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Why US should be wary of attacking cyberradicals, including Al Qaeda

Missives from extremist groups such as Al Qaeda can easily be found online. But launching cyberattacks to shut their websites down is problematic – and even counterproductive, a new report finds.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / December 6, 2012


The first issue of Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire, released in June 2010, included articles aimed at youngsters, such as “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” and “What to Pack When You Leave for Jihad.” 

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Soon after its launch, it became the terrorist organization’s most downloaded publication, according to US officials.

Samir Khan, who was responsible for the magazine, began his publishing career in online extremist materials from his parents’ home in Charlotte, N.C., translating Al Qaeda missives and posting them online.

So why didn’t American authorities arrest him or take down his websites? “The answer is simple: because Khan had not broken any US laws,” according to a new study on cyberradicalism from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC).

Spearheaded by former 9/11 commission co-chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the research project, entitled “Countering Online Radicalization in America,” wrestles with another question: Should the US government take down those sites? 

Despite the radicalizing dangers of the Internet, the BPC study ultimately warns that shutting sites down may not be such a great idea.

In the fall of 2008, for example, the Pentagon’s Joint Functional Component Command Network Warfare reportedly disabled three Al Qaeda online forums, likely in the hopes of limiting the ability of insurgents in Iraq to coordinate attacks against US troops.

The Central Intelligence Agency, however, “strongly opposed the Pentagon’s plans” to take down the three Al Qaeda forums, according to BPC research. 

Indeed, “there was quite a debate within the US government as to the wisdom of doing that and, secondly, about the legal authority for doing that,” says Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College London and director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, who wrote the BPC study. NO“The CIA was basically saying that this is not a good idea because we’re getting a lot of intelligence from these websites and online forums, and we’re losing that if you take these sites down.”


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