Insights into the Cyber-Jihad: Tracking the Terrorists Online
Part 2: Competition in the Hunt for Terrorists
SITE is frequently quoted by such papers as the New York Times and Washington Post. More often, though, SITE appears indirectly and without attribution in newspaper stories worldwide, although the company is now seeking less public profile than in recent years.
SITE is likely also the source of some of the reports exchanged by cooperating intelligence services. "In the worst case," criticizes terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defense College, "it's an echo chamber." In other words, because intelligence services do not reveal their sources to each other, the same report can become its own confirmation.
Of course, every intelligence service worth its salt also pursues cyber jihadists on its own. But SITE and IntelCenter are often faster, and their products are also sent to departments that lack these capabilities.
Ranstorp sees other problems as well. He believes that SITE and companies like it are commercializing intelligence and influencing analysts with their reports. Most of all, however, Ranstorp wishes there were more companies like SITE. "Then there would be more competition."
In fact, SITE has only one serious competitor: Ben Venzke.
He scored one of his most recent scoops in late July, when IntelCenter employees were the first to find a video on the Internet in which the Turkestan Islamic Party threatened to commit acts of terror during the Olympics.
Never Trusted the News
At 9:07 p.m., IntelCenter reported the discovery to its subscribers using the Flash Messaging System. Translated key passages followed at 9:46 p.m., and freeze images at 10:39. At the same time, the first news agency took up the report. The next day, Venzke analyzed the group's credibility and later send out information from an earlier video.
Although Ben Venzke doesn't look quite as young as Josh Devon, he still doesn't look like someone who routinely provides US special units with intelligence material. "This here," says Venzke cheerfully, wearing a casual black shirt, "is my second living room." The waitress in the café at the Four Seasons Hotel recognizes him immediately and brings him a cup of tea.
Venzke was even younger than Devon when he founded IntelCenter 19 years ago: 16, to be exact. He later studied journalism in college and eventually wrote for the Boston Globe and Jane's Intelligence Review.
Terrorists can be found all over the Internet -- if you just know where to look.
His motto goes something like this: "In order for a society to function, people have to be able to know they are safe. Life should be about film and music, not about worrying about buildings collapsing."
IntelCenter has a lot in common with SITE, but there are also some important differences. Both are capable of finding every important al-Qaida communiqué, sometimes even before it is published. Both can quickly send out relatively accurate translations of terrorist material, including videos, speeches and claims or responsibility. Both work for similar clients.
But IntelCenter, which also keeps its location a secret, provides more customized preliminary work for the intelligence services and the military -- at least based on what we are able to see and hear.
Involved in almost every Hostage Crisis
Venzke's catalog illustrates this approach. It contains services that he offers to government agencies only, such as the 24/7 "Hostage/Kidnapping Profiling and Incident Monitor" -- at a cost running up to more than $500,000 (323,000) a year. According to Venzke, IntelCenter is involved in almost every hostage crisis.
IntelCenter seems to act more like a subcontractor to government agencies than SITE. "Much of what we do, they could probably do themselves, but we often have more experience in our specialty areas and can do it faster and cheaper," says Venzke. He explains that he invested heavily in infrastructure to meet the requirements of the intelligence community, including, for example, redundant power, cooling and other systems. Some clients want raw data, while others prefer finished analyses. IntelCenter offers both and can format the information using the standard "Analyst's Notebook" software.
Venzke prides himself on his professionalism. There is gossip about how Rita Katz once took it upon herself to call foreign officials, because she was convinced that somebody was planning something and US officials were unwilling to help her. Sometimes she acts as a private terrorist hunter, sometimes as an expert and sometimes as a business partner. Venzke, for his part, would never talk to strangers about this sort of potentially critical information.
Perhaps for this reason, Venzke has little praise for SITE. "What SITE does, is not even remotely in our class." Rita Katz disagrees: "Our information is of the highest quality and of unparalleled accuracy." She declined to comment on the work of others.
The Secret, Hidden Part
The competition between these two companies is probably healthy. Criticism exposes more of what SITE and IntelCenter do, but not, of course, the secret, hidden part. In the end, both companies earn more working for government agencies and businesses than for the media.
Still, compared to other private-sector companies that are contractors with the CIA, the Pentagon and the like, SITE and IntelCenter are transparent, tiny and laughably insignificant. "I've never thought about our influence," says Josh Devon with complete innocence. "We try to do the best job we can."
Nevertheless, both companies are part of an information oligarchy that hardly anyone in the Western hemisphere can monitor or assess. And the conspiracy theories pontificating that SITE and IntelCenter shoot the bin Laden videos themselves will continue to exist in the future.
And Katz, Venzke and Devon will continue to see the humor in such theories: Yep, this is Mossad Headquarters. Exactly!
But then something beeps, or a pager starts humming to indicate that a jihadist is sending a message. And they will keep on digging through information. And the hunt will begin all over again.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Tracking the Terrorists Online
- Part 2: Competition in the Hunt for Terrorists
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH