Soon Irhabi’s reach and reputation extended far beyond the al-Ansar community. In the fall of 2005, the Terrorism Research Center—an independent organization, based just outside Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia, whose far-flung experts provide intelligence on global security to governments and private companies—published a report on Irhabi that described him as “heavily involved in maintaining al-Qaeda’s online presence.” The TRC reported that Irhabi had posted videos of beheadings and attacks by insurgent groups in Iraq, as well as clips released by the al-Sahab foundation, considered by many analysts to be al-Qaeda’s production company. It added that Irhabi had registered one of his Web sites under the name, phone number, and address of an American lieutenant deployed in Iraq.
Irhabi was part of a new and growing terrorist vanguard. After 9/11 and the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda lost much of its infrastructure. No longer able to recruit in plain sight, its strategists recognized that the Internet could become a vast global recruiting ground—in effect, a new, borderless Afghanistan. The shift of emphasis to online activity, the TRC report asserted, gave al-Qaeda a powerful new means of exercising “command and control over its amorphous network.” And al-Qaeda also realized that in jihadi chat rooms it could find precisely what it most needed to maintain its ranks of recruits and suicide bombers: impressionable young Muslim men (and some women), many of them second-generation immigrants living in the United States and Europe.
As a central figure in this new effort, Irhabi was becoming an asset to terrorists worldwide. One cyber-terrorism consultant, the Irhabi-tracker Evan Kohlmann, went so far as to call him “the AT&T of al-Qaeda.”
As Irhabi worked to build himself up, Aaron Weisburd resolved to take him down. A computer programmer by training, with expertise in Web development, Weisburd began tracking online jihadists in 2002 from his home office in Carbondale, Illinois. When I visited him there this past year, two days before he celebrated Passover, he had hung a giant American flag from a window so that I couldn’t miss the house. He lives with his wife, three well-fed cats, and two sick dogs.
Born in New York City in 1964, Weisburd declared his own private war against al-Qaeda because he was mad—mad that Yasir Arafat had rejected the peace plan at Camp David in 2000, mad that al-Qaeda had blown up the buildings in Manhattan he grew up around, and mad because he had read that Hamas was teaching Palestinian kindergartners to hate Israelis. So he set up Internet Haganah, a site designed to put jihadists like Irhabi on the law-enforcement radar screen (haganah is the Hebrew word for “defense,” and a reference to the proto-Israeli army of the 1940s).
Weisburd is the only paid full-time member of Internet Haganah. He runs his operation from the second-floor office of his home. Surrounded by five computers, he trawls online in search of the press statements and videos that terrorists release to rally their supporters. He goes undercover, logging on to restricted forums (if he has been able to get a password) and visiting the many open sites advocating jihad. He doesn’t speak Arabic but insists the limitation doesn’t slow him down much. Though he relies on translation software at times, and on associates in Internet Haganah’s network who speak Arabic, linguistic comprehension isn’t his goal. “You’re dealing with a group of people who are very demonstrative,” he said. “They’re working to make their text look like they feel.” When he finds the terrorist press releases and videos, he works to figure out where they’re coming from. Then he either shames service providers into shutting down the sites that host them or gathers what he terms “intel” for interested parties. On Internet Haganah he maintains a blog to rally his own side, providing an outlet for people eager to contribute their time and money to the fight against terrorism. The blog has an added benefit: because Weisburd closely monitors its traffic, he can watch the jihadists watching him.
About a dozen groups in the United States, many of them founded in the wake of 9/11, monitor jihadi chat rooms. They range from the well established (like the TRC and the Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute) to the slightly out there (like the Northeast Intelligence Network) to networks run by solo mavericks like Weisburd and Evan Kohlmann (who works out of his apartment in New York City). Most of the analysts offer consulting services to governments and private clients, and some accept donations. The bigger groups employ Arabic linguists, a scarce and vital resource that can help win lucrative contracts. In a competitive field, Weisburd stands out, not only for his technical expertise but also for his combative approach. Getting Web sites shut down, as Weisburd does, strikes some of his peers as counterproductive, because it complicates surveillance.