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[] WSJ 11.11.02: How Al Qaeda Put Internet Into Service For Global Jihad,

Wall Street Journal November 11, 2002 Pg. 1

How Al Qaeda Put Internet Into Service For Global Jihad

With Sites in China, Pakistan, Web Master In U.K. Kept 'the Brothers' 
Abreast on Terror

By Andrew Higgins, Karby Leggett, and Alan Cullison, Staff Reporters of The 
Wall Street Journal

In February 2000, an Egyptian merchant here in the commercial hub of 
southern China asked a local Internet firm for help in setting up a Web 
site. After lengthy haggling over the fee, he paid $362 to register a 
domain name and rent space on a server.

Chen Rongbin, a technician at Guangzhou Tianhe Siwei Information Co., and 
an aide went to the Egyptian's apartment. They couldn't fathom what the 
client, Sami Ali, was up to. His software and keyboard were all in Arabic. 
"It just looked like earthworms to us," Mr. Chen says.

All he could make out was the site's address: "" Mr. Chen 
had no idea that meant "Milestones of Holy War." Nor that China, one of the 
world's most heavily policed societies, had just become a launchpad for the 
dot-com dreams -- and disappointments -- of Osama bin Laden's terror network.

In the months that followed, Arab militants in Afghanistan, a radical 
cleric living on welfare in London, a textile worker in Karachi, Pakistan, 
and others pitched in, laboring to marry modern technology with the 
theology of a seventh-century prophet. Their home page, featuring two 
swords merging to form a winged missile, welcomed visitors to the "special 
Web site" of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a violent group at the core of al 
Qaeda. A few clicks led to a 45-page justification of "martyrdom 
operations," jihad jargon for kamikaze terrorism. It explained that killing 
"infidels" inevitably caused innocent casualties because "it is impossible 
to kill them separately."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, radical Islam's use of technology has stirred 
both scrutiny and fear. The White House has warned that video footage of 
Mr. bin Laden could hold encrypted messages. The Federal Bureau of 
Investigation has called for vigilance against hacking into the computers 
that control vital services. Some experts have wondered if terrorism might 
even lurk in pornographic Web sites, with instructions embedded in X-rated 

The Milestones of Holy War site signals much more modest cyber-skills. Al 
Qaeda operatives struggled with some of the same tech headaches as ordinary 
people: servers that crashed, outdated software and files that wouldn't 
open. Their Web venture followed a classic dot-com trajectory. It began 
with excitement, faced a cash crunch, had trouble with accountants and 
ultimately fizzled.

But the project also illuminates the elusive contours of al Qaeda's 
strengths: far-flung outposts of support, a talent for camouflage and a 
knack for staying in touch using tools both sophisticated and simple. 
Though driven from Afghanistan, al Qaeda still has many hiding places, many 
channels of communication and -- boasts Mr. bin Laden's senior lieutenant, 
Egyptian Islamic Jihad chief Ayman al-Zawahri -- many means of attack.

Al Qaeda chiefs communicate mainly by courier, say U.S. officials. But 
their underlings make wide use of computers: sending e-mail, joining chat 
rooms and surfing the Web to scout out targets and keep up with events. 
Since late last year, U.S. intelligence agencies have gathered about eight 
terabytes of data on captured computers, a volume that, if printed out, 
would make a pile of paper over a mile high. The rise and eventual demise 
of -- pieced together from interviews, registration 
documents and messages stored on an al Qaeda computer The Wall Street 
Journal obtained in Kabul -- provides an inside glimpse of this scattered, 
sometimes fumbling, but highly versatile fraternity.

Using Microsoft Front Page and other software, militants in Afghanistan 
devised graphics and assembled content, packaging hundreds of text, audio 
and video files for display on the Web. Because of primitive conditions 
there, they handed some technical tasks to confederates in China and later 
Pakistan. To upload content, they turned to an ally in Britain, using 
messengers to deliver compact discs to a shabby rented home in west London.

Tracking Jihad

The Central Intelligence Agency and other security services have tracked 
Egyptian Islamic Jihad closely for nearly a decade, monitoring Dr. 
Zawahri's activities alongside Mr. bin Laden in Sudan, Yemen and 
Afghanistan. Egyptian Jihad's Web site, however, began far from any 
well-known bastion of Islamic militancy, and beyond the reach of the CIA. 
Mr. Ali, the Egyptian trader who registered the site in China, lived in 
Jingui Garden, an upscale complex on Liberation North Road, a few miles 
from Guangzhou's international airport and a short boat ride from Hong Kong.

A tall, heavyset man with thin, straight hair that dangles over his eyes, 
Mr. Ali, who also uses the name Mohammed Ali, arrived in China in 1997. To 
Chinese who met him, he was just another foreign businessman scrambling to 
cash in on China's vibrant economy. He was a Muslim but didn't seem 
particularly observant. He paid his rent on time, stayed out of trouble and 
socialized mainly with fellow Arabs.

Contacted by the Journal in August, Mr. Ali denied any knowledge of 
Egyptian Islamic Jihad or its Web site. But the site's registration records 
-- it is registered in Beijing -- name him as the registrant and give the 
fifth-floor apartment where he lived at the time as a contact address for

Chinese police say they began monitoring Mr. Ali's movements and phone 
calls after Jingui property managers told them of inquiries by the Journal. 
Three days after a reporter's visit, Mr. Ali canceled his two mobile phones 
and disappeared. Police say he moved in with an Arab friend in Guangzhou 
but won't discuss his current whereabouts.

There's no evidence Mr. Ali was directly involved in terrorism. His role in 
the Web venture, however, suggests a hitherto-unknown jihad support network 
in southern China and shows how legitimate business can serve as a cover, 
even unwittingly, for al Qaeda activities.

Before he moved, Mr. Ali told the Journal that he ran his own machinery 
trading company called ZMZM General Trading. Officials at China's 
Industrial and Commercial Bureau say they have no record of a company under 
this name.

A housing rental agreement signed by Mr. Ali in 2000 names a different 
Guangzhou concern, Almehdhar Trading Co., as his place of work. Mr. Chen, 
the technician who helped set up, says Almehdhar arranged 
his first meeting with Mr. Ali, and they met several times at its office. 
Almehdhar trades garments out of a cramped room in a downtown Guangzhou 
building. The firm's owner, a Yemeni named Abubakr Almehdhar, left China 
late last year, staff members say. Another Yemeni, Ayman Alwan, runs the 
office. He says Mr. Ali sometimes visited but wasn't an employee. Mr. Alwan 
says he knows nothing of the Web site.

In the spring of 2000, after negotiating a price with Mr. Ali, Mr. Chen's 
tiny Guangzhou firm contacted a big Beijing Internet company, Sinonets 
Information Technology Co., to arrange server space. Sinonets provided Mr. 
Ali with a facility that let him set up password-controlled mailboxes 
inside the Web site. "None of us even knew what 'jihad' meant," says George 
Chen, Sinonet's U.S.-educated president. "We never had any reason to be 

Nor, say Chinese officials, did China's vast security apparatus. Shortly 
after the Sept. 11 attacks, Guangzhou police made a sweep through Jingui 
Garden, checking the documents of foreign residents. Mr. Ali's were in 
order. China, though efficient at crushing Muslim separatists in its 
northwestern Xinjiang region as well as other dissents, has prickly 
relations with foreign intelligence services. In contrast to some Asian 
nations, China has uncovered no suspected al Qaeda activists, despite 
evidence militants have slipped in and out of China for years.

In the mid-1990s, a senior Egyptian Jihad operative made several trips to 
southern China posing as a businessman, according to documents seized by 
Russian police who arrested Dr. Zawahri and two confederates in late 1996 
as they tried to enter Chechnya. Russian investigators found details of an 
account at the Guangzhou headquarters of the Bank of China. Still active, 
it belongs to an Arab friend of Mr. Ali.

Four months after its Chinese genesis, Egyptian Jihad's Web site put down 
roots in more-traditional Islamist terrain. In July 2000,, a sister site, was registered in the Pakistan port city 
of Karachi, a hotbed of Islamic militancy.

Egyptian Jihad, a group that announced a united front with Mr. bin Laden 
against America in 1998 and whose operatives figured prominently in the 
upper echelons of al Qaeda's operational command, often faced technical 
troubles. It may have used two Web sites as a precaution, says Yasser 
al-Sirri, a London Islamist who recently revived his own site, after being 
cleared of helping arrange the murder of the anti-Taliban Afghan warlord 
Ahmed Shah Massoud days before Sept. 11.

Registration records show was set up in July 2000 by a 
Karachi Web-design company called Advanced Learning Institute & Development 
Center. Its manager, Muhammed Ali Aliwan, says he registered the site on 
behalf of Ahmed Bakht, who worked in a local textile factory.

Reached by phone in Karachi, Mr. Bakht initially denied any knowledge of 
the jihad Web site. But later he said he had helped set it up on behalf of 
someone else, whom he wouldn't name. Soon after the call from a reporter, 
Mr. Bakht, too, vanished. His relatives say he left on a trip.

With technical foundations laid, militants in Afghanistan set about 
providing content for the Milestones of Holy War sites. The hard drive of 
the computer found in Kabul last winter contained the building blocks: 
statements by Mr. bin Laden and Dr. Zawahri, religious tracts, a photo 
album of "martyrs" and back issues of al-Mujahidoon, an often-vituperative 
Islamist newsletter.

News Digests

The Kabul computer also contained news digests, including video recordings 
of bulletins from al Jazeera and other TV stations -- with the faces of 
unveiled female news readers blacked out. U.S. officials say Mr. bin Laden 
shut down his satellite phone following news-media reports that the CIA was 
listening to his calls to his mother.

While fiercely hostile to any religious or social norms tinged by 
modernity, Islamists "have no problems with technology," says Omar Bakri, a 
radical cleric from Syria who lives in Britain. "Other people use the Web 
for stupid reasons, to waste time. We use it for serious things." (U.S. 
officials say Islamists weren't always so earnest: Many computers the CIA 
recovered from suspected al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and elsewhere 
contained pornographic material.)

In the fall of 2000, someone using the computer the Journal obtained in 
Kabul drafted an e-mail to Abu Qatada, a Palestinian preacher who had lived 
in Britain since 1993. It said a computer disk would be sent to him and 
asked him to upload its contents onto

The unsigned message gave punctilious instructions. It notified Abu Qatada 
of a password and told him to create an internal mailbox under the name 
Aljihad. "It is extremely important to establish this mailbox," said the 
message. Abu Qatada -- also known as Omar Mohamed Othman -- was also asked 
to "please write to the brothers" via Hotmail.

Abu Qatada took pride in his computer skills, fellow Islamists say. Besides 
helping out with, he ran his own Web site and frequently 
joined chat-room debates. He would spend hours each day tapping at his 
computer in the front room of his rented house on a quiet street in Acton, 
west London. Neighbors say he kept the curtains closed and rarely spoke to 
them but often received bearded visitors.

In an interview late last year, Abu Qatada denied any terrorist links, 
describing himself as an honest preacher with "a big mouth and a big 
belly." But messages on the Kabul computer to and from Abu Qatada indicate 
extensive contacts with operatives in Afghanistan. European investigators 
say Abu Qatada acted as both a spiritual guide and a liaison officer, 
passing messages between scattered al Qaeda cells.

Last December, shortly before Britain adopted a new antiterrorist law, Abu 
Qatada vanished from his Acton home, stiffing his landlord and owing $700 
on his cellphone service. He would turn up in London again later.

A few weeks after the drafting of the first e-mail message to Abu Qatada in 
late 2000, a militant in Kabul code-named Fat'hi wrote a follow-up note to 
be delivered to the cleric by courier. "The bearer of this message is a 
brother we trust," said Fat'hi, an alias used by Tariq Anwar al-Sayyid 
Ahmad, a veteran associate of Dr. Zawahri, the Egyptian Jihad leader and 
Mr. bin Laden's righthand man. "He will be the link between us and you. He 
has the CD we promised to send you containing our products. Please add some 
of the products to our site." Most important, he said, was transferring 
audio and video files to the site.

What these files contained wasn't specified. The Kabul computer held 
sermons and recruitment videos, including footage of militants taking 
potshots at a lifesize image of Bill Clinton. Clips from Walt Disney 
cartoons and wildlife films were spliced with hard-core jihad films, a 
technique apparently used to help conceal the content of al Qaeda videos 
and make it easier for traveling operatives to carry copies through customs.

Appended to Fat'hi's note was a shopping list for tools needed in Web-site 
construction, such as Ulead Cool 3D, for animation and three-dimensional 
effects, and WebPainter, for animation and graphics. "Please make sure you 
buy the latest," wrote Fat'hi, adding that the courier must return with 
them quickly to Kabul.

Relations were sometimes testy. "The Web site is OK until now, thank God, 
but it would have been better if you had done what I asked," said a message 
bearing the name of Abu Qatada in London, who complained of trouble 
uploading "the doctor's words," an apparent reference to statements by Dr. 

Much of the software on the Kabul computer was pirated. This included a 
program that muttered Bism Allah ("in the name of God") each time the 
machine was booted up. Al Qaeda apparently ignored a request from the 
program's designers in Pittsburgh for a $24.95 registration fee. The 
program had been unregistered for 81 days when Kabul fell last Nov. 13.

Also tight-fisted was Mr. Ali, the Egyptian who registered in China. In February 2001, the Internet company hired 
the prior year informed Mr. Ali that his contract for server space would 
expire unless he paid an additional fee. Mr. Ali, says his Chinese 
translator, declined to pay.

His reluctance to cough up was motivated in part by dissatisfaction with 
the Chinese site's erratic operation, e-mail traffic stored on the Kabul 
computer indicates. "I want you to try to enter and use the site. If you 
are able to do so I will call the company and pay the renewal fees," says 
an unsigned message from the same Hotmail account Abu Qatada had been told 
to use to contact the "brothers." A few weeks later, Mr. Ali decided to 
renew the account after all, paying an additional $120 to Chen Rongbin, the 
technician who visited his apartment earlier. Mr. Chen sent it to Sinonets 
in Beijing.

But now the bookkeepers messed up. Sinonets says the accounting department 
mislaid Mr. Ali's money. The renewal order was never processed. crashed.

The site's Pakistan-registered twin staggered on for several months but 
then crashed in the summer of 2001 after Mr. Bakht failed to pay renewal 
charges. Islamists still had many communications outlets sympathetic to Mr. 
bin Laden and Dr. Zawahri, but not the "special Web site" supervised from 
al Qaeda headquarters in Afghanistan.

Fat'hi, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad veteran who helped organize the Web 
sites' content, died in a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan. Those who set 
up the Web sites vanished, but one figure stayed in touch. At a London 
gathering of Islamic radicals in July, the organizer read a statement of 
support he said he'd received via the Web from an absent champion of global 
jihad: Abu Qatada.

Late last month, British police raiding a south London public housing block 
seized the Palestinian cleric. He has not been charged but is being held as 
a terror suspect under a new British law introduced after the Sept. 11 
attacks that permits the detention without trial of foreigners deemed a 
danger to national security.

Held in a high-security jail, he has not responded publicly to his arrest. 
But Islamist supporters denounced his detention, mostly via statements on 
the Internet such as "May Allah secure his rapid release."

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