October 23rd, 2008
01:03 PM ET

bin Laden hacked?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/01/12/art.horiz.joker.jpg caption="'Al-Ekhlass' A website where many of al Qaeda's jihadist messages are posted is offline, having been replaced with the domain joker.com."]

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.

Filed under: 360° Radar • al Qaeda • Octavia Nasr • Osama bin Laden • T1 • TV • War on Terror
soundoff (148 Responses)
  1. jack usaf retired

    i like your page,showing and advertizing for obama,you news people are really screwed up,you had better listen to mccaiin,our future is in the hands of a man that can protect our country,withgreat experience,obama dosent have the experience of a private,as a matter of fact,a privat would know more...get real cnn

    October 23, 2008 at 5:21 pm |
  2. MB

    Wow. It's amazing how many people are still so ignorant about the Internet and how it works.

    In the comments section we see people talking about tracking them with SPAM (via the NSA, no doubt!), someone suggesting we monitor them with "reverse IP tools" (whatever that is), using super computers to track them "in seconds", someone else throwing out the phrase "social engineering" like they know what it means, someone else thinking we can plant a virus on the web site that will allow a bomb to track to it... ad nauseam!

    Not to mention the poorly researched article itself.

    This is why I get paid so well. Thanks for your support.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:17 pm |
  3. Richard Rankin

    It's time to go after their money. Start phishing for donations, find bank accounts, credit cards, etc. There's a lot of dough out there going to them. Let's steal it.

    Oh yeah, I don't really mean it – I'm not encouraging criminal activity. Just a joke. Just kidding.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:13 pm |
  4. Heather,ca

    Wow. Who knew, so terrorist organizations have hitech problems to. I cant believe Im even commenting on this. This is so funny, weird,strange, odd etc. Maybe if they keep having technical difficulties with each other via the virtual online world they will hopefully stay out of our physical world and the real world attacks. So do they outsource tech support or something? How does a terrorist organization request tech support. Hi perhaps you have heard of my organization, we are very big and well known still dont know how about 9/11? Yeah that was us. We keep getting hacked and since this is a very busy time of year with the us election and a new president we need to get our site up thanks.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:13 pm |
  5. Andrew Leonidas

    If the intelligence services really wanted all Al Qaeda linked websites removed from the net it would be a trivial matter, but why would they? They provide a honeypot of information about the forward face of the organization and those interested in it's message.

    These websites provide a starting point for tracing the locations of all the sympathizers and possible cell members that access the pages and a technical means to back trace the origin of the media that is posted. I'm sure these radical forums have been the primary source of information used to identify individuals that needed to be put on a watch list and were eventually arrested, especially in Europe.

    In the mountains on the Afghan border Al Qaeda has the upper hand, but on an open global computer network centrally controlled by the United States they really don't stand a chance, its the one domain where the intelligence services really are in control and know what they are doing. They are monitoring the websites constantly for valuable information and well meaning kids trying in vain to momentarly take them off the web are only taking away an important resource. If the intelligence community didn't feel that the gains outweighed the risks allowing them to stay active the websites would already vanish from the net before the suburban computer vigilantes even had a chance to hear about them.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:06 pm |
  6. Mike - Central Canada

    Everyone seems to think that everyone visiting a pro-Al-Qaeda website is a terrorist. Far from it. People are free to support the actions and goals of Al-Qaeda if they wish. Terrorists perform acts of terrorism. Visiting a website and believing there are good reasons behind the actions of Al-Qaeda ARE NOT acts of terrorism.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:06 pm |
  7. John Tucker, New York City, NY

    I find it quite funny actually lol.... thats supposed to be like their top secret, password protected website.... So much for " HIgh Level Security "

    October 23, 2008 at 5:04 pm |
  8. Gary Davis

    I say let them have their websites and use them to find out who is posting. A good sniffer identifing the posters would be worth its weight in gold.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:02 pm |
  9. MH

    I can't believe people would be so rude as to hack into AL Qaeda websites. He is just another "victim" of the West ; misunderstood.

    I'm sure that Bin Laden could find a lawyer in the USA to represent him in a suit against the government. After all it was "George Bush's fault" (per Rosie) for September 11, 2001. Better yet Bin Laden could sue for liable.

    In reality...let's go kick the crap out of him. He's a murderer.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:02 pm |
  10. chris in FL

    Obama will find him, he's promised he will do everything else. Wait, 68% of the military want McCain to win, I hope those inspiring speeches to all the cool-aide drinking, handout wanting, class warfare types work on the military.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:02 pm |
  11. Craig

    I say let Al Qaeda have some Websites. What better way to gain information then letting them post it online for us all to read. We would better understand their leadership, structure, plans, etc.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:59 pm |
  12. Philly Mike

    I believe that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008 makes this type of hacking illegal

    October 23, 2008 at 4:57 pm |
  13. Donkey Kong

    This is not hacking. Their domain registration expired and someone else bought it.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:54 pm |
  14. stevethetruck

    Sorry, i just don't believe the whole Bin laden story anymore. Bush has worked with that faily for years. He even snuck them outa the country after te false flag of 911. they pull his pictureout of thecrypt every time they want to scare us but he has NEVER BEEN CHARGED by the FBI for any crimes related to 911 even though YOU, CNN, hd his face all over the news withing hours of the "attacks". Sorry I don't belive this hack story or CNN anymore.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:53 pm |
  15. StoJo

    Regardless of their hatred of our liberties, Muslim extremists can neither control nor stop the spread, power or freedoms of the Internet. Although they may be able to place burkas on their women, they cannot cover up free-thinking hackers. God bless the Internet!

    October 23, 2008 at 4:53 pm |
  16. Paul

    So al Qaeda routinely (and often violently) rejects the West and our western lifestyle, yet they use the Internet, a western invention, to spread their message.


    October 23, 2008 at 4:50 pm |
  17. BGko

    Anyone who thinks that bin Laden is still alive and that our government is and has been actually looking for him is a buffoon. The only reason the media and White House keeps up this illusion that bin Laden is out there hiding and we are trying to find him, is because if we find him or if we say he is dead, then it's really hard to justify continuing a war that was all about getting him. And the last thing they want to do is pull the military out of the middle east. They still have a couple more countries they want to invade as outlined in PNAC, an official gov't document put into effect in 2001 when W. became the president and written by Cheney, Rumsfield, Jeb Bush and Wolfowitz. The purpose of Iraq was to destabilize the region and set up permanent military bases. Ask yourself this: If the White House wanted to catch bin Laden, then why was it that on 9/11 after every plane in the US was grounded, the only planes other than military and AF1 in the skies that day were the ones that were carrying all of bin Laden's family back to their home country? Wouldn't we want to detain them for questioning? Interesting. But don't take my word for any of this, do the research yourself.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:50 pm |
  18. namsu

    If the average hacker is getting into these sites, I can bet you that the Gov. probably has them under surveillance. Maybe the hackers are hindering the Gov.'s job. If you want to hack, do it so you can collect some information for law enforcement. If you disable the site, you close the door to information that may be used to capture binladen.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:49 pm |
  19. Jack Crowe

    I didnt realize these people had the brain capacity to hack each other to smithereens?

    October 23, 2008 at 4:46 pm |
  20. dakota low

    well if it keeps getting hacked then why doesn't the United States just put up an unbreakable virus wall that can cause a virus that can completely crash the main frame of the main computer. so if they keep hacking it their main frame will crash.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:45 pm |
  21. steve

    What happened to freedom of speech?

    It's amusing that America wants to limit other people's free speech as much as the terrorists want to limit free speech.

    The reason we are being attacked is because of our refusal to negotiate. We leave them no choice.

    The Declaration of Independence is based on the same refusal to negotiate, except then we were the rebel, and it was the King who was deaf.

    Isn't it funny how history repeats itself? People become that which they fear most.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:45 pm |
  22. Mark

    Oh come on. Hacking has nothing to do with it. The problem is that you can trace data on websites back to geographic locations and bank accounts. Obviously Al Qaeda doesn't want to post info that way. You want propaganda? Just go to cnn.com and see all the stupid things Bush & Co are doing to make the world safe for the crumbling Western economic system. The monkey in the White House and all his confidants are doing a great job for Al Qaeda's ultimate interests. Just reporting on it is enough.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:38 pm |
  23. am

    We (the US gov.) employ many hackers. Yes out and out employ them to take down terror websites and other "enemies of the state" They are smart, professional and have lots of good gear.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:37 pm |
  24. Ben

    Al Qaeda doesn't even exist so whats the point anyways?

    October 23, 2008 at 4:36 pm |
  25. scott

    The hackers were probably employed by the NSA or CIA

    October 23, 2008 at 4:35 pm |
  26. Steve

    can someone explain to me why we insist "Bin Laden" is alive?

    talk about keeping the fear alive....

    October 23, 2008 at 4:35 pm |
  27. LJ Roy

    We get hackers and spams, and viruses and computer abuses all the time. Why should al Qaeda be any different (other than the acual content).

    Face it, as long as society uses computers, no matter who you are, or where you are, you're going to have this problem.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:34 pm |
  28. Mike Hollingsworth

    Hackers of the world! Unite! Open season has been declared on all terrorist propogating sites!!! Crash them all!!

    October 23, 2008 at 4:32 pm |
  29. Mustapha Ibrahim

    You should not be fulled may be they just discovered other ways to get the message to there followers. think about it. the west owns technology they my think the west will know there every move if they keep using the internet. "Technology".

    October 23, 2008 at 4:31 pm |
  30. Dev

    I don't understand how terrorist groups are able to even have websites. I have never understood.

    There are two options here:

    1) In order to put your website up, you need to have a service provider who will host you. This service provider has the IP address of the computers where the sites are updated from. This is elementary.

    2) The other option is that these groups have their own servers and data centers and T1 lines. I find this second option hard to believe. It has to be the previous one.

    So why isn't someone talking to these service providers and getting the details about the locations where the sites are updated from?
    This is ridiculous. I don't buy this. You will have me believe that the bad guys have access to the Internet, access to service providers and there is no way to find them?
    Seems its not a lack of resource or technology, but a lack of will that is in the way of finding the terrorists.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:30 pm |
  31. Josh

    I very much doubt most of these sites are even real. There are so many parties with interests in keeping the terrorist boogey man alive and well. Israel for one. Pretty much any intelligence agency worldwide. Anytime there are intelligence agency/military budget cuts or elections on horizon terror websites and threats seem to pop out of the woodwork. With the world wide financial crisis in the works what better way to send the message to tax payers that cutting the military or intelligence agency budgets is too scary of an option. If that doesn't work no doubt they will manufacture some real activity.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:28 pm |
  32. Hala Abdoun

    I agree with mostly everyone here... how are hackers able to hack without tracking them down? Seriously this whole "we can't find Osama" is more proof that the man is most likely dead or non existent to begin with!

    October 23, 2008 at 4:27 pm |
  33. Kevin

    The US government is a joke. It is such a disgrace that the US Government invented and owns the internet but will not trace these terrorists. Citizens are on their own in protecting themselves from these terrorists. Government is so inefficient and poorly run. US spends billions of taxpayer funds in war against terrorism but most of it goes to enlarge a bureaocracy that is barely working.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:26 pm |
  34. Nicholas

    Bin laden should be dead by now with the huge amount of money invested into antiterriorism. We must not allow these folks to make it to the news. It is rather an indication of US weakness. The more u wrtie about them the more popular they become.

    Nicholas From Nigeria

    October 23, 2008 at 4:25 pm |
  35. Angel

    Sometimes, i get the feeling that Osama is made up but again I don't know.....who knows....at this point I don't know what to believe anymore......

    October 23, 2008 at 4:24 pm |
  36. Lisa

    While I understand everyone's disgust with the messages that may be touted on these websites I would like to remind people that one of the most beautiful concepts to come out of democracy is Freedom of Speech. I will let "President Andrew Shepherd" (Michael Douglas) from "The American President:" take it from here:
    "America is advanced citizenship... "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free". ..."

    October 23, 2008 at 4:22 pm |
  37. mj

    Here we go with another distraction so the American people can get swindled. I guess terrorist, terrorist is next, right? Let the media propaganda begin. Now they don't want us to go to banks, because of the mysterious powder. Another Gov't tactic for WarGames. Thanks, but No Thanks.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:19 pm |
  38. TonyP

    Everyone who hasn't been brainwashed knows that religion is an archaic system of control practiced by those who lack the intellectual where with all to impose their will by other means. All free thinking peoples should stand up and cheer whenever a blow for freedom from religion is struck against all and all religious websites. Isn’t there enough disinformation and lies on the Internet already??

    October 23, 2008 at 4:09 pm |
  39. Jeremy

    personally all that everyone has said in these comments our government has tried to use the ip address and all the devices they have to find the terrorists and yes the government has some of the best hackers in the world doing what you all have said. Which imo our government dosnt want to find them or there being lazy cause they like panic it can cause with the terror meter they have honestly we should sweep the mid east in a line and search every house and take a sonar map of all the cities so we can see underground passages and kill all of them

    October 23, 2008 at 4:03 pm |
  40. PQ

    So often we see al Qaeda trying to turn society back 1,000 years where women are possessions, children (especially female) are denied education and opportunity, entertainment is non-existent, news is suppressed, innovation is evil, and tolerance is absolutely intolerated. Yet these same hypocrites use the Internet, a western invention, to spread their message.

    It's the same mindset where women are forced to be "modest" and covered up to avoid sexual attraction, yet men commonly use rape as a punishment against women who violate their "moral code."


    October 23, 2008 at 4:03 pm |
  41. Derwood

    Quoth Jim:

    "If the Hackers can get into the sites shouldn’t they also be able to write programs that will tell exactly where the computer of origin is located so we can drop a bomb & take the terrorists out ? We have spent Billions on technology & cannot get these guys"

    Put down the Beer and Cheetos, go outside and take a walk.. You watch too much TV. While it is possible to eventually track the actual physical location of an IP address on the internet, it's not something that can happen with the press of a button.. Also, just because you get the IP address of the computer hosting the web page doesn't mean that Ol' Osama is standing next to it.. Its probably hosted by some flunkie that has been no closer to him that GW Bush has.

    October 23, 2008 at 4:00 pm |
  42. Greg

    Perhaps between our bombs and their suicide bombs there is enough attrition that they are losing some of their technical prowess. It is more likely that they have found more secure means by which to communicate. Any way you look at it, growing deficiencies in their mass propaganda apparatus is a sign of weakness. That is potentially a good thing as perhaps they are losing some of their appeal to the masses in the muslim world. Over time if they do not adapt and evolve the masses will become jaded with the same old boring messages and lack of spectacular success. I am hoping this reactionary brand of Islam will become a generational trend and eventually discarded by the next generation of young muslims much as disco was discarded by American youth.

    October 23, 2008 at 3:57 pm |
  43. Randy

    And if they track that messege back to a lap-top, they can teel where that lap-top is? Or is it like tracking down a cell phone where you can tell which towers picked up the signal?

    October 23, 2008 at 3:56 pm |
  44. Ray

    Hopefully, the US intelligence community is doing this hacking! Why would we allow subversive groups to spread their poison with impunity? This is very much like Radio Free Europe and other propoganda outlets that were jammed by the Soviet Union and others. It's about time that we use the same techniques against terrorists.

    In fact, I would suggest that we set up a scam website and require people to register to use it, as described in this article. This would be a reverse sting operation where the bad guys might identify themselves further than they ordinarily would!

    October 23, 2008 at 3:56 pm |
  45. David

    for those suggesting to use the IP address to track these guys down, that's potentially helpful but ultimately not reliable. spoofing an IP address is easy, even spoofing a MAC address can be done now as most network cards are easily configurable. the IP address of the domain can be traced but that doesn't help because the web server could be located anywhere. the most helpful thing that could be done is to get the registrar's cooperation in providing the information they were registered with; at least the billing information they gave has to be correct.

    all of that said, never underestimate the power of grey hat hackers. }:-)

    October 23, 2008 at 3:53 pm |
  46. oliver

    that's not really how the internet works...

    October 23, 2008 at 3:52 pm |
  47. mohammed

    i'm happy to see this. i wish they would go to each and every single website praising bin laden or spreading his poisonous message. he is a joke and piece of trash and in no way a representation of islam at all. i hope he suffers a long and painful death however that may be. but i really hope it comes at the hands of a U.S soldier. what irony would it be to see someone who pledged his life to killing americans but he himself dies at the hands of an american? although i the policies of the west are hypocritical and oppress the muslim world, bin laden, the taliban, and al qaeda are biggest threat to the free world and the islamic world and should be wiped off the face of the earth. long live america, long live afghansitan, long live iraq,

    October 23, 2008 at 3:51 pm |
  48. eric

    All I know is that the fewer messages there are spreading their filth the better. I love the fact that these lunatics think they are going to some higher place when in fact they will spend eternity paying for their despicable acts of brutality and hate in HELL!!! No...virgins, no glory...eternal punishment for being a scumbag!

    October 23, 2008 at 3:47 pm |
1 2 3