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.
Less than a month after being kicked out of the Netherlands, Hezbollah moved its television website to the server in the United States.
“We traced Hezbollah’s al-Manar to the server in Florida and notified the company (vaultnetworks.com) of that,” MEMRI’s Stalinsky said. “Nothing has been done to remove it.”
U.S. Department of Treasury spokesman John Sullivan said U.S. companies cannot enter into any financial dealings with al-Manar and ”if these companies are involved in financial transactions with al-Manar or other designated terrorist entities, they could be subject to enforcement action.”
Executives at vaultnetworks.com did not return numerous messages to their office phones and emails seeking comment.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, whose district encompasses Miami, told the Washington Guardian that Hezbollah’s al-Manar television is part of the terror network, and the Treasury Department’s designation of individuals associated with the organization as “specially designated nationals” makes it illegal to conduct business with the group.
“This terrorist organization is a direct threat to the safety of our friend and ally, the democratic Jewish State of Israel, and to U.S. national security interests,” she said. “It is illegal for any person or entity in the U.S. to provide material support or resources to these groups or individuals. If true that a company is providing such aid, it must be held accountable for its actions in full accordance and application to U.S. law.”
MEMRI is a non-profit founded in 1998 by a former Israeli counterterrorism adviser. The group says its mission is to “explores the Middle East and South Asia through their media.” Its website says the group provides translations and anaysis and “MEMRI’s work directly supports fighting the U.S. War on Terror.”
Stalinsky said his organization has also “tracked the increased use of Twitter by terrorists over the past year to well over 1,000 users, where there had been none before.”
Poe and six other House members have written to FBI Director Robert Mueller complaining about the use of Twitter by groups formally designated as terrorists, and asking the agency to formally ask Twitter to do something about it.
“Twitter maintains that it will take down any account requested by the FBI,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, as of the writing of this letter, the FBI has not made a single request to Twitter to take an account down.”
The letter praises YouTube and Facebook for pro-active policies to remove terrorist or extremist pages. But as soon as Facebook removes a Hezbollah Facebook page, a clone crops up within hours, Stalinsky said.
When the Washington Guardian contacted WhatsApp, no one from the company responded to the emails or calls. Stalinsky said MEMRI received no return calls when it contacted the company, whose CEO, Jan Koum, touted his company’s growing base of 200 million users – more than Twitter- at a conference in April.
Alix Levine, the owner of the security firm WEBehavior LLC and the director of research for Cronus Global, said the case of recently deceased Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, accused of the Boston Marathon bombing, provides an example of how deadly online extremism can be.
The brothers are believed to have used “online propaganda to learn how to make the bombs used in the attack,” said Levine, who specializes in home-grown extremism, online mobilization and terror-related issues.
Levine warned that the brothers, if proven guilty, would “not [be] the first, and unfortunately will not be the last, extremists to be influenced by terrorist propaganda.”
“The problem is that online recruiters and their propaganda is virtually impossible to control,” Levine said.
New Jersey based Interserver hosts the Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad website, which is owned by imprisoned Jihadist leader Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, according to MEMRI. The sheik is being held in a Jordanian prison, but his fatwas continue to appear on the Internet. His website, which has been translated by MEMRI, demands that members of al-Qaida and other Islamist extremist groups post instructions on the making of bombs for jihadists intent on fighting the west or Israel.
“As [for the] files [of content on] manufacturing explosives, then trust Allah, and do not hesitate to publish them [directly] over the jihadi forums, so that the mujahideen and their supporters everywhere may benefit from them,” MEMRI’s translation of the website states.
“[Other] brothers should not be asked to not publish those [types of] files [openly on the forums]; instead, they should be urged to do so, and to distribute them among the young men, while [understanding that] publishing them over private [channels] will not [make them accessible to the] public, and as a result will not be beneficial to others,” it adds.
Despite how difficult it can be to hunt down Internet jihadists, Stalinsky said “it is not impossible to control this, and there are a number of steps that can be taken by major Internet media companies like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube to remove them and cause problems for them.”
Terrorist networks “are learning to train, recruit, inspire with Ideology, and if we don’t take an active role in stopping this, we’ll see the recruitment of more young jihadists and terrorist attacks like we saw in Boston,” he added.
Addicott noted that terror-related websites number in the tens of thousands, and many are extremely difficult to monitor.
Once they are monitored, however, many “FBI agents are terrified to close these cases they’ve opened because if an agent closes the case and something happens then the agent gets criticized for making the wrong decision,” Addicott said.
“There are literally thousands of open cases out there because there’s always a Monday morning quarterback waiting to put the blame on someone,” he added.