U.S. tries to penetrate Qaeda 'cyber sanctuaries'CLIFTON, New Jersey From the main street here, you can see the Manhattan skyline, off in the distance. The flags that sprouted after the Sept. 11 attacks still flap on lawns and flutter on poles outside well-tended homes.
Looming above them is a concrete tower that houses a real estate firm, an office supplies company - and, investigators fear, an outpost of Al Qaeda.
On the second floor, an Internet company called Fortress ITX unwittingly provided access until recently for an Arabic-language Web site where postings in recent weeks urged attacks against American and Israeli targets. "The Art of Kidnapping" was explained in electronic pamphlets, along with "Military Instructions to the Mujahedeen," and "War Inside the Cities."
Visitors could read instructions on using a cellular phone for remote detonation of a bomb or for asking for help in manufacturing small missiles.
"How can this be?" asked Cathy Vasilenko, who lives a few doors away from the Fortress ITX office. "How can this be going on in my neighborhood?"
Federal investigators, with the help of a small army of private contractors monitoring sites round the clock and across the world, are trying to find out. Ever since U.S.-led forces smashed Qaeda's training grounds in Afghanistan, cyber substitutes, which recruit terrorists and raise money, have proliferated.
While Qaeda operatives have employed an arsenal of technical tools to communicate - from e-mail encryption and computer war games to grisly videotapes like the recent ones showing beheadings - investigators say they worry most about the Internet because extremists can reach a broad audience with relatively little chance of detection.
By examining sites like those stored inside the Clifton business, investigators are hoping to identify who is behind them, what links they might have with terror groups, and what threat, if any, they might pose.
And, in a step that has raised alarms about infringing on civil liberties and so far proved unpersuasive in the courtroom, prosecutors are charging that those administering these sites should be held criminally responsible for what is posted.
Attempting to apply broad new powers established by the Patriot Act, the U.S. government wants to punish those who it charges provide "expert advice or assistance." Those that do, the government says, play an integral part of a global terror campaign that increasingly relies on the Internet.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has called such Web sites "cyber sanctuaries."
"These networks are wonderful things that enable all kinds of good things in the world," Wolfowitz said of the Internet. "But they're also a tool that the terrorists use to conceal their identities, to move money, to encrypt messages, even to plan and conduct operations remotely."
Many question the government's strategy of trying to combat terrorism by prosecuting Web site operators. "I think it is an impossible task," said Thomas Hegghammer, who helps monitor the use of the Internet by Al Qaeda. "You can maybe catch some people. But you will never ever be able to stem the flow of radical Islamic propaganda."
The government faces many hurdles in pursuing virtual terrorists. While many militant Islamic message boards and Web pages reside on computer servers owned by Internet companies in North America, concerns like Fortress ITX say it would be impossible - and unethical - for them to keep track of the content stored within their equipment.
"It is hideous, loathsome," said Robert Ellis, executive vice president of Fortress, after viewing postings from the Arabic-language Web site for which his company was host, that of Abu al Bukhary. "It is the part of this business that is deeply disturbing." His company shut down the site last month after learning of it from a reporter.
The intense focus on Muslim-related sites like Abu al Bukhary has provoked charges that the effort against cyber sanctuaries is really a misguided anti-Muslim campaign that is compromising important rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that the effort "opens the floodgates to really marginalizing a lot of the free speech that has been a hallmark of the American legal and political system."
"Globally," he added, "it really does nothing but worsen the image of America in the rest of the world."
A self-proclaimed terrorist hunter, Rita Katz, engages in such detective work. She is an Iraqi-born Jew whose father was executed in Baghdad in 1969, shortly after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party came to power.
Finding terrorists has become the major goal for Katz, who began going to pro-Palestinian rallies and fund-raisers disguised as a Muslim woman in the late 1990s, then presenting information to the U.S. government in an attempt to prove there were ties between Islamic fundamentalist groups in the United States and terror organizations.
While agencies like the National Security Agency, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security monitor terror sites on the Internet and sometimes track users, they have also turned for help to groups like Katz's, the Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute. Katz's group, which has government contracts and corporate clients, may be the most influential of those organizations.
While some experts praise her research as solid, several targets view her as a vigilante. Several Islamic groups and charities, for example, sued for defamation after she asserted that they were terrorist fronts, even though they were not charged with crimes.
Knocking militant groups off the Internet for a day or two by urging individual Web host companies to shut the sites down did not accomplish much, Katz believed. So the government, in an unusual alliance with Katz, has been testing a different strategy.
Sami Omar al-Hussayen was their first target.
He had arrived at the University of Idaho in 1999 to pursue a doctorate in computer science.
Hussayen established a series of Muslim-related Internet sites and served as the regional leader of Islamic Assembly of North America, a group that described itself as a charitable organization, but which prosecutors said recruited members and instigated "acts of violence and terrorism."
Along with news from the Middle East and interviews with scholars, the sites included more disturbing information.
Videos displayed the bodies of dead suicide attackers as a narrator declared that "we had brethren who achieved what they sought, and that is martyrdom in the cause of Allah." Requests were posted for donations to Chechen groups that were trying to "show the truth about Russian terrorism." Clerical edicts appeared on topics including "suicide operations against the Jews."
The Justice Department did not charge that Hussayen had created the material for the militant site. Instead, by registering the Web sites, paying for them and posting the material, he was accused of aiding an extremist cause.
Hussayen's lawyers countered that their client was doing little more than expressing his free-speech rights. David Neven, one of the lawyers, said of Katz and the Justice Department: "They were wildly too zealous. This was not within a country mile of the kind of behavior that this nation has any business trying to criminalize." The jury was unconvinced by the government's case and acquitted Hussayen. The setback has not stopped the government. In July, a warrant was issued in Connecticut for Babar Ahmad, resulting in his arrest in London on Aug. 5. Ahmad, a computer technician at a London college, is accused of setting up Internet sites from 1997 to 2003 to recruit terrorists and raise money for them.
"If you're going to use cyberspace, we're there and we're paying attention," Kevin O'Connor, the U.S. prosecutor for Connecticut, said after Ahmad's arrest.
The United States is trying to persuade Britain to extradite him, drawing protests from Muslim groups and civil libertarians in Britain. In a letter from his prison cell that was posted on the Internet, Ahmad asserted that he was imprisoned "to strike terror and fear into the hearts of the docile, sleeping Muslim community."
Katz said she was not discouraged by the criticism of the prosecutions. "When you call for the death of people and then it results in actions - that is beyond the First Amendment," she said. "You are organizing a crime."