Keep­ing their tracks hid­den: Ter­ror­ists re­cruit on file-host sites

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY SHAUN WATER­MAN

Ter­ror­ists us­ing In­ter­net tech­niques pi­o­neered by child mo­lesters and copy­right pi­rates to re­cruit new fol­low­ers lost a bat­tle when Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties ar­rested five Amer­i­cans who re­port­edly wanted to join the ji­had.

But videos, au­dios and writ­ten mis­sives from Osama bin Laden and mil­i­tant Mus­lim cler­ics con­tinue to flow through cy­berspace in an ef­fort to at­tract new fol­low­ers, ex­perts say.

That, in turn, puts law en­force­ment and coun­tert­er­ror­ism agen­cies in a bat­tle to keep up, given the speed with which the In­ter­net and per­sonal com­put­ers evolve.

Two key tech­nolo­gies have been used by copy­right pi­rates and child porn rings: peer-topeer, or P2P, net­works that were pop­u­lar­ized a decade ago by Nap­ster, Kazaa and Gnutella, and more re­cent file host­ing ser­vices.

P2P users store videos and other ma­te­rial on their own per­sonal com­put­ers, and oth­ers get ac­cess to it through spe­cial soft­ware.

File-host­ing in­volves stor­age in large data cen­ters owned by third par­ties. Many file-host­ing com­pa­nies pro­vide free, anony­mous ac­counts.

Ex­trem­ists pre­fer file-host­ing ser­vices over P2P, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent ar­ti­cle in Sen­tinel — the jour­nal of the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy in West Point, N.Y.

When new state­ments, videos or au­dios are re­leased by a ter­ror group, the ar­ti­cle said, they are up­loaded to be stored on mul­ti­ple file-host­ing ser­vices, cre­at­ing dozens or even hun­dreds of ways to ac­cess them on the In­ter­net.

Ex­trem­ists then post links to th­ese pages on spe­cial pass­word­pro­tected chat rooms so oth­ers can down­load the videos or other ma­te­rial.

By us­ing th­ese file-host­ing ser­vices, ex­trem­ists “are able to re­main more anony­mous,” says the au­thor of the Sen­tinel piece, pro­fes­sor Manuel R. Tor­res Soriano, head of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Pablo de Ola­vide Uni­ver­sity in Seville, Spain.

Users of file-host­ing ser­vices get added pro­tec­tion be­cause they don’t have to store the videos or other ma­te­rial on their own com­put­ers, as P2P users must.

That means if ex­trem­ist Web sites are taken down or over­whelmed by large vol­umes of traf­fic, the pro­pa­ganda re­mains avail­able to sup­port­ers from other In­ter­net ad­dresses.

File-host­ing tech­nol­ogy poses both in­ves­tiga­tive and foren­sic chal­lenges, say cur­rent and for­mer law en­force­ment of­fi­cials.

Videos, for ex­am­ple, “could be re­sid­ing in six dif­fer­ent data cen­ters,” said Rod­er­ick Jones, founder of a San Fran­cisco-based se­cu­rity ad­vi­sory com­pany, InTer­rain.

He added that “the key piece [of ev­i­dence] could be over­seas,” out­side the ju­ris­dic­tion of law en­force­ment agen­cies try­ing to pros­e­cute the peo­ple shar­ing the in­for­ma­tion.

Un­der such cir­cum­stances, “how do you get a war­rant?” asked Mr. Jones, a for­mer coun­tert­er­ror­ism de­tec­tive with New Scot­land Yard in Lon­don. “Where do you serve it?”

The same chal­lenges face those seek­ing to track down child abusers on­line, he said.

Mr. Jones said pe­dophile and child pornog­ra­phy rings had been “one of the ma­jor in­no­va­tors in terms of il­le­gal use of Web re- sources.”

Such peo­ple “used to meet clan­des­tinely in pubs,” Mr. Jones said. Now they or­ga­nize on­line.

Th­ese rings share with ex­trem­ists “the need to com­mu­ni­cate se­cretly, but still so­cially,” Mr. Jones said. “The so­cial el­e­ment is key for ji­hadis be­cause they need to re­cruit.”

Pe­dophile and child porn rings have been us­ing P2P and file­host­ing ser­vices to share se­curely and pri­vately pic­tures, video and other ma­te­rial for some time, ex­plained Mr. Jones, who has writ­ten widely on the adop­tion of new In­ter­net tech­nolo­gies by crim­i­nal groups.

File-host­ing ser­vices also have been used widely to share pi­rated movies and mu­sic and have faced le­gal action as a re­sult. In a case be­fore the courts in Ham­burg, Ger­many, the Swiss-based file hoster Rapid­Share is be­ing sued by Ger­man mu­sic copy­right hold­ers.

Ter­ror­ist com­puter files stored on host­ing ser­vices typ­i­cally are en­crypted and hid­den un­der in­nocu­ous sound­ing names, mak­ing them hard to track down.

“One can­not imag­ine to­day’s ji­hadi move­ment without the In­ter- net,” said Ygal Car­mon of the Mid­dle East Me­dia Re­search In­sti­tute, a non­profit group that mon­i­tors ex­trem­ist mil­i­tant Mus­lim me­dia.

“To my great sor­row, [U.S.] law en­force­ment doesn’t want to close th­ese sites,” he said.

FBI spokesman Christo­pher Allen said the bureau “is aware of the po­ten­tial for crim­i­nals and ter­ror­ists to ex­ploit peer-to-peer and file-host­ing sites. Coun­tert­er­ror­ism is the FBI’s num­ber one pri­or­ity, and we are com­mit­ted to work­ing with our law en­force­ment part­ners, do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, to in­ves­ti­gate ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity wher­ever it oc­curs.”

FBI and other fed­eral of­fi­cials de­clined to ad­dress di­rectly the ques­tion of whether U.S. agen­cies de­lib­er­ately al­low ex­trem­ists to op­er­ate on the Web be­cause of the op­por­tu­ni­ties it of­fers for col­lect­ing in­tel­li­gence about their iden­ti­ties and ac­tiv­i­ties.

“The in­ter­net is in­creas­ingly a dou­ble-edged sword” for ex­trem­ists, said Daniel Kim­mage, an an­a­lyst with the Home­land Se­cu­rity Pol­icy In­sti­tute. As well as giv­ing them global reach, “it gives [au­thor­i­ties] many, many things to track.”

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