UPDATE FROM OCTAVIA: Thanks for the comments about the hacking vs. domain registration expiration. This is definitely a valid point. Our focus here is not to write a technical essay about hacking. It’s merely an attempt at showing how some people – we don’t know who – are fighting al Qaeda by attacking their websites. Al-Ekhlaas website has been down for months following years of operation. While today it redirects you to joker.com, tomorrow it might redirect you to another site. While we do not know who is hacking into the jihadi websites, there is no doubt they’re being hacked.
How do we know that?
On the jihadi sites that work, it is common practice to announce that “Site X has been downed by evil forces but we’re working on bringing it back up.” Or “Site Y was hacked but you can join us temporarily on this address.” To the dismay of the jihadist community and its supporters, the Al-Ekhlaas website has been downed/hacked/disabled – you choose the terminology that works for you. From the chatter about it, this doesn’t seem like this is a domain registration problem. Al-Ekhlaas has been on line uninterrupted for a long time. This is the first time it disappears abruptly and can’t get back on.
Octavia Nasr | BIO
CNN senior editor for Arab affairs
A hacking war is raging on Jihadi websites. Radical Islamist sites have been attacking and getting attacked for quite some time. The website hacking practice was common in 2001 and 2002... Following the 9/11 attacks when al Qaeda used only one website to communicate its messages to supporters and foes alike. That website was called alneda.com. It was getting constantly hacked... sometimes several hackings a day. After every hacking the site managed to resurface on the net until it disappeared from the scene in 2004 to be replaced by other websites - What started as one al Qaeda-linked site mushroomed into dozens which branched out into hundreds of supporting sites that serve as dissemination centers over the internet.
Two well-known al Qaeda-linked sites are Al-Hesbah and Al-Ekhlaas. Al-Hesbah is the oldest and requires a username and password to access it. Its membership was open to the public in 2004 but became restricted over the years. This site became known as the first venue for uploaded al Qaeda messages - from Osama bin Laden video messages to statements and claims of responsibilities for attacks carried out in Afghanistan, Iraq or even Europe. Al-Ekhlaas followed with a sleeker image, and more technical bells and whistles.
The hacking war works both ways.
There are documented cases of extremist groups hacking into local websites that disagree with their messages. One case that drew the attention of western media took place about a month ago when a Sunni group hacked into the site of Shiite Iraqi Cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The group posted a Bill Maher clip making fun of an edict the cleric had made concerning a sexual subject. The group's claim was that the cleric and his edicts are bringing shame to Islam and giving a good reason for the west to laugh at the Islamic religion.
Shortly before September of 2008, al Qaeda watchers started speculating about the next al Qaeda message which they expected to be released around the 9/11 anniversary - a practice al Qaeda and its video arm, As-Sahab, have been consistent about. The message never came partly because those websites were hacked into and completely disabled at times.
Today Al-Ekhlaas is off line, having been replaced with the domain joker.com. Trying to go to their site, you get a message saying that "this domain was registered with Joker.com."
Al-Hesbah and a few other al Qaeda-linked sites remain in operation, not because they escaped hacking, but because they manage to resurrect themselves under different names and continue to post messages mainly from al Qaeda enthusiasts. So the drop in al Qaeda-released videos is evident, the lack of messages from al Qaeda leadership is obvious. What is not obvious is whether al Qaeda has decided to slow down production and release of videos or the hacking is so severe and pointed that it paralyzed the media activity of the terror group.