Hacking wars, heightened encryption latest threats from Islamic extremists: analyst
Online Islamist extremists pose an increasing threat to public safety, a U.S.-based intelligence analyst warns, as evidence grows that they are beefing up their internet presence to find and nurture new members and wage hacking wars against opponents.
For example, a message posted recently on the year-oldAl Fajr Media Center website, linked to the al-Qaeda extremist network, calls for volunteers to form "hacking battalions"— groups of internet-savvy sympathizers whose mission will be to mount spam e-mail attacks that will disable moderate Muslim websites.
Four months ago, the same website disseminated a sophisticated encryption program designed to prevent Western intelligence agencies from spying on them.
As a result of that posting, security analyst Ned Moran said, Islamist extremists from all over the world are meeting in password-protected chat rooms to plan attacks.
"They are using the internet to organize real-world operations, whether it's a bombing, a kidnapping or a major attack," said Moran, a senior intelligence analyst with the independent Washington-based Terrorism Research Center.
"We never know where the next hit will emerge."
Al Fajr sits atop a pyramid of sites feeding propaganda and information on military tactics to hundreds of Islamic extremist websites in cyberspace. Every day, its editors assemble a package of videos, communiques and news they consider of interest to Islamist extremists.
Many of the videos are produced by al-Qaeda's production company, Ah-Sahab. Much of the news copy is written by an extremist news service called the Global Islamic Media Front.
It's sophisticated and it’s frightening, given the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Islamist websites in cyberspace, said Moran.
"It is typically a group of young individuals. Some are living in Europe, some in the Middle East. They are a technologically sophisticated second generation."
"The ability to disseminate propaganda, incite large masses and co-ordinate their actions is very, very threatening."
The "hacking battalions" being recruited this month will not be joining a new online war. American internet vigilantes on the other side of the ideological fence have organized denial-of-service spam attacks against the extremists' websites, and security analysts think even Western intelligence agencies may be getting involved in cyber-sabotage.
People like Moran believe the electronic Islamic extremists are gradually becoming more technologically adept. On several sympathetic websites, they say their ultimate goal is to develop their hacking skills to the point where they can take down strategic targets such as the New York Stock Exchange or the computer systems that run nuclear reactors.