The Pentagon blundering its way into new war territory


Dismantling of  websites recruiting fighters for Iraq

(originally written in March 2010)

Finally we can understand why the American government is not closing down websites on the internet that are recruiting foreign muslim fighters for Iraq. First reason: some of these websites have been created by the CIA itself or for example by the Saudi secret service. Second reason: the websites are used to gather intelligence and arrest people before they can do their dirty work in Iraq, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. And third: when the CIA is closing or hacking jihadist recruitment websites, this is a covert operation on which the US parliament must be informed and the CIA doesn’t like that Congress knows what it’s doing. On the other hand, if the US army destroys a website, this is considered a normal act of war for which no permission is needed.

We have been enlightened about this state of affairs by an article last Saturday in the Washington Post with the headline “Dismantling of Saudi-CIA web site illustrates need for clearer cyberwar policies”. Based on various anonymous sources the article tells the story of one website that was destroyed on request of general Ray Odierno, the commander for Iraq. Result: CIA angry, “key princes in the Saudi Kingdom absolutely furious” and the German government dismayed at the economic damage.

The story has revived sombre suspicions that the CIA is prolonging the war against muslim terrorism. So CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf  was quick to tell the newspaper that “It’s sheer lunacy to suggest that any part of our government would do anything to facilitate the movement of foreign fighters to Iraq.”

Nevertheless, how effective is using such websites? The Post writes: “The Saudi-CIA web site was set up several years ago as a ‘honey pot’, an online forum covertly monitored by intelligence agencies to identify attackers and gain information… The site was a boon to Saudi intelligence operatives, who were able to round up some extremists before they could strike, former officials said. At the time, however, dozens of Saudi jihadists were entering Iraq each month to carry out attacks. U.S. military officials grew concerned that the site ‘was being used to pass operational information’ among extremists, one former official said. The threat was so serious, former officials said, that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, requested that the site be shut down.”

Washington bureaucrats debated whether to go forward. “If the operation was deemed a traditional military activity, no congressional committee needed to be briefed. If it was a covert action, members of the intelligence committees would have to be notified.” They weighed  possible collateral damage, such as disruption of other computer networks, against the risk of taking no action. Most thought that the damage would be limited.

“The CIA didn’t endorse the idea of crippling Web sites,”  said a U.S. counterterrorism official. The newspaper explained why: “The agency understood that intelligence would be lost, and it was; that relationships with cooperating intelligence services would be damaged, and they were; and that the terrorists would migrate to other sites, and they did.” Moreover, the official claimed, “the site wasn’t a pipeline for foreign fighters, it was a broad forum for extremists.” But the concerns of  the U.S. Army prevailed. “Once the Department of Defense  went to the extent of saying, ‘Soldiers are dying,’ because that’s ultimately what the command in Iraq, what Centcom did, it’s hard for anyone to push back,” one former official told the Post.

A group of cyber-operators at the Pentagon’s Fort Meade seemed ideally suited to the task. The unit carries out operations under a program called Countering Adversary Use of the Internet, established to blunt Islamist militants’ use of online forums and chat groups to recruit and mobilize members and to spread their beliefs.

But things went wrong. “The dismantling of the CIA-Saudi site inadvertently disrupted more than 300 servers in Saudi Arabia, Germany and Texas, a former official said. “In order to take down a Web site that is up in Country X, because the cyber-world knows no boundaries, you may end up taking out a server that is located in Country Y,” one participant explained, as if this fact was unknown to the experts of the Pentagon.

Efforts were made to mollify the Saudis and the Germans. “There was a lot of bowing and scraping,” one official said to the Post.

The newspaper doesn’t mention the fact that murderous websites can be dismantled in other ways, for example by simply asking the hosting company in country X or Y to remove it from its servers. In the US one needs a court order for  that, in Europe it is often enough to show there are calls for armed violence, hate speech or racist language on a website. Perhaps the Iraqi government can take the initiative to request closure of websites that recruit foreign fighters?


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