Insights into the Cyber-Jihad Tracking the Terrorists Online
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.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
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.
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.
"I never trusted the news to give the full picture," says Venzke. He says that he wanted to understand "how things really worked."
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