Bin Laden loyalists are still hiding and on the run. But they’re also ever more active on the Web
Jan. 6 issue- The latest internet entertainment for aspiring Islamic holy warriors is a video montage that opens with a picture of Osama bin Laden set against a background of rugged mountains. Bin Laden is aiming an assault rifle across the computer screen. His picture, on the right, begins to bob up and down, and a few seconds later, an image of George W. Bush appears, bobbing up and down on the left side of the screen.
THE BIN LADEN picture then fires at the picture of the American president, almost immediately shooting Bush?s face full of bullet holes. Seconds later the Bush and bin Laden images dissolve, to be replaced by graphics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Islamic archenemy, Chechen guerrilla leader Khattab. Putin also ends up full of holes, and he is followed by a jihadist rogues? gallery: Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who meet a similar fate.
Intelligence and terrorism experts say that the Islamist presence on the Internet has expanded rapidly in recent months, and it?s not just a matter of virtual violence. New Web sites have cropped up featuring gory games, comic strips and themes including enigmatic symbols such as flowers and trees-which could contain coded messages for terrorists, says private terrorism investigator Rita Katz. Driven even deeper underground than it was before the 9-11 attacks, Al Qaeda is using the Net to assert its presence far more than in the past. Before 9-11, intelligence officials say, bin Laden and his henchmen rarely claimed direct responsibility for terror incidents. But since then-especially in recent weeks-Al Qaeda and close affiliates have used the Internet to assert their role in the recent killing of Kenyans and Israelis in Mombasa, and to threaten future assaults.
Sometimes U.S.-based Internet service providers can host suspect Web sites without even knowing it. Six months ago the operators of an obscure Internet service provider in a Northeastern U.S. city were astonished to learn from business contacts that their computers were hosting Jehad.net, which officials regard as a semiofficial Qaeda site. Jehad.net recently carried a message from bin Laden?s official spokesman, as well as copies of two purported jihadi training manuals: ?The Mujahideen Explosives Handbook? and ?The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook.? Sources say that the U.S. Internet company had subcontracted part of its capacity to another firm, which in turn may have subcontracted to others.
Increasingly, the Bush administration also worries that Islamic extremists may be among the owners of U.S. companies involved in sophisticated computer activity. In Dallas last week, a posse of FBI agents arrested the operators of Infocom, an Internet service firm allegedly financed by a leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas. In mid-December, Customs agents searched the office of a Quincy, Mass., software firm called Ptech that had been financed by capital raised by Yassin Qadi, a Saudi businessman whose assets were frozen by the Bush administration after 9-11. The company had software contracts with several government agencies, including the FBI, Federal Aviation Administration, Navy and Energy Department. Both the company and Qadi have denied any connection to terrorism, and U.S. officials say there is no evidence national security has been compromised. ?We do polygraphs and security background checks on our contractors,? the senior Defense official says. But in the borderless world of the Web, culprits could be anywhere.
With Michael Hirsh and Colin Soloway in Washington and Emily Flynn in London
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.