Click, Click, Boom
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, quds4.com. 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 quds4.com 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—quds4.com 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 There are approximately 5,000 known terrorist sites, a figure that is probably outdated even as you read this.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 these 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.
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.