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Cyber-spies tracking terror on Web

  • Story Highlights
  • Cyber experts waging war on online terrorist networks
  • More than 5,000 terrorist websites currently active
  • Maverick computer geeks pose as terrorist supporters to gain access to sites
  • Blog hosts maintain policy of free speech
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By Dana Rosenblatt for CNN
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(CNN) -- There is an unconventional war being waged on the Internet. The battles here know no boundaries; and are fought from homes and offices from small Midwestern towns to Europe and the Middle East.

For the fighters in these battles weapons usually consist of no more than collected intelligence and computer programming skills.

It's no secret anymore that active terrorist cells are currently operating freely and openly on the Internet, using propaganda tactics to illicit prospective recruits.

The emergence of these terrorist groups has spawned their nemesis: groups of researchers, hackers, and maverick computer geeks who cyber-stalk terrorist networks online and take them down.

Aaron Weisburd, founder of Internet Haganah and director of the Society for Internet Research, is a fighter on the frontline in this new type of warfare.

Weisburd, who works out of his Carbondale, Illinois home, describes his organization as a "global non-governmental ad-hoc intelligence network" which he's modeled after al Qaeda's network.

Internet Haganah has assisted in the shutting down of hundreds of sites it says were linked to networks affiliated with groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas -- considered a terrorist organization by Britain, the U.S. and Israel -- and the insurgency in Iraq.

Weisburd recently led a panel on terror informatics and data mining at an annual conference at the Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel.

Resembling a modern-day Clark Kent, Weisburd is a boyish 40-something former computer programmer who decided to use his background and skills to track terrorists following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

He's proved himself a force to be reckoned with, fighting -- and winning -- a war waged against the "dark side" of the Internet.

To do this, Weisburd poses as a member of the Islamic Brotherhood, using what he's learned from al Qaeda's terrorist networks to glean information and then pass it on to the appropriate people -- whom he calls "associates."

These "associates", says Weisburd, may or may not necessarily be affiliated with law enforcement.

To emulate and catch the bad guys, Weisburd adopts their language and behavior, noting that it's rare to be kicked out of a terrorist community forum for being "too radical."

"If somebody reports on the latest terror attack, then the Brothers usually think that's a cool thing, so they'll respond with praise for the bombers. That would be appropriate behavior," says Weisburd.

Weisburd's reputation has earned him the nickname "the vigilante" in cyber space, a legacy he's eager to shrug off.

"If I was a vigilante running a Web site, I would hurt you," says Weisburd.

"If I find that you're running a Web site for al Qaeda, I'm not going to hurt you. I'll report you to people that will ask you to come quietly, and if you don't go quietly, they may hurt you," he says.

Gabriel Weimann, also a panelist at the ICT Counter Terrorism Conference in Herzliya, is a professor, researcher, and author of "Terror on the Internet."

Weimann says most active terrorist groups have established their presence on the Internet.

"When we started this research," says Weimann, "we had around 12 terrorist Web sites. Now we have more than 5,000 Web sites."

Weisburd and Weimann agree that these terrorist groups should not be underestimated and have proven to be Web-savvy enough to gain strength and popularity on the Internet.

"Every time you see video tape of a sniper, there's someone holding a camera there," says Weisburd.

By all accounts, the Internet remains a free and unmitigated arena where terrorists can operate with little or no regulation, censorship, or government control.

Leading international Web log hosting service BlogSpot -- owned by Google -- is currently hosting several sites for terrorist networks such as al Qaeda in Iraq, who are using the free service to post their blogs in German, English, and Arabic.

After receiving complaints about these sites, Google posted a disclaimer that reads: "Some readers of this blog have contacted Google because they believe this blog's content is hateful. In general, Google does not review nor do we endorse the content of this or any blog."

Google maintains a policy of free expression, even if some of their blogs are unpopular or deemed offensive, moving to take down a site only if there's a threat against a specific individual.

"We put up warnings in front of blogs in some instances when users have complained, and the blogs include hate speech and hateful content," says Google spokesperson Steve Langdon.

With terrorist groups growing and gaining strength on the Internet, hackers like Weisburd may have their work cut out.

Some experts argue the phenomenon of burgeoning terrorist cells online is still in its infancy. While Weisburd's work may slow them down, they claim, ultimately it won't remove them as they simply re-emerge in other domains.

Still, Weisburd vows to continue the fight, saying he feels rewarded knowing he's making a difference in the intelligence community. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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