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