Plain Text: Heroes or Nettlesome Hacks?

Freelance counterterrorist Aaron Weisburd is not an employee of any of the three-letter federal agencies. He works alone in his attic in Carbondale, Ill., far from the hotbeds of terrorist activity. Yet for the last three years, the 41-year-old computer programmer has been obsessively monitoring dark corners of the Internet such as Qal3ah.org, the Web site where, last week, a group called the Secret Organization for Al Qaeda's Jihad in Europe placed a dubious claim of responsibility for the London bombings that took at least 52 lives.

Weisburd is the creator of Internet Haganah, a self-proclaimed "global open-source intelligence network dedicated to confronting Internet use by Islamist terrorist organizations, their supporters, enablers and apologists." In other words, he's an Internet vigilante. When terrorists emerge on the Web with beheading videos, propaganda or recruitment pitches, Weisburd--or any of his dozen, virtual colleagues around the country--move quickly to get them booted out of cyberspace. This makes Weisburd either a hero or a nuisance, depending on your point of view.

Since he started his voluntary mission shortly after the September 11 attacks, Weisburd claims to have knocked 718 Islamic extremist sites off the Web. His group either contacts the Internet Service Providers that may be unwittingly hosting sites connected to terrorist organizations or simply posts the offending URLs on Internet Haganah (haganah.org.il)--and trusts that their thousands of Net-savvy readers will use less civil tactics, like denial of service attack (a massive flood of Web traffic designed to overwhelm a Web site) to oust terror sites from the Web.

In an e-mail interview with NEWSWEEK, Weisburd says that booting terrorists offline interferes with their anti-American operations. "The point of the exercise is to keep the bad guys moving ... If you force the enemy to operate in a dynamic environment, where they have to keep moving and thus exposing themselves, you force errors."

Law enforcement officials generally dislike vigilantes; the general thinking is that they can't help with the big cases and they sometimes ruin the easy ones. Internet vigilantes are no exception. Terror experts say that lone actors or organized groups like Internet Haganah can scuttle ongoing surveillance of Islamic Web sites and eventually force terrorists to find less observable ways of spreading their message.

It's no coincidence, they argue, that in just the past year, Islamic extremists have gotten savvier in their use of the Internet. In early 2004, Iraqi insurgent Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and his group posted the video of the execution of Nicholas Berg, an American contractor working in Iraq, to one Web site, which was quickly overwhelmed with traffic. Today, terrorists post evidence of their atrocities on dozens of sites and coordinate their operations on secret e-mail lists, password-protected Web sites and audio chat services like PalTalk, which don't leave behind a printed record. "The level of sophistication of these groups has become just unbelievable," says Rita Katz, who monitors Islamic fundamentalist Internet activities as director of the D.C.-based Site Institute.

Katz and other terror experts worry that the vigilantes are forcing the extremists to hone their tactics, pushing them further into the dark underbelly of the Internet. "I used to believe we should take down every terrorist Web site that was run from the U.S.," she says. "What I learned later on is when you take them down, you don't achieve much. You achieve a momentary victory. But then the Web site is up again somewhere else."

Evan Kohlmann, a New York City-based terrorism analyst, says that the anti-terror vigilantes do more harm than good. "We want these guys to surface, to get comfortable and to think they are completely safe," he says. "That's when they make mistakes." While he appreciates the freelancers' patriotic fervor, he urges Internet vigilantes to weigh the benefits of moving quickly against the costs to the overall science of counter-terrorism. "I understand the sentiment but they are doing damage. They are making these guys stronger. They are giving them antibodies." The FBI doesn't comment specifically on the Internet vigilantes, but it has said in the past that efforts to stop criminals should be left to the government.

One of the originators of the anti-terror vigilante movement is not around to address the criticism. Jon Messner, an online pornographer horrified by what he saw on September 11, was able to register the address for an abandoned Al Qaeda Web site, Alneda.com, in early 2002. He then set up what appeared to be the legitimate Al Qaeda site and captured data in his server logs about who was visiting and linking to it. Messner tried to involve the FBI, but his ruse was detected by Al Qaeda by the time federal agents were able to react.

Bitter about how his improvised sting was mishandled, and ill from what he said was a mold infestation in his new Ocean City, Md., mansion, Messner committed suicide earlier this year. Among the sites he left behind is ItsHappening.com, a forum for others to share information and coordinate efforts against online jihadists.

Another hotbed of non-government anti-terror activity is the Northeast Intelligence Network. Douglas Hagmann, a private investigator in Erie, Pa., set up the site after September 11 and now works with 18 self-styled terrorist researchers and analysts from around the world. "Essentially, we monitor the really crappy Web sites out there that spew hatred and venom, and we conduct investigations where necessary," he says. "We're independent and don't charge anything for this. None of us have lives. We don't bowl. We don't golf. We just do this."

Hagmann's site translates Islamic postings into English, rails against Islam and the idea of it as a "peaceful religion," and urges a hard line in the war against terror. While Hagmann and his team occasionally alert authorities to terror sites operating from U.S. servers, he avoids actively knocking the sites offline. "We conduct surveillance," he says. "It's all passive. We go in surreptitiously and we leave surreptitiously. It's a lot better then going in like a bull in a china shop."

For his part, Weisburd of Internet Haganah has disdain for the notion that Internet vigilantes do more harm than good. He contests the assertion that Islamic extremist Web sites are now more difficult to track, and says the biggest obstacle to effective investigation of terror sites is "turf warfare between [federal] agencies."

He may be on to a larger truth. According to Amit Yoran, former head of the National Cyber Security Division at the Department of Homeland Security, there's widespread consensus among national security analysts that intelligence groups must do a better job sifting and exploiting so-called "open source intelligence," publicly available information like Islamic Web sites. For that to happen though, Internet vigilantes may need to step back and let the Feds do their jobs.