Jihadunspun.net supports a holy war against the West.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan One Web site urges Muslims to travel to Pakistan to "slaughter American soldiers." Another solicits donations to buy dynamite to "blow up Israeli Jews." A third shows new videotape of Osama bin Laden and promises film clips of American casualties in Afghanistan. As the United States and its allies hunt them in caves, mountains and jungles, al-Qaeda, Hamas and dozens of other militant Muslim groups are increasingly turning to the Internet to carry on their jihad, or holy war, against the West, U.S. law enforcement officials and experts say. It has become one of al-Qaeda's primary means of communication, they say. The groups use their Web sites to plan attacks, recruit members and solicit donations with little or no chance of being apprehended by the FBI or other law enforcement agencies, officials say.
This new cyber-battlefield is allowing al-Qaeda and other groups to stay "several steps ahead" of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, a senior U.S. law enforcement official says.
Most of the information on the Web sites is written in Arabic and encrypted, or scrambled. The encrypted data is then hidden in digital photographs, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find or read, officials say. The groups regularly change the addresses of their Web sites to confound officials.
By Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters Hamas gunmen march in Gaza last month. A Web site linked to the militant Islamic group solicits donations for weapons: from $3 for each bullet to $12,000 for a rocket-propelled grenade.
"Under the present circumstances of the global war against terrorism, the Internet has become a vital tool and, obviously, an easy one to exploit," says terrorism analyst Reuven Paz of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, an independent think tank based in Herzliya, Israel. It's "the most efficient way (for terrorists) to spread their message on a daily basis."
U.S. officials have little doubt that al-Qaeda and other militant groups are using the Web to set up terrorist attacks against the United States. They tell USA TODAY that Abu Zubaydah, 30, a Palestinian who was arrested in Pakistan last March and is suspected of being bin Laden's operations chief, used a Web site to plan the Sept. 11 attacks and to communicate with the terrorists who hijacked jets and flew them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Earlier this year, officials say, they found nearly 2,300 encrypted messages and data files in a password-protected section of an Islamic Web site that had been downloaded onto Zubaydah's computer. The messages began in May 2000, peaked in August 2001 and stopped Sept. 9, two days before the attacks, officials say. They declined to identify the Web site.
Volume of messages doubles
Lately, al-Qaeda operatives have been sending hundreds of encrypted messages that have been hidden in files on digital photographs on the auction site eBay.com. Most of the messages have been sent from Internet cafes in Pakistan and public libraries throughout the world. An eBay spokesperson did not return phone calls.
The volume of the messages has nearly doubled in the past month, indicating to some U.S. intelligence officials that al-Qaeda is planning another attack.
Tuesday, al-Qaeda spokesman Suliman Abu Ghaith told an Arabic newspaper that the group's suicide militants were "ready and impatient" to attack U.S. targets in America and around the world.
Since Sept. 11, the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency say they have hired dozens more Arabic-speaking analysts and mathematicians to interpret and decode the information on the Web sites.
They add that there's little they can do to stop the terrorist groups from using the Web to communicate. There are no laws directly regulating the sites or preventing them from operating. Instead, officials must persuade the companies that host the sites to shut them down. But as soon as a terrorist site is taken off one Web server, it often appears on another, officials say.
In the past five weeks, al-Qaeda's Arabic Web site, alneda.com, has emerged on three different servers, in Malaysia, Texas and Michigan. The site was eventually removed from the servers after the Web hosting companies, which say they often don't screen or translate the sites, received complaints from the public and law enforcement agencies. U. S. officials are expecting the site, which began operating in January, to re-emerge soon.
"The U.S. enemy, unable to gain the upper hand over the mujahedin on the battlefield, has since Sept. 11 been trying to gag the world media," said a statement posted on alneda.com last week. "The more the United States tries to stifle freedom of expression, the more determined we will become to break the silence. America will lose the media war, too."
Hatred, hidden messages
There are dozens of suspected terrorist Web sites, many of which were started after the U.S.-led war on terrorism began last fall. Most of the Web sites are written in Arabic. All carry statements that express hatred for the United States and its allies and fatwas, or religious rulings, that call on militant Muslims to kill Americans and attack U.S. interests. USA TODAY examined many of the sites and had the information there translated from Arabic into English. Among the most prominent sites:
Azzam.com, a site that U.S. officials believe is linked with al-Qaeda, is urging Muslims to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight "the Jewish-backed American Crusaders," or U.S. soldiers. It gives such travelers tips on how to avoid raising suspicions of employers, diplomats and police. "If you are working, either resign from your job and take a year off or request unpaid leave from your employer. Many large companies offer unpaid leave to their employees for periods ranging from two months to one year. That way you can fulfill your obligation (of jihad) and not have to give up your job," the site says.
U.S. officials say azzam.com contains encrypted messages in its pictures and texts a practice known as steganography. They say the hidden messages contain instructions for al-Qaeda's next terrorist attacks. Mathematicians and other experts at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md., are using supercomputers to try to break the encryption codes and thwart the attacks.
At least one known al-Qaeda operative has accessed the site, European officials say. German intelligence agencies, which broke into the site last fall, found an e-mail address for Said Bahaji, a suspected member of the al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany, that planned parts of the Sept. 11 attacks. Bahaji, who was last seen in Germany, has since disappeared.
Almuhajiroun.com, an English-language Web site also linked to al-Qaeda, urges sympathizers to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. The Web site, which pictures Musharraf, refers to him as "the American puppet." It calls U.S. troops in Pakistan and Afghanistan "soldiers of Satan." "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His apostle and strive to make mischief in the land is only this: that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned," the site says in apparent reference to Musharraf.
Qassam.net, a site U.S. officials believe is linked to the militant Muslim group Hamas, is appealing for donations to purchase AK-47 rifles, dynamite and bullets "to assist the cause of jihad and resistance until the (Israeli) occupation is eliminated and Muslim Palestine is liberated." It recommends donations of $3 per bullet, $100 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of dynamite, $2,000 for a Kalashnikov assault rifle and $12,000 for a rocket-propelled grenade. Donors are asked to send an e-mail to an address on the Web site. Recently, they received a response telling them to transfer money to "Ahmed Mohammed Ali, Elbatech Bank, account no.: 38926/9/510 Arab bank Gaza branch Palestine." The account name and number appear to change every 48 to 72 hours. "Dear Donor: Please tell us the field in which you prefer your money to be spent on such as: martyrdom attacks; buying weapons for the mujahadeen; training the youth; or inventing and developing missiles, mortars (and) explosives," the e-mail said.
U.S. officials say they are monitoring the site, which is hosted by an American company, to see who is using it to donate to Hamas. They say they intend to prosecute those Americans who contribute.
Until the site was taken down, alneda.com carried a warning from Abu Ghaith saying the United States should "fasten its seat belt" and prepare for more terrorist attacks. The site, which featured the words "No pride without jihad," also contained encrypted information that directed al-Qaeda members to a more secure site where instructions for attacks were given, U.S. officials say.
Other Internet sites, including jihadunspun.net, offer a 36-minute video of bin Laden, with four minutes of previously unaired footage; pictures of President Bush with his head in the sights of a gun; and other propaganda.
Not all the Islamic Web sites are calling for a jihad against the United States. The alsaha.com site has hosted chat rooms where members criticize bin Laden and al-Qaeda for their misuse of Islam. "(Bin Laden) is a disgrace to our religion and has made a mockery of everything we believe," said one comment posted on alsaha.com. "He is not an Islamist; he is a terrorist who deserves to be killed. God bless and protect America!"
Easy to set up
It's easy for terrorists to set up a Web site, officials and experts say.
In the case of alneda.com, al-Qaeda members used a made-up name, "The Center for Islamic Studies and Research," a bogus street address in Venezuela and a free Hotmail e-mail account to contact a Web hosting company in Malaysia called Emerge Systems, U.S. intelligence officials say. The group then wired $87 to a Malaysian bank to pay for the cost of the Web site for a year.
"Internet communications have become the main communications system among al-Qaeda around the world because it's safer, easier and more anonymous if they take the right precautions, and I think they're doing that," former CIA counterterrorism chief Vince Cannistraro says.
But al-Qaeda operatives now are urging their members to use caution. Just before alneda.com was pulled off its server, it warned its members that the site was probably being monitored by the FBI, CIA and Customs Service. It promised to e-mail members the new address of the Web site once it was in operation. It also told them they could find the address in chat rooms on other terror sites, such as Hamas' qassam.net.
"We strongly urge Muslim Internet professionals to spread and disseminate news and information about the jihad through e-mail lists, discussion groups and their own Web sites," says a statement on azzam.com. "The more Web sites, the better it is for us. We must make the Internet our tool."