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Britain mounted secret 2010 cyberwarfare attack on al-Q

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British intelligence corrupted the debut issue of a glossy Jihadist magazine last year, creating confusion in the ranks of would-be mujahideen who tried to download a PDF copy of Inspire in the process, the Washington Post reports.

Inspire, billing itself as the first al-Qaida literature in the English language, and offering tips on kitchen-sink bomb-making and anti-Western propaganda, launched in June 2010. Copies of the debut issue soon appeared as PDF documents on Jihadist websites.

But those that downloaded copies would have found all but the first few pages consisted of gibberish characters.

Mujahideen panicked, fearing the PDF might be loaded with a computer virus, discouraging its spread. The Washington Post reports that British intelligence was responsible for corrupting the magazine.

The Brits acted after the CIA vetoed a similar plan, first suggested by the newly established US cyber command. The military unit wanted to impede access to the magazine, arguing that it posed a danger to troops. However the CIA successfully argued that such an attack would be counter-productive because it exposed sources and methods as well as cutting off a potential source of intelligence.

Jihadist forums and media have been a battleground for Western intelligence agents and Islamic terrorists for some years. For example, Dutch authorities last year set up a honeypot designed to collect information on local radical Muslims and potential terrorists. In addition, Jihadist websites are regularly defaced.

Since the corrupt file-torrent shenanigans that accompanied the first issue of Inspire, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has successfully published a further four copies without apparent incident, Wired reports.

Just which British agency carried out the original cyberattack is unclear. However the UK Ministry of Defence is so far thought to have only nascent network warfare capabilities. It seems likelier that the attack was mounted either by crypto and intercept agency GCHQ or possibly the technical arm of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6), the nearest UK counterpart of the CIA.

However, as the operation could also be seen as being targeted against UK internal terrorism – there seems to have been much concern over the homemade-explosives instruction being available in English – the operation might also have involved the Security Service (MI5). ®

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