• United States



Trolling Terrorists with Propaganda: The US hack of al-Qaida that wasn’t a hack

May 27, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Did you hear the one about the US hacks al-Qaida, or the other one that the US did not hack al-Qaida? Sadly, it wasn't a hack and it wasn't directly against a terrorist's website. In reality, any of us could pull off this 'hero' government 'hackers' stunt by spreading propaganda.

Did you hear the one about the U.S. government pulling a LulzSec-style hack into terrorist propaganda websites? Hopeful that secret ‘hero’ government hackers had launched another mystery cyberattack, the recent news of America’s ‘secret’ State Department hackers hacking al-Qaeda websites to troll terrorists turned from a sweet surge of Go USA, into confusion, and then disappointed head shaking and the rolling of eyes. Why? Because there was no hacking the bad guys, no l33t skills, something any of us could accomplish if we were so inclined as to hang out on a Yemeni tribal forum and spread propaganda.

It started with news outlets breaking headlines such as The Atlantic Wire coming out with “U.S. Counter-Terrorism Hackers Fight Al Qaeda One Prank at a Time.” CBS News reported, “The State Department has launched a different sort of raid against al-Qaeda – hacking into al-Qaeda websites in Yemen.” Woot, right? Nope, not even close, even though more “hacking” and “cybewarfare” articles hit the news. ABC News reported, “In a rare glimpse into cyberwarfare tactics, a top U.S. official has explicitly acknowledged that the U.S. government hacked into websites run by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, changing advertisements that boasted about killing Americans into advertisements that underscored the deaths of Muslim civilians in al-Qaida terror attacks.”

This all started with remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Special Operations Command Gala Dinner. “You know that extremist networks squeezed in one country migrate to others. Terrorist propaganda from a cell in Yemen can incite attacks as far away as Detroit or Delhi.” In order to “pre-empt, discredit, and outmaneuver extremist propagandists,” Clinton announced the launch of “a new interagency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. It’s housed at the State Department, but it draws on experts from the intelligence community and the Defense Department, including Special Operations Forces.”

Now this example given in Clinton’s speech is what sparked the USA hacks al-Qaida stories. “A couple of weeks ago, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen began an advertising campaign on key tribal web sites bragging about killing Americans and trying to recruit new supporters. Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al-Qaida attacks have taken on the Yemeni people. And we can tell that our efforts are starting to have an impact, because we monitor the extremists venting their frustration and asking their supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet. (Applause.)”

But the Yemeni tribal forum in question is an open public website, not a terrorist or jihadi website, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The CSMonitor quoted William McCants, a jihadi research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses as saying, “There was no hacking involved at all. They [the State Department team] overtly message on non-jihadi forums that anybody can sign up for. They represent themselves as a member of the US government. By law they have to identify themselves.”

Many people have heard of how “armies” of fake social media “friends” can promote propaganda. The government denies using propaganda against Americans, but not other countries. After an unnamed State Department official said, “We parody and poke holes in what they do,” Wired reported, “They essentially launched a counterterrorism-by-AdWords campaign by purchasing anti-al-Qaida ads on the same site, featuring the coffins of Yemeni civilians killed in terrorist attacks.” Yet State Department spokeswoman Ms. Nuland contacted Wired to clarify, what Clinton referred to was a “counter-spoof” and was not paid advertising. But to counter paid extremist advertising such as on YouTube, the U.S. will “pay for the counter.” However Nuland insisted, “We don’t hack. We don’t engage in covert activities.”

It is nearly Memorial Day when many people will remember soldiers who gave all for our country. But it doesn’t take a patriotic weekend to be outraged by any website bragging about killing Americans and happily showing off coffins draped in USA flags. Although Clinton mentioned a “digital outreach team of tech savvy specialists” were “patrolling the web and using social media and other tools to expose the inherent contradictions in al-Qaida’s propaganda,” no elite skills were needed to pull this off. A person would only need the ability to use Bing or another translator, or even Chrome which wants to translate, and then play “search and destroy.” While I’m certainly not suggesting it, a person could find a forum that hates the USA, create an account there, and then post messages or photos to spread propaganda and troll “terrorists.” Then you, too, can be State Department-like “hero hacker.” Or not . . .  either way, Happy Memorial Day!

Like this? Here’s more posts:
  • Study Finds 1 in 2 Americans are ‘Clueless’ about Webcam Hacking
  • Inception-like Remee lets you take control of your dreams
  • Fight the Patriot Act and win. Next? Promise privacy, a surveillance-free ISP
  • GitHub becomes friendlier for developers using Windows
  • FBI Warns Smart Meter Hacking May Cost Utility Companies $400 Million A Year
  • Counterintelligence Surveillance Swelled Another 10% in 2011
  • NASA, Air Force, Harvard, Military, ESA Hacked by Gray Hats ‘The Unknowns’
  • SOPA supporters meet in secret to strangle Internet freedom & online speech
  • Microsoft Researchers say cybercrime loss estimates are a bunch of bunk
  • This is why people pirate Windows
  • NATO Summit: Chicago police ignore DOJ, but recording cops IS constitutional
  • Creepy? Microsoft Kinect ads will watch you while you watch them

Follow me on Twitter @PrivacyFanatic

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.