Al Qaeda’s Internet communications system has suddenly gone dark to American intelligence after the leak of Osama bin Laden’s September 11 speech inadvertently disclosed the fact that we had penetrated the enemy’s system.
The intelligence blunder started with what appeared at the time as an American intelligence victory, namely that the federal government had intercepted, a full four days before it was to be aired, a video of Osama bin Laden’s first appearance in three years in a video address marking the sixth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. On the morning of September 7, the Web site of ABC News posted excerpts from the speech.
But the disclosure from ABC and later other news organizations tipped off Qaeda’s internal security division that the organization’s Internet communications system, known among American intelligence analysts as Obelisk, was compromised. This network of Web sites serves not only as the distribution system for the videos produced by Al Qaeda’s production company, As-Sahab, but also as the equivalent of a corporate intranet, dealing with such mundane matters as expense reporting and clerical memos to mid- and lower-level Qaeda operatives throughout the world.
One intelligence officer who requested anonymity said in an interview last week that the intelligence community watched in real time the shutdown of the Obelisk system. America’s Obelisk watchers even saw the order to shut down the system delivered from Qaeda’s internal security to a team of technical workers in Malaysia. That was the last internal message America’s intelligence community saw. “We saw the whole thing shut down because of this leak,” the official said. “We lost an important keyhole into the enemy.”
The founder of a Web site known as clandestineradio.com, Nick Grace, tracked the shutdown of Qaeda’s Obelisk system in real time. “It was both unprecedented and chilling from the perspective of a Web techie. The discipline and coordination to take the entire system down involving multiple Web servers, hundreds of user names and passwords, is an astounding feat, especially that it was done within minutes,” Mr. Grace said yesterday. [complete article]
See also, Leak severed a link to al-Qaeda’s secrets (WP) and In a new video, bin Laden predicts U.S. failure in Iraq (WP, 9/7/07)
Editor’s Comment — When news about this video first appeared, there was something strangely juvenile about the way in which it was being billed as a sneak preview. It seemed like a taunt: na-na-na-na-na – al Qaeda can’t control its communications. And President Bush himself gave the clearest indication of the administration’s motive for giving bin Laden’s message some extra time in the news cycle during the run up to the 9/11 anniversary. “I found it interesting that on the tape Iraq was mentioned, which is a reminder that Iraq is a part of this war against extremists,” Bush said while speaking to reporters in Sydney. “If al-Qaeda bothers to mention Iraq, it is because they want to achieve their objectives in Iraq, which is to drive us out and to develop a safe haven.” It was another opportunity to revive the spurious 9/11-Iraq narrative.