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Al Qaeda rocked by apparent cyberattack. But who did it?

Al Qaeda's core jihadi websites have all been hit by an apparent cyberattack. For a group in flux, it's a big blow, but the nature of the attack raises questions about who's responsible. 

By Staff writer / April 3, 2012



Five jihadi websites that make up the core online forums promoting Al Qaeda were knocked out 12 days ago and remain mostly offline in what appears to be a major cyberattack against the group.

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The simplicity of the mode of attack and its timing is leading some experts to suggest that the US is "not at the top of the list" of potential perpetrators – it could have made such an attack years ago. Instead, experts say, another country might be testing out its cyberwar capabilities against an enemy with few friends.

What is more certain is that the outage could cause multiple problems for Al Qaeda, particularly at a time when it is still reeling from the death of Osama bin Laden. Not only do the outages hamper Al Qaeda's ability to get out its message, but the scramble to establish new jihadi websites could give intelligence agencies data to locate more terrorists.

The attack "has had a huge impact on Al Qaeda in the short term because they haven't had one official release since March 23," says Aaron Zelin, a Brandeis University researcher in its Western Jihadism Project, which monitors jihadi websites. "Al Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and North Africa haven't had any releases since then. I don't remember a time when it's been 11 days between releases."

There's long been intense debate over what, if anything, to do about jihadi websites. They inspire Al Qaeda acolytes by showing gruesome videos purporting to show Western forces brutalizing innocent Muslims, as well as by promulgating propaganda justifying terrorist acts.

But knocking out websites has been likened to the carnival game of "Whack-a-mole" – new websites pop up to replace the one that's shot down. This time, however, timing could be key. While jihadi sites will doubtless return, a short-term disruption could be more of a body blow given the recent death of Mr. bin Laden.

"In the long term it doesn't matter because someone will step into this void with their message," says William McCants, a jihadi research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research and development center serving the Navy. "But in the short term, it causes a lot of confusion with them. It's a good tactic if you wish to sow even more distrust than is already out there."

The outages will cause Al Qaeda's followers on the web a host of problems as they try to move their activities to other sites. First, they can't be sure the new sites are secure. Second, they fear enemies will produce false propaganda under the Al Qaeda logo at those sites, says Dr. McCants, founder of Jihadica, a leading research site on jihadism.

The outages could also help governments glean intelligence. As jihadis are funneled into one or two sites, they will be easier for government cyberspies to monitor. Simply shifting to a new website – opening an account and putting in a password – offers numerous opportunities for government intelligence agencies to monitor the flurry of online transactions.

"There may be a good tactical reason to do it – a lot of reasons," McCants says.

On the downside, the jihadi forums serve as a valuable window on the grass roots of global terrorism. Taking down the sites means closing that window, at least temporarily. 

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