Special Report

Cyberwar Misreport

Al Qaeda websites are not being wiped out.

By 8.12.05

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On July 31, the Sunday Times of Britain ran a story headlined, "Finger points to British intelligence as al-Qaeda websites are wiped out." The next day, Matt Drudge linked the story on his big-splash Monday website.

The story said, "Over the past fortnight Israeli intelligence agents have noticed something distinctly odd happening on the internet. One by one, Al-Qaeda's affiliated websites have vanished until only a handful remain, write Uzi Mahnaimi and Alex Pell."

The story carried no byline.

In the next several days, no news outlet followed up this claim. Bloggers linked to it aplenty, and some commented that it seemed like a good idea. "Finally!" many remarked.

Indeed, the Washington Post published a superb series in the days since describing how terrorists use the Internet. (The series begins here.) Jihadists' capabilities on the web mimic the finest products of corporate communications, including advertising, motivation, recruitment and training, explain authors Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser.

Glasser and Coll never mentioned the big July website takedown.

So if, as the Sunday Times story had it, "Someone has cut the line of communication between the spiritual leaders of international terrorism and their supporters," it was being kept awfully quiet.

THE TIMES STORY'S CLAIMS of a widespread website shutdown were not true -- at least not to the extent reported.

"Somebody was trying to make a big story," said Yigal Carmon, head of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI.org). MEMRI monitors and translates newspaper and magazine articles, editorials, public statements, and web publishing from the Islamic world. Its product (memri.org), has become an invaluable resource for Westerners seeking to understand -- not just speculate about -- Muslim thought. This is what Arabs really say to each other.

Carmon also dismissed one unidentified source in the story, Uri Mahnaimi, with a snort and a memorable wisecrack which he asked me not to quote. "Not credible," he said. Two websites had in fact been taken down, along with two more which are back up now, Carmon said. To avoid misunderstanding over the phone, he sent me an e-mail:

"The website that carried the taking of responsibility for the London bombings, Al - Qal'ah, fell down. Another important one, Al-Saha, also fell. Both are still down. An important one, Al-Hisba, fell and came back. So did Al-Tajdid."

See MEMRI's two-part report on "Islamist Websites and Their Hosts" here.

Another source, Mike Kern, a senior analyst at the SITE Institute in Washington, which monitors Islamic terrorist sites specifically, would only say, cautiously, "A lot of websites have been taken down, but as we've seen in the past, a lot have come back up."

SO WHO ARE UZI MAHNAIMI AND ALEX PELL, who are identified in the Times only as having written the information about the takedowns?

Time-Warner's Bookmark site identifies Mahnaimi this way in a blurb for the 2005 book, Best of Enemies: The Memoirs of Bassam Abu-Sharif & Uzi Mahnaimi:

"No one knows more about modern terrorism -- its impetus, its technology, its secrets, its inevitable tragedy -- than Bassam Abu-Sharif, a former Palestinian guerrilla, and Uzi Mahnaimi, a former Israeli spymaster."

The "spymaster" left Israel and has lived in London for a number of years.

Alex Pell's byline appears in both the Times and the Guardian. He writes about the web and modern electronic entertainment devices.

I would speculate that Alex Pell wrote the story -- hence no byline -- and that he and Mahnaimi are shopping a new book.

AN INTERESTING DISCUSSION ARISES from the story, flim-flam though it appears to be. Should Western nation-states engage in wholesale takedowns of terrorist websites? Would that or would that not be an effective tactic in the war on terror? The go-for-it advocates say it's an obvious attack. The naysayers, including our own Jed Babbin, say it's more valuable to leave the sites up in order to glean intelligence from them.

That's for another column.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.