THE STUDY APRIL 2, 2012
If you’ve been unable to access your favorite Al Qaeda online forums for the last week and a half, it turns out you’re not alone: Five of the terrorist group’s main websites have gone dark in the last several days, a shutdown so severe that it may indicate a cyberattack “launched perhaps by a government, government-backed organization or hacking group.” How plausible is that explanation—and what could it mean for the Al Qaeda’s operations?
A 2011 report from the Congressional Research Service explains that for terrorists, the Internet is “a tool for radicalization and recruitment, a method of propaganda distribution, a means of communication, and ground for training.” And while the recent blackouts at many Al Qaeda sites may be the result of U.S. government actions, there are “numerous competing interests” that officials must consider before taking down a site. These include legal questions—for instance, whether the site is owned or used by U.S. citizens, which could implicate the First and Fourth Amendments—as well as operational questions: Would it be best to disable the site, to passively monitor it, or to engage covertly with its users? Different national security agencies have different priorities, and as the CRS report delicately puts it, the agencies may “weigh each option differently.” That means that if a U.S. cyberattack is indeed behind these outages, officials who may already have been conducting surveillance and engagement on Al Qaeda websites recently decided that for whatever reason, it was now their best option to simply take them offline altogether.