U.S. Intel Agencies Catching al-Qaeda in its own Web

In 1921, die-hard monarchists in Moscow began joining an underground group called the Trust, devoted to ousting the Bolsheviks from power. In the years that followed, the Trust grew, with agents penetrating the new government as far as Lenin's innermost circle. Victory was just a matter of time, it seemed. But that was illusory. The Trust, it turned out, had been created by Lenin himself in order to know who his friends were. Those who weren't suffered. Or worse.

Flash forward to today. Devastated by Predator attacks, "al-Qaeda is transforming from a terrorist group that uses propaganda into a propaganda group that outsources terrorism," according to Jarret Brachman, author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice.

With the goal of recruitment, particularly in the United States, al-Qaeda has created Web sites like al-Faloja, Sawt al-Jihad, and Revolution Muslim. Content ranges from exhortations from Osama bin Laden -- translated into English -- to practical articles like "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom." Then there's Omar Hammami, a 26-year-old onetime Southern Baptist from Alabama whose YouTube rap videos -- notably "We Are At Your Command, O Osama" -- have gone viral.

In sum, according to Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, "More and more sympathizers who subscribe to such radical interpretations of Islam are taking it upon themselves to post propaganda and what is, in essence, recruitment material." As a result, al-Qaeda "has created an online community that allows people to feel like they're not alone, and introduces them to new ideology."

The terrorist group's success may be measured in the actions of American citizens like Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, Colleen "Jihad Jane" LaRose, Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and dozens of others traveling to Somalia to join the Islamic insurgency group al-Shabaab in its fight against "infidels." Alabama's Hammami, now going by Abu Mansoor al-Amriki ("the American"), is currently an al-Shabaab commander.

Says Anwar al-Awlaki, a Web-savvy 39-year-old cleric from New Mexico (now hiding in Yemen), "Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie."

An FBI counterterrorism agent I spoke to likened al-Qaeda's American effort to "throwing lots of spaghetti against a wall and hoping some sticks." The good news is that the new recruiting class is less apt to stage a massive 9/11-style attack. The bad is that relatively small-scale jobs still pose a considerable security threat, and to do them, al-Qaeda is finding "blond-haired, blue-eyed-types," according to a January 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report.

The FBI is parrying, however. Twenty-year-old Virginian Zachary Chesser was recently arrested, in time to prevent him from flying off to join al-Shabaab. And last week, 35-year-old Alaskan Paul Rockwood, Jr., received an eight-year prison sentence stemming from his plan to shoot or blow up twenty people he considered enemies of Islam. According to prosecutors, Rockwood was inspired by al-Awlaki, who has been dubbed "the bin Laden of the Internet."

In tracking al-Qaeda's recruitment of Americans, the FBI had long had eyes on Chesser, particularly after he warned the creators of the television show South Park that they risked death for mocking the prophet Muhammad.

Other intelligence agents lurked in chat rooms, scoured social networking sites like Facebook, and made new "friends."

Perhaps most significant of all, the CIA took a page from Lenin's playbook, starting a jihadist Web site in conjunction with the Saudi government. If anything, it worked too well, with terrorists flocking to its forum. Fearing that their cryptic chats posed a risk to American military forces, the Pentagon wanted the site taken down. Though lamenting the intelligence loss, the CIA acquiesced.

Which didn't preclude other, comparable Web ventures.

Ongoing operations prevented the FBI agents I interviewed from commenting on the Bureau's efforts along those lines. Other intelligence community sources, however, speculated that such "cyber honey pots" abound. According to Fred Burton, a counterterrorism expert at Stratfor, the sites constitute "a very effective intelligence-gathering program."

As a result, says longtime CIA operations officer Fred Rustmann, now chairman of CTC International, "the mere knowledge that it might actually be Special Agent Jones lurking on the jihadist sites can keep a potential terrorist from actually committing an act."

As for others, convinced they're chatting online with al-Amriki or al-Awlaki?

Rustmann says, "They're going to be surprised."