Insights into the Cyber-Jihad Tracking the Terrorists Online
For years, al-Qaida and other terror groups have set up shop in the Internet. Those who track them have covertly followed. The companies SITE and IntelCenter have penetrated even deeper into the terror Web than most intelligence agencies.
When al-Qaida was founded, Josh Devon was nine years old. Ben Venzke was 15. The year was 1988, and Devon and Venzke were as uninterested in the terrorist network as its leader, Osama bin Laden, was in the two young Americans.
Now, two decades later, things have changed. Venzke and Devon have both become fascinated in terrorism and have turned that interest into careers. And al-Qaida now takes careful note of their work.
Venzke and Devon are two of the most prominent "terror trackers" worldwide. In the United States, and increasingly in other countries, the term refers to a community of people who spend their days analyzing traces that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations leave behind, especially on the Internet. The two Americans are essentially digital trackers in the age of globalized terrorism.
IntelCenter and SITE Intelgroup are the companies that Venzke and Devon, respectively, have founded. They enjoy a strong reputation within the relatively small community of terrorism experts. Beyond that, though, they are virtually unknown -- but wrongly so.
Bin Laden's Words
The two companies exert tremendous influence, worldwide and around the clock. News agencies, intelligence services and law enforcement organizations from the entire Western world are among Devon's and Venzke's clients. SITE and IntelCenter deliver their product -- information -- via e-mail, telephone or fax, or directly to clients' PDAs or mobile phones.
Almost every statement by Osama bin Laden published on the Internet, to name only one example, is first made public by SITE and IntelCenter. They find the statements in the confusion of Web sites associated with al-Qaida, and within seconds they have sent the first screen shots to their subscribers. It takes the companies only minutes to summarize bin Laden's speeches and within hours, they will have provided full translations, analysis included.
Because hardly any news agencies, newspapers or magazines are in a position to obtain or examine this information themselves, the translations often end up being quoted verbatim in the media. They also land on the desks of intelligence analysts in the United States and Europe, providing them with special delivery, albeit secondhand, of bin Laden's words.
It is a hot day in June on the East Coast of the United States. The location of SITE Intelgroup's headquarters cannot be disclosed. The company is housed in an inconspicuous office building -- there is no company sign.
The interior -- neutral carpeting and light-colored desks, a humming air-conditioning system and a gurgling water cooler -- offers little hint of the company's delicate field of business. Josh Devon, holding a cup of ice tea from Starbucks, invites his visitor into a conference room where the walls are draped with maps. This is where Devon briefs FBI agents. The 29-year-old is wearing a white shirt and sporting three-day growth. When he founded SITE, together with Rita Katz, he was all of 23.
'We Simply Followed'
"We simply followed the jihadists," he says, describing the idea behind SITE. "We went where they went." He means online.
When he and Katz joined forces, Devon was still a student of Middle Eastern Studies, but his business partner was already a legend. Beginning in the late 1990s, Katz almost single-handedly uncovered a number of funding sources of Islamists. Katz, a Jew born in Iraq who speaks Arabic, infiltrated Islamist organizations disguised as a Muslim woman -- and wearing recording equipment. She passed her findings on to the authorities. There were court cases, and some organizations were banned.
A short time later, Rita Katz and Josh Devon were among the first to notice that al-Qaida and its ilk were creating an online presence. They established SITE, an acronym for "Search for International Terrorist Entities," and began surfing their way in pursuit of radical Islamic terrorist organizations. A US magazine was one of their first subscribers. Government agencies in Switzerland and the families of Sept. 11 victims soon followed. SITE was in business.
Today this former non-profit organization has been turned into a business enterprise. But Devon and Katz see their work as more of an avocation than running a business. They are only offline when commuting between their offices and homes. In a later e-mail interview Katz, who was not at the SITE offices during the June visit, wrote: "I believe what I do is very important. It's a mission." Devon says: Terror tracking "is very addictive, especially when you experience a major success."
And SITE has certainly been successful. There is a reason Katz has a letter of appreciation from FBI Director Robert S. Muller III hanging on the wall in her office. The company's work has also led to arrests abroad, including those of would-be suicide bombers who had left farewell letters in chat rooms that SITE managed to penetrate.
'Could Blow Your Cover'
SITE doesn't like to discuss methods. But even without such information, it is not hard to figure out where its expertise lies. Katz and her employees surf the Net as if they were cyber jihadists. "In a sense it's similiar," she says, alluding to her previous undercover mission, "because in both cases you have to be very careful not to disclose your true identity and not make mistakes that could blow your cover."
In the past few years, al-Qaida volunteers have created a stable online infrastructure. Its mainstays are a handful of Arab-language discussion forums, where supporters of terrorism hold their debates. Most of all, however, the administrators of these sites allow terrorist organizations to post their speeches, videos and claims of responsibility for attacks and other acts of terror.
The forums are password-protected, but this is only the first hurdle. Anyone who wants more information than can be gleaned by reading the posts has to work up through the informal hierarchy. He or she must be able to credibly convey, using suitable language and the right tone, that he is a true jihadist. Gaining the confidence of the key users and, eventually, of the administrators is vital. Only then can one becomes a part of cyber networks with close ties to al-Qaida and other affiliated terrorist organizations, networks that posses the raw footage of terrorist videos, coordinate the flow of funds and know the real e-mail addresses of forum users.
SITE's competitive edge is that it got into the game earlier than government agencies. According to a European intelligence official, SITE has a head start of four to five years.
SITE's work for government agencies is always confidential and, in some cases, based on concrete assignments. Its public products include newsletters about Taliban activities, the situation in Iraq and the latest news from the jihadist chat rooms. Aside from official information from terrorist organizations, SITE also provides accounts of the "atmosphere" in the terrorist community.
- Part 1: Tracking the Terrorists Online
- Part 2: Competition in the Hunt for Terrorists