What I Believe: The Justification For Attacking Jihadist Websites
There has been a lot of on-line debate about the value of attacking jihadist websites. One such debate between a person who uses the nickname Anonakomis and another person who uses the nickname The Jester put a spotlight on the issue and begs for justification of why attacks are appropriate, in my opinion.
Anonakomis believes that attacking jihadist websites tends to force website administrators to 1) improve their security posture and/or 2) drive the websites deeper into the dark corners of the Internet and thus make them more difficult for intelligence gathering efforts. The theory is that valuable intelligence can be gathered by monitoring Internet traffic and postings from these sites and, therefore, anything that impedes that traffic and reduces the free flow of chatter actually does more harm to intelligence gathering efforts than is worth the temporary disruption caused by denial of service attacks.
The Jester believes that even a temporary disruption in services provided by jihadist websites is enough to frustrate, confound, and demoralize forum users enough that it, in effect, scatters the crowd and thus makes it more difficult to organize thoughts and inspire ideas.
A shout-out to Anonakomis and The Jester: Gentlemen, I hope that I have adequately represented your beliefs. My apologies if I have fallen short.
To Sam Bowne: You asked for a position paper. Here it is. You may or may not agree with it but it is what it is.
Many would prefer life’s decisions to be either black or white – blue pill or red pill. Life, of course, is not that simple. Standing in defense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL people is an absolute, just as murdering innocent people and imposing one’s will on others are absolutes in the other extreme. We can all agree on those principals, I hope. The problems begin when we start drawing lines around gray areas. Decisions about right and wrong can get blurred and confusing, and are often based on prejudices that have no legitimate place in the matter.
Topiary once said that fences create sides, sides create enemies, and enemies create wars. Wars, he said, are a common foe. I couldn’t agree more.
My reasoning regarding attacks against on-line extremist web sites:
There are three different camps of thought when it comes to the question of how to address jihadist websites. None of three are just plain wrong but they each have their failings. Let me explain:
1. The first camp is what we can call the Intelligence Community camp. The Intelligence Community believes there is far greater worth in monitoring assets with the option of destroying them later than “bombing” them on sight. In principal, one cannot argue with the merits of this belief. It is a long-held military strategy to “milk” an asset for all it is worth before killing it.
The Intelligence Community would much rather allow jihadist websites to go about their normal business with a mistaken belief they are operating beneath our radar.
2. The second camp is what we can call the Political Community camp. There are forces driving this camp in all directions but, ultimately, their will to take decisive action in a direction is predicated by public and political perceptions, the maintenance of political objectives. So as far as dealing with jihadist websites is concerned, any discussion of disrupting them is lost in a fog of the political and legal ramifications of doing so. Lawyers get involved and the debates go on forever.
3. The third camp is the Military Community camp. The Military Community is made up of people with a “Get It Done” mindset. Anything that stops the hemorrhaging of American and allied blood in the global fight against terrorism is on the table for consideration. Lawyers and politicians are often held with a certain amount of unspoken disdain.
As for jihadist websites, there are several camps as well:
1. There are websites that are closely held and well defended by the enemy. The sites are closely monitored by site administrators, and significant investments in infrastructure are made to keep them operational and as secure as possible. These sites offer rich intelligence about the nature of our enemy that probably outweighs the value of efforts to force them offline. The problem is that most of these sites are usually well hidden in the dark corners of the Internet, and are visited by people who have received an invitation to do so.
2. There are websites that are closely held by the enemy in that they speak with a unified and orchestrated voice. The content of these sites is regulated so that it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart except for cosmetic design differences. The intent is to make sure the same message is presented to anyone who happens upon each site.
Those visitors who are inspired can register for membership. Registered members can choose to immerse themselves in “the ideology” to a deeper depth and, at some point, will usually be funneled toward the jihadist sites in the darker corners of the web.
3. Finally, there are sites that are managed by people who do not hold a close affiliation with the other sites. These sites are sometimes out of step with the mainstream jihadist view. An example of the mindset of a person who admins this type of site is seen in the recent death threats against David Letterman. Even though the threats were made on a higher-tier web forum, the author was obviously intoxicated or horribly misinformed. While the threats resulted in a significant amount of media attention in the United States, they were virtually ignored in the much more focused chatter posted by mainstream jihadists. So, these sites are collateral to the enemy’s objectives. Whether the sites live or die hardly matters and, therefore, most of these sites pop up and then fade away as the administrator gets bored and moves on to another venture.
Personally, I believe that DOS attacking websites that fall in camp # 1 can be counter-productive. If an attack can be deep – by that, I mean not a simple denial of service type of attack – then the benefits may outweigh the costs; however, we are talking a take-over of the site for intelligence-gathering purposes.
Personally, I believe that attacking websites that fall in camp # 2 are complementary to intelligence-gathering efforts against websites that fall in camp # 1. By disrupting the message and demoralizing the messenger of camp # 2 sites, we can effectively interfere with the public relations and intake value of these sites. Left unchecked, these sites spew a common voice with an appearance of strength and solidarity. Any effort that causes weakness and disfunction is capable of instilling mistrust by visitors and posters alike, and thus serves to reduce the funneling of ideologically-challenged visitors to the higher-tiered forums where they can be further radicalized into action.
Furthermore, camp # 2 sites are not likely to invest great sums of money in security. The nature of these sites doesn’t make them candidates for that kind of expenditure. It is far easier and less costly for jihadist administrators to accept quantity over quality.
Finally, camp # 2 sites are not likely to be driven into the darker corners of the Internet because they primarily exist as public relations, recruitment, and funding intake sites. These sites are only of value if they can be easily found and operate with impunity.
By disrupting these “intake” sites, the higher-tiered sites have a choice of either becoming more “findable” or risk losing the user base that made them worthwhile to the enemy in the first place.
The camp # 3 sites are like cockroaches. Even cockroaches will breed if left unchecked.
I hope this helps to explain the value in disrupting jihadist web forums – from my perspective.
My hope is that some U.S. or Allied soldier will get to go home to his wife and children because that one dollar of jihadist financial support or one moment of jihadist inspiration that would have killed him was disrupted.
Call to action:
You are free to disagree with this position paper if you choose. The point is that you are free.
Thanks for reading.