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.