With the world focused on the war in Iraq, it is easy to forget about al-Qaida. But al-Qaida has not forgotten about the war.
Even before the first U.S. missiles hit Baghdad, the terrorist network and its sympathizers were posting calls for vengeance on Web sites that have taken the anti-American jihad into cyberspace.
"The main way al-Qaida recruits new members now is the Web," says Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington that tracks terror-related Web sites. "They're taking huge advantage of the situation. The war in Iraq is the best they could wish for in terms of recruitment."
In recent days the elaborate Web sites have added angry rhetoric about the war and photos of bloody Iraqi bombing victims to their usual fare: audio of
's pronouncements, slick propaganda videos and even chemical weapons cookbooks.
Radical Islamist views are a staple of dozens of Web sites, but experts say only a few appear to have direct ties to al-Qaida. Those Arabic-language sites carry inside scoops: reports of skirmishes in Afghanistan, fatwas (religious decrees) by radical clerics and reports on prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"After they lost their freedom of action in Afghanistan, this is their best way to get their message out," says Reuven Paz, director of the Israel-based Project for the Research of Islamist Movements. "In my view, al-Qaida has become a virtual organization."
As U.S. authorities arrest key al-Qaida leaders - often caught with laptops jammed with plans and e-mails - the Web permits the network and its ideology to survive, Paz says.
"They try to spread the message so that others will carry on the jihad without any headquarters or orders from bin Laden," he says. He notes terrorist attacks in Bali and Tunisia that may have been carried out by al-Qaida backers without orders from bin Laden or other leaders.
In recent months, key al-Qaida Web sites have played cat-and-mouse with the
and Web-hosting companies. They appear on the Internet in one spot, are discovered and removed, then pop up somewhere else.
The unknown webmasters of al-Neda, or the Call, have given up on finding an Internet company to host their calls for jihad, an Arabic term meaning "struggle" that is frequently used in the sense of "holy war."
Instead, al-Neda's originators have hacked into computers that host unrelated sites and illegally inserted their files.
The covert Web addresses are then posted on other Islamic sites or can be found using Arabic-language search engines.
Al-Neda, which has been on the Web for about two years, displays on its home page what SITE's Katz describes as "al-Qaida's logo," a rifle-toting horseman and the Arabic slogan, "No honor except for jihad."
In July, Jon Messner, an adult Web site operator in
, grabbed the right to use the alneda.com domain name when the jihad site's owners, then operating from a server in Malaysia, briefly let their registration lapse. Now visitors to that address are greeted by an American eagle and the slogan "Hacked, Tracked and now owned by the U.S.A."
But al-Neda stayed alive. First, its operators hacked into a mountain-biking site and hid their files there. When they were discovered, they switched to the site of a Dutch soccer team. This year, they infiltrated the site of a graduate student at Portland State University in Oregon.
All three hacked sites are on the servers of Liquid Web, based in Lansing, Mich.
Jack Flintz, the company's security administrator, says he discovered al-Neda lurking amid the personal pages of graduate student Conrado Salas Cano on Feb. 25.
Flintz says he reported the intrusion to the FBI's Detroit office, where Special Agent Dean Kinsman asked him to leave al-Neda running so agents could monitor its content and visitors.
Liquid Web removed the pages last week, and for a few hours anyone who visited the address was redirected to the FBI's Most Wanted page. Whose trick that was is unknown: Kinsman declined to comment, and Cano only confirmed by e-mail that his site experienced "an unauthorized hacking."
Flintz acknowledges that jihad hackers have been "an ongoing issue" but says the company is in a difficult position. Liquid Web host roughly 10,000 sites, making it hard to monitor the English pages, let alone those in other languages.
An FBI spokesman says the bureau does not disable Internet sites backing terrorism but does inform the hosting company of the material.
"We've done this for years with child pornography," says Special Agent John Iannarelli at FBI headquarters in Washington. "Generally we get excellent cooperation."
Iannarelli says the First Amendment protects Web sites that criticize U.S. policy, and the FBI is "not interested in quashing free speech."
"However, if you cross the line, calling for attacks on the U.S. or offering information on terrorist methods, that could be illegal," he says.
The federal indictment last month of Sami Omar al-Hussayen, an Idaho computer science student originally from Saudi Arabia, accused al-Hussayen of maintaining Web sites that "accommodated materials that advocated violence against the United States."
But he was criminally charged with visa fraud, not with a crime related to the Web activity.
Some Web watchers, including Katz, believe the U.S. government may be using the Internet jihad to spy. They speculate that Jihad Unspun, an English-language site that appears to promote terror, may be a
creation, designed to find out who visits or orders videos glorifying bin Laden.
A lengthy notice on Jihad Unspun denies the allegations, saying the site is "a labor of love for Allah." Bruce Kennedy, identified on the site as editor in chief, said by e-mail that Jihad Unspun's operators "are not doing any interviews with American press at this time." A CIA spokesman denied the site has any connection to the agency.
Experts say the jihad Web sites have proliferated with little attention from the American public because most are in Arabic. But they are widely read by young male Web surfers in Muslim countries, the ideal demographic for al-Qaida recruits.
And while some content comes from al-Jazeera television and other legitimate sources, it is often juxtaposed with explicit appeals for terror.
"You can download a manual on how to make [the deadly poison] ricin next to a bin Laden video saying how great it is to be a martyr," says Josh Devon, an analyst at the SITE Institute, whose name stands for Search for International Terrorist Entities. "There are young men without jobs sitting in cyber cafes from the Mideast to Pakistan looking at this stuff all day."
One popular posting on several sites is a Shockwave video credited to www.azzam.com, a now-closed radical Web site named for the late Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who became bin Laden's mentor in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Titled "The Forgotten Ones" and available in Arabic or English, it offers a high-tech slide show alternating photographs of suspected terrorists held at Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay with grim shots of their barbed-wire enclosures and rifle-toting American guards. Music plays and prayers are chanted in the background.
The video gives the names and countries of dozens of prisoners never publicly identified by the U.S. government - suggesting inside knowledge from al-Qaida, Devon says.
Jonathan Schanzer, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says he doubts exposure to the Web sites will turn anyone into a terrorist.
"This is an elective medium - you choose to go to these sites. It's not like state-run media," he says. "But the Web is a reinforcer."
Similarly, Charles Lipson, a political scientist at the
, says repeated visits to al-Qaida Web sites are not the equivalent of a stint in a terrorist training camp, where control over a trainee's life is total. But he says the Internet jihad certainly has the power to influence the real terrorist jihad.