Long before ISIS became infamous for its Internet exploitation, back in the mid 2000s, al-Qaeda in Iraq was caught using Texas server companies to incite and recruit. So was Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian leaders. This series explores the confounding legal issues that arise when American Internet companies are caught profiting from outlawed terrorist groups.
Nov 14, 2004
CARBONDALE, ILL. — The grainy Internet movie file flashes a title: “Al Qaeda Movement in the Land of the Two Rivers. An Operation Against the British Troops Near Baghdad.”
The streaming online video clip shows a car as it motors slowly up a single-lane road, away from the cameraman who shakily zooms in as it gathers speed toward a British checkpoint. A caption appears, reading “Here goes the brave lion to tear up his prey and to win paradise.” The cameraman is speaking in Arabic, his voice rising with “God is Great, God is Great” as the car at center screen arrives at the British checkpoint and a soldier standing in the road.
Suddenly, a massive fireball of orange and black lashes upward and outward, instantly slaughtering him and wounding two other British soldiers of the Black Watch Regiment, along with the suicide bomber, according to later press reports.
The Jihadists responsible are then filmed at the scene kicking a dismembered arm left behind by a recovery tank squad. This is a movie clip put up just last week by notorious terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization within a few days of the actual Nov. 7 attack.
Sometime over the weekend, as CBS-11 aired promotions for this story, it disappeared with others like it on an Internet server owned by an up-and-coming Dallas web site hosting company called The Planet. In downtown Dallas. Glorifying the slaughter of American soldiers and their allies in Iraq. Helping to enhance the global street credentials of Zarqawi among any like-minded person with access to a computer.
Weisburd, a self-appointed cyber warrior who since 2002 has run a crusade called Internet Haganah to shut down these so-called “e-jihadists,” is the one who tracked the movies to Dallas. And in recent weeks, Weisburd has discovered that Zarqawi’s home movies on The Planet servers have plenty of other bad company in Big D.
The Planet’s Dallas servers have in recent months hosted web sites run by Islamic extremist organizations the U.S. government has long since banned as Designated Terrorist Organizations – three different Palestinian Islamic Jihad promotional sites and Hamas’ monthly news magazine. Two Hamas websites and two Al Quaeda websites remain on The Planet’s servers, according to Internet Haganah.
For the past two and a half years, Weisburd and his Internet Haganah volunteer translators and analysts across the globe have been using a tracking program he devised to expose the presence of extremist outlawed Jihadists and hound them off the Web by asking the server companies to drop their business.
A former computer programmer, Weisburd started chasing after e-jihadists on a lark and soon realized that literally thousands of extremist Islamic web sites were out there in cyberspace, beckoning to millions of Muslims around the world to join their bloody causes.
“Every moment that these sites are up they encourage jihadists to commit acts of terrorism,” Weisburd told CBS-11 News in his first interview with an American media organization. “They provide instructions to people in how to do things like build bombs. They build identity and a sense of community. They incite violence. They encourage people to go out and kill people.
“I’m of the opinion that one ought not to just sit there and tolerate terrorists advertising their organization,” he said. “They’re not just some other organization. They’re not a humanitarian organization. They’re not a corporation. They’re terrorists. They’re in the business of killing people. They shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy that kind of legitimacy.”
From his home office in the southern Illinois college town of Carbondale, Weisburd has found sites in Dallas literally singing the praises of suicide bombing, sporting photo memorials of martyrs and promoting their bloody, violent causes. Working internationally, he claims his efforts have knocked down more than 550 extremist web sites.
Sometimes, he said, service provider companies resist but most do not want to be associated with terrorists.
“My guess is that in the grand scheme of things one bad customer isn’t worth nearly as much as all the good customers you want to keep who don’t want to be associated with this stuff either,” Weisburd said. “I mean, do you really want to be known as associated with terrorists?”
Most of the time, the giant service providers do not know what kinds of web sites they are hosting until someone complains. Such companies typically sell wholesalers their web space and those wholesalers in turn contract much of the business with the public, with just about anyone who offers a name and a credit card.
Under federal law, it is illegal for any American company to knowingly do business with a designated terrorist organization without reporting it, although federal prosecutions are considered difficult to bring to fruition across multiple international jurisdictions. Federal prosecutions also are difficult because straw purchasers several steps removed from a terrorist group who might secretly buy the web sites can be difficult to directly link to terrorist organizations. The First Amendment otherwise protects even most hate speech from prosecution, limiting what the government can do but certainly not what civilians like Weisburd can do.
Which is to track down the e-jihadists wherever they may turn up, report their new presence and have them thrown off the Web until they pop up again somewhere else. Weisburd said his computer programs constantly prowl the World Wide Web for more than 200 web sites in his growing database, keeping them ever on the run.
Weisburd and the estimated 30,000 Internet Haganah followers who see his regular reports on the whereabouts of Islamic extremist websites said he couldn’t yet claim credit for shaming the five web sites he knows of off the Dallas servers. In September, three Palestinian Islamic Jihad web sites he had shut down in Switzerland showed up on The Planet’s servers in Dallas.
Weisburd said he reported their resurfacing to his Internet Haganah readers and moved on to other business. The three websites have since disappeared but Weisburd isn’t sure of what happened.
The Planet executives declined requests for on-camera interviews but said in telephone conversations that the company simply does not have the ability to police for Islamic extremist material among the 1.5 million web sites and 20,000 customers. The web sites appear to violate content that is banned by The Planet’s own acceptable use policy.
More than a week after CBS-11 informed Chief Operating Officer Lance Crosby of a Hamas magazine web site, www.fm-m.com that were operating off of his servers, it remained online. Hamas, which was designated a terrorist organization in 1995, has taken credit for years of suicide bombings that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli civilians and at least ten Americans. An email request for interviews at the website went unanswered last week.
But former federal prosecutor Matt Yarbrough, now a private attorney specializing in cyber law, said server companies like The Planet can easily and cheaply patrol their servers.
“There would have to be a social sort of outcry or decision here on the part of the service provider to want to do this, but it is technically possible,” Yarbrough said. “All they would have to do is basically run a string search across its own server farm to look at the content of each one of these web sites, whether it’s a key word, or terrorism, or bomb, or Holy Jihad.”
Yarbrough said service providers who choose not to police for extremist Islamic material risks civil liability should anyone ever be injured or killed as a result of Internet encouragement.
“Victims of terrorist attacks are not going to be suing terrorists; they’re going to be suing deep pockets right here in the United States that played some role, even if it’s very tenuous to what happened in the act of terrorism,” Yarbrough said.
Mark Briskman, head of the Dallas area chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said his organization was “saddened to know that a company in Dallas is hosting hate materials and hope they take actions against any sites that violate their rules.”
“This is not an issue of freedom of speech,” Briskman said. “Rather, a company can choose with whom they wish to do business and hold the right to terminate that business relationship. “
Meanwhile, macabre new video clips continued showing up on The Planet servers last week, posted there by Zarqawi’s organization, Weisburd said. They included a video clip entitled “Smoke ‘em Out” showing American soldiers putting out fires from a car bomb attack somewhere in Iraq.
The video then shows footage of a dead U.S. soldier, accompanied by the caption “The picture of a U.S. soldier who was killed in the explosion.” A smiling Iraqi man is shown proudly holding a torn American combat boot.
Weisburd said he discovered the video clips on the Dallas server while patrolling a highly restricted Al Qaeda discussion forum where Zarqawi’s personal spokesman often posts messages about the group’s latest terror attacks. After the suicide bombing that killed the British soldier, Weisburd said, the terrorist spokesman posted a message in the forum claiming credit and promising to post proof soon.
The next day, Zarqawi’s spokesman announced the proof and provided a link to the video of the exploding car bomb, on The Planet.com.
Asked how he would like The Plant to respond, Weisburd said, “I would hope that they would contact their customer whose site is being used to host that film and that their customer would respond by suspending that account.
“The Planet is not profiting from this hardly at all. Being a step or two removed from the paying customer, there’s really very little interest for them,” he said. “But they have a lot to lose in terms of simply business reputation. “
As in any war, even in cyberspace, those who shoot are liable to be shot at. And figuratively, Weisburd, who is Jewish, has taken plenty of shots from the e-Jihadists who have come to hate him and the trouble he causes.
“Web sites are central to their identity. It’s a window on their soul,” Weisburd explained. “They associate with these sites in a very personal way. And so, when you cause one of these sites to be shut down you cause them personal pain. They’ll find their sites down and go to my site and find out it was me.”
Haganah is a hebrew word meaning “defense” and became potent when it was chosen as the name of Jewish defense militias that fended off relentless Arab attacks on settlements before Israel’s 1948 establishment. The Haganah was precurser to today’s Israeli Defense Force.
Internet Haganah’s persistence has drawn repeated counterattacks from Islamist website forums and chat rooms. Posters urge Muslim hackers to attack Weisburd, and they have succeeded on a number of occasions of shutting him down, albeit temporarily.
“They just generally call me ‘That Jew,’ Al Yahood,” he said. “In Arabic, calling somebody a Jew is as bad as it gets.”
Physical threats of violence are not uncommon, either. Most recently, Weisburd received a letter from someone in Cherry Hill, N.J. threatening that they would cut his head off if he did not stop the cyber warfare.
But Weisburd, who keeps loaded firearms at hand at all times, says he is ready for them and will keep the pressure on.
“I’m in-your-face,” he said. “It’s important to confront them as it would be any thug. The way you deal with people like them is you stand up and fight them. You don’t run away and hide.
“You don’t let them control the battlefield, and you don’t let them take advantage of your own networks in order to destroy your own society.”
Top Iranian government websites discovered on Texas Internet hosting company
June, 13, 2005
For the past 14 months, the embargoed hard-line Islamic government of Iran has connected dozens of its official websites to the World Wide Web through an American Internet company headquartered in Bedford, Texas. Among them: the official English-language website of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ul-Uzma Khamenei and official sites of other ruling religious clerics who form one prong of what President George W. Bush has called an “Axis of Evil.”
The websites of Iran’s ruling religious hierarchy have resided unnoticed on the Internet servers of the Bedford-based company CI-Host since last year, company officials acknowledge. More than 45 other Iranian government websites hosted by CI Host include some that publish Islamic Republic propaganda, hail deceased founding intellectuals of the 1979 revolution, and provide theological guidance to inquiring souls.
CI Host said Monday it had taken down all 48 of the sites after a CBS-11 News inquiry brought them to company attention and prompted an internal investigation. The investigation traced the sites to Iran.
“At CI Host we definitely believe red, white and blue,” said company founder Christopher Faulkner.
He said CI Host, which carries 225,000 sites whose owners pay for space on its servers, was an unwitting victim of a client in Los Angeles. That client had brokered American Internet space for the Iranian government unbeknownst to CI Host, Faulkner said. He declined to name the Los Angeles client on the advice of his company’s attorney.
“I think that finding out that indirectly a customer of ours has been doing business with the Iranian government I do think adds a bit of insult to our country,” Faulkner said.
Comprehensive trade sanctions since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution prohibit almost anyone in the U.S. from doing business with anyone in Iran. Since the early 1980s, the U.S. government has labeled Iran a top state sponsor of global terrorism. Tension between Iran and the U.S. has spiked since the 9-11 attacks and remains high over Iran’s ongoing effort to develop nuclear weapons. In 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department included in the sanctions most Internet-related business between the two countries, according to a department “guidance” paper.
Some of the web sites raise unexplored questions about indications of possible Iranian government activities on American soil.
For instance, one of the Iranian government web sites promotes a U.S. prison proselytizing mission called the Islamic Humanitarian Service, which claims to field ongoing prison outreach programs in state jails, including in Louisiana and Michigan. The IHS web site claims the Iran backed organization “has successfully provided several prisons with supplies of our Korans.pamphlets and countless essays and discourses on Islamic morality and ethics.”
Another Iranian government web site on CI Host sells a broad range of religious products marketed under the name “NoorSoft.”
The Iranian web sites were discovered by Aaron Weisburd, an Illinois-based, self-described terrorist web site tracker. His organization, the Society for Internet Research, finds and exposes sites that he says promote terror attacks. His efforts to publicize the sites have forced American and foreign hosting companies to drop hundreds of web sites run by U.S.-outlawed groups such as Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Last week, Weisburd published a report revealing the presence of the 48 Iranian government websites on CI Host servers. CBS-11 News has confirmed Weisburd’s findings that all belong to an Iranian government entity known as the Computer Research Center of Islamic Sciences (CRCIS) in Qom, Iran.
The CRCIS amounts to the Iranian government’s Internet technology division. A July 1999 National Geographic Magazine article about Iran describes the government’s high-tech computer center in Qom as an “incongruous operation” amid the city’s many seminary buildings and gold-domed mosques. The author wrote that inside “turbaned scholars and students sat behind banks of computers, dissecting holy texts using Windows 95 or training to become software engineers.”
“The center’s staff members, all mullahs, produce illustrated CD-ROMs of the Koran and other religious products, which are sold worldwide,” the article states, quoting the center’s deputy director as saying “Islam encourages us to use technology and knowledge.”
Weisburd’s discovery of Iranian government websites on an American Internet server provider raises questions about whether such trade violates U.S. sanctions against Iran. Expansive trade sanctions against Iran were updated in 1995, and again to include the Internet in 2003.
Illegal trade with Iran “by any U.S. person” falls under the civil and criminal enforcement authority of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Trade with Iran that is found to be criminal could bring up to ten years in prison, a $500,000 fine for corporations and a $250,000 fine for individuals. OFAC can impose civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation.
Faulkner said CI Host has cooperated in the past with the FBI and U.S. Secret Service to investigate websites belonging to banned terrorist organizations with whom it also is illegal to do business.
“Being able to set up as a customer and being hosted at CI Host without us having knowledge of that I think does make us wonder, ‘if that is out there, what else is out there?” Faulkner said. “And, how do we take 220,000 sites and police them for content, including translating them from Arabic into English and having that rigorous process?”
Weisburd said he would like federal authorities to determine the identity of CI Host’s Los Angeles client, the one who brokered the web sites.
“This is what we pay tax money to the federal government for,” Weisburd said. “Hit them (CI Host) over the head with a subpoena. That ought to do the job.”
Weisburd said hundreds of thousands of Iranian expatriates live in Los Angeles, so “it is not surprising that some are more than happy to do business with the regime.”
An OFAC spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. said the department could not comment specifically about the legality of Americans doing business directly from Iran’s ruling mullahs.
“Unless we looked directly at each case individually it would be tough for us to make a judgment call on legality or illegality,” an OFAC spokeswoman said.
But CBS-11 News has learned that the treasury department was concerned enough about Iranian web sites on U.S. servers to mount a “civil inquiry” against another Dallas-area Internet-service provider, The Planet. According to a January 12, 2005 “Requirement to Furnish Information” letter to The Planet, OFAC investigators demanded information pertaining to an Iranian web site hosted by the company.
“OFAC Enforcement is conducting a civil inquiry to determine whether any service provided by The Planet.entails a prohibited exportation of goods, technology or services under the Regulations,” the letter states. “The information you provide in response to this letter may serve as the basis of further civil enforcement action by OFAC.”
OFAC officials declined to answer questions about the inquiry. The Planet has denied knowingly hosting any illegal web sites.
Hezbollah TV booted off hijacked Austin website after Express-News inquiry
The fight between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, so visible with bombs and rockets, has moved in less obvious ways into cyberspace, where it has cast a shadow over an unlikely locale this week: Austin.
One of the war’s hottest targets popped up in the state’s capital and then disappeared under cyber-fire Monday. It was the Web site of Hezbollah’s much-hunted propaganda arm, the satellite television operation known as Al-Manar, which is outlawed in the U.S.
With Israeli planes striking at its transmission facilities in Lebanon, Al- Manar set up its Web site on the servers of Austin-based Broadwing Communications as an alternative for Hezbollah to stream a message that warplanes have been trying to stop since Israel started its counteroffensive.
Broadwing’s carrying of the station, however, could prove problematic if the company leased to Al-Manar because the U.S. government in March declared Al-Manar a terrorist entity, making it illegal for any U.S. firm to do business with it.
After a San Antonio Express-News inquiry about the presence of Al-Manar Monday, a Broadwing Communications spokeswoman confirmed it had sold server space to Al-Manar through a third party in Beirut and decided to take the site down. Company officials later said they had discovered the web site had hacked its way onto its servers.
“We did not know that we had a customer that had a relationship with Al-Manar,” Laura Borgstede said Monday night.
On Tuesday, Al-Manar’s Web site popped up again, this time on an India-based server, Brainpulse. But when contacted by the Express-News on Tuesday, company officials there said they had severed relations with Al-Manar.
Al-Manar’s Web site was tracked to the Austin company’s servers by a private group in Illinois called the Society for Internet Research. It bills its mission as combating Islamic extremist use of the Internet and regularly tracks radical Web sites that raise money and recruits for violence in hopes of hounding them out of cyberspace.
The organization’s founder, Aaron Weisburd, said the outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East hasn’t been kind to more than 20 other Hezbollah Web sites, many of them carried by U.S. companies, as activists like himself and probably Israeli government hackers target them, especially Al-Manar.
“Of all the Hezbollah sites, Al-Manar is like ‘It,'” Weisburd said. “It’s well known among Arabs throughout the world, and because they’ve been booted off a number of satellites, particularly in Europe, their way of getting content out is going to be online, and so that makes this Web site important. It gets heavy traffic.”
The U.S. State Department long ago declared Hezbollah a U.S.-designated foreign terror organization. The group says it is dedicated to the elimination of Israel but also broadcasts a strident anti-American message.
In designating Hezbollah’s television organization a terrorist entity earlier this year, the U.S. government accuses Al-Manar of providing cover for Hezbollah operatives posing as employees and supporting fundraising and recruitment through advertising revenue.
The station in recent weeks has broadcast overtly anti-American propaganda, as well as front-line footage of dead civilians killed in Israeli counter-attacks.
Activists like Weisburd have tracked the Web sites of dozens of U.S.-designated terror groups to apparently unaware American Web hosting companies, particularly in Texas, where such companies proliferate.
In 2004, for instance, Dallas-based The Planet dropped Web sites carrying death videos posted by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group in Iraq after the sites were brought to management’s attention. Last year, the Bedford-based CI Host dropped more than four dozen Iranian government Web sites, including sites for Iran’s most prominent ruling clerics. The company claims it unknowingly hosted the sites in apparent violation of a U.S. embargo that has targeted that country since the 1979 hostage crisis.
As with Al-Manar this week, such sites drop off-line for a while and then reappear elsewhere, often with companies based in the U.S. All the chasing around underscores an ongoing debate within the U.S. intelligence community as to when or whether to enforce the statutes that call for fines or even prison sentences for corporations found to be doing business with
designated terror groups.
Is it better to expunge Web sites that actively raise money, openly recruit killers and incite violence, or leave them in place for law enforcement agencies to monitor?
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which has jurisdiction, rarely — if ever — has charged any hosting company with a criminal violation for dealing with known terror groups but has occasionally issued cease-and-desist orders, a spokeswoman said.
Congressman Gary Ackerman, D-New York, has pushed to start enforcing the law against American Internet companies, to no avail so far, his aide said.
Dr. Jeffery Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University said FBI counter-terrorism agents believe many extremist Islamic Web sites, with their encrypted chat rooms and message boards, are more valuable left alone.
“The FBI doesn’t really try to close down these Internet sites because they are a valuable source of intelligence,” said Addicott, who often mingles with agents involved in domestic counter-terrorism. “What they do is they monitor these things. As a practical matter they crop up somewhere else in a day or two anyway. So rather than doing that, give them enough rope to let them hang themselves.”
Weisburd does not disagree but makes a distinction between interactive Web sites and those like Al-Manar, which only disseminates a message one way.
“A certain amount of thinning the herd is useful,” he said.