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Has the war on terror scored a virtual victory?

Amateur spooks put willies up Al-Qaeda

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Comment Score one for the good guys – if, that is, you believe that some websites are just so wrong that they are fair game for a takedown. Alternatively, bemoan the demise of a voice that you may not agree with, but which at least gave you the opportunity to understand better what the other side in the “war on terror” are thinking.

Al-Qaeda plans to release a 9/11 anniversary video were delayed by almost a week as one of its most popular information networks was taken down.

For years, the al-Ekhlaas network has acted as a primary distributor of videos from As-Sahab, Al-Qaeda's media production house. Release of the latest Al-Qaeda video were trailed via banner images on the internet showing a silhouetted head with a question mark and the words, "Wait 11 September".

The US-based intelligence group IntelCenter had speculated that the video would be a message from Osama or Zawahiri with a recording of the last will and testament of Mohammed Atta, one of the leaders of the 9/11 attackers.

Then, on September 11, al-Ekhlaas.net was suddenly re-registered, and its domain name transferred to the joker.com hosting service. All of its content vanished. Related and mirrored pages also went down. It is understood that al-Ekhlaas' YouTube account has also been suspended.

Whilst al-Ekhlaas sites have been taken down in the past, usually in response to Western pressures, the breadth of this effort suggests a rather more coordinated attack on what intelligence services consider to be a major nerve center of Al-Qaeda's information warfare effort.

According to CBS' online Internet Terror Monitor, "Al-Ekhlaas fans are beginning to lose hope of being able to log onto what was once the number one militant Islamist forum on the web".

The As-Sahab video was eventually released six days late, to complaints from some online Al-Qaeda sympathisers that they've been unable to use their normal passwords to carry out the download. So who actually did the deed? According to the Hindustani Times, quoting sources close to US intelligence it was two bloggers: Aaron Weisburd from Internet Haganah and "Rusty Shackleford" from the Jawa Report.

However, Shackleford claimed otherwise: "News of my ability to thwart Al-Qaeda's online activities have been greatly exaggerated". Meanwhile, internet jihadists are blaming American intelligence agencies. In other words, we shall probably never know, officially. The war on terror has spawned whole armies of PC warriors: individuals who have taken to the keyboard to support their cause.

Their activities range from simple blogging – as those like Oum Obeyda do on behalf of Al-Qaeda - through to activities that could be considered closer to spying or entrapment.

Hacking would obviously be at the more extreme end of the spectrum. In 2004, a hacker group called TeAmZ USA knocked out the websites of Abu Musal al-Zarqawi, late head of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq, for showing tapes of westerners being beheaded, leaving behind them an image of a gun-toting penguin.

Register readers may like that one. Whether it makes much difference in the grand scheme of things is another question. The 9/11 video will find an outlet – perhaps through Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, the main result of this hi-tech game of cowboys and indians may simply be to inure the public to the idea that "taking down" someone else’s website is clever and praiseworthy - a coup for censors everywhere, no matter what their political affiliation. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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