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From: InfoSec News (isnc4i.org)
Date: Mon Jun 10 2002 - 05:12:48 CDT
By Colin Soloway, Rod Nordland and Barbie Nadeau
June 17 issue
One day last October, an intelligence-community analyst noticed
something strange about a radical Islamist Web site she had been
monitoring for several months. A previously open, innocuous part of
the site was suddenly blocked. She checked her notes, found the old
address for the link and typed it in - to find an otherwise empty page
commanding in Arabic, MISSIONARIES ATTACK!
OTHER "HIDDEN" PAGES ON the site included seemingly nonsensical
phrases and quotations from the Qur'an - coded instructions for Qaeda
operatives and their supporters. U.S. intelligence discovered Al Qaeda
uses the Web as a communications network. Analysts believe Al Qaeda
uses prearranged phrases and symbols to direct its agents. An icon of
an AK-47 can appear next to a photo of Osama bin Laden facing one
direction one day, and another direction the next. Colors of icons can
change as well. Messages can be hidden on pages inside sites with no
links to them, or placed openly in chat rooms. The messages and
patterns of symbols are given to analysts at the CIA and National
Security Agency to decipher.
The operators of these sites, working from Pakistan, Malaysia,
Indonesia, the gulf states and Britain, are sophisticated in their
computer tradecraft. "These guys are no fools," says an intelligence
Much of the intelligence from the sites comes from "traffic
analysis." Analysts say they have seen "surges" in traffic since 9-11,
in many cases prior to attempted attacks. "There was a surge about the
time [shoe-bomber] Richard Reid got on the plane," says one analyst.
"We would get surges, and then you would hear about people who were
For more direct communication, Al Qaeda uses commercially available
encryption software or hides messages inside graphics files by a
process known as steganography. "They are giving strategic direction
to their supporters by using the Web [and] using [cryptographic
software] to transmit e-mail messages," says a British intelligence
While encrypted communications keep the content of messages
secret, they attract the attention of intelligence services, which
track the messages to their source and recipient; meanwhile, much of
the Web communications are hidden in the mass of unrelated "chatter"
on radical Web sites. "The genius of this method is that they are
hiding in plain sight," says the analyst. "It's three jigsaw puzzles
mixed up in one box, when you're only interested in one of them."
Some of the most valuable intelligence gleaned from the sites
has been the connection between Islamic charities and Qaeda
fund-raising operations. Analysts found the same bank-account numbers
listed in Islamic humanitarian appeals on sites raising funds for
jihad against the enemies of Islam. Several U.S.-based Islamic
"charities" have been shut down thanks to the analysts' discovery of
this fund-raising scam.
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