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Al Qaeda Online for Terrorism
Aired March 6, 2002 - 14:01 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: That's where we begin this hour, with the forces loyal to Osama bin Laden, the people who want to stop them, and both groups' reliance on the Internet.
CNN's Mike Boettcher filed this report on war and terror in the computer age.
MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With his scruffy hair and torn T-shirt, Guido Rudolphi hardly looks like a man who now spends hours each day tracking terrorists. But Rudolphi, who operates an Internet monitoring service from this spartan loft in Zurich, Switzerland, is a hacker. A legal one, he says, and in his hands a keyboard can be a digital crime lab.
He was appalled by what he saw on September 11th, and wanted to do something.
GUIDO RUDOLPHI, : I started to scan the Internet for everything I was able to find regarding Osama bin Laden, and any person I knew that was connected to him.
BOETTCHER: First, he tracked down a classified French secret service report on bin Laden, including a secret list of suspected bin Laden associates. One name in particular caught Rudolphi's eye, a Mauritanian named Mohambedou Ould Slahi. Rudolphi, who is Swiss, became curious because Slahi operated an Internet site through a Swiss web space provider.
RUDOLPHI: So, we started to try to find and locate his home pages, and get some background information on them.
BOETTCHER: What Rudolphi found about Slahi may shed light on how the secretive al Qaeda communication system works.
RUDOLPHI: This guy here, I was told, is Slahi.
BOETTCHER: Rudolphi discovered Slahi had twice been brought in for questioning during the investigations of two al Qaeda plots: the failed plan to blow up Los Angles International Airport during millennium celebration, and the successful September 11th attacks. Each time, Slahi had been released. But Rudolphi wondered why terrorism investigators were so curious about a man who seemed more interested in making web sites than bombs. The answer, Rudolphi concluded, would be found in Slahi's web site.
RUDOLPHI: As you see here, it has so-called private entries, which can only be viewed by him.
BOETTCHER: Rudolphi says Slahi was running a seemingly innocuous web site, but behind it there was something called a guest book, where visitors to the site could leave messages. It was a way of communicating that he had seen in action, when he previously tracked web usage by extreme right-wing groups.
RUDOLPHI: It is the perfect communication tools if you want to hide the content of the communication. You can put a message in the guest book. The owner of the guest book receives an e-mail, but in seconds can look at the message, edit it, and so it looks pretty normal, although the real content, which he has seen already, has disappeared, and may be harmful.
BOETTCHER: Were al Qaeda terrorists using the guest book as a means to communicate and activate attacks? Rudolphi began to look at a number of what he calls radical Islamic web sites with guest books, including Slahi's. He soon found a disturbing pattern.
RUDOLPHI: Here you see the traffic for the last two years. It started to increase dramatically in May 2001, and shortly before September 2001, it dropped to an all-time low.
BOETTCHER: Rudolphi tried to find a reason why there was a dramatic peak before the September 11th attacks, and was suspicious that terrorists might be using some of those web sites to coordinate operations. CNN has learned that several coalition intelligence agencies now agree with Rudolphi's hunch.
Rudolphi kept coming back to Slahi and his web sites. He said there were just too many coincidences for his taste, including the fact that Slahi's brother-in-law is a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. And, by cracking a code on Slahi's web site, Rudolphi found a digital trail leading to a country that served as home to many of the September 11th hijackers.
(on camera): Mohambedou Ould Slahi's path took him here, to the heartland of Germany, a place that coalition intelligence sources believe is an operations center for al Qaeda.
(voice-over): Slahi lived in Duisburg, where he studied microelectronics.
HOLGER VOGT, PROFESSOR: He was polite, he was calm, quiet.
BOETTCHER: Professor Holger Vogt taught him, then employed him. He said that Slahi kept to himself, then abruptly dropped out of sight, saying he was suffering from malaria.
VOGT: He seemed to be somebody who wants to learn technical things, and we talked about these technical things. There was no personal communication on things very outside of, let's say, a student being here, a student living here. So, no politics. BOETTCHER: Even in the local Muslim community, he was a closed book. Dinq Neuzat (ph) met Slahi two years ago as both men celebrated the annual Muslim observance of Ramadan.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We only talked about Islam, what Allah said, and what Mohammed said. About more, or politics, we never talked. Only Islam.
BOETTCHER: One thing did raise Slahi's profile: German authorities charged him with fraud when they discovered he ran a business with $35,000 in working capital from this apartment house. At the same time, he was collecting German welfare payments.
In 1999, he fled to Canada, where he attended the same mosque as this man, Ahmed Ressam, who would later be arrested on charges of plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. Slahi was questioned by Canadian intelligence, and within days he fled Canada, too.
RUDOLPHI: We were able to locate him...
BOETTCHER: Guido Rudolphi and his colleagues were able to find Slahi using the web. They tracked him to his native country of Mauritania, in West Africa, where Slahi operates an Internet cafe, another fact that raised Rudolphi's suspicion.
RUDOLPHI: If I want to use the Internet on a really sensitive matter, and under no circumstances want to run the risk that anybody can trace me back, I go to the Internet cafe.
BOETTCHER: Or public libraries, where some of the September 11th hijackers went to access the Internet.
(on camera): What did you do with this information when you saw it and thought it looked suspicious?
RUDOLPHI: First, I got in contact with the Swiss police. They were interested, but since then, I never heard back.
BOETTCHER (voice-over): But other law enforcement and intelligence agencies did have Slahi on their radar. Last September, the Mauritanian government detained and questioned Slahi at the request of the FBI, then released him. The FBI will not comment on Slahi.
As far as we know, Mohambedou Ould Slahi is still in Mauritania. Not only did we try to contact him via the Internet or via fax, we had personal CNN representatives on the ground go to his family and friends to try to deliver a message to him that we wanted to speak to him. And in all cases, we got nowhere, Bill.
HEMMER: We've been reporting about "The New York Times" report about e-mails possible going between al Qaeda members. In your story about the Internet connection -- is there a connection between these two stories that we've found?
BOETTCHER: Absolutely. I think their story bolsters our story, and likewise. What we have here is a means of communication. The fact that you have a worldwide global terrorism network, you've got to communicate somehow, and it's done over the Internet through various means.
Now, once the coalition intelligence services develop a means to track a means of communication on the Internet used by al Qaeda, they figure out a way to get around that.
HEMMER: Have you seen that they're using this as a communication tool, or is it more than that at this point? Or do you know?
BOETTCHER: There is a very strong suspicion, and actually, evidence that is highly classified -- we don't know what that evidence is -- but it's closely held that al Qaeda would like to use the Internet for offensive purposes in terms of a cyberwar in attacking computer Internet infrastructure. That information is very closely held. There is evidence that people have been trained for this. But we're trying to develop more information on that -- Bill.
HEMMER: We were talking during story the Internet not new. E- mail has been around in quite popular use for the past five years or more. Is this new for them?
BOETTCHER: No. I mean, they've been using the Internet for many years to communicate. I think what is new is the level of sophistication that they're using at the present time to communicate and the fact that this is really -- you see the battle that Martin Savidge documented up there: This is a battle that is fought in the shadows, and it's every bit as fierce as that battle up in the mountains in Afghanistan.
HEMMER: Good story. Mike, thanks. Mike Boettcher there.
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