CLIFTON, N.J. - The flags that sprouted after the Sept. 11 attacks still flap on lawns and flutter on poles outside well-tended homes here, about 15 miles from Manhattan. Looming above them is a concrete tower that houses a real-estate firm, an office supplies company - and, until recently, investigators fear, an outpost of Al Qaeda.
On the second floor, an Internet company called Fortress ITX unwittingly played host to an Arabic-language Web site where postings in recent weeks urged attacks against American and Israeli targets. "The Art of Kidnapping" was explained in electronic pamphlets, along with "Military Instructions to the Mujahedeen," and "War Inside the Cities." Visitors could read instructions on using a cellphone to remotely detonate a bomb, and one even asked for help in manufacturing small missiles.
"How can this be?" asked Cathy Vasilenko, who lives a few doors away from the Fortress ITX office. "How can this be going on in my neighborhood?"
Federal investigators, with the help of a small army of private contractors monitoring sites around the clock and across the world, are trying to find out. Ever since the United States-led coalition smashed Al Qaeda's training grounds in Afghanistan, cyber substitutes, which recruit terrorists and raise money, have proliferated.
While Qaeda operatives have employed an arsenal of technical tools to communicate - from e-mail encryption and computer war games to grisly videotapes like the recent ones showing beheadings believed to have been carried out by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - investigators say they worry most about the Internet because extremists can reach a broad audience with relatively little chance of detection.
By examining sites like those stored inside the electronic walls of the Clifton business, investigators are hoping to identify who is behind them, what links they might have to terror groups, and what threat, if any, they might pose. And in a step that has raised alarms among civil libertarians and others and so far proven unpersuasive in the courtroom, prosecutors are charging that those administering these sites should be held criminally responsible for what is posted.
Attempting to apply broad new powers established by the Patriot Act, the federal government wants to punish those who it claims provide "expert advice or assistance" and therefore play an integral part of a global terror campaign that increasingly relies on the Internet. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee recently, called such Web sites "cyber sanctuaries."
"These networks are wonderful things that enable all kinds of good things in the world," Mr. Wolfowitz said of the Internet. "But they're also a tool that the terrorists use to conceal their identities, to move money, to encrypt messages, even to plan and conduct operations remotely."
Many question the government's strategy of trying to combat terrorism by prosecuting Web site operators. "I think it is an impossible task," said Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, an agency that monitors the use of the Internet by Al Qaeda. "You can maybe catch some people. But you will never ever be able to stem the flow of radical Islamic propaganda."
He pointed out that it is difficult to distinguish between a real terrorist and a make-believe one online. "You would end up prosecuting a lot of angry young people who do this because it is exciting, not because they want to actually participate in terrorist attacks," he said. "I don't think it helps you fight Al Qaeda."
The government faces many hurdles in pursuing virtual terrorists. While many militant Islamic message boards and Web pages reside on computer servers owned by North American Internet companies, outfits like Fortress ITX say it would be impractical - and unethical, given that the company sells server space to clients who then resell it - for them to keep track of all of the content stored within their equipment.
"It is hideous, loathsome," said Robert Ellis, executive vice president of Fortress, after viewing postings from the Abu al-Bukhary Web site his company hosted. "It is the part of this business that is deeply disturbing." His company shut down the site within the last month after learning of it from a reporter. The intense focus on Muslim-related sites like Abu al-Bukhary, in an era when domestically produced anarchist manuals are commonly available on the Web, has provoked charges that the anti-cyber sanctuary effort is really a misguided anti-Muslim campaign that is compromising important First Amendment rights.
This effort "opens the floodgates to really marginalizing a lot of the free speech that has been a hallmark of the American legal and political system," said Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Globally it really does nothing but worsen the image of America in the rest of the world."
The detective work begins in a northeast city in a compact office set up by a self-proclaimed terrorist hunter. This is the headquarters of Rita Katz, an Iraqi-born Jew whose father was executed in Baghdad in 1969, shortly after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party came to power.
Finding terrorists has become a crusade for Ms. Katz, who began going to pro-Palestinian rallies and fund-raisers disguised as a Muslim woman in the late 1990's, then presented information to the federal government in an effort to prove there were ties between Islamic fundamentalist groups in the United States and terror organizations like Hamas or Al Qaeda.
Federal agencies, including the National Security Agency, the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security, monitor suspected terror sites on the Internet and sometimes track users. Private groups like Ms. Katz's Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute and The Middle East Media Research Institute are also keeping track of the ever-changing content of these sites. Ms. Katz's institute, which relies on government contracts and corporate clients, may be the most influential of those groups, and she is among the most controversial of the cyberspace monitors. While some experts praise her research as solid, some of her targets view her as a vigilante. Several Islamic groups and charities, for example, sued for defamation after she claimed they were terrorist fronts, even though they were not charged with a crime.
Sitting under wall maps of Europe, the Middle East and the United States - including one pinpointing locations of suspected terror cells or possible supporters - Ms. Katz and her team of computer technicians and researchers spend their days searching the Internet for any new messages from militant groups and new addresses for terror sites. Her institute, based in a city she does not disclose, also has a small crew in Israel, which allows the organization to monitor sites around the clock.
"We are trying to think the way terrorist organizations think," said Ms. Katz, "The Internet today has become a front in the war itself."
Keeping tabs on these jihadist sites - several hundred exist - requires vigilance, as videos and statements uploaded by different groups often appear only briefly. A recent Tuesday was a particularly busy day. The Islambouli Brigade, a militant Islamic group, turned to one popular message board site called islamic-minbar.com, operated out of the Netherlands, to release the names of two women it said were responsible for the Aug. 24 explosions of two Russian planes and to claim responsibility for an attack at a Moscow subway station. "When we pledge to avenge our Chechen brothers, we do not break our promise," the Aug. 31 posting said.
Jaish Ansar al-Sunna, a group that has surfaced in Iraq, posted a video on its Internet site showing the bodies of 12 Nepali contractor workers who it had taken hostage and killed. The site was taken down that same day, but then reappeared on a computer server of a Utah-based Web hosting company.
While staffers at Ms. Katz's office rushed to translate these postings, others were busy snooping by using a special software program to electronically suck up more than 15,000 computer files from a Web site, or referring to a custom-made database to identify sites with common administrators, an assignment initiated by a government request. This week, they watched postings on the Web site Ansarnet.ws/vb alerting followers that a hostage had been killed, then directing them to a video showing the beheading of an American engineer held hostage in Iraq.
A crucial question, of course, is whether a site is simply offering inspirational rhetoric or is genuinely linked to terror strikes. Often, Web site exhortations are followed by acts of violence, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are connected.
In late May, for example, shortly after a kidnapping guide appeared on an online magazine called Al Battar, a wave of kidnappings and beheadings started in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Last December, a 42-page essay published on a Web site called Global Islamic Media observed that "the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure" from Iraq. Three months later, bombs tore apart trains in Madrid, resulting in the eventual departure of Spanish troops from Iraq.
In Clifton, the digital images and terrorist manuals from Abu al-Bukhary's site resided, like data from thousands of other Internet pages hosted at Fortress ITX, inside a sprawling computer room. Pointing to the wall of boxes with blinking lights, Fortress executives said they did not know who controlled most of the Web sites on their servers, as they sell space to clients who then resell it to countless others. "It is like an orange you buy at the supermarket," Mr. Ellis said. "Try figuring out what farm that came from."
Strategy of Prosecution
Knocking militant groups off the Internet for a day or two by urging individual Web hosting companies to shut down the sites didn't accomplish much, Ms. Katz believed. So the government, in an unusual alliance with Ms. Katz, has been testing a different strategy in the last year.
Sami Omar al-Hussayen would be their first target. The 35-year-old father of three had arrived at the University of Idaho in 1999 to pursue a doctorate in computer science. In his spare time, Mr. Hussayen, who lived in Moscow, Idaho, established a series of Internet sites with names like liveislam.net or alasr.ws ("the generation") and served as a regional leader of the Islamic Assembly of North America, a group that described itself as a charitable organization, but which prosecutors said recruited members and instigated "acts of violence and terrorism."
Along with news from the Middle East and interviews with scholars, the sites included more disturbing information. Videos displayed the bodies of dead suicide attackers as a narrator declared "we had brethren who achieved what they sought, and that is martyrdom in the cause of Allah." Requests were posted for donations to Chechen groups that were trying to "show the truth about Russian terrorism." Clerical edicts appeared on topics including "suicide operations against the Jews."
The Justice Department, which declined to comment for this article, did not claim that Mr. Hussayen had authored the most militant items. Instead, by registering the Web sites, paying for them and posting the material, he was charged with providing material support to a banned terrorist group.
But Mr. Hussayen's lawyers said their client was expressing his free-speech rights. The Internet is the modern equivalent of the soap box, said David Z. Nevin, one of the lawyers. "They were wildly too zealous," Mr. Nevin said about Ms. Katz and the Justice Department. "This was not within a country mile of the kind of behavior that this nation has any business trying to criminalize."
The jury was unconvinced by the government's case, and acquitted Mr. Hussayen in June after a monthlong trial. "We went through files and files and files of evidence - transcripts of telephone calls, bank statements, all the e-mails, information from the Internet - and we could not substantiate that he was directly involved with a terrorist organization," said Claribel Ingraham, one of the jurors. "It just wasn't there."
The setback in Idaho has not stopped the government from pursuing similar cases. In late July, a warrant was issued in Connecticut for Babar Ahmad, resulting in his arrest in London Aug. 5. The 30-year-old computer technician at a London college is accused of setting up Internet sites from 1997 to 2003, most prominently azzam.com, to recruit terrorists and raise money for them. "If you're going to use cyberspace, we're there and we're paying attention," said Kevin J. O'Connor, the United States Attorney from Connecticut, after Mr. Ahmad's arrest.
The trial has not started - the United States is trying to persuade British authorities to extradite him - but already Muslim groups and civil libertarians in Britain are assailing the case. In a letter from his prison cell that was posted on the Internet, Mr. Ahmad asserted that he was imprisoned "to strike terror and fear into the hearts of the docile, sleeping Muslim community."
Ms. Katz said she was not discouraged by the criticism of the prosecutions. "When you call for the death of people and then it results in actions - that is beyond the First Amendment," she said. "You are organizing a crime."