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Posted at 8:56 p.m., Wednesday, July 31, 2002
Man Hijacks Al-Qaida Web site
By Ian Hopper, AP Technology Writer
WASHINGTON (AP), July 31 - When Web operator Jon Messner gained control of one of al-Qaida's prime Internet communication sites, he offered it to the FBI to use it for disinformation and collecting data about sympathizers.
What followed, he says, was a week of frustration.
FBI agents struggled to find someone with enough technical know-how to set up the sting. By the time they did, the opportunity was lost as militant Islamic Web users figured out the site was a decoy, said Messner of Ocean City, Md.
``It was like dealing with the motor vehicle administration,'' said Messner, who runs Web sites, many of which sell pornographic materials.
``We could have done something that could have seriously impacted things. It took me so many days just to get somebody who understood the Internet.''
Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore office, said he ``cannot confirm or deny'' that his office worked with Messner earlier this month.
``If we received information of any sort from anything related to 9/11 or any continuing terrorist type activity, we would take it under consideration and pass it on,'' Maddox said. ``We're not going to turn down anything.''
Though many of his Web sites involve pornography, Messner said he became interested in Alneda.com, a militant Islamic Web site that promotes the Al-Qaida terror organization and carries messages from its top members.
Alneda originally was registered in Malaysia but has been chased out of several countries after pressure by authorities. It also has shown up on computers in Michigan and Texas.
Messner used a software program that probes Web site addresses whose registrations are about to lapse, meaning the address will go into a pool available for sale. When it did, Messner snapped it up and filled the site with Web pages from the original Arabic site.
He hoped U.S. officials could use the site for disinformation campaigns or to collect data on visitors who used its message boards or other resources.
Even though some features didn't work yet, his decoy site fooled some Web users.
Almost immediately after putting the site online July 16, he saw visitors from Arab nations and references to it on other militant Islamic Web sites.
``I (was) tracing back to hostile message boards that say when translated, 'Praise Allah, the Alneda site is back up,''' Messner said.
Since he couldn't write any new articles in Arabic, he needed the FBI's help to keep the site alive. He said FBI officials in Baltimore and Salisbury, Md., encouraged his work but took too long to decide how to help him. Within a week, other Arabic Web sites outed Messner's site as a phony and warned visitors away. He shut it down. Since
Messner gave up the Internet address, the Alneda Web site is back up again, this time hosted in Dayton, Ohio, and carrying a new interview with an Al-Qaida field commander describing battles against American forces. Messner said he handed over the data he gathered to the FBI.
Intelligence experts said the gamble on a fake Alneda site might not have been worthwhile.
Rather than a traditional sting operation . a routine task for the FBI . Messner's decoy site would be available to everyone on the Internet, said John Pike of Globalsecurity.org. That means the FBI might have inadvertently helped terrorists communicate.
``There is a difference between tossing a kilo of coke into a guy's lap and then cuffing him, versus going out and selling it to little children,'' Pike said. ``I'm sure there would have been somebody at FBI who would have said this information is going to be publicly accessible. We don't even necessarily know all that is going to be communicated here.''
Pike said that concern, coupled with the pressure caused by the Internet's breakneck speed, makes the lost opportunity understandable.
``It's too new, and they were probably scared,'' Pike said. ``And they might have well-founded fears.''
Former CIA counterterrorism expert Vincent Cannistraro said relying on the public to do intelligence work is dangerous. ``It may be looked on as a large resource for law enforcement. On the other hand, it does lend itself to massive cases of abuse,'' Cannistraro said. ``When it comes to monitoring the Internet and exploiting it, you have to leave it to the professionals.
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