The first Web site, Shumukh al-Islam, a primary source for al-Qaeda videos and messages, went down March 22, and since then four others have gone dark. Shumukh reappeared briefly Monday before going down again. A message claiming to be from the site’s administrators said that it would be back up “as soon as possible.”
The administrator of a second-tier al-Qaeda site recently posted a message on an online forum saying that “the media arena is witnessing a vicious attack by the cross and its helpers on the jihadi media castles.”
Officials in the United States and elsewhere have long been concerned about sites associated with al-Qaeda. Those sites have been used to call for violence against Western targets and to try to recruit Islamist extremists to carry out attacks.
There is still some uncertainty about whether a cyberattack caused the recent outages, and skeptics note that some prominent al-Qaeda forums remain online. U.S. government agencies, including U.S. Cyber Command, had no role in the outages, according to officials who would speak about the issue only on the condition of anonymity.
Still, Will McCants, a former State Department counterterrorism official who is a senior fellow at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said that, given the number of sites affected and the duration of the outages, “it sure looks like a takedown.”
If it is a technical problem being addressed by site administrators, “usually they will get on another site and say we’ve got administrative problems,” McCants said.
The last lengthy blackout of al-Qaeda Web forums took place in the summer of 2010, when British intelligence officials disrupted the launch of an online magazine produced by the network’s affiliate in Yemen. In that case, the most prominent al-Qaeda site at the time, the forum al-Fallujah, was dark for at least seven days, said Evan Kohlmann, senior partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, which tracks the sites, which are mostly in Arabic. The magazine appeared on the restored forum about two weeks later.
Although he generally sees the disruption of al-Qaeda Web sites as fruitless because they could quickly reappear on other servers, Kohlmann said the most recent outages have clearly begun to affect jihadi communications.
“At least temporarily, the social networking among jihadists has been disrupted,” he said. “The remaining forums are really struggling to attract the participation of users.”
For years, U.S. intelligence officials have relied on al-Qaeda forums to gather insights into conversations among extremists. Some officials have argued against attempts to shut down the forums, saying they provide valuable intelligence.