Just miles from New York City’s hallowed Ground Zero, an Internet server in New Jersey hosts a Jihadist leader’s website that instructs supporters of al-Qaida to use explosive devices against western civilians, along with blueprints showing how to build the bombs.
Another website, hosted on a server located in Miami, provides Hezbollah – designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department – a platform for its television website al-Manar.
Followers of Hezbollah can also view the terrorist organization’s television programming on smart phones with the help of one of the Internet’s most celebrated applications, WhatsApp, based in Dallas, Texas. YouTube and Twitter are also mega platforms for Hezbollah’s news outlets and videos.
It’s a game of cat and mouse between U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and the terror networks they seek to stop. But a sense that the FBI and other agencies aren't doing enough to suppress the sites has some influential members of Congress concerned enough to consider passing new legislation.
“We cut off the bank accounts of terrorist organizations. We ought to cut off their Twitter accounts,” said Rep.Ted Poe, R-Texas, chairman of a House subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade “That has not happened yet, and we’re working on legislation to make it happen, but we hope we don’t have to go that far.
“I don’t know if it’s out of ignorance or what on the part of some of these businesses, but I don’t think they want to be giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”
Lawmakers and federal authorities have been repeatedly briefed on U.S. computer servers’ ties to terrorist entities by The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a respected nonprofit that studies geopolitical threats across the world.
“These companies are knowingly or unknowingly providing a service to both terrorist networks and lone-wolf operators,” said Steve Stalinsky, the group’s executive director. “We’re the teapot and hoping somebody will listen.”
FBI officials refused to comment on the various Web servers linked to hosting terrorists groups’ communications that were uncovered by MEMRI in several reports. But a senior law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Guardian the FBI sometimes allows such sites to operate unabated to allow counterterrorism agents to monitor communications and followers.
Professor Jeffrey F. Addicott, a former senior legal adviser to the Green Berets and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, said manpower is a problem for the FBI when investigating cyber terrorism.
"When (the FBI) gives you the line that 'we are just leaving (the website) open to investigate the users, we sometimes question their reasoning," said Addicott, who has advised the FBI on terror-related legal issues. "It’s probably because they just don’t have the manpower to get the work done."
Last month, the Washington Guardian reported that U.S. companies were hosting Web and social media sites supporting the convicted terrorist Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik and mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Shortly after the story was published, the sites were shut down.
Still, extremists have become savvy enough Internet users to know that there’s always some place on the World Wide Web to call home. So much so that al-Qaida and other extremist groups make it their priority to archive Web pages in San Francisco’s famous Internet Archive – ensuring the survival of their content in case they are pulled from the Web.
Until a few years ago, most lawmakers and businesses didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem. First Amendment free speech rights also tend to make the waters murky when trying to guess whether a website is in violation of counterterrorism laws.
Further, most U.S. companies aren’t aware they are dealing with a terror network because they don’t have bilingual employees who can read the foreign-language sites on their servers.
In the case of Hezbollah’s al-Manar television, which is available in English and Abrabic, it’s federal law that prohibits U.S. companies from doing business with them. Still, vaultnetworks.com, out of Miami, Florida is one of the servers – along with a server in the United Kingdom - hosting al-Manar television, according to MEMRI, which provided a DNS lookup and trace of the Web address.
Last year, al-Manar was using a server in the Netherlands and United Kingdom when it was notified by MEMRI. The Hezbollah site was immediately removed from servers in the Netherlands, but it is still using a server in the United Kingdom, MEMRI says.