Spy Forums

Posted: 19th March 2010 by Thomas Hegghammer in Better Know a Forum, technology

In a remarkable story, the Washington Post reported today that Saudi intelligence and the CIA operated a honeypot jihadi forum for years until it was shut down by the US military in 2008. The news here is obviously not that intelligence services run jihadi forums, but that US agencies wage cyberwarfare on each other. Since I don’t know what is technologically possible and what is not, I don’t have an opinion on the issue of forum takedowns, but I find the lack of interagency coordination appalling.

Bureaucratic politics aside, which forum was it? The Post article does not say. There are several candidates, since many forums went down in 2008, foremost of which Ekhlaas (September) and Hesbah (November). I initially suspected the latter, but I was a little confused by the article mentioning events in “early 2008”. So I asked my forum-watching colleagues Evan Kohlmann and Reuven Paz, and they also seem to think it was Hesbah. As Reuven pointed out, this makes sense since Hesbah was the most valuable target in the jihadosphere, since it was the one favoured by Saudi activists, and since a senior Saudi Hesbah administrator was reported arrested a couple of years ago. If the Saudis and the CIA really ran Hesbah for years, then they deserve credit for a well-executed operation, regardless of one’s general view on forum takedowns.

Does online espionage compromise the value or credibility of online jihadi propaganda? In other words, does it render forum watching irrelevant? I don’t think so. As Aaron points out, it does not matter who runs the forum so long as the participants think it is real. Unless you think the CIA fabricates all the jihadi texts and videos out there, then online jihadi propaganda is still worth studying. But a little bit of skepticism does not hurt.

  1. Aaron says:

    Skepticism when reading Washington Post stories is also recommended – who are the sources and what are their motivations?

    My own sources suggest that there is some truth to all this, but also that some misinformation may have been inserted into the report.

    The site was almost certainly al-Hesbah.

    According to the story there *was* coordination between various US government agencies – at least they all knew what each other was doing. The issue was whether to let al-Hesbah run or to take it down, and in the end it came down (otherwise we would not be having this discussion, as we would be too busy talking about the latest posting on al-Hesbah).

  2. Tim Stevens says:

    This is a remarkable story, although not particularly surprising. Where to start? For example, if Abu Dujana al-Khurasani is to be believed, he cut his teeth at al-Hesbah. Oops.

    I wonder how/if Iran will respond, given their recent accusations of US imperialist meddling?

    And so on …

  3. CestMoi says:

    We are forgetting Al-Firdaws… since it was a broad forum this would suggest that it also attracted English speaking jihadi’s… From the ‘big 4’ in those days, Al-Firdaws was the only one with an English section (now taken over by Al-Fallojah and Ansar-al-Jihad English forums).

  4. Garbi says:

    On March 5, 2006, http://www.tajdeed.org.uk published an article signed by “Omar bin Hanif,” titled “A Series of Exposures of Spies – [Who Is] the Traitor who Sold Irhabi 007?” In his article, “Omar bin Hanif” stated that the arrest of contributor “Irhabi 007” by the British authorities, and the arrest of GIMF members immediately following the postings by Al-Qaeda taking responsibility for the Abqiq operation and following the killing of the perpetrators by Saudi security forces, prove that intelligence apparatuses had been operating on Islamist websites such as Al-Hesbah, Al-Ansar, and Al-Ikhlas, attempting to uncover and arrest contributors to these sites.

    Abu Dujana al-Khurasani… How many years working for the Cia?

  5. As online readers, we shouldn’t quickly believe what we read from different forums and blogs unless we have verified them. Not everything online is reliable. Online forums can be used to trick someone or to catch someone and it be used to spy around. So, we should all be aware.

  6. Raff says:

    I thought Irhabi007 was grabbed after the police picked up the group in Bosnia. Someone have evidence to the contrary?

  7. Brian says:

    I agree that the Post was likely referring to Hesbah, but how do we know that Ekhlass and others weren’t honeypots as well? As you noted, a slew of sites went down that fall…

    Aaron’s got a point that forum ownership doesn’t matter much so long as participants think it is real, but that speaks to the limitations of the forums as places to operationalize as opposed to just radicalize.

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