|Emergency personnel responded to the bombing of a Madrid train in 2004 that killed 191 people. Some specialists say Islamic militant websites can be used to recruit extremists. (Christophe Simon/afp/getty images/file)|
Unwittingly hosting terror
Islamists use US Web firms for recruiting; Agencies mine sites for data
For more than a year, a Burlington-based Internet company hosted a website that taught its members how to outfit a suicide bomber, aired Al Qaeda propaganda videos, and offered an "exclusive" Taliban video showing the beheadings of three "spies," according to computer records.
The English-language website, Leemedia.net, was taken down earlier this month - but not in a counterterrorism crackdown, government officials said. Instead, the Web server, Endurance International Corp. Inc., shut it down after Internet watchdogs made repeated demands to remove the terrorist material.
The case of Leemedia.net, which was operated by a suspected terrorist sympathizer in Karachi, is the latest example of how US Internet companies are unknowingly hosting possibly hundreds of the most virulent Islamic extremist websites in the world, inciting young Muslims to kill Christians and Jews.
The phenomenon is so common, however, that the Department of Homeland Security and US intelligence agencies have determined that in most cases it's preferable to keep the sites operating as a way of tracking the spread of radical Islam, rather than try to quell them one by one. They also contend that most of the sites attract what one US counterterrorism official called confused individuals who are not believed to pose a significant threat.
"What's useful about them is to understand the relationships between the various people that are on the sites, obviously in some cases their identities," said a senior US counterterrorism official who asked not to be identified because of his sensitive position.
But many other specialists in Islamic radicalism question the government's logic. They say the online propaganda could recruit new extremists, while the security benefits of monitoring the sites - some of which intelligence analysts have known about for years - is limited.
"There is nothing to learn from them," said Yigal Carmon, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who founded the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington. "The damage they are causing is far beyond anything that can be learned."
Carmon and others point out that terrorists in Spain and Britain have been indoctrinated with the help of militant websites, including the London and Madrid transit bombers in 2005 and 2004.
Militants often rely on Western-based Internet companies to host their sites because they have the most advanced technology, and the radicals feel freer to market their ideas in more open societies with little interference, Carmon said.
His organization has exposed similar sites hosted by companies such as Google and Yahoo in Texas, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Minnesota, Washington, California, Utah, Ohio, and Maryland, as well as another website previously hosted by Endurance International that supported holy war in Iraq and was also shut down by the company.
The company, located in an office suite on Blanchard Road in Burlington, declined repeated requests for interviews but issued a short statement in response to Globe inquiries.
"Our terms of service expressly prohibit the use of our services for terrorist or unlawful purposes," according to the statement by Jean McCarthy, marketing director for Endurance International, which has at least $9 million in annual sales. "We do not knowingly host websites that are in violation of our terms of service, unless asked to do so by law enforcement."
However, many such websites - which are estimated to be up to 5,000 worldwide - still operate in the United States with the full knowledge of US counterterrorism officials.
For the government to shut them down would be "pointless," the senior counterterrorism official said, akin to a "whack-a-mole approach to counterterrorism."
"They'll just find another host," the official said. For example, a Phoenix web hosting company recently terminated an extremist site and it reappeared within days on another service in Brisbane, Australia.
Monitoring them, he added, "is the most useful when they think it is a secure environment but it is not."
The Department of Homeland Security agrees that these websites can provide a unique window into radicalization. Under surveillance laws, counterterrorism investigators can track website traffic without a warrant.
"We work with our intelligence community partners to monitor terrorist websites and terrorists' use of the Internet," Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman, told the Globe in a statement. "We've also established an inter-agency working group to deepen our understanding of the phenomenon of radicalization."
At the same time, many US counterterrorism officials also insist that young Muslims do not become terrorists by viewing the websites alone; typically they become radicalized and dangerous after forging personal connections with a charismatic leader or after attending a terrorist training camp.
"I think we have pretty much concluded that it is very seldom that someone has used the Internet solely for radicalization," the US counterterrorism official said in an interview, calling most of the website users "pre-terrorists."
Visiting a site "certainly gets you on a path toward radicalization but alone doesn't really do much good," he said.
Not so, according to several terrorism specialists. Many of the websites, they point out, target young Westerners to join the cause of jihad, or holy war, by translating the propaganda materials into their native languages.
Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism specialist who advises the US government, said that taking a largely hands-off approach to such websites "is a gross underestimation of the ability of individuals using these websites to use the information . . . to create their home-grown terror networks."
Leemedia.net - an acronym for "La Elaha Elallah," meaning "The True Path" in Arabic - appeared to be part of that effort.
For example, the site translated radical videos into Turkish in an apparent attempt to reach the sizable Turkish community living in Germany, said Aaron Wiesburd, who runs a consulting firm called Internet Haganah and has been hired by US intelligence agencies for advice in tracking terrorist websites.
Computer records show that Leemedia.net had about two dozen core members, who are invited to participate in exclusive discussion forums, in Pakistan, the Balkans, northern and central Europe, Canada, and the United States, Wiesburd said. The founder, listed as Tanzil Ahmed, is also believed to be connected to a radical Islamic missionary organization based in Pakistan called Tablighi Jama-at, he said.
Supporters of a more systematic Internet crackdown maintain that there are only about 500 core sites that generate radical material and that most of them are hosted on one of the 20 or so major Internet service providers in the world, mostly in Western countries.
"The real fountains of venom are no more than 500 or less," said Carmon. "It is very manageable. We can shut them down, and we will."
Megan Woolhouse of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.