October 16, 2007

Private anti-terror efforts

Last week Hugh Hewitt wrote about An Astonishing And Sickening Breach Of Trust. A private firm that tracks terrorist movements got a hold of the Osama bin Laden video last month, before its release.

It gave two senior officials access on the condition that the officials not reveal they had it until the al-Qaeda release.

Within 20 minutes, a range of intelligence agencies had begun downloading it from the company's Web site. By midafternoon that day, the video and a transcript of its audio track had been leaked from within the Bush administration to cable television news and broadcast worldwide.

The founder of the company, the SITE Intelligence Group, says this premature disclosure tipped al-Qaeda to a security breach and destroyed a years-long surveillance operation that the company has used to intercept and pass along secret messages, videos and advance warnings of suicide bombings from the terrorist group's communications network.

This week the NY Times broke the story of a North Carolina based blogger who spread the glad tidings of Jihad.

“America needs to listen to Shaykh Usaamah very carefully and take his message with great seriousness,” he wrote on his blog. “America is known to be a people of arrogance.”

Unlike Mr. bin Laden, the blogger was not operating from a remote location. It turns out he is a 21-year-old American named Samir Khan who produces his blog from his parents’ home in North Carolina, where he serves as a kind of Western relay station for the multimedia productions of violent Islamic groups.

In recent days, he has featured “glad tidings” from a North African militant leader whose group killed 31 Algerian troops. He posted a scholarly treatise arguing for violent jihad, translated into English. He listed hundreds of links to secret sites from which his readers could obtain the latest blood-drenched insurgent videos from Iraq.

This is an example of some excellent reporting. Except ...
Except that Dr. Rusty Shackleford of the Jawa Report complained (via memeorandum)

Thanks a lot to Michael Moss and the New York Times for blowing an ongoing investigation into a known al Qaeda sympathizer who lives here in the United States. I've known about this piece for a few weeks and wrote the NY Times to ask Moss not to run it. No reply from the Times.

While we appreciate Moss's commitment to spreading the word about the Internet Jihad, we really wish he would have consulted with us on the matter. He has a right to out Inshallahshaheed as Samir Khan, but doing so has jeopardized an ongoing investigation into a terror ring which begins in the US and ends in Somalia.

But that's just like the NY Times, isn't it? In Moss's defense, he seems to have asked the FBI if there was an investigation into Khan, and they declined to comment.

While I can understand Shackleford's frustration, the fact that the reporter couldn't get information on the case from the government seems to be the major complaint. If the government had told the Times's reporter not to publicize its story, the Times might have listened. But like the Osama video case it appears that the media, like the government has limited respect for private investigators of the jihadists.

A few years ago, the New Yorker profiled the SITE intelligence group's founder, Rita Katz. Katz, who started out working for Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project, but later founded her own group.

Taking two staff members from the Investigative Project, Katz set up her own office. She got by on small government contracts. Some of that work, done for the Treasury Department, involved identifying Islamic groups that might be sending money to terrorist organizations. She also had a contract with the Swiss government and with a group of relatives of 9/11 victims who were suing Saudi Arabian officials, businesses, and charities. Still, during the first two years, Katz said, she couldn’t always pay salaries.

But Katz’s organization had embedded itself in the Internet, and when a part-time P.R. consultant whom Katz brought in suggested that she start a subscription service, Katz sent out an e-mail to people and groups she had worked with. In a few weeks, SITE had a few dozen subscribers, each paying twenty-five hundred dollars annually. (SITE is a nonprofit organization, and also raises money from private donors.)

According the article, the number of "open-source counterterrorism operations" is small. And yet they can trace the crumbs that jihadists leave over the internet. And clearly there is some good they do.

For months, the staffer pretended to be one of the jihadis, joining in chats and watching as other members posted the chilling messages known as “wills,” the final sign-offs before martyrdom. The staffer also passed along technical advice on how to keep the message board going. Eventually, he won the confidence of the site’s Webmasters, who were impressed with his computer skills, and he gained access to the true e-mail addresses of the members and other information about them. After monitoring the site for several more days, the staffer told Katz that one of the site’s members, a young Muslim man in a European country, had just posted a will. “It was obvious that he was planning to become a martyr very soon,” Katz said.

Katz called officials in Washington, and was met with institutional resistance: “They said, ‘Oh, Rita, I’m not sure you should even be communicating with them—you might be providing material support!’ And they wanted to get approval from the Department of Justice to look at the e-mails. I said, ‘Look, we have to do something.’ ” Katz then called an American counterterrorism official stationed in the young man’s country, and he, in turn, sent the jihadi’s e-mails to local investigators. Within twenty-four hours, they had him under surveillance, and a week later they arrested him. “In my opinion, they probably wouldn’t have had a clue if it hadn’t been for Rita,” the official told me. This, Katz said, is what she always hopes to achieve: “It’s one case where everything just worked so well.”

SITE has had some failures too (that are mentioned in the article) and these, naturally, lead to critics.

It’s possible that her immersion in the world of terrorism has removed whatever skepticism or doubts she may have had. “Much as Al Jazeera underplays terrorist threats, the SITE Institute at times overhypes them,” Michael Scheuer, the former head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden unit, said.

(I'm no fan of Scheuer's who wrote "Imperial Hubris," while still at the C.I.A.) Yet despite the nay-sayers it appears that SITE accomplishes quite a bit of good. (The reporter, despite the negatives, comes across as impressed with Katz and her work.)

And yet, it appears, these two incidents show that private anti-terror groups may not get the respect they deserve from officialdom. (Be it the government or the media.) Hopefully, the damage from such dismissals will be minimal.

Crossposted on Yourish.


Posted by SoccerDad at October 16, 2007 5:36 AM | TrackBack
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Officialdom, or Regulars, are bureaucrats who consider themselves professional practitioners of an arcane art that only they, having jumped through all the officially approved hoops and punched all the politically correct tickets, are qualified to do.

Anybody else attempting to horn in on their slice of the pie is an amateur!


Regulars always assume unwarranted airs of superiority over Irregulars, even as the orderly ranks of Regular musketeers thin from the marskmanship of Irregular riflemen in the woodline.

Irregulars are loose cannons, don't you know. They also bring unwelcome scrutiny when they accomplish something better, faster or cheaper.

Posted by: Cannoneer No. 4 at October 17, 2007 12:23 PM