eight days.

In fact, the entire al Ekhlaas network of sites—the primary distributor of al Qaeda’s video propaganda—was gone. And while jihadists are blaming Western intelligence agencies, private individuals may actually have been responsible.

Spy agencies around the world point the finger at Rusty Shackleford of the “My Pet Jawa” blog and Aaron Weisburd of “Internet Haganah.” Shackleford and Weisburd deny any involvement, and Weisburd has suggested another potential culprit: al Qaeda itself.

Inside Job?

“There is no evidence that these sites were ‘hacked’ or attacked in any way,” said Weisburd, who also serves as director of the Society for Internet Research. “It looks to me like the sites were scuttled, sunk by someone on board and in a position of authority. Why someone on the inside might do such a thing I don’t know, but there are many possible scenarios.”

Weisburd suggests al Qaeda, suspecting its Web network had been compromised, may have shut it down fearing further communication could serve as a window into its inner workings. Intelligence experts have acknowledged the strategic value of allowing terrorist Web communications for this reason.

“There are those of us both in the private and public arena who believe that monitoring these sites, collecting information from them, and using it to ultimately defeat the terrorists on the real battlefield—as opposed to the Internet—is a far more fruitful and valuable enterprise,” explained international terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann in an online interview at Washingtonpost.com.

Hackers Beware

In addition to deferring to national security strategy, Weisburd said there are other reasons hackers should refrain from plying their craft in such instances.

“In America, individuals and nongovernmental organizations have a right to gather information regarding the online activities of terrorist organizations and their supporters,” Weisburd said. “However, they do not have a right to break laws—no matter how ‘bad’ they feel the target of their efforts is.”

Derek Hunter of the Media Freedom Project agrees.

“Hacking is not free-market,” said Hunter. “Individuals cannot use illegal methods [even] for good [purposes], or you lose the moral high ground. While this [al Qaeda] example is extreme and [the intent behind it is] sympathetic to the cause of freedom, the worry is the slippery slope argument. Where does it stop?”

Brien Farley ([email protected]) writes from Genesee, Wisconsin.

For more information …

Interview with Evan Kohlmann: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/08/05/DI2005080501262.html