Did the US just start a cyber war with al-Qaeda?
Several online forums frequently visited by al-Qaeda operatives were downed over the course of the last few weeks, including two of the terrorist organization’s top sites, al-Fida and Shamukh al-Islam. The AFP reports that some sites experienced problems as early as March 22, and by early April, at least six major sites have mysteriously shut down.
Experts speculate that the widespread outage appears to be the handiwork of a well coordinated cyberattack, but the United States has denied any responsibility in the strike. On Wednesday this week, the website for Shumukh al-Islam went live again after nearly two weeks of downtime, and its administrators also suggest that it was a cyberattack that briefly brought them down.
“[T]he enemies of Allah ... attempted to target” the forum “with a failed, miserable campaign,” announced the site’s administrators, according to the Washington Post.
James Lewis, the director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells AFP that “There are some many potential suspects” that could be to blame, but so far no one has been singled out.
As al-Qaeda investigates potential culprits, however, it could mean trouble for the most likely suspect: the US.
One al-Qaeda online forum, the Ansar al Mujahiddin Arabic Forum, or AMAF, posted an image Monday of the Manhattan sideline accompanied by an image decrying, “Al Qaeda: Coming Soon Again in New York.” Responding to the scare, authorities in the US seem to think that the warning was without merit.
"[T]here is no specific or credible threat to New York,” a spokesman for the FBI office in New York tells Reuters this week, adding that the Joint Terrorism Task Force had opened a probe into the image. Evan Kohlman, an expert in militant website, adds to the news organization that he also expects the image to be proved futile.
Since other al-Qaeda affiliated sites suffered a substantial blackout over the last few weeks, however, some other analysts say that the suspected cyberattack — no matter who the culprit it — could be a big blow to the organization.
"The forums authenticate al-Qaeda's message, therefore they're very important," explains Aaron Zelin, a political researcher at Brandeis University who regularly works with extremist Islamist sites. "If someone is a true believer in the cause, they're going to go to the forum because they know it's the only place they can get Al-Qaeda's message."
Others say the strike could be only a more momentary setback for al-Qaeda, however, including the SITE Intelligence Group. They work regularly with jihadi websites and in a statement of their own, say that stripping terrorists of online forums is only a feeble attempt at bringing down the organization.
“The online jihadist community will not be dismantled simply by taking two Websites offline,” their statement reads. “The decentralized and redundant nature of the Internet ensures that it will be extremely difficult to disrupt the jihadists’ online networks.”
While the US has denied any responsibility in downing the sites, that isn’t to say that cybercrime is a subject ignored by the federal government as of late. In recent weeks the US Congress has considered an array of options for cybersecurity legislation and the FBI recently acknowledged that cyberattacks waged at the US is a new form of terrorism unmatched by others.