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Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005 01:53 pm

Stalking cyber terrorists

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An agent in the New York City Police Department’s cyber unit checks an Arabic Web site chat room for terror clues
PHOTO BY MICHAEL DABIN/NEWSDAY/KRT

Remember the Super Bowl commercial featuring the curvy brunette who couldn’t quite keep everything tucked inside her tight-fitting tank top?

GoDaddy.com, one of the world’s top Web-site providers, was responsible for that $4 million, 30-second spot.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company can also take credit for inadvertently making a different kind of impression.

For weeks before the big game, GoDaddy.com hosted Mawsuat.com, an Islamic-extremist site that featured a diagram showing how to attack on a motorcade, as well as a recipe for making a chemical weapon. The cost to produce the Mawsuat.com site? Likely less than $100.

The site was shut down after GoDaddy.com was alerted of its content by Internet Haganah, an organization run out of the Carbondale, Ill., home of A. Aaron Weisburd.

Weisburd, a fortysomething native New Yorker, describes Internet Haganah as a “small band of researchers, analysts, translators and consultants” around the globe dedicated to ferreting out Web sites linked to terrorist groups.

Since its inception, Internet Haganah — haganáh is Hebrew for “defense” — has taken credit for shutting down more than 600 sites it claims were linked to terror. Some allegedly raised funds for pro-Palestinian groups Hamas and Hezbollah; others backed the insurgency in Iraq.

Weisburd’s organization researches a site and, if evidence of extremism is found, contacts the hosting company and urges its management to remove the site from their servers. If the effort is successful — which is often — Internet Haganah purchases the domain name so that the address is never used again.

Surprisingly, much of Internet Haganah’s work involves companies in the United States, where the cost of buying and maintaining a domain is cheap and customers’ privacy is guarded.

“There are close to 300 sites listed in our database and hundreds more than we are aware of and in the process of listing,” Weisburd says in an e-mail. “Most of them are kept online by American companies.”

Internet Haganah posts evidence of its work on its own Web site (haganah.org.il), including a “mirror” page of the Mawsuat.com motorcade-attack diagram, which was originally published in the Al-Battar Assassination Guide.

Weisburd says he believes that companies such as GoDaddy.com are unable to monitor the content of the thousands of sites they host. “The real issue is how responsive and responsible they are when informed that they are hosting a terrorist’s Web site,” he says.

Nick Fuller, a spokesman for GoDaddy.com, says that the company’s legal department is handling the Mawsuat.com issue and declined further comment. Weisburd describes GoDaddy.com as a “good corporate citizen”; its founder and president, Bob Parsons, is a Vietnam War veteran.

Thanks in no small part to the unfettered nature of the Internet, experts like Lawrence Dietz, who works for a California-based computer-security firm, contends that the United States is losing the information war — the “i-war.”

Dietz knows a thing or two about the subject: A Silicon Valley telecommunications analyst who retired as a colonel from the U.S. Army Reserve, he helped lead NATO’s information campaign during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. Dietz says that the Internet allows almost unrestricted and inexpensive access to a worldwide audience. Since the 9/11 attack and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Islamic radicalism on the Internet has grown markedly, and the Web has been become an effective, decentralized way to recruit members and solicit support. “It’s a high-visibility, low-cost activity,” Dietz says.

Consider the execution of American Nicholas Berg in Iraq in May 2004. The beheading was filmed with a camcorder, formatted into a Microsoft Windows Media Player file, and posted on the Web site al-ansar.net. The site, linked to the terrorist group al-Ansar, was hosted by a Malaysian company; hours after the Berg video was posted, the Malaysian government forced the company to shut the site down. “Absolutely this is a form of information warfare,” Dietz says. “It’s targeting those cooperating or thinking of cooperating with the United States.”

Just days after the terrorist attack in 2001, President George W. Bush issued an executive order making it illegal for U.S. companies to provide aid to terrorist groups. But the federal government has not acted to shut down sites that raise money for jihadists or show brutal executions, Dietz says. One reason is the difficulty of identifying and policing sites that jump from Web address to Web address; another is a fear that confiscating servers or defacing or otherwise blocking those sites could raise First Amendment concerns.

And there may be another factor at play, says Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., and director of the nonprofit organization’s Project on Government Secrecy: The sites provide a window into the thinking and activities of their sponsoring organizations.

“A lot of what we know about al-Qaeda is gleaned from these Web sites,” Aftergood says. “They are a greater value as an intelligence source than if they were to disappear.” Indeed, the PBS documentary program Frontline last month reported that the March 2004 Madrid rail bombing by al-Qaeda was likely inspired by a document posted on an extremist site. A timely attack, the document suggested, could sway voters and deliver a government that would withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. A Justice Department spokesman told Frontline that it didn’t have enough staff to monitor the Internet 24/7.

That’s where Internet Haganah and other private-sector organizations step in. The Washington, D.C.-based Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute is considered a definitive source on Islamic terror groups. Clients of the organization’s fee-based intelligence service include the FBI, the Office of Homeland Security, and media groups around the globe.

“It is actually to our benefit to have some of these terror sites up and running by American companies,” says Rita Katz, SITE’s cofounder and executive director. “If the servers are in the U.S., this is to our advantage when it comes to monitoring activities.” Katz, who says that sites that show executions should be shut down, isn’t for all-out government censorship of sites linked to terrorist groups, saying that it would be impossible to come up with a “general policy.”

Weisburd of Internet Haganah says his goal is simple: to keep the extremists moving from address to address, striking “at the heart of their identity.”

“The object isn’t to silence them; the object is to keep them moving, keep them talking, force them to make mistakes, so we can gather as much information about them as we can, each step of the way.”

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