Computer Crime Research Center

The Jihad Online
(By James S. Robbins, National-Security Analyst & NRO contributor)

Are you an Islamicist with a computer and some spare time? Do you want to contribute to the jihad against the Crusaders but can't quite make the commitment to fly into buildings or strap on a bomb? Do you "solemnly swear to use your talents only to destroy the Jews with God as your witness?" Then you are just the kind of person being sought to join the "Arab Electronic Jihad Team" (AEJT), a recently announced terrorist initiative preparing to bring the web to its knees. The AEJT seeks to bring down all websites in the U.S. and Israel, all web servers, and "all web sites that members agree on destroying." The leader of the team has chosen not to erect a website of his own, "so that nobody can attack it and thus remain the invisible hand that defeats the enemy without it knowing where these attacks are coming from." He appeals especially for "members who are advanced in the art of hacking" to "teach us some methods they see as useful." The wily and elusive cyberterrorist whose day job seems to be running a car dealership in Syria asks prospective members to send him an e-mail to sign up. I'm guessing he will be contacted by those advanced in the art of hacking, but maybe not in the way he expects.

The cyberterror threat is real, and involves activities far more dangerous than simply hacking websites. The Critical Infrastructure Protection Board (CIPB), which was established last October to coordinate public and private infrastructure-security programs, reports that browsers from the Mideast are probing American electric, water, and energy systems, and seem especially interested in gaining access to nuclear-power plants. Defensive measures are complicated by the lack of standard network architecture, which increases the probability of terrorists finding an exploitable seam. The CIPB has rated al Qaeda's current cyber-capabilities as fairly low, though a recent message from bin Laden spokesman Abu Leith al-Libi, posted on the Canadian-based anti-American site,, announced " the extension of the war to include new attacks on the enemy's weak infrastructure."

Many movements use the web as a means of organizing, recruiting and spreading information, for good purposes or ill. The pioneering Zapatista National Liberation Front has had an extensive web presence since 1996, and the Falun Gong movement is infuriating the Chinese leadership by reaching out directly to the people in a manner the Communist state is powerless to stop. It is worth remembering that the Internet was originally conceptualized as a means of establishing and maintaining command and control during nuclear conflict or some other major disruption, so al Qaeda and its sympathizers are using the system in the manner it was intended. In one of his videos last fall, Osama bin Laden made light of the idea that the videotapes themselves were his means of transmitting operational orders, given the availability of secure communications via e-mail, FTP and the web. PGP-encrypted e-mails and files are difficult to break, and the terrorists also make use of the technique of steganography, in which information is hidden inside digital images. (It makes you wonder when you stumble across a site like, which contains pictures of young Arab men with no explanation why they are there.)

Of course, once information is posted to the web, anyone can gain access to it, and websites are some of the best sources of intelligence for those who track insurgent groups. is a good place for al Qaeda information in English, as is, which covers most fronts in the global jihad. The Chechens are particularly web savvy, and numerous sites offer views of their war against Russia. One of the best us, and especially noteworthy is their video archive which features a variety of images of war, some of which are not for the faint hearted. An extensive guide to online terror groups can be found here, and the Justice Department maintains an edited online version of the al Qaeda training manual, which is definitely worth a look.

There are of course hundreds of websites with either direct or indirect links to the radical Islamicists, but lately many of them have been disappearing. The terrorists have charged that the CIA or FBI or some other government organ is behind the demise of their sites, and perhaps so there is a war on after all. However, there has also been a great deal of non-government activity on the cyber front. Whenever a new terrorist-linked website appears, its address is listed in bulletin boards frequented by the hacker community, usually with a note appended such as "Have fun" or ";-)" no surprise if the site goes down shortly thereafter. The terrorists should understand that Americans invented these systems, we know how they work from the BIOS up, and we have the smartest, best-educated, most imaginative geek population in the history of the world. The war on terror has given hackers a socially acceptable target on which to wreak havoc with no questions asked. Why risk jail time proving you can break into a corporate headquarters when you can zap the bad guys and maybe get a medal?

A case in point: Anyone who tries to find the official al Qaeda website Alneda (the Call) via its most recent IP address is greeted by a screen proclaiming "Hacked, tracked, and NOW owned by the U.S.A." This is one of the several initiatives pursued by Jon David, an adult-content webmaster who has made it his mission to frustrate the online jihadists. The "porno patriot" uses sophisticated software to seize web domains when they move between hosts (which they invariably do when providers find out what is on their servers), and he has licensed or assumed control of,,, and, among scores of others. In the case of Alneda, David hijacked the domain name, put up a mirror of the original site as it appeared in June, then logged hits to the decoy site for five days using tracking software. Once the terrorists caught on that this was not their resurrected Alneda, word got out but not before over 20,000 hits per day were tracked and the information turned over to the authorities. The actual Alneda site (in Arabic) can now be accessed at IP address hopefully not for long.

Al Qaeda has publicly denounced Jon David's efforts, and stated that they will backfire by proliferating sites and "endearing jihad to the people." Other Islamicists have charged that shutting down the websites is "a nail in the coffin of the much vaunted and cherished American ideal of 'free speech.'" Somehow, I doubt it, especially when the speech in question calls for the murder of four million Americans. And you have to appreciate the irony of a pornographer being their bete- (or net-) noir these are the guys who would stone a woman to death for showing a little too much ankle under her burka. Given the relentless pressure on its web assets al Qaeda seems to be giving up on maintaining sites and relying instead on posting to discussion groups or using e-mail lists. Maybe a terrorist version of The Corner is in the future, or a personal blog page, perhaps The domain is registered to some fellow in Karachi, Pakistan...hmm, you don't suppose?


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