Bin Laden Hacked!

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Regular visitors to the al-Qaeda mouthpiece Web site "al-Neda" ("The Call") expect to find links to screeds on topics such as "Martyrdom: Your Path to Immortality." Recently, however, they may have found themselves directed, instead, to the pornographic pages of "Lola: I Do Things Your Wife Won't." Mystery hackers appear to have used a variety of means over the past month to sabotage al-Qaeda's presence on the Internet, including the installation of decoy pages, and the hogging of similar domain names in an effort to hobble efforts by supporters of the terror network to reestablish their site. Even in cyberspace, it seems, Osama Bin Laden's group is on the defensive. "Do not be deceived by the blasphemous behavior of the crusaders, be aware of this war," warned a statement on the site, hastily re-established under a numerical address.

Al Qaeda supporters, and some Middle East observers, believe U.S. counter-terrorism agents are behind the cyber attack. The goal, they suspect, is to turn away sympathizers who tire of endless changes to the "jihadi" URLs, and also to eliminate any possibility that such sites could be used by al-Qaeda members to communicate with each other via secret signals or hidden encrypted files. A U.S. counter-terrorism official confirms that Washington has an active campaign to exploit al-Qaeda's use of the Internet, and that the CIA monitors al-Qaeda web sites and those who use them. But it's far from clear that clumsy disruption would more useful to Washington than diligent monitoring. Moreover, the jury is still out among intelligence officials over just how actively al-Qaeda uses the Web as a communication tool.

While the extent to which the network uses Web sites to link cells in different parts of the world is a subject of ongoing speculation, sites such as clearly seek to play an instructional role to new recruits to al-Qaeda's cause. On a page titled "Don't Be With the Enemy Against Us," supporters are schooled in the uses of disinformation by al-Qaeda's enemies, and the consequent need for its members and supporters to shut out extraneous sources of information. "The mujahed leaders on the battlefield should be the first and last source of information." The site appears to share the Pentagon's concern to avoid any unnecessary leaks, warning that even scraps of apparently innocuous information — such as names or workplaces of fellow members — can reveal the group's plans to the enemy, and should be disclosed to no one.

Even more important, perhaps, is the site's propaganda function. In addition to religious tutelage on the merits of al-Qaeda's view of "jihad" and "martyrdom," the site provides news of the well-being of key al-Qaeda leaders, and occasionally even carries their audio-taped statements. Bin Laden spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith used al-Qaeda-friendly Web sites last month to prove that he remains alive and at large, and to raise the morale of its operatives. His audio-taped statement, whose authenticity was confirmed in Washington, insisted that Osama bin Laden has survived the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, and warned of impending attacks. Such statements attempt to create an image of invincibility for al-Qaeda that may facilitate recruitment of new members in the climate of anti-American anger that persists throughout the Middle East. Having gone to ground, the Internet remains an important channel of direct communication between al-Qaeda and sympathizers outside of its immediate structures. If U.S. cyber attacks deprive the network of that propaganda channel, al-Qaeda's propaganda efforts will have suffered a significant blow.