Intelligence: August 24, 2004


Recent developments in the war on terror have revealed some details of the hidden battles being fought on the Internet. Al Qaeda has been using the Internet since the 1990s. It was initially feared that al Qaeda would use the Internet to make terrorist attacks. However, once more was known about al Qaeda and the Internet, it became obvious that there were very few skilled hackers or software engineers working for the terrorists, and few likely recruits in that area. Al Qaeda members were not idiots (well, not all of them), and many had become internet users, and were bright enough to become skilled at standard Internet tasks (email, Instant Messaging, cryptography, file attachments). This presented an opportunity for police and intelligence agencies to use that reliance on the Internet to spy on al Qaeda. You dont hear much about this secret war because if the spying techniques were generally known, they could be more easily defeated. So we wont discuss exact methods here. But it did come out, with some recent captures of al Qaeda operatives, that the Internet monitoring played a significant role in keeping an eye on al Qaeda activities. The intelligence officers running the Internet monitoring effort would prefer to have no mention of their activities whatsoever. The more al Qaeda dwells on this subject (and their training manuals do contain much advice on how to try to avoid being spotted and tracked on the Internet), the more likely they are liable to figure out how they are being watched, and then come up with ways to make such monitoring more difficult. Some al Qaeda leaders have ordered their subordinates to use the Internet as little as possible, and some are reported to have banned its use altogether. Some senior al Qaeda people know that long time monitoring of al Qaeda members using the internet could possibly lead American counter-terrorism forces to the top people themselves. This is apparently what is happening in Pakistan currently.

But for recruiting and propaganda, terrorists must use the Internet. And for many less disciplined, or less able, terrorists, the Internet is just so convenient. For intelligence agencies, its worth letting known al Qaeda minions continue to use the Internet freely. If some particularly important bit of information is picked up (like a major attack), this can be acted on. But an attempt will be made to credit some other source for the inside information. In the intelligence business, just as in journalism and police work, you try to protect your inside sources, and keep them active, as long as possible. 


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