Thursday, September 23, 2004

The NYTimes > International Special > Web War: Even Near Home, a New Front Is Opening in the Terror Battle

The New York Times > International > International Special > Web War: Even Near Home, a New Front Is Opening in the Terror Battle:
"The flags that sprouted after the Sept. 11 attacks still flap on lawns and flutter on poles outside well-tended homes here, about 15 miles from Manhattan. Looming above them is a concrete tower that houses a real-estate firm, an office supplies company - and, until recently, investigators fear, an outpost of Al Qaeda."
On the second floor, an Internet company called Fortress ITX unwittingly played host to an Arabic-language Web site where postings in recent weeks urged attacks against American and Israeli targets. "The Art of Kidnapping" was explained in electronic pamphlets, along with "Military Instructions to the Mujahedeen," and "War Inside the Cities." Visitors could read instructions on using a cellphone to remotely detonate a bomb, and one even asked for help in manufacturing small missiles.

Federal investigators, with the help of a small army of private contractors monitoring sites around the clock and across the world, are trying to find out. Ever since the United States-led coalition smashed Al Qaeda's training grounds in Afghanistan, cyber substitutes, which recruit terrorists and raise money, have proliferated.

While Qaeda operatives have employed an arsenal of technical tools to communicate - from e-mail encryption and computer war games to grisly videotapes like the recent ones showing beheadings believed to have been carried out by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - investigators say they worry most about the Internet because extremists can reach a broad audience with relatively little chance of detection.

By examining sites like those stored inside the electronic walls of the Clifton business, investigators are hoping to identify who is behind them, what links they might have to terror groups, and what threat, if any, they might pose. And in a step that has raised alarms among civil libertarians and others and so far proven unpersuasive in the courtroom, prosecutors are charging that those administering these sites should be held criminally responsible for what is posted.

Attempting to apply broad new powers established by the Patriot Act, the federal government wants to punish those who it claims provide "expert advice or assistance" and therefore play an integral part of a global terror campaign that increasingly relies on the Internet. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee recently, called such Web sites "cyber sanctuaries."

"These networks are wonderful things that enable all kinds of good things in the world," Mr. Wolfowitz said of the Internet. "But they're also a tool that the terrorists use to conceal their identities, to move money, to encrypt messages, even to plan and conduct operations remotely."

Many question the government's strategy of trying to combat terrorism by prosecuting Web site operators. "I think it is an impossible task," said Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, an agency that monitors the use of the Internet by Al Qaeda. "You can maybe catch some people. But you will never ever be able to stem the flow of radical Islamic propaganda."

He pointed out that it is difficult to distinguish between a real terrorist and a make-believe one online. "You would end up prosecuting a lot of angry young people who do this because it is exciting, not because they want to actually participate in terrorist attacks," he said. "I don't think it helps you fight Al Qaeda."

The government faces many hurdles in pursuing virtual terrorists. While many militant Islamic message boards and Web pages reside on computer servers owned by North American Internet companies, outfits like Fortress ITX say it would be impractical - and unethical, given that the company sells server space to clients who then resell it - for them to keep track of all of the content stored within their equipment.

"It is hideous, loathsome," said Robert Ellis, executive vice president of Fortress, after viewing postings from the Abu al-Bukhary Web site his company hosted. "It is the part of this business that is deeply disturbing." His company shut down the site within the last month after learning of it from a reporter. The intense focus on Muslim-related sites like Abu al-Bukhary, in an era when domestically produced anarchist manuals are commonly available on the Web, has provoked charges that the anti-cyber sanctuary effort is really a misguided anti-Muslim campaign that is compromising important First Amendment rights.

This effort "opens the floodgates to really marginalizing a lot of the free speech that has been a hallmark of the American legal and political system," said Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Globally it really does nothing but worsen the image of America in the rest of the world."

The detective work begins in a northeast city in a compact office set up by a self-proclaimed terrorist hunter. This is the headquarters of Rita Katz, an Iraqi-born Jew whose father was executed in Baghdad in 1969, shortly after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party came to power.

Finding terrorists has become a crusade for Ms. Katz, who began going to pro-Palestinian rallies and fund-raisers disguised as a Muslim woman in the late 1990's, then presented information to the federal government in an effort to prove there were ties between Islamic fundamentalist groups in the United States and terror organizations like Hamas or Al Qaeda.

Federal agencies, including the National Security Agency, the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security, monitor suspected terror sites on the Internet and sometimes track users. Private groups like Ms. Katz's Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute and The Middle East Media Research Institute are also keeping track of the ever-changing content of these sites. Ms. Katz's institute, which relies on government contracts and corporate clients, may be the most influential of those groups, and she is among the most controversial of the cyberspace monitors. While some experts praise her research as solid, some of her targets view her as a vigilante. Several Islamic groups and charities, for example, sued for defamation after she claimed they were terrorist fronts, even though they were not charged with a crime.

Jaish Ansar al-Sunna, a group that has surfaced in Iraq, posted a video on its Internet site showing the bodies of 12 Nepali contractor workers who it had taken hostage and killed. The site was taken down that same day, but then reappeared on a computer server of a Utah-based Web hosting company.…

con·cept: The NYTimes > International Special > Web War: Even Near Home, a New Front Is Opening in the Terror Battle