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Iraq, its domain and the ‘terrorist-funding’ owner

A tale of intrigue, confusion and Internet oddities

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The war against Iraq may be drawing to a close but the war over its Internet future is just beginning.

As with the overthrow of the Afghanistan regime by US forces, it is widely thought that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power will see the Middle Eastern country catch up with the rest of the world in terms of Internet infrastructure and use.

Currently, there is limited, expensive and state-controlled Internet use in Iraq, beamed via satellite since sanctions on the country have made it unable to install pipes and networks. In the north of the country, the Kurds have set up their own system free from Baghdad control by riding on the back of satellite feeds for Turkey. It too, however, remains very costly.

But any Internet construction in Iraq will inevitably take place through its assigned country-code top-level domain - .iq.

Meet Mr Bayan Elashi

The .iq domain is currently run an individual - a man called Saud Alani who gives a Baghdad telephone number yet is based in George Bush's home state of Texas. His company "the Alani corporation" is part of a group of companies all run from the same address in Richardson, Texas, including InfoCom and Valnet. All of these companies - and the .iq domain - have as their technical contact and/or owner one Bayan Elashi. Unfortunately, Mr Elashi is in federal custory in Seagoville jail, Texas, awaiting trial for allegedly funding anti-Israeli group Hamas. If found guilty he faces a crippling fine and most of the rest of his life in jail.

Mr Elashi is an interesting character. A Palestinian, he moved to the US in 1977 where he took a masters degree in Computer Science at Purdue University, Indiana. He then became president and CTO of a Californian IT research company and introduced the world's first Arabic personal computer, Alraed. Then he created another computer company (International Computer and Communications Inc) and became its president. Finally, he created and became president of a third IT company - InfoCom Corporation in Texas in 1992. He is 48, married, with 5 children aged between 4 and 17.

With such a CV, it is not hard to see why he was approved as administrative and technical contact for the new Iraq domain name when it was created on 9 May 1997. The year 1997 was when the final block of country codes were pulled into the system (since then there have only been four new domains created - Nauru Island, Comoros, Bangladesh and Palestinian Territory). Since Iraq had no infrastructure to speak of, it made sense to give it to an extremely able IT expert who lived in the US.

It is perhaps odd then that he did so little with it. While InfoCom was doing a roaring business, hosting 500 companies - many of them Arab or Islamic sites - with a turnover of $7 million a year, the .iq domain was virtually non-existent.

It is difficult to track back in the past what domains may have existed since the entire domain is now down and has been for some time. However, Internet and telecoms consulting firm TeleGeography claimed in January 2002 that there were 225 owners of .iq domains.

While this is peanuts compared to even the smallest country, it could be explained by the fact that since the destruction of its infrastructure in 1991, Iraq is one of the most telecoms-poor country in the world. No one could get access to the Internet in Iraq, so who was going to buy a .iq domain?

That is also a question that will also be troubling the US authorities. With Bayan Elashi able to personally grant .iq domains to whoever he wished and with those domains run through his company?s own servers, the opportunity for covert mischief was clearly enormous. Those very few .iq domains were also clearly important to him.

Mr Elashi never contributed any funds to ICANN, as most other country-code domains do, although in fairness he was clearly making little money from the domain. However, it seems peculiar that he did not use his position as a country-code domain owner in order to network among very powerful people within the same industry that his company existed. Mr Elashi did not even join the forum of other Asia-Pacific owners. It seems he kept himself to himself.

And yet, he sent official requests to IANA to change the IP address of the .iq domain primary name server three times in eight months. More troubling, he shifted the IP address twice in one month - October 2002 - just two months before he and his brothers were arrested by the FBI.

The InfoCom saga

InfoCom had nine full-time staff and five part-time employees. All five Elashi brothers were closely involved with it. Four of them - Ghassan Elashi, Bayan Elashi, Basman Elashi and Hazim Elashi - were arrested on 18 December 2002 on charges of dealing illegally with a senior Hamas operative, Mousa abu Marzook, and of illegally exporting computer equipment and technology to Libya and Syria - described by US officials as state sponsors of terrorism. Fifth brother, Ihsan Elashi, was already in prison for export violations at the time of the arrests.

Also named in the indictment was Marzook - who the US Treasury labelled a "specially designated terrorist" in 1995 because of his association with Hamas - and his wife, Nadia (who is also the Elashis? cousin) - who had invested $250,000 in InfoCom in 1993 and received a monthly annuity from the company.

The FBI fears that money was funnelled through InfoCom to Hamas or even al-Qaeda. And it believed this on 5 September 2001 when 50 officers from the State Department, US Customs, US Secret Service and FBI raided InfoCom offices in Richardson, Texas.

The raid came just a week after the US government controversially froze the assets of Islamic charity the Holy Land Foundation, claiming it was supplying funds to terrorists.

The links between InfoCom and the Holy Land Foundation run deep. Both moved from different parts of the country to directly opposite one another in Richardson at the same time. Ghassan Elashi, who is InfoCom?s VP of sales and marketing, co-founded the foundation and is its board chairman. Bayan as president and CEO of InfoCom is also the technical contact for the Foundation's website - which is, of course, hosted by InfoCom.

InfoCom hosts many major Muslim-American organisations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Association for Palestine, some of which powerful people within the US have asked to be shut down over allegations of supporting terrorism against Israel.

And if Bayan Elashi wanted to make himself any more unpopular and instantly guilty in the eyes of the US administration, he is also the administrator for MyNet.net - which hosts, or hosted, Al Jazeera's website along with many other Islamic sites.

Guilty or not guilty?

Whether Mr Elashi is guilty of all the charges hurled at him is something the courts will have to decide on 6 October 2003. He and his brothers, the FBI believes, form the link between Islamic charities in the US and terrorist groups in the Middle East. They are of such significance to the US government case that the Attorney General John Ashcroft personally announced their arrest.

However, the US authorities' at times pathological distrust of Internet technology and the over-zealous use of their far-reaching powers could easily have created a clear-cut case in their minds that unravels in trial. It all seems to fit - but does it fit too neatly and do the facts appear to give two very different possibilities if you have a pre-assumption of guilt or innocence?

Whether or not Mr Elashi is guilty, it seems almost certain that he will lose control of the .iq domain in order to help boost Iraq's post-war restructuring effort.

Once Saddam Hussein had finally removed the ban on any Internet access in 1999, he was determined to prevent access to "corrupting Western propaganda". As such, all Internet traffic was run through a single government-run service - Uruklink.net.

Why didn't Saddam insist upon the .iq domain? Probably for two reasons: one, he could fairly assume the US government would block any redelegation, as it can easily do. And two, to possess an entire domain would cause pressure for the creation of Iraqi ISPs. Even creating one ISPs would mean trusting technical engineers not to build in a bypass to the system that would flout Saddam's efforts at total control. In this context, it's not hard to see why Mr Elashi continues to retain control of the .iq domain.

The big question now is - who will be the first person to grab it off him?

On your marks, get set, go!

A race will soon be underway to get to Baghdad first. One IT contractor in Britain has already put together one bid for the domain, albeit laughably amateurish, but others will soon follow. While the US government has ultimate power over every aspect of the Internet and could redelegate .iq to whomever it pleased, it is very unlikely to want to be seen to be doing it.

As with Afghanistan - when some suspicious paperwork suddenly saw .af transferred to the US-backed new administration - we may well see the same thing again. However, with Mr Elashi in jail facing charges of funding terrorists, the process could be too conspicuous.

Fortunately, there are a dozen other ways control of the domain can be wrenched free. Since no aspect of the .iq domain, including the email addresses, are working (no surprise since the owner has been in jail since December), any ICANN-accredited registrar could push for the deletion of the current information and transfer to themselves or a third party. Or, using the same method, it could be hijacked by taking control of the Internet servers that the .iq domain points at.

Alternatively, Sprint could be persuaded to pass the blocks of IP address that InfoCom currently possesses to a third party since the company stands accused of illegal activity.

And, of course, there is the official process of IANA redelegation through ICANN could be started. In this case, however, it would be essential for an interim administration to be up and running before anything happened. Theoretically, anyone could kickstart this process but ICANN has recently been very keen on governments taking control of Internet domains - especially ones that will sign up to its new contract.

What will happen will be a matter of some interest. In the same way that decisions taken shortly by the US administration into how Iraq will be administered will form the basis of Middle East politics and conflicts for generations to come, who gains control of the Iraq Internet domain and what they do with it will change the online Middle East situation for decades. The US government's inclination to meddle may be too large to constrain however. ®

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