Is State Dept. hacking Al Qaeda? Not quite, but propaganda war is fierce.

Despite early reports, a State Department program to shoot down Al Qaeda propaganda online is not a hack. But the efforts are having an impact, Secretary Clinton says.

Kathleen Flynn/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the International Special Operations Forces Week conference gala dinner at the Tampa Convention Center on Wednesday in Tampa, Fla.

Hellfire-missile-carrying drones aren't the only thing Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen are worrying about these days. Add to the list the US State Department's new command center devoted to countering the terrorist group's propaganda on the Internet.

Even though what it is doing definitely does not qualify as a "cyberattack," the State Department has for a year and a half now tried to counter Al Qaeda's affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula by rhetorically shooting down the group's propaganda when it pops up on Yemeni tribal forum websites, experts who monitor the terrorist group's web operations say.

Earlier this month, for instance, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen began an advertising campaign on key tribal web sites "bragging about killing Americans and trying to recruit new supporters," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a room full of military brass in a speech to the Pentagon's Special Operations Command in Tampa.

"Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll Al Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni people," she said Wednesday. "We can tell that our efforts are starting to have an impact, because we monitor the extremists venting their frustration and asking their supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet."

It is, she said, part of a wider bid by State Department experts fluent in Urdu, Arabic, and Somali to patrol the Internet, using social media to hammer at Al Qaeda propaganda and spotlight abuses committed by Al Qaeda, she said.

Even so, early media reports of Secretary Clinton's speech created a buzz because they mischaracterized State's move on the Yemeni tribal sites as a hacking attack on a rogue website. That would have been novel since cyberwar hacking – taking over, spying on, or attacking a computer network or website – has been the province of intelligence agencies and US Cyber Command.

Apparently the only technical skills needed to do what the State experts did was to know how to create a new user account on the Yemeni tribal forum in question (an open public website, not a terrorist or Jihadi website) and to upload or post a new message and photo to it, experts on the matter say. Add to that an ability to use Photoshop.

"There was no hacking involved at all," says William McCants, a jihadi research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research and development center serving the Navy. "They [the State Department team] overtly message on non-jihadi forums that anybody can sign up for. They represent themselves as a member of the US government. By law they have to identify themselves."

The State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications was set up about a year and a half ago with the goal of doing better at countering Al Qaeda propaganda and recruiting efforts that occur on public forums across the Internet, says Dr. McCants, a leading researcher on jihadism, who was a special adviser in helping set up the digital part of the center, which is located at the State Department offices but includes representatives of many other branches of the US government.

Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department who won Clinton's backing, was an early backer of the center, he says. President Obama in September issued a directive formally establishing the center and laying out its mission.

"The challenge was that for so long the US government wasn't really doing any messaging against Al Qaeda," McCants says. "Whenever one of their statements went out, nothing was said – which makes sense at a high level since you don't want to dignify it with response. But there was also a feeling that we were missing a chance to meet Al Qaeda at a tactical level as it tries to target their propaganda at populations they want to recruit. Now we've got digital engagement set up to go into places where Al Qaeda is pushing their message and to push back against it."

In the specific instance mentioned by Clinton, Al Qaeda supporters apparently posted a picture that purported to be one of coffins holding US servicemen – draped with American flags and prepared to be loaded onto a cargo airplane, according to McCants and another researcher, both of whom had seen the picture. The message bragged about how many Americans Al Qaeda had killed.

What the State Department did was to run a counter message with a similar picture – but with the coffins draped with Yemeni flags and noting how many Yemenis the terrorist group had killed – the flags apparently Photoshopped onto the picture.

"The actual picture that was posted first on the Yemeni website had coffins with American flags over it – looked like being put into jet," says Aaron Y. Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "What they did was to change it so that it was Yemeni flags draped over the coffins. I'm not sure when they posted it. But I saw it when I was at their offices – they showed it to me."

Mr. Zelin, an expert on jihadi websites, says that the US effort is more likely to have an impact on the general population that frequents the site than it would on a closed jihadi website frequented by Al Qaeda sympathizers and other hardliners.

"I'm not sure we have a very good barometer for judging how important or influential these efforts by the State Department are or will be, especially since in many places in Yemen there is no Internet or even electricity," says Gregory Johnsen, a scholar on Yemen at Princeton University.

Even so, the US has "a large tool box at its disposal," he notes. "For the US to be opening that up and using it – and not just depending on more drones – is important," Mr. Johnsen says. "There never can be a US win if the struggle is always framed as the US against Al Qaeda in Yemen. Anytime we're mixing it up in the public conversation and not just ceding ground that's good."

There's no doubt that the US has cyberwarfare capabilities that can take down websites or do other damage. But there's long been an internal debate within the US intelligence community and defense department over whether it was best to leave the jihadi sites up – in order to try to collect intelligence. About a half dozen jihadi websites were temporarily knocked offline by someone or some government in April.

The Central Intelligence Agency group along with the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command have been actively combating jihadis via the Internet for nearly a decade, says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

There are even a few direct signs of discomfiture among Al Qaeda sympathizers over the State Department's recent efforts. On April 24, a group called the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) posted a note warning against "any false or untrusted news related to Somalia and advise brothers not to be helpful to US State Department communication team which has the task of distorting Islam and challenging mujahideen everywhere," according to an English translation by Zelin.

Perhaps there is some real cyberattack going on as well.

The GIMF message alludes to a cyberattack against it, specifically "a copy of mujahideen secrets program [that] was published by a member of this forum with spyware in it, and a fake copy of the program was published as if it was a new version."

The GIMF, it said, was "forced to issue this warning to brothers not to download the program which contained spyware."

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