Terrorism's Hook Into Your Inbox
Thursday, July 5, 2007; 2:34 PM
The global jihad landed in Linda Spence's e-mail inbox during the summer of 2003, in the form of a message urging her to verify her eBay account information. The 35-year-old New Jersey resident clicked on the link included in the message, which took her to a counterfeit eBay site where she unwittingly entered in personal financial information.
Ultimately, Spence's information wound up in the hands of a young man in the United Kingdom who investigators said was the brains behind a terrorist cell that sought to facilitate deadly bombing attacks against targets in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
Investigators say Spence's stolen data made its way via the Internet black market for stolen identities to 21-year-old biochemistry student Tariq al-Daour, one of three U.K. residents who pleaded guilty this week to a terrorism charge of using the Internet to incite murder.
Much has been written about radical Islamic groups' use of the Internet to propagandize and recruit new members. The U.K. investigation, however, revealed a significant link between Islamic terrorist groups and cyber crime, and experts say security officials must do more to understand and confront cyber crime as part of any overall strategy for combatting terrorism.
Investigators in the United States and Britain say the trio used computer viruses and stolen credit card accounts to set up a network of communication forums and Web sites that hosted everything from tutorials on computer hacking and bomb-making to videos of beheadings and suicide bombing attacks in Iraq.
"In a sense, these guys were operating an online dating service for al-Qaeda," said Evan Kohlmann, a counterterrorism expert who runs GlobalTerrorAlert.com. "They were among a very small group of individuals who had successfully made the leap from ad hoc terror cell to something close to al-Qaeda simply by using the Internet."
Authorities said another member of the trio, 24-year-old law student Waseem Mughal, was found with a computer containing a 26-minute video in Arabic featuring instructions on preparing a suicide bomb vest, along with a recipe for improvised explosives.
The third and perhaps most well-known member of the group, Moroccan-born Younes Tsouli, 23, grew adept at setting up sites to host massive video files and other propaganda. Investigators said he eventually became the de facto administrator of the online jihadist forum Muntada al-Ansar al-Islami, at one time the main Internet public relations mouthpiece of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's former leader in Iraq.
The trio maintained their innocence throughout most of their trial over the past few months. This past week, however, all three changed their pleas to guilty. The men were sentenced Thursday to prison terms ranging from six-and-one-half to ten years.
"These three men, by their own admission, were encouraging others to become terrorists and murder innocent people," said Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's Counter Terrorism Command. "This is the first successful prosecution for inciting murder using the Internet, showing yet again that terrorist networks are spanning the globe."
According to documents obtained by washingtonpost.com, the three men used stolen credit card numbers to make purchases at hundreds of online stores, armed with shopping lists of items that fellow jihadists might need in the field. Authorities also say the men laundered funds from stolen credit card accounts through more than a dozen online gambling Web sites.
washingtonpost.com received information about the U.K. case from two law enforcement officials involved in the investigation; both requested anonymity out of concern that speaking on the record might jeopardize ongoing investigations.