The Internet war
Terrorists tap into cyberspace
By Henry Schuster
Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."
(CNN) -- By now, you've probably heard how some alleged Iraqi insurgents kidnapped a doll last week and claimed it was a U.S. soldier. Not G.I. Joe, but Special Ops Cody, an action figure put out by Dragon Models USA.
The punch lines were quick to follow: Barbie was negotiating his release. G.I. Joe was the kidnappers' next target.
It's an Internet hoax, yes. At least one Islamist Web site admits it was taken in because, its moderator wrote, it wanted to believe the story.
Hoax or not, it is an important window into the Internet war that's going on between al Qaeda, its supporters and those who are fighting against them.
There are a vast number of Web sites -- a few of them significant -- that carry the postings of al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents, as well as their sympathizers.
Web sites monitored
Government agencies monitor the increasing output of Web sites. We at CNN spend quite a bit of time doing that as well, as do other journalists -- trying to sort fact from fiction and deciding what is appropriate to report and what video to show, a sensitive task when hostages or killings are shown. (Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
There are also numerous private citizens who have made it their business to monitor these sites.
Jeremy Reynalds is one of those people. If you didn't see the story we did about him last year on CNN, here's his background.
His day job is running Joy Junction, a faith-based homeless shelter in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But he spends his spare time -- as do others in the United States and Britain -- combing the Internet for the latest postings by these groups.
Reynalds got into this avocation after the September 11 attacks, saying it was a way he could join the fight against terrorism.
After I mentioned the doll story to him, he and his colleagues began to trace back the links. They discovered it had been posted to a message board that regularly carries postings from al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents.
The site, which has a disclaimer that it cannot vouch for the information posted there, has contained links to material from people like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
It was actually another such site that carried the mea culpa about the hoax. Not that it was much of a mea culpa. By the end, the whole thing was being blamed on either the U.S. government or Zionists.
Reynalds found that the doll photo and claim were originally posted to yet another site. He found other photos there, including one titled "Original Picture of Dead American Dog on Road in Iraq" and a portrait of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.
Internet offers anonymity
This site appears to have been registered to someone in Baghdad that, if true, might ultimately lead us to the kidnapped doll. But given how easy it is to hide identities on the Internet, the truth may never be known.
In the course of his cyber-sleuthing, Reynalds has butted heads not just with the creators of some of these Web sites, but also the Internet service providers (ISPs) that host them.
He says he has asked a Houston-based company why it continues to host the first Web site mentioned above, adding that he's gotten no answer.
And he's been taking on Yahoo for several months now about a forum it hosts called Global Islamic Media. This site also carries postings from hostage takers and beheading videos from Iraq.
That's what led us to do the story about him last year. He never got a clear answer from Yahoo and neither did CNN, when we asked.
The forum was taken down and then came back up. That's the pattern for most of these sites.
For a while, after September 11, al Qaeda had its own Web site. CNN traced the site to Malaysia and asked the ISP about it. The site was soon taken down.
But it would reappear elsewhere on the Internet, for a few days at a time, then get taken down. These days, most of the groups will post to these various bulletin boards, especially if they want to show off a hostage or beheading video.
Osama bin Laden's messages get posted to these sites as well, when they don't show up on Al-Jazeera first. The Internet allows bin Laden, al-Zarqawi and others to get their message out. That's one reason they like to use it.
And it should be noted that unlike the case of the kidnapped doll, bin Laden and al-Zarqawi don't have histories of posting hoax messages. Nevertheless, CNN checks each and every one of them to verify the authenticity of the images or voices.
That's what happened with the doll photo. The posting originally claimed it was an American soldier. But when CNN and other news organizations asked the Pentagon, officials there quickly pointed out that no U.S. soldiers were missing.
Because cyberspace is so tricky and allows identities to be masked, groups can post messages that usually are not traced back to them -- even though Reynalds and, no doubt, agencies like the CIA try their hardest to do so.
It has always been thought that one way to find bin Laden would be to follow the tapes that are either delivered to Al-Jazeera or posted on the Web.
Reynalds, by the way, is still at it. He's gone back to that original Web site, where it looks like the hoax originated -- and this time he's found new pictures on the site.
Not dolls this time, but planes. Model planes! An AC-130H Spectre gunship and an F-15E Eagle fighter. The next hoax perhaps?
He'll keep checking.