Interviews July/August 2006

Web of Terror

Nadya Labi discusses the murky world of online jihad

In the beginning of your piece, you credit Al-Zarqawi with correctly anticipating the importance of the Internet as a vital weapon in the terrorist arsenal. You describe how the Internet has enabled terrorists to propagate harmful materials and network with each other, among other things. But has the Internet replaced all need for face-to-face contact? Can all terrorist operations now be conducted (or at least managed) from the privacy of one’s own home—or from an Internet Café?

In the final planning stages before an attack, does Zarqawi feel the need to meet his suicide bombers in person? I don’t know the answer to that, for sure. In the case of Mirsad Bektasevic [a Bosnian Swede who went to Sarajevo allegedly to commit a suicide attack] there isn’t a great deal of evidence yet that he ever went to Iraq. According to the charges, he appears to have hatched his plan of attack largely over the Net. So the question is: how far can things go online? I think things can go very far—if nothing else, the Internet provides a vital platform. People will say online, ‘Here’s my private email address. Let’s continue this conversation.’ I imagine at a particular point in time, there’s a moment at which face-to-face communication is probably desired. But not having been on the inside … you know, I just don’t know.

You also touch on a controversial debate among experts and analysts—namely, Is there a right way to regulate the Web in the face of online jihad? Some people seem to believe in getting these sites shut down, while others place value on keeping them up. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

Even Aaron Weisburd [director of the online jihad watchdog organization Internet Haganah] emphasizes quite pointedly that he doesn’t believe in shutting down these sites himself. At times, he encourages servers to shut down sites that he believes are problematic. But that’s only one part of his strategy. I think that monitoring these sites has proven to have intelligence value—or at least seems to have proven so. But it’s hard to imagine that one single strategy of shutting down the sites could ever work, given the changing nature of the Internet. You’re always going to find someone who can put up a site in a different country where it’s harder to monitor. So, generally speaking, I think monitoring is a decent approach, but it needs to be complemented with other strategies.

Speaking of these various monitors, your article also addresses a common theme seen in the news since 9/11: the incompetence of U.S. intelligence-gathering entities. How heavily do government agencies rely on these private groups to help them track down terrorists like Irhabi? Should we expect a bigger, more official role from them in the future?

My sense from the analysts—to the degree that they could tell of course—is that law enforcement wasn’t necessarily paying very close attention to the Internet in the early years of the online jihad. Of course, this is mere speculation. Who knows what kind of things the CIA is doing that we don’t know about? But in more recent years, they have begun to truly understand the critical importance of the Internet in this context, and have begun to devote resources to monitoring it. That might suggest that the role of private analysts would lessen overtime. However, these people have developed valuable expertise in this field. Many of them employ Arabic staff members, or they themselves speak Arabic, which in and of itself is a scarce resource. So I think the more eyes the better—and I would suspect that many government agencies, though not all, are definitely willing to listen to these analysts and to use the information they have, perhaps as a complement to the information they themselves have already gathered. And in the case of Irhabi007, I know that many of the analysts have been approached by law enforcement and have shared their information and knowledge with the authorities. That would suggest, if nothing else, that these private entities have information that the authorities not only lack, but also need.

Is it a fair assumption that all these analysts are willing to help the government?

Definitely. They are extremely willing. In Weisburd’s case, I think helping the government track down these guys is in many ways his main goal. He takes a very aggressive approach because he feels that these forums and the people on them pose a threat—or could pose a threat—and is very interested, and often involved, in talking to law enforcement. I think that’s true of all the credible analysts. Weisburd is certainly much more eager to talk to law enforcement than to the media, for example. And my impression is that he knew about Irhabi007’s alleged arrest long before it was made public. He and his associates were trying to be as helpful as possible to the law enforcement on the case.

Speaking of which, how sure are we that Younis Tsouli, arrested in Britain last fall, is Irhabi007? Can we be certain that there was just one person behind the screen name?

Very few people in the community seem to doubt that Younis Tsouli was at least one of the identities of Irhabi007. However, I think the level of our certainty must be contingent on the degree to which the British authorities are correct about this connection. After all, the information we have is coming from law enforcement and the analysts—not from Younis Tsouli himself. So if the authorities got it wrong, the analysts may have it wrong, and perhaps Irabi007 isn’t Younis Tsouli. Still, everything we know indicates that Tsouli was behind—or was at least one of the people behind—that online character.

Let’s say the allegations are true and Younis Tsouli is Irhabi007. How important is this arrest in the grand scheme of things?

If the allegations are true, the arrests suggest that authorities may have nabbed people who are arguably even more dangerous than people originally assumed Irhabi007 to be. When I was talking to the analysts, many people thought that Irhabi007 was involved at the operational level, but not necessarily at the practical level—meaning, many didn’t believe he was involved in actually engaging in or carrying out suicide attacks. Now, if Younis Tsouli is indeed 007, his arrest may suggest that he transitioned at some point from the operational to the practical realm. Again, it’s too early to know for sure.

In addition to the London arrests, you also write about a number of arrests made in Sarajevo and allude to a presumed connection between the two. Can you speak any more to that?

We certainly don’t know the exact nature of the connection. What we do know is that the arrests in Sarajevo involving Mirsad Bektasevic sparked the arrests in London and then in Denmark, where a number of teenagers were also arrested. And after the arrests in Sarajevo, the London police very quickly arrested Younis Tsouli and two others. It seems they were working off a tip from Sarajevo authorities. The exact nature of the tip—and whether or not the tip was completely credible—again, it’s just too early to know.

What was your research process like?

The first part of my process really involved talking to the analysts as much as possible and gathering as much data as I could on Irhabi007.  I focused on reading everything he had posted online to try to get a sense of what his interests were and how they may have developed over time. After Younis Tsouli was arrested, I went to London and visited his apartment in my own effort to discern whether he was indeed Irhabi007. I also went to Denmark and then to Sarajevo to talk to the police and defense attorneys there about the evidence they had in those cases. Essentially, I first tried to figure out what was happening online, and then tried to figure out the very murky world of these various terror investigations and all the related allegations. Was this or was this not a real terror cell?

What were the most difficult moments?

Getting my head wrapped around the technological details of cyber-terrorism was definitely difficult because I’m not necessarily “technically comfortable.” It was like trying to learn a new language. But I would say the most difficult aspect of the story was dealing with the fact that no one wants to talk about terrorism cases and, moreover, British law basically forbids people from talking about them. It was frustrating to want so badly to get at the deeper story while knowing that people were prohibited from helping me—either by law or because they felt uncomfortable speculating about cases that were in such preliminary stages.

What would you have loved to find out if such restrictions weren’t an issue?

The exact nature of the tip. The indictment in Sarajevo claimed that Mirsad Bektasevic was using mobile phone numbers "owned" by Younis Tsouli and another London suspect. What exactly does that mean? And what was the nature of the alleged ties between the Sarajevo suspect and the London suspects? I believe these details will become clearer in the coming months.

Another thing I would have liked to spend more time looking into is the nature of these types of communities created online and the ways in which they are governed. The idea that many of these chat rooms don’t allow people of different genders—or at least people with different gendered names—to interact or engage in conversation is very interesting to me. I would have liked to look more closely at the sociological aspects of the chat rooms—these little worlds online, which are very separate and distinct from the societies like London, Sweden, or Denmark where many of these members ostensibly live. The notion that these communities impose gender segregation and other restrictions online is fascinating to me.

What does the sequel to Jihad 2.0 look like?

There’s a lot more to the story. The sequel is the story of all these upcoming trials. The trial of Mirsad Bektasevic is scheduled for this summer. There is a hearing scheduled for sometime in July to decide whether or not the case of Younis Tsouli will even go forward. After that, or potentially at the same time, the case in Denmark will come to trial—though last I checked, the indictments hadn’t even come down for the teenagers arrested there. Additionally, there were arrests made in the U.S. that some people say are linked to these cases. So there’s a lot more still to come.

(To complicate matters further, the U.S. suspects are accused of traveling to Canada to meet with some of the men recently arrested in that country on charges of planning terror attacks. The Canadian authorities appear to have intercepted the alleged cell by monitoring online jihadi chat rooms.)

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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