U.S. Hacks Into Al-Qaida Website
FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2012 file photo, Taliban militants arrested by Afghan joint forces are presented to the media at the governors home in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. U.S. officials say al-Qaida now has fewer than 100 fighters left in Afghanistan. Instead, the main enemy is the Taliban, the terror movement's Afghan allies who threaten the U.S.-backed government. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
Washington — U.S. intelligence operatives covertly sabotaged a prominent al-Qaida online magazine last month in an apparent attempt to sow confusion among the group’s followers, according to officials.
The operation succeeded, at least temporarily, in thwarting publication of the latest issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine distributed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. When it appeared online, the text on the second page was garbled and the following 20 pages were blank. The sabotaged version was quickly removed from the online forum that hosted it, according to independent analysts who track jihadi websites.
It’s unclear how the hacking occurred, although U.S. intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and the CIA, have invested heavily in cyber-capabilities in recent years. Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the recent operation was only the latest U.S. attempt to disrupt al-Qaida’s online propaganda.
“You can make it hard for them to distribute it, or you can mess with the content. And you can mess with the content in a way that is obvious or in ways that are not obvious,” said one intelligence official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal debates.
Officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the government’s 16 intelligence agencies, declined to comment, as did the White House and the Pentagon.
The hacked version of Inspire magazine appeared May 14, according to Evan Kohlmann, an analyst who tracks jihadi websites. His firm, Flashpoint Global Partners, captured an image of the issue, which featured a cover showing a fighter in a heavy coat, shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a Kalashnikov rifle. The title was, “How Did it Come to This?”
Within a half-hour of its appearance, the magazine was removed, presumably in response to the hacking, Kohlmann said.
On May 30, a new version, Issue 11, appeared. That issue portrayed the Boston Marathon bombing as vindication of Inspire’s message that “a single lone jihad operation can force America to stand on one foot and live in a terrified state, full of fear ...”
Inspire comprises first-person accounts of operations, exhortations to jihad and do-it-yourself advice for extremists. A second intelligence official said the publication is seen as a threat because it “has a specific readership — a following. People will look for it, as opposed to something randomly posted. Two, it is very user-friendly. Inspire uses pictures and step-by-step diagrams, and that’s a problem.”
The decision to disrupt the magazine last month was part of an debate within the Obama administration over the response to online publications that promote radicalization.