WASHINGTON - Key al-Qaida websites were knocked offline more than two weeks ago and are still dark, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
This is one of the longest disruptions the organization has experienced since it set up its online distribution system in 2006. Al-Qaida also was hit by a massive cyber attack in late 2008, from which the online network never recovered.
Intelligence sources say the most recent attack has significantly inhibited the organization's ability to recruit online and post propaganda and is the second blow to the organization's recruiting just this month.
The return of al-Qaida in Iraq was supposed to be hailed by a flood of propaganda from the al-Qaida online network, but the sites went dark in early December after the cyber attack.
A film called "Salil al-Sawarim 3" was scheduled to be released last week to announce the return. Online jihadists had been discussing the release for more than a month, and had been sharing images and footage from the production.
But the blackout has delayed the release and, according to U.S. intelligence sources, left sympathizers scrambling to find a way to communicate.
Al-Qaida has been using the websites to post propaganda that experts say is successfully radicalizing youth all over the world, including in Syria where the organization is believed to be active.
Intelligence sources say the blackout has spurred an influx of al-Qaida-related messages on Twitter. Because key jihadist sites have been disrupted, there are no trusted locations where sympathizers can congregate and communicate.
"The al-Qaida organization was trying to inspire organizations in other groups around the world to conduct attacks as al-Qaida would've wanted them to conduct attacks," says Philip Mudd, a senior global analyst at Oxford Analytica.
Blow to Syria operations
The cyber attack comes as the U.S. State Department, according to a senior official, has "formally amended al-Qaida in Iraq as a Foreign Terrorist Organization."
Through a department executive order, the designation now includes the alias al-Nusrah Front, which is part of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Qaida in Iraq was first designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in October 2004.
Designating al-Nusrah as a terrorist organization places sanctions on the organization, making any funds or assistance directed to the organization illegal. The designation is generally recognized by U.S. allies and all who oppose al-Qaida, making it harder for the organization to raise money.
The amended designation could hinder terror cell operations in Syria as well.
"Since November 2011, al-Nusrah Front has claimed hundreds of attacks, nearly 600, in major city centers across Syria in which numerous innocent Syrians have been injured and killed. (Al-Qaida) has dispatched money, people, and material from Iraq to Syria over the past year to attack Syrian forces both on its own initiative and at the request of (al-Qaida) facilitation network members in Syria," the official added.
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