Click, Click, Boom

With nothing more than a pair of laptops, Joseph Shahda is waging a do-it-yourself war on terrorism that is proving very successful at frustrating his targets. Not to mention the federal government.

Joseph Shahda is thinking of buying a gun. Because he is not shy about the campaign he is waging, the terrorists now know his name, his face, and—because the press has mentioned it—that he lives somewhere near Boston. They talk endlessly of wanting to slay him, this Crusader, this Christian dog. Shahda thought it was all rhetoric until he saw a post on a militant Islamic forum that listed his date of birth and the names of his parents back in Lebanon. Not just their married names, either, but his mother’s maiden name. This information had not been publicly available. He believes this means someone within the Lebanese government (a Hezbollah sympathizer? maybe someone with ties to al Qaeda?) disclosed it to people who really, really wanted it, not to send his parents into hiding per se but to show Shahda the extent of the terrorists’ reach. But Shahda has never believed so strongly in his mission. So he will press on, fighting the good fight, as the apostle Paul once said. He just no longer wishes to fight it unarmed.

Since July, Shahda has shut down more than 50 jihadi websites whose message is worldwide Islamic fundamentalism and whose means is an online education in bomb-making. Shahda, an engineer living here for 14 years with the help of a green card, is not employed by the government. At night, returning from the manufacturing company he works for on the South Shore, he might take his girlfriend out to eat but is always home by 9 to fight terrorism, dressed as he is always dressed, which is to say immaculately. Tonight it’s a dark pinstriped suit over a lighter blue shirt and a purple diamond-patterned tie in a full Windsor knot. (Shahda likes to say he doesn’t own a pair of jeans; his coworkers razz him for dressing so far above the office’s standard business-casual.) As the evening progresses he will not take off his jacket. He will not loosen his tie. His home is small and spare and, though tidy, lacks a woman’s touch, furnished as it is with unadorned pale green hardback chairs and blue-gray sofas. Christian iconography abounds. (He is Greek Orthodox.) The flat-panel TV near the door is tuned to The O’Reilly Factor, but thankfully muted. His jingoistic fervor is not reflected in the décor. That he leaves to his attire, wearing a small American flag pin on his lapel.

On Shahda’s dining room table sit two laptops—one, a Dell, initially purchased for work; the other, a Gateway, exclusively for counterterrorism—that blink with updates from terrorist chat rooms. For four hours, or longer on some nights, he’ll log into those forums, often posing as a woman, gathering the jihadi URLs of the moment, the latest to further the militant cause. He will then visit those sites and track down their administrators, to inform them that they are in violation of Title 18, Section 842, of the U.S. Code, the one that says it’s illegal to publish material on the making of explosives. Even though it’s a U.S. law, Shahda has used it to coerce administrators the world over to unplug offending Web addresses. “I have about a 60- to 70-percent success rate,” he says, unable to suppress a grin.

Though Shahda says censoring these sites is in the government’s best interest, because it stops the spread of propaganda and know-how for carrying out terrorist acts, many people in the federal government itself disagree. A Pentagon spokeswoman says, “We glean a lot of information from these sites.” An FBI spokeswoman says the same. Adds James Forest, the director of terrorism studies at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, “We’re not going to know the minds of the enemy unless we have a window into their perspectives.” The government’s point is even innocuous data can be helpful. The way to catch terrorists online is not to ban them from communicating. But there is little Shahda’s critics can do to stop him, because Shahda is within his rights to contact site administrators. Such are the frustrations of intelligence agents in the do-it-yourself new millennium, where you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to do what you—and perhaps only you—believe to be the U.S. government’s bidding.

Shahda points now to a spot in the top right corner of the Gateway’s monitor. Imagine this computer screen, he says, as the entirety of the Internet, and this spot as the terrorist the government wants. The government spends a year trying to find him online. Meanwhile the terrorist, this tiny spot, is launching new sites, filling the computer screen with big “Death to America” headlines and videos of how to slit a throat or make a mustard gas explosive. And even if investigators get lucky, even if the terrorist reveals his position and is arrested, his legacy lives on, on this computer screen, forever. Now, how many more terrorists does that create?

Why not, Shahda says, eliminate the sites before they become someone’s life work?

He pauses for a moment. The only sound in the room is the drone of an al Qaeda operative praising Allah and bin Laden, the audio streamed onto Shahda’s computer from a jihadi address.

“I like to look at the big picture,” he says.

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Shahda came to the United States in the early 1990s to earn a master’s degree from Northeastern University. He was grateful for the opportunity, because it meant escaping the horrors of Lebanon. He saw the worst of his home nation’s civil war. He will never forget, in the summer of 1976, his parents arguing over whether they should leave their hometown of Chekka for the security of the mountains in northern Lebanon. As they argued, a bullet ripped through the house, just missing Shahda’s mother in the bedroom. The family—which included a brother and two sisters—fled to safety that day. A week later the Palestinian Liberation Organization slaughtered dozens of the town’s Christian residents, among them the Shahdas’ next-door neighbors. So went Shahda’s youth: living in houses riddled with bullet holes, unable to cross into certain parts of the country because any owner of a Christian name would be killed at the checkpoint. While he was in college at the American University of Beirut, classes were canceled for a year because of the fighting. When Shahda returned to school, professors often had their lectures interrupted by the rumble of nearby bomb blasts.

The master’s degree led to the engineering job on the South Shore. Eager to show his gratitude to his new country, after 9/11 Shahda volunteered to be an FBI translator but never heard back—he believes because he was not yet a citizen (his application is still pending), just a man with a Middle Eastern surname and a green card. In 2005 he tried to enlist in the Army, but prior back problems made him reconsider basic training. The following year, a chance to exercise his sense of duty finally presented itself in a federal program called Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal, which had gathered several hundred thousand of the 2 million to 3 million prewar Iraqi documents in the U.S. government’s possession and put them up on a Pentagon website, where they appeared in their native Arabic, awaiting translation. The program asked for anyone with Arabic proficiency to donate their time: Just pick a document off the site, figure out what it said, and post the results for the world to see. It was an unprecedented effort, and—in the hope of Congressional backers—with luck its volunteer translators might find on paper the WMDs the Bush
administration had failed to find on the ground. But Shahda, his patriotism unencumbered by political calculations, was simply eager to put his Arabic to use. “In my opinion,” he says, “it was the least I could do.”

He found amazing stuff. Saddam ordering $25,000 for the family of each Palestinian suicide bomber in 2002. An Afghani informant suggesting a link between al Qaeda and Iraq before 9/11. Iraqi officials meeting with bin Laden in 1995 to discuss ways to fight the “infidels.” Shahda took these translations and posted them to the conservative website Free Republic. The Pentagon then authenticated them and published them on its own site. Shahda’s work made the news. But by his estimate, only a few thousand translated documents made it onto the Pentagon’s site—and it’s not clear how seriously the findings were actually taken. The Department of Defense will only say the documents were used for “historical data.” (Perhaps for good reason: None included the infamous smoking gun. The 9/11 Commission, for example, knew of communications between Iraq and bin Laden in the 1990s but concluded in its report that theirs was not a long-lasting relationship. Indeed, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte’s press secretary at the time was careful in describing the Pentagon site as a tool to learn about a regime. Little else.)

By November 2006, Shahda had translated more than 300 documents, an accomplishment that had required poring over roughly 50,000 pages of Arabic text. It was around this time, however, that the Pentagon uploaded to its site translations from Iraq’s nuclear research program before the Persian Gulf war. These documents (which Shahda did not work on) provided a skeletal guide for building an atomic bomb. The New York Times, jumping on the development, consulted with various weapons experts who were distressed about the publication of such material. By November 2, and without much fanfare, Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal was abandoned.

It was a blow to Shahda, leaving him without his avocation. But emboldened by his foray into the intelligence world, he decided to continue working as an unpaid government freelancer, this time attempting to do nothing less than catch terrorists. He would lure them into the private chat rooms of hostile, anti-American Arabic forums and hope they revealed a name, a location, a plan of action. It never quite worked out that way, though. Little but brutality was divulged. Shahda saw that many websites included videos of beheadings. He saw that even more provided links to something called “The Encyclopedia of Preparation,” a compendium of weapons manufacturing, chemical and guerrilla warfare, and terrorist tactics, promulgated by a 22-year-old who called himself “Irhabi 007” (“Terrorist 007”), and who, before his capture in a London apartment in 2005, was the world’s foremost online terrorist. These sites were not the indignant howls of a few unhappy people. This was a movement, a real recruiting ground for al Qaeda. Shahda watched as new usernames became regulars on the forums, and then watched these regulars sign off for the promise of martyrdom.

Last February, Shahda started to wonder if the sites should be shut down. History was repeating itself; the online forums of today were no less radical or potent than the pleas of Muslim and Palestinian militias during the Lebanese civil war. Back then the unrest spread for many reasons but was certainly fueled by a fundamental interpretation, some might say misinterpretation, of the Koran. Namely, the infidels do not believe what you do; therefore the infidels should be killed. Thirty years later, only the medium had changed. So on July 19, Shahda posted a manifesto on a Free Republic comments page. “We should seek the shutdown of any known terrorist website and forum to deliver a shocking and devastating psychological blow to the islamic terrorists.” Shahda listed the URLs for 22 such websites, then concluded the missive with two words:

“Let’s roll.”

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In theory it’s a simple process, shutting down a terrorist website. Using one of his many pseudonyms, Shahda starts by patrolling jihadi forums, looking for hype from their scores of members about any new and troublesome-sounding URLs. When he finds one, he contacts its site administrator. Early one Friday morning in November, that was SoftLayer Technologies. The suburban Dallas Internet service provider apparently did not know the content of one of its sites, Shahda e-mailed the company at 7:56 a.m. with a subject line reading, “You are hosting an islamic terrorist forum…(This is not a spam please respond).” The e-mail described as constituting “a great danger to the national security of the US and the security of the world.” Shahda then half asked, half commanded SoftLayer to “please take the appropriate actions to immediately shut it down. Thank you very much.” The message was signed simply “Joseph Shahda.”

That afternoon, SoftLayer’s “abuse team” wrote back to say it was “processing this report.” Shahda, frustrated, sent a second e-mail later that day. “Just to let you know that this terrorist forum have [sic] a banner right on the front page on how to manufacture a missile. They title it ‘how to manufacture a missile from A to Z’.” Three days later—the same day as my visit to Shahda’s house— was down. The day before that, Shahda had shuttered another site, this one hosted by a German Internet service provider. Three months earlier, it had existed under a Malaysian ISP. Shahda knows this because he had convinced that Web service’s employees to shut it down, too.

But that’s the problem with Shahda’s efforts. Nearly half the time, the sites he dismantles pop up again elsewhere. Shahda says it’s easier to close them a second time because you can show the current company the actions of the former. Yet that also plays into the argument for leaving all terrorist sites up. “You’re basically playing whack-a-mole,” says James Forest of the Combating Terrorism Center. “My own personal belief is that Mr. Shahda should leave such endeavors to the professionals.” Forest may have a point. The sites’ growth exceeds even the most ambitious censorship efforts. There are approximately 5,000 known terrorist sites, a figure that is probably outdated even as you read this. The Israeli professor Gabriel Weimann has noted that in the year after he completed a book on the rise of terrorist websites, 500 more were launched. “Unless Mr. Shahda wants to go undercover,” Forest says, “he’s not doing much help.”

Shahda has tried that. He’s in fact still trying to infiltrate the forums he visits, but not once, he says, have other members divulged anything that could disrupt a terrorist cell. The night of our meeting, he dug into his computer files for a recent dialogue from the forum Paltalk, lurching forward the whole time, as if proximity to the screen would help his search. In the transcript, from a private chat room called, roughly, “The Supporters of Mujahedeen,” Shahda had been chatting with an al Qaeda sympathizer whose username was “Issame Din.” Shahda had told Issame he lived in Dubai.

“Brother, do not tell me where you live…The enemies of Allah are so numerous.”

“But this is a private room,” Shahda had responded.

“They are conspiring against us…Be careful, brother.”

“Who do you mean…Do you mean CIA? FBI?”

“Now you understand.”

“You see?” Shahda asked, turning to me. “Even in th
ese rooms they don’t disclose anything.”

But who’s to say what they might disclose when he’s not watching? The notion that terrorists divulge nothing—Shahda bases it solely on his own experiences. Because he’s experienced it, it must be so. His own perspective often keeps him from seeing anyone else’s.

At work, Shahda just received a promotion to management. It requires him to allow others to perform tasks he once did very well. Often they fail in some small way, and Shahda sends out curt reprimands over e-mail. His boss has warned Shahda against this, tried to explain that they are part of a multinational corporation and that differences in culture and styles of working must be accepted. But Shahda cannot help himself. It frustrates him when others cannot accomplish what he knows can be done. So he must find an outlet.

Go on to the next page…

The people most upset with Shahda’s tactics aren’t intelligence agents or senior fellows at some institute. They’re, well, people just like him, maybe a dozen in all and spread throughout the country, operatives who work independently, with no direct ties to the state, doing work they believe benefits the state. It is the latest way to combat terrorism: Mimic its structure.

In this somewhat rogue group almost everyone but Shahda works to mine terrorist websites. Shannen Rossmiller, a mother in Montana and a former local judge, is the best at it. With the help of translation software, she has developed numerous online personas, each with a detailed biography. To keep her stories straight, she logs the targets, their personal histories, and their correspondence with her in a database. Six and a half years ago she couldn’t speak a word of Arabic and had little knowledge of Middle Eastern culture. Today she’s aided federal agents in more than 200 intelligence cases and three criminal trials. (Her most recent quarry, Michael Reynolds, who planned to blow up U.S. oil pipelines, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in November. Rossmiller knows Shahda’s work well. “We want the same thing but we go about it by different means,” she says. “People who want to close these sites are my nemesis. There’s nothing more frustrating than when you’re working on something actively and all of a sudden the stuff is taken down.”

Aaron Weisburd runs Internet Haganah out of his Illinois home. He is the granddaddy of independent operatives, having started shortly after 9/11. A former IT guy, Weisburd played a central role in bringing down the aforementioned Irhabi 007 in 2005. He, like Shahda, has shut down sites to frustrate terrorists. But he’s wary of doing that exclusively. “The shutting down of sites is like the application of a pesticide,” Weisburd writes via e-mail. “You do it too much and all you do is create a resistant pest. The terrorists who use these sites *will* find some other way to communicate and to promote their agenda.”

It could be argued that these operatives do better work than the government itself. Compare Rossmiller’s track record to Guantanamo’s, which has produced only one conviction; consider how Weisburd had to scream Irhabi’s location before authorities would take on the case; look at SITE, a DC operation that handed the White House this fall what the CIA and FBI did not—the latest bin Laden video ahead of its official release, thanks to a SITE surveillance that intercepted messages from al Qaeda’s communication network. What confirms the quality of these operatives’ work is the government’s response to them: It wants their secrets. Rossmiller is now the FBI’s first Internet operational agent. Weisburd’s colleagues include retired intelligence agents. SITE sells its analyses to government agencies, just as other independent groups do. These freelancers, these average people, are the newest branch of the military-industrial complex.

Which is exactly why you shouldn’t believe a word they say, Shahda says. “They have incentives to keep the sites up,” he says—their financial well-being depends on it. It is statements like this that make Shahda still more of a loner, his theories rejected even by the fringe agents whose personalities most resemble his own. But he continues on, enduring the very real threats (threats that keep one of his friends from speaking to me, and his brother from revealing for publication either his name or location); living with the setbacks, the stubborn administrators in places like Malaysia and even here in the U.S. who refuse to take down their sites; living, too, with the horror of the sites themselves, because he has something, he works in service of something, that few others in the business have benefit of: a precedent.

There was a man at Shahda’s college in Lebanon, a physics major. He was a secular Muslim, and Shahda enjoyed talking science with him after class. Over the course of their two-year relationship, though, things changed. The physics major grew tense around Shahda. He began speaking in a more baroque manner. He grew out his beard. One Friday toward the end of their junior year, Shahda went to greet the physics major before class, and he refused to shake Shahda’s hand. He said it would leave him impure to touch an infidel before Friday prayers. Shahda backed away and never spoke to him again, appalled that a man of science could turn out this way.

Shahda doesn’t know what happened to his old friend, but he wonders how many other physics majors are out there. He believes there is one way to ensure they remain physics majors.