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The new battlefront: Cyber warriors strike al-Qaeda online

Screen grab from a jihadi website.

Cyber-warrior attacks have created havoc with al-Qaeda's internet presence – taking out at least five major jihadi websites nearly two weeks ago – although the radical Islamic group has managed to get one of its main web forums back online.

"The enemies of Allah . . . (attacked) with a failed, miserable campaign," a message posted on the Shumukh al-Islam site said when it re-appeared online Wednesday, effectively admitting it had been successfully targeted.

The attacks on al-Qaeda website may be the opening of a new, broader, cyber-front in the war on Islamic extremism.

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The Pentagon has announced a new focus on cyber-warfare, both offence and defence, although U.S. officials claimed no U.S. involvement in the sustained attacks against multiple al-Qaeda websites. Although there have been occasional outages and previous attacks, the latest was the longest, sustained and apparently co-ordinated effort against many sites.

Of course, plausible deniability is a key feature of covert operations. For instance, no one has claimed responsibility for the Stuxnet 'worm' that destroyed hundreds of Iranian centrifuges.

On digital battlefields, sometimes visibility is desired.

Jihadis, or their artistic supporters, have posted a graphic resembling a movie poster with the chilling threat that al-Qaeda would be "coming soon again" to New York City.

The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force said it was "aware of the posting and investigating its authenticity and origin," but there was "no specific or credible threat to New York at this time."

Al-Qaeda's online presence is vital to the group as it has morphed into a diffuse, global, network of loosely-linked cells. From recruiting to chat forums to gruesome propaganda videos of beheadings, a series of al-Qaeda websites manages to sustain a vibrant, international online community, even as drone strikes with Hellfire missiles decimate the organization's leadership in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Attacking al-Qaeda's web presence may herald a new phase in the struggle although some experts in cyber-warfare suggested such strikes didn't necessarily indicate government involvement.

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While so-called "denial of service" attacks, essentially overwhelming a web site with an onslaught of calls, are fairly crude and usually traceable, other types of attacks, including deep penetration to ``actually destroy it from the inside are more discreet and more effective," said Derek Ruths, a professor at McGill University in Montreal. "It's not that hard to take something down and keep it down," added Mr. Ruths, whose expertise includes cyber-warfare and network dynamics.

Al-Qaeda, with limited technical expertise, apparently struggles to keep up with the latest developments in network security and sophistication, leaving it increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks.

At least four of its most popular sites remained down Thursday although a second main site, al-Fida, was intermittently online.

SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks the jihadi online presence predicted the Islamic radical web presence would survive attempts to take it down.

"Some jihadist groups, such as the Taliban and the Shabaab al-Mujahideen, have not skipped a beat, continuing to post their material to their own websites and Twitter, while they waited for Shumukh al-Islam or al-Fida to return or for their successors to come online," it said.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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