U.S. Now Fighting Al Qaeda for Hearts and Minds of Internet Users

Inside the State Department.

4Chan and the State Department have more in common than one might think. On Wednesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed that cyber experts from the State Department recently hacked into websites used by Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate and swapped out propaganda that bragged about killing Americans. “Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll Al Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni people,” Clinton said at the Special Command gala dinner in Tampa, Florida.

The State Department rarely discusses its cyber-warfare efforts against Al Qaeda (though publicizing that the government employs a crack team of hackers could give Internet-addicted teens new career aspirations). The online battle isn’t one-sided. Earlier on Wednesday, a group of senators revealed the contents of an Al Qaeda video that calls for “electronic jihad,” urging followers to “target the websites and information systems of big companies and government agencies of the countries that attack Muslims.”

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs said that the video, which was obtained by the FBI, compares weaknesses in the United States’ current online systems to those in the aviation system pre-9/11. Committee chairman Joe Lieberman said:

This is the clearest evidence we’ve seen that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups want to attack the cyber systems of our critical infrastructure … Congress needs to act now to protect the American public from a possible devastating attack on our electric grid, water delivery systems or financial networks, for example.

The activities of the U.S. Central Command’s digital team are focused on undermining Al Qaeda by monitoring blogs and forums and trying to engage with users who seem less virulently anti-American. International terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann told the Washington Post:

The fact is that Al Qaeda engages in tactics and ideologies that are by their nature exceptionally divisive and controversial. Highlighting that does a tremendous amount of damage to Al Qaeda’s image, to its recruitment campaigns and its effort to launch renewed attacks.

He also questioned the effectiveness of the digital war on terror, noting, “If you’re already living in Yemen and in a tribal area, you probably don’t need to go to a Web site to join al-Qaeda.” Yet Clinton insisted that the State Department’s online efforts are making a difference in Yemen, the country that was the origin of two attempted underwear bombings and a campaign to mail explosives disguised as printer cartridges to Chicago-area synagogues. “We can tell our efforts are starting to have an impact” said Clinton, “because extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet.” Well done, State Department. Now we just need to convey that message to everyone who supported the birther movement.

U.S. Takes Fight Against Al Qaeda Online