Joby Warrick and Candace Rondeaux, Washington Post, April 9, 2009
On March 25, a Taliban Web site claiming to be the voice of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” boasted of a deadly new attack on coalition forces in that country. Four soldiers were killed in an ambush, the site claimed, and the “mujahideen took the weapons and ammunition as booty.”
Most remarkable about the message was how it was delivered. The words were the Taliban’s, but they were flashed around the globe by an American-owned firm located in a leafy corner of downtown Houston.
The Texas company, a Web-hosting outfit called ThePlanet, says it simply rented cyberspace to the group and had no clue about its Taliban connections. For more than a year, the militant group used the site to rally its followers and keep a running tally of suicide bombings, rocket attacks and raids against U.S. and allied troops. The cost of the service: roughly $70 a month, payable by credit card.
The Taliban’s account was pulled last week when a blogger noticed the connection and called attention to it. But the odd pairing of violently anti-American extremists and U.S. technology companies continues elsewhere and appears to be growing. Intelligence officials and private experts cite dozens of instances in which Islamist militants sought out U.S. Internet firms–known for their reliable service and easy terms that allow virtual anonymity–and used them to incite attacks on Americans.
“The relatively cheap expense and high quality of U.S. servers seems to attract jihadists,” said Rita Katz, co-founder of the Site Intelligence Group, a private company that monitors the communications of Muslim extremist groups. Even al-Qaeda has sometimes paid American companies to serve as conduits for its hate-filled messages, said Katz, who has tracked such activity since 2003.
Militants’ use of U.S. Web hosts has sparked occasional spats between the United States and its allies, as well as endless debates over whether it is better to shut down the Web sites when they’re discovered or to let them continue to operate. By allowing them to remain online, intelligence analysts can sometimes discover clues about the leadership and structure of terrorist groups, some analysts say.
Representatives of Tulix and ThePlanet say their policies prohibit the airing of violent or hateful messages by ordinary Americans, and certainly by terrorists. Both companies say they act quickly to shut down any site that breaks the rules.
The user-friendly American services are especially popular with groups like the Tora Bora Front [a Taliban]. “It kind of makes it an ideal target for people who want to use it for nefarious reasons because not only is it easy to access and easy to use, it’s easy to lie about your identity,” said Thomas Burling, Tulix’s chief financial officer.
Burling said the company has “routinely” been contacted by various federal agencies tracking the use of the Free Web Town sites, but he declined to go into further detail or identify the agencies.
Under federal eavesdropping laws passed last year, U.S. intelligence officials can legally monitor communications between foreign groups without a warrant, even if the transit lines pass through the United States.
U.S. server used in Mumbai attack
In some cases, the complaints come from governments. Pakistan has been venting to U.S. officials about militants’ use of North American Internet services since last fall, when an investigation of the Mumbai terrorist rampage, which involved Pakistanis, revealed that the attackers had communicated using Internet phone calls routed through another server based in Houston.
A senior Pakistani official said repeated requests to Washington to shut down controversial sites have gone unheeded–and American authorities’ seeming reluctance has become “an irritant.” The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not cleared to discuss the issue, said Pakistani intelligence experts are convinced that Washington prefers to keep the sites running for intelligence purposes.
U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge the dispute but note the futility of trying to turn off Web sites completely. Domain names can be easily changed, they say, and sites are so easy to relocate that a new site usually opens within weeks after the old one is shut down.