The Washington Post recently reported that two popular jihadist Internet forums went dark for extended periods. Although these forums are now back up and running, it remains unclear whether the blackout was due to technical problems, a government-led takedown or the efforts of unaffiliated vigilante groups.
Regardless of the instigator, this behavior must end. Why? Because shuttering these online extremist forums hurts America's ability to crush terrorist groups in real life.
This is not the first time online jihadist efforts have been stymied. For example, last summer al Qaeda developed significant trouble placing its propaganda online due to "an unusual cocktail of relatively sophisticated techniques," according to jihadist expert Evan Kohlmann. This followed the cyber-takedown of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) breezy English-language magazine, Inspire, reputedly by a British intelligence service. These hackers seemed to take an especially pleasurable time with their task, swapping out bomb-making recipes for cupcake ones.
Cute -- but intelligence services should refrain from these short-term successes to focus on the long game. Three reasons why:
Shutting down these forums needlessly undermines counterterrorism efforts.
Terrorists utilize the Internet primarily for propaganda and planning. Al Qaeda has yet to mount a single "cyber attack" where people have been killed. Even if terror groups have the intent, they do not yet possess the sophisticated capability to mount a powerful cyberattack on the U.S. -- or on any other country, for that matter. That's why the White House's National Counterterrorism Strategy said that terror groups still just use the Internet for "planning, facilitation, and communication," and not for actual lethal terrorist operations.
Killing forums undermines the world's intelligence services ability to collect intelligence on the next plot. Since jihadists and the jihadist-wannabes want to talk and coordinate attacks, intelligence and military services might as well take advantage of this situation. Why deny our cyberwarriors this critical information?
Sadly, some in the intelligence business believe otherwise. For example, in 2010, the U.S. military launched an attack against a popular jihadist Internet forum for Iraq-bound militants, despite knowing the U.S. and Saudi intelligence services had secretly established them to gather information and track individuals. Shuttering that particular forum meant two things: The Saudis became extremely irritated with their American counterparts; and the forum's users switched to another online venue, meaning U.S. and allied intelligence services were now temporarily blind to their activities.
Well-established forums lull extremists into a false sense of security.
Much like how an identity theft victim is probably more careful about putting information on the Internet, online jihadists who know they have been targeted are less likely to provide valuable information online. Conversely, if online jihadists believe they have a safe cyberharbor, they will eventually slack in their online operational security. This would then provide security services even more opportunity to collect intelligence on their ideas, whereabouts and future activities.
If these websites are, however, molested and constantly knocked offline, dangerous individuals will disconnect their online efforts, ultimately degrading government optics. Then, the only ones who would join these jihadist online forums would be the young, naïve and the reckless -- not the lethal terror operatives that the government should be monitoring.
Destroying extremist forums don't make extremists go away.
To use an imperfect analogy, prostitution doesn't disappear just because there's a crackdown on a red light district. Rather, it goes further underground, making it harder for authorities to monitor and control. Forcibly shuttering these extremist forums does the same thing -- it scatters these folks to the wind, where they will continue to participate in nefarious activities, but temporarily out of sight of authorities. There are multiple pop-up jihadist forums or on the dozens of extremist mirror sites out there on the web, and American cyberwarriors need time to find them.
Defacing and darkening extremist websites is immensely satisfying. However, the U.S. and others should not keep reminding terrorists and their followers that they are being monitored online. The smart ones already know that various intelligence services actively try to penetrate the sites, but why constantly remind them to redouble their operational security efforts?
After all, the ultimate goal is to knock these groups off-line in real-life; the world's counterterrorism units should not mistake attacking them in cyberspace with bringing the flesh-and-blood individuals sitting at computer monitors to justice. Let's not mistake virtual reality for actual reality.