On Gardening Leave
Joined: 24 Jul 2006
|Posted: Mon Aug 06, 2007 4:02 pm Post subject:
|SITE releases much of the Al Q attributed media these days, claiming to intercept videos and audios being sent to Jihadi websites.
Until now I've assumed that it was a serious corporate type quasi-intelligence service type organisation.
So, who are the SITE Institute:
SITE = Search for International Terrorist Entities
Sourcewatch has this:
(Click on link for further links in text)
Accessed May 22, 2005:
* The listed staff consists of two individuals, and the website seems to be an aggregator of publicly-available data on the internet, mostly consisting of current news items.
* The Terrorism Library, on cusory investigation, looks to be a straight data scrape from the U.S. Department of State's Patterns of Global Terrorism - 2003, Appendix B.
* The list of Terrorist Organisation websites consists of 5 groups:
* Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade ; HAMAS (Islamic Resistance Movement) ; Hizballah (Party of God) ; and Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) , all "confirmed" September 8, 2004, and Hamas military wing, Izza Deen al-Qassam , "confirmed" October 16, 2004.
* The list of Publications often provides a very short synopsis of a news item, with a reference given for a translation from their premium service, other times they offer full mirrors of news items, poorly marked-up.
Rita Katz is Director and co-founder of the SITE Institue. Born in Iraq, her father was tried and executed as an Israeli spy, whereupon her family moved to Israel [the move has been described as both an escape and an emmigration in different sources]. She received a degree from the Middle Eastern Studies program at Tel Aviv University, and is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. She emigrated to the US in 1997.
Katz is also the author of the book Terrorist Hunter (HarperCollins, 2003) in which she chronicles her infiltration into US-based Arab groups to investigate terrorist connections as a private investigator.
Josh Devon is Senior Analyst and co-founder of the SITE Institute. He has a BA from University of Pennsylvania (English) and a BS from Wharton College (Economics). Devon is currently attending the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University with the intentions of receiving an International Studies Degree with a focus on the Middle East.
* Note: Wharton College is most likely the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Here's a 2004 article on SITE from the New York Times:
|September 23, 2004
Even Near Home, a New Front Is Opening in the Terror Battle
By ERIC LIPTON and ERIC LICHTBLAU
CLIFTON, N.J. - The flags that sprouted after the Sept. 11 attacks still flap on lawns and flutter on poles outside well-tended homes here, about 15 miles from Manhattan. Looming above them is a concrete tower that houses a real-estate firm, an office supplies company - and, until recently, investigators fear, an outpost of Al Qaeda.
On the second floor, an Internet company called Fortress ITX unwittingly played host to an Arabic-language Web site where postings in recent weeks urged attacks against American and Israeli targets. "The Art of Kidnapping" was explained in electronic pamphlets, along with "Military Instructions to the Mujahedeen," and "War Inside the Cities." Visitors could read instructions on using a cellphone to remotely detonate a bomb, and one even asked for help in manufacturing small missiles.
"How can this be?" asked Cathy Vasilenko, who lives a few doors away from the Fortress ITX office. "How can this be going on in my neighborhood?"
Federal investigators, with the help of a small army of private contractors monitoring sites around the clock and across the world, are trying to find out. Ever since the United States-led coalition smashed Al Qaeda's training grounds in Afghanistan, cyber substitutes, which recruit terrorists and raise money, have proliferated.
While Qaeda operatives have employed an arsenal of technical tools to communicate - from e-mail encryption and computer war games to grisly videotapes like the recent ones showing beheadings believed to have been carried out by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - investigators say they worry most about the Internet because extremists can reach a broad audience with relatively little chance of detection.
By examining sites like those stored inside the electronic walls of the Clifton business, investigators are hoping to identify who is behind them, what links they might have to terror groups, and what threat, if any, they might pose. And in a step that has raised alarms among civil libertarians and others and so far proven unpersuasive in the courtroom, prosecutors are charging that those administering these sites should be held criminally responsible for what is posted.
Attempting to apply broad new powers established by the Patriot Act, the federal government wants to punish those who it claims provide "expert advice or assistance" and therefore play an integral part of a global terror campaign that increasingly relies on the Internet. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee recently, called such Web sites "cyber sanctuaries."
"These networks are wonderful things that enable all kinds of good things in the world," Mr. Wolfowitz said of the Internet. "But they're also a tool that the terrorists use to conceal their identities, to move money, to encrypt messages, even to plan and conduct operations remotely."
Many question the government's strategy of trying to combat terrorism by prosecuting Web site operators. "I think it is an impossible task," said Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, an agency that monitors the use of the Internet by Al Qaeda. "You can maybe catch some people. But you will never ever be able to stem the flow of radical Islamic propaganda."
He pointed out that it is difficult to distinguish between a real terrorist and a make-believe one online. "You would end up prosecuting a lot of angry young people who do this because it is exciting, not because they want to actually participate in terrorist attacks," he said. "I don't think it helps you fight Al Qaeda."
The government faces many hurdles in pursuing virtual terrorists. While many militant Islamic message boards and Web pages reside on computer servers owned by North American Internet companies, outfits like Fortress ITX say it would be impractical - and unethical, given that the company sells server space to clients who then resell it - for them to keep track of all of the content stored within their equipment.
"It is hideous, loathsome," said Robert Ellis, executive vice president of Fortress, after viewing postings from the Abu al-Bukhary Web site his company hosted. "It is the part of this business that is deeply disturbing." His company shut down the site within the last month after learning of it from a reporter. The intense focus on Muslim-related sites like Abu al-Bukhary, in an era when domestically produced anarchist manuals are commonly available on the Web, has provoked charges that the anti-cyber sanctuary effort is really a misguided anti-Muslim campaign that is compromising important First Amendment rights.
This effort "opens the floodgates to really marginalizing a lot of the free speech that has been a hallmark of the American legal and political system," said Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Globally it really does nothing but worsen the image of America in the rest of the world."
The detective work begins in a northeast city in a compact office set up by a self-proclaimed terrorist hunter. This is the headquarters of Rita Katz, an Iraqi-born Jew whose father was executed in Baghdad in 1969, shortly after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party came to power.
Finding terrorists has become a crusade for Ms. Katz, who began going to pro-Palestinian rallies and fund-raisers disguised as a Muslim woman in the late 1990's, then presented information to the federal government in an effort to prove there were ties between Islamic fundamentalist groups in the United States and terror organizations like Hamas or Al Qaeda.
Federal agencies, including the National Security Agency, the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security, monitor suspected terror sites on the Internet and sometimes track users. Private groups like Ms. Katz's Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute and The Middle East Media Research Institute are also keeping track of the ever-changing content of these sites. Ms. Katz's institute, which relies on government contracts and corporate clients, may be the most influential of those groups, and she is among the most controversial of the cyberspace monitors. While some experts praise her research as solid, some of her targets view her as a vigilante. Several Islamic groups and charities, for example, sued for defamation after she claimed they were terrorist fronts, even though they were not charged with a crime.
Sitting under wall maps of Europe, the Middle East and the United States - including one pinpointing locations of suspected terror cells or possible supporters - Ms. Katz and her team of computer technicians and researchers spend their days searching the Internet for any new messages from militant groups and new addresses for terror sites. Her institute, based in a city she does not disclose, also has a small crew in Israel, which allows the organization to monitor sites around the clock.
"We are trying to think the way terrorist organizations think," said Ms. Katz, "The Internet today has become a front in the war itself."
Keeping tabs on these jihadist sites - several hundred exist - requires vigilance, as videos and statements uploaded by different groups often appear only briefly. A recent Tuesday was a particularly busy day. The Islambouli Brigade, a militant Islamic group, turned to one popular message board site called islamic-minbar.com, operated out of the Netherlands, to release the names of two women it said were responsible for the Aug. 24 explosions of two Russian planes and to claim responsibility for an attack at a Moscow subway station. "When we pledge to avenge our Chechen brothers, we do not break our promise," the Aug. 31 posting said.
Jaish Ansar al-Sunna, a group that has surfaced in Iraq, posted a video on its Internet site showing the bodies of 12 Nepali contractor workers who it had taken hostage and killed. The site was taken down that same day, but then reappeared on a computer server of a Utah-based Web hosting company.
While staffers at Ms. Katz's office rushed to translate these postings, others were busy snooping by using a special software program to electronically suck up more than 15,000 computer files from a Web site, or referring to a custom-made database to identify sites with common administrators, an assignment initiated by a government request. This week, they watched postings on the Web site Ansarnet.ws/vb alerting followers that a hostage had been killed, then directing them to a video showing the beheading of an American engineer held hostage in Iraq.
A crucial question, of course, is whether a site is simply offering inspirational rhetoric or is genuinely linked to terror strikes. Often, Web site exhortations are followed by acts of violence, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are connected.
In late May, for example, shortly after a kidnapping guide appeared on an online magazine called Al Battar, a wave of kidnappings and beheadings started in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Last December, a 42-page essay published on a Web site called Global Islamic Media observed that "the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure" from Iraq. Three months later, bombs tore apart trains in Madrid, resulting in the eventual departure of Spanish troops from Iraq.
In Clifton, the digital images and terrorist manuals from Abu al-Bukhary's site resided, like data from thousands of other Internet pages hosted at Fortress ITX, inside a sprawling computer room. Pointing to the wall of boxes with blinking lights, Fortress executives said they did not know who controlled most of the Web sites on their servers, as they sell space to clients who then resell it to countless others. "It is like an orange you buy at the supermarket," Mr. Ellis said. "Try figuring out what farm that came from."
Strategy of Prosecution
Knocking militant groups off the Internet for a day or two by urging individual Web hosting companies to shut down the sites didn't accomplish much, Ms. Katz believed. So the government, in an unusual alliance with Ms. Katz, has been testing a different strategy in the last year.
Sami Omar al-Hussayen would be their first target. The 35-year-old father of three had arrived at the University of Idaho in 1999 to pursue a doctorate in computer science. In his spare time, Mr. Hussayen, who lived in Moscow, Idaho, established a series of Internet sites with names like liveislam.net or alasr.ws ("the generation") and served as a regional leader of the Islamic Assembly of North America, a group that described itself as a charitable organization, but which prosecutors said recruited members and instigated "acts of violence and terrorism."
Along with news from the Middle East and interviews with scholars, the sites included more disturbing information. Videos displayed the bodies of dead suicide attackers as a narrator declared "we had brethren who achieved what they sought, and that is martyrdom in the cause of Allah." Requests were posted for donations to Chechen groups that were trying to "show the truth about Russian terrorism." Clerical edicts appeared on topics including "suicide operations against the Jews."
The Justice Department, which declined to comment for this article, did not claim that Mr. Hussayen had authored the most militant items. Instead, by registering the Web sites, paying for them and posting the material, he was charged with providing material support to a banned terrorist group.
But Mr. Hussayen's lawyers said their client was expressing his free-speech rights. The Internet is the modern equivalent of the soap box, said David Z. Nevin, one of the lawyers. "They were wildly too zealous," Mr. Nevin said about Ms. Katz and the Justice Department. "This was not within a country mile of the kind of behavior that this nation has any business trying to criminalize."
The jury was unconvinced by the government's case, and acquitted Mr. Hussayen in June after a monthlong trial. "We went through files and files and files of evidence - transcripts of telephone calls, bank statements, all the e-mails, information from the Internet - and we could not substantiate that he was directly involved with a terrorist organization," said Claribel Ingraham, one of the jurors. "It just wasn't there."
The setback in Idaho has not stopped the government from pursuing similar cases. In late July, a warrant was issued in Connecticut for Babar Ahmad, resulting in his arrest in London Aug. 5. The 30-year-old computer technician at a London college is accused of setting up Internet sites from 1997 to 2003, most prominently azzam.com, to recruit terrorists and raise money for them. "If you're going to use cyberspace, we're there and we're paying attention," said Kevin J. O'Connor, the United States Attorney from Connecticut, after Mr. Ahmad's arrest.
The trial has not started - the United States is trying to persuade British authorities to extradite him - but already Muslim groups and civil libertarians in Britain are assailing the case. In a letter from his prison cell that was posted on the Internet, Mr. Ahmad asserted that he was imprisoned "to strike terror and fear into the hearts of the docile, sleeping Muslim community."
Ms. Katz said she was not discouraged by the criticism of the prosecutions. "When you call for the death of people and then it results in actions - that is beyond the First Amendment," she said. "You are organizing a crime."
I just love that "unwittingly played host to an Arabic-language Web site where postings in recent weeks urged attacks against American and Israeli targets."
With few exceptions, all of the alleged Jihadist web sites that have ever cropped in media reports that I have checked out, were ALL HOSTED IN THE USA !
Here's another 2006 article on SITE from the New Yorker:
Annals of Terrorism
How Rita Katz got into the spying business.
by Benjamin Wallace-Wells May 29, 2006
Rita Katz is tiny and dark, with volatile brown eyes, and when she is nervous or excited she can’t sit still. She speaks in torrents, ten minutes at a stretch. Everybody who works in intelligence calls her Rita, even people who don’t know her well. She sometimes telephones people she hasn’t met—important people in the government—to tell them things that she thinks they ought to know. She keeps copies of letters from officials whose investigations into terrorism she has assisted. “You and your staff . . . were invaluable additions to the investigative team,” the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Salt Lake City Division wrote; the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Boise said, “You are a rare and extraordinary gem that has appeared too infrequently throughout the course of history.” The letters come in handy, she told me, when she meets with skepticism or lack of interest; they are her establishment bona fides.
Katz, who was born in Iraq and speaks fluent Arabic, spends hours each day monitoring the password-protected online chat rooms in which Islamic terrorists discuss politics and trade tips: how to disperse botulinum toxin or transfer funds, which suicide vests work best. Occasionally, a chat-room member will announce that he is turning in his user name and password and going to Iraq to become a martyr, a shaheed. Several weeks later, his friends will post a report of the young man blowing himself up. Katz usually logs on at six in the morning. When she has guests for dinner, she leaves a laptop open on the kitchen counter, so she can check for updates. “It is completely addicting,” she says. “You wake up thinking, I’ve been offline for seven hours, but the terrorists have been making plans.”
Traditionally, intelligence has been filtered through government agencies, such as the C.I.A. and the N.S.A., which gather raw data and analyze it, and the government decides who sees the product of their work and when. Katz, who is the head of an organization called the Search for International Terrorist Entities, or SITE Institute, has made it her business to upset that monopoly. She and her researchers mine online sources for intelligence, which her staff translates and sends out by e-mail to a list of about a hundred subscribers.
Katz’s client list includes people in the government who are presumably frustrated by how long it takes to get information through official channels; it also includes people in corporate security and in the media, who rarely get much useful material from the C.I.A. She has worked with prosecutors on more than a dozen terrorism investigations, and many American officers in Iraq rely on Katz’s e-mails to, for example, brief their troops on the designs for explosives that are passed around terrorist Web sites. “You’re thrown into Baghdad, and there are a million different groups out there you’ve never heard of claiming responsibility for attacks,” Robert Worth, a Times reporter who used Katz’s service during the eighteen months he spent in Iraq, told me. “Rita really knows what she’s talking about—who’s responsible for attacks, what’s a legitimate terrorist organization and what’s not.” Because many reporters rebroadcast her information, it can reach the public before people in the government have had a chance to evaluate it; her organization’s work is cited in the Times and the Washington Post about twice a month.
Katz has many critics, who believe that she is giving terrorists a bigger platform than they would otherwise have, and that the certainty and obsession that make her a dedicated archivist also make her too eager to find plots where they don’t exist; she publicized a manual for using botulinum in terror attacks, for example, which experts later concluded was not linked to any serious threat. It’s possible that her immersion in the world of terrorism has removed whatever skepticism or doubts she may have had. “Much as Al Jazeera underplays terrorist threats, the SITE Institute at times overhypes them,” Michael Scheuer, the former head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden unit, said.
More fundamentally, some people involved in counterterrorism do not think that a private group with limited resources can do as good or as prudent a job as government agencies can. “Intelligence analysis is a set of skills that you learn, not just something that anyone can walk in off the street and pick up,” Steven Aftergood, who monitors the intelligence community for the Federation of American Scientists, told me. Katz, however, pointed out that, for example, the professionals consistently missed signals about Al Qaeda before September 11, 2001, and said that she was simply filling a gap. (A 2004 audit showed that the F.B.I. alone had thousands of hours of untranslated intercepts.) Indeed, Katz has received outsourcing contracts from the government.
Before the September 11, 2001, attacks, the official counterterrorism agencies paid relatively little attention to the jihadis’ online presence. But in the past few years that has changed, in large measure because of changes in the way terror networks operate. “Nearly everything about Al Qaeda that matters is happening online right now,” Peter Bergen, a journalist and terrorism expert, said. Some analysts believe that Al Qaeda today is a model of what is called “leaderless resistance”: self-appointed cells operating with help and inspiration from materials that they find online. Traffic rose dramatically after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, posted a video of the beheading of the American contractor Nicholas Berg.
“It’s not as if Al Qaeda were inventing this,” Jessica Stern, a terrorism specialist who served on the National Security Council under President Clinton, said. What’s unique about Islamic terror and the Internet is that there is up-to-the-minute access to what terrorists are thinking. Rita Katz is, in a sense, the natural complement, the engineer of a leaderless counter-resistance to the terrorist groups. “Some people think that she’s a zealot,” Stern said when I asked her about Katz, “but only a zealot would provide this kind of service.”
In March, I visited Katz at her office, on the seventh floor of an old building in a Northeastern city that she refuses to allow reporters to identify in print. She told me to take a train to the city’s main terminal, and then call the office for further directions. By the time I got to SITE’s locked door, which has a black security camera and a plaque bearing the name of a nonexistent business, I half expected to walk into a center full of high-tech equipment, with flashing maps and screens.
The SITE Institute’s office looked like a college newspaper’s. There were three rooms: Katz’s office, dominated by a large conference table; a small room for two translators (more work part time, from home); and what’s called the pit, where several researchers and interns, all in their twenties, sat under a long, eye-level row of mug shots of wanted terrorists—mostly bearded Arab men, with grim, unsmiling glares. There was an air of intense isolation, with everyone focussed on his own projects. It was hard to ignore the office’s youth; Katz told me of a new service she had added that scanned French-language terrorist sites, and that depended on an undergraduate intern who spoke fluent French (Katz has since hired another French-speaker for the service).
Each day, Katz finds about a half-dozen items on the Arabic message boards that are worth distributing. Her researchers, who monitor English-language jihadist Web sites, often find a few more. Some are propaganda: videos taking responsibility for attacks, statements of intent to attack, announcements of allegiances or splits. Others involve tactics and weapons. “You don’t need to go to Afghanistan for training anymore,” Katz said as we paged through a list of credit-card information that seemed to have been stolen from Houston suburbanites. “You just get it on the Internet.” SITE tries to have the items translated and sent to subscribers within an hour and a half of their first appearance online; when the material could be a big news story—for instance, a new audiotape released by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s closest associate—SITE’s translation may go on television a few minutes later. The full transcript of the video of the American reporter Jill Carroll, made by her kidnappers, was posted within twenty-five minutes.
Katz has a testy relationship with the government, sometimes acting as a consultant and sometimes as an antagonist. About a year ago, a SITE staffer, under an alias, managed to join an exclusive jihadist message board that, among other things, served as a debarkation point for many would-be suicide bombers. For months, the staffer pretended to be one of the jihadis, joining in chats and watching as other members posted the chilling messages known as “wills,” the final sign-offs before martyrdom. The staffer also passed along technical advice on how to keep the message board going. Eventually, he won the confidence of the site’s Webmasters, who were impressed with his computer skills, and he gained access to the true e-mail addresses of the members and other information about them. After monitoring the site for several more days, the staffer told Katz that one of the site’s members, a young Muslim man in a European country, had just posted a will. “It was obvious that he was planning to become a martyr very soon,” Katz said.
Katz called officials in Washington, and was met with institutional resistance: “They said, ‘Oh, Rita, I’m not sure you should even be communicating with them—you might be providing material support!’ And they wanted to get approval from the Department of Justice to look at the e-mails. I said, ‘Look, we have to do something.’ ” Katz then called an American counterterrorism official stationed in the young man’s country, and he, in turn, sent the jihadi’s e-mails to local investigators. Within twenty-four hours, they had him under surveillance, and a week later they arrested him. “In my opinion, they probably wouldn’t have had a clue if it hadn’t been for Rita,” the official told me. This, Katz said, is what she always hopes to achieve: “It’s one case where everything just worked so well.”
At the SITE office, Katz showed me some suicide-bombing videos from Iraq. They are often five or ten minutes long, overlaid with religious chanting. In one video, a middle-aged Iraqi doctor straps on a suicide vest. “In Israel, they always told you that the profile of a suicide bomber was someone young, without family, from the lowest economic level, but what we see here over and over is just the opposite,” Katz said.
We watched the last day in the life of Abu Mouwayia al-Shimali, a chubby, bespectacled Saudi. Shimali discusses a letter purportedly written by a female prisoner at Abu Ghraib named Fatima, describing nightly public rapes of female prisoners by American guards. The letter is apocryphal, but it has circulated widely online, and has become a rallying point for the Iraqi insurgency. Shimali does not sound unhinged or bloodthirsty; he sounds humble.
Shimali is shown waving as he walks to a car. Then he is in the driver’s seat, with a rifle in his lap, patting a clunky metal apparatus next to him. His smile is warm, and he is speaking in a measured tone. “He is saying, ‘This is my bomb,’ ” Katz translated. The car pulls up to a dusty checkpoint manned by American and Iraqi soldiers, and then explodes. SITE distributed the video two days after it was posted. As you watch, it feels not like an advertisement for homicide but like an advertisement for belief. Katz told me that even she, watching such videos, could imagine wanting to become a suicide bomber.
Katz believes that America has so far understood the terrorist threat only in b****** and insufficient terms. She believes that it is wrong to assert, as President Bush does, that terrorists are motivated by hatred for our freedoms rather than by our policies in the Middle East or those of their own governments. Though she herself is circumspect about the issue of Iraq, some members of her staff believe that the war is a distraction from the fight with radical Islamic terrorism. But Katz also believes that terrorists are more sophisticated and resilient than most Americans realize, that the war against radical Islam is likely to last for decades, and that the outcome is far from clear. Her project is, in large measure, to convince Americans of the seriousness of the threat by building a direct conduit to the terrorist mind.
“What makes Rita unique is her background,” Peter Probst, a terrorism consultant and retired C.I.A. officer who works with Katz, told me. “Because of what she’d been through, she understood the threat earlier and better than most of us.”
Katz was born in Basra, Iraq, in 1963, one of four children of a wealthy Jewish businessman. In 1968, in the wake of the Six-Day War, the Baath government, with Saddam Hussein as its head of security, encouraged attacks against Iraqi Jews. Some Jews from prominent families were arrested and charged with spying for Israel, among them Katz’s father. After he was imprisoned, his wife and children were transported to Baghdad and kept under house arrest in a stone hut. Katz’s father was convicted in a military tribunal and executed, in 1969, with eight other Jews and five non-Jews, in a public hanging in Baghdad’s central square. Hundreds of thousands of cheering Iraqis attended; the government offered free transportation to people from the provinces, and belly dancers performed for the crowd. Katz was six years old.
After the family had been living in the hut for months, Katz’s mother drugged the guards and escaped with the children. By pretending to be the wife of a well-known Iraqi general, a woman she faintly resembled, she got the family first to the Iranian border and then to Israel. They settled in a small seaside town called Bat-Yam. Katz did her military service in the Israel Defense Forces after high school, and studied politics and history at Tel Aviv University. She married a medical student, and went into business with her mother, manufacturing clothes; Katz handled sales. In 1997, Katz’s husband won a fellowship to do research in endocrinology at the National Institutes of Health, and they moved to Washington with their three children. (They later had a fourth.)
The particulars of her biography—her father’s execution, her escape from Iraq, and her education in Israel—give Katz, in the eyes of some in the counterterrorism community, a kind of bionic character, as if she had been designed to hunt down terrorists. Her friends and allies are awed by her background; her critics find in it reason to be suspicious of her motives. Katz claims to attach no special meaning to it. “I would have to think about that,” she said, when I asked her if her early life had made her particularly sensitive to the terrorist threat. Later, she told me, “I know that the people who killed my father aren’t the same as the jihadis, but obviously I would never have got interested in the politics of this part of the world if it weren’t for his execution.” (She also said, “When you grow up in a place like Iraq, you understand maybe a little bit about how Arabs think, and also what they are capable of.”)
Katz’s first nine months in the United States were lonely—“I cried on the phone to my mama every day”—and she abruptly quit the one job she held, as an assistant in a suburban gift shop. (She didn’t get along with her boss.) She saw an ad for an Arabic-speaking research assistant, applied for the job, and got it. Her employer was the Investigative Project, run by Steven Emerson, a former reporter with an interest in terror networks. Emerson became widely known in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when, appearing as an expert on CBS News, he theorized that the attack was the work of Islamic extremists. It turned out that Timothy McVeigh was responsible.
The Investigative Project was an exciting place to be. By the mid-nineties, the Internet had begun to change intelligence gathering profoundly, allowing groups like Emerson’s to emerge—self-styled spies who relied on the floods of “open source” information available online—tax records, credit reports, Internet newsletters written by people in Belgrade or Indonesia. Senior counterterrorism officials had been slow to take open-source information seriously. “It was seen as irrelevant, and they much preferred working with spies and satellites,” Timothy Naftali, of the University of Virginia, who wrote a history of American counterterrorism for the 9/11 Commission, said. Katz would start with the name of an organization, or an individual, and pore over records to find out who was associated with whom, whether they were sending money overseas, what they were writing. She was amazed at what she could discover. She began joining message boards related to a particular group or mosque and chatting with her subjects online, pretending to be a Muslim man.
The Investigative Project also did undercover work at Islamic fund-raisers and rallies. “Our families all thought we were nuts,” Evan Kohlmann, who worked with Katz and Emerson, said. (Kohlmann now runs his own Web-based consultancy, globalterroralert.com.) The I.P. sometimes sent Katz to events where non-Muslims would stand out; she pretended to be the wife of a radical Iraqi-American businessman. She taped crowds outside the Israeli Embassy screaming in Arabic, “Jew, Jew, Muhammad is coming to get you.” At particularly radical fund-raisers and conferences, she wore a burka, spoke a deferential Iraqi-accented Arabic, and sat apart from the men, averting her eyes. By volunteering to send cash to the families of suicide bombers, she said, she figured out which organizations were funnelling money to them. She openly videotaped events, as true believers do, and, she said, “sometimes when I had trouble holding the video camera, they would be very polite and hold it for me.” She became so consumed by this work—telephoning her house from other cities at odd hours and telling her family that she’d be back in a day or two but couldn’t say why—that her husband suspected her of having an affair.
On December 14, 1999, an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested as he tried to cross the border from Canada with a trunk full of materials for an explosive device that he intended to detonate at Los Angeles International Airport. Richard A. Clarke, who was then President Clinton’s counterterrorism adviser, called Emerson from the White House and asked the Investigative Project for a report on militant Islamic cells in North America. The worry was that Ressam was part of a larger plot planned for the millennium. Each day for the next two weeks, Kohlmann, Katz, Emerson, and two other analysts stayed at the office until well past midnight, looking through public records and other sources. Katz became convinced that she was looking at a single global network of terror. “We began to realize how big it was, and how little anyone knew about it,” she said, “and it just began to swallow me up.”
On September 11, 2001, Kohlmann, then in law school, raced out of class and called Katz. “She said, ‘Time to get to work.’ ” But by the following June Katz and Emerson, both combative personalities, had parted ways. Taking two staff members from the Investigative Project, Katz set up her own office. She got by on small government contracts. Some of that work, done for the Treasury Department, involved identifying Islamic groups that might be sending money to terrorist organizations. She also had a contract with the Swiss government and with a group of relatives of 9/11 victims who were suing Saudi Arabian officials, businesses, and charities. Still, during the first two years, Katz said, she couldn’t always pay salaries.
But Katz’s organization had embedded itself in the Internet, and when a part-time P.R. consultant whom Katz brought in suggested that she start a subscription service, Katz sent out an e-mail to people and groups she had worked with. In a few weeks, SITE had a few dozen subscribers, each paying twenty-five hundred dollars annually. (SITE is a nonprofit organization, and also raises money from private donors.)
The world of private, open-source counterterrorism operations is tiny—a few dozen people, if you’re counting liberally—and it tends to have the same characteristics as other self-appointed, at-the-barricades élites, like the neoconservatives, or the old American left, or, for that matter, an underground terrorist organization. There are the same personal allegiances and petty feuds, the same mixture of importance and self-importance. Kohlmann and Josh Devon, who left the Investigative Project with Katz and helped set up SITE, have been friends since middle school. They finished college in 2001. Kohlmann has long hair and a beard and is aided in his work, he said, “by looking like the kind of grad-school, hippie American that Islamic terrorists think they can recruit”; Devon has curly hair and always looks slightly surprised. When I asked Devon whether they had given much thought to the implications of selling intelligence by subscription, he said, “We were just trying to survive.”
In May, 2003, Katz published, anonymously, a memoir about her work, called “Terrorist Hunter.” (She was exposed as its author soon afterward.) The book is as psychologically blunt as she is, and the tone, at times, verges on smugness; the F.B.I., she writes, didn’t “possess one-thousandth of my knowledge on the relevant issues.” It is also an account, in almost religious terms, of her revelation about the threat and reach of global Islamic terrorism. Not that Katz goes through any real conversion in the course of the book; the only change is the slow, mechanical development of naïveté into experience, of suspicion into conviction, like water into steam.
That month, Katz went on “60 Minutes” to promote “Terrorist Hunter,” and to talk about her investigation into terrorist financing. Wearing a wig, five hours’ worth of makeup, and a large fake nose to conceal her identity, Katz also suggested that Mar-Jac Poultry, a Georgia chicken farm, was sending money to terrorists. She speculated that the company had hidden the transfers by selling chickens that it had recorded in its books as dead. Mar-Jac sued Katz and CBS. (The suit is still pending.) “This woman knows nothing about money laundering, and she sure as hell knows nothing about poultry,” Mar-Jac’s lawyer, Wilmer Parker, told me.
Katz said that her information was sound, but the publicity from the suit was not good. And there were other setbacks. In 2004, after she spent months helping the Department of Justice prepare a case against a young University of Idaho computer scientist named Sami Omar al-Hussayen for giving material support to terrorists, a jury acquitted him.
The invasion of Iraq opened up new opportunities for small, private groups like SITE, and as the war went on, and the insurgency continued to grow, SITE provided instantaneous bits of information to keep up with the news cycle. “It’s like when CNN came on the scene in the Gulf War, with twenty-four-hour news—it forever changed the field,” Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at RAND told me. “SITE sends out six, seven e-mails a day, and the stuff is good, and it forces everyone else to play catch-up.”
SITE’s detractors have also questioned the quality, or, rather, the possible slant, of SITE’s translations—an especially troubling issue given the shortage of alternatives. “An Arabic word can have four or five different meanings in translation,” Michael Scheuer, the former C.I.A. analyst, said. SITE, in his view, always picks the “most warlike translation.”
“Our translations are as close as we can get to the original language,” Katz told me. “We have native speakers who do them, and I definitely don’t tell the native speakers what word to use—I am too busy to do that.”
Last December, Katz was reading a jihadist message board called Al Safanat when she discovered a manual describing how to attack the Alaska pipeline. She was struck by the level of detail: the manual recommended that an élite cell of four or five men equipped with armor-piercing bullets or explosives sneak across the border into Alaska from Canada. “They spilled our brothers’ blood and they stole our oil resources,” it said. “This is our time to teach them a lesson.” SITE sent the manual to its subscribers that day.
Soon afterward, the Anchorage Daily News published an article on the threat, crediting SITE for the information. “That’s when everything went crazy,” Katz said. Other reports followed, and soon Katz’s phone was ringing so frequently that she was overwhelmed. Things were even more overwhelming for workers on the pipeline. “We were already in communication with local, state, and federal officials,” Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the company that manages the pipeline, said. When the media reports of the manual came out, Heatwole’s company sent internal memos reassuring its employees and their spouses that there was no credible threat. “The situation we don’t want to be in is to have CNN on in our facilities and someone on TV saying, ‘This just in—terrorist threat to the pipeline,’ and all our workers and their families saying, ‘Oh, no!’ ”
Katz conceded that her group doesn’t check the scientific accuracy of each manual, or the legitimacy of every threat—although she tries to make sure that the Web site that a particular item appears on has produced credible threats in the past, and that the threat seems serious. And, she said, vetting isn’t her role. “I’m telling people what terrorists are thinking,” Katz says. “Wouldn’t you rather know that they’re thinking about the Alaska pipeline, even if this manual wouldn’t work?”
There are hundreds of extremist Web sites, but there is also a hierarchy: sites on which terrorist groups release statements and videos have the most devoted audiences. As soon as something appears, users post it on dozens of message boards, chat rooms, and blogs. For much of the past two years, activity centered on a board called Ansar; once it was shut down, with its British-based Webmaster imprisoned for his part in a bomb plot, users shifted to a board called Al Hesbah. “There was absolutely no disruption,” Katz said.
Al Hesbah has several thousand regular users, and most log on from Europe and the Middle East. The tone of the conversation is respectful—“brother” is the universal term of greeting—and dissent is not tolerated. Once in a while, someone will ask whether it is justifiable to kill Muslims or women in the course of jihad in Iraq, but in the past year, according to Rebecca Givner-Forbes, an analyst with the Terrorism Research Center, “that has pretty much stopped.”
One afternoon early last fall, Katz came across a new thread. It was about her. A jihadi had posted a link to the SITE Institute’s Web site. “The SITE is lurking,” he wrote. Its people were on the boards, using false names and acting as spies. He urged his brothers to ferret them out and expel them.
But another poster responded that SITE might be providing a valuable service. He wrote, “They translate the statements into English on our behalf, and they do not analyze them. Why do we not grab the opportunity?” Eventually, a moderator on the site weighed in: “All right, men, do not argue. We will carry out an election, and then we will see if we should keep them or expel them—what do you think? I am a democratic operative, don’t you think?” He ended with a smiley-face emoticon. By the time attention shifted to a new thread, opinion was running fifty-fifty as to whether SITE was, on balance, good for jihad.
Terrorism is, in part, theatre and psychological warfare, and many of the statements that Katz translates are propaganda intended to raise the profile of obscure groups. Katz sees her audience mainly as professionals—people whose job it is to stop terrorism or uncover it. But, by creating a shortcut around government agencies, she may also be contributing to the tendency that the media (and at times the government) has displayed since 9/11 to dramatize even the flimsiest threat. In recent months, Katz has noticed Algerian radicals and Afghan terrorists releasing videos that mirror Zarqawi’s in substance and tone and that are also designed to impress young militants in the West. Katz believes that the terrorists have been underestimated, and that more people should have direct access to what they are thinking and saying. The terrorists, of course, think so, too.
Katz has a very specific vision of the counterterrorism problem, which she shares with most of the other contractors and consultants who do what she does. They believe that the government has failed to appreciate the threat of Islamic extremism, and that its feel for counterterrorism is all wrong. As they see it, the best way to fight terrorists is to go at it not like G-men, with two-year assignments and query letters to the staff attorneys, but the way the terrorists do, with fury and the conviction that history will turn on the decisions you make—as an obsession and as a life style. Worrying about overestimating the threat is beside the point, because underestimating the threat is so much worse.
“The problem isn’t Rita Katz—the problem is our political conversation about terrorism,” Timothy Naftali says. “Now, after September 11th, there’s no incentive for anyone in politics or the media to say the Alaska pipeline’s fine, and nobody’s cows are going to be poisoned by the terrorists. And so you have these little eruptions of anxiety. But, for me, look, the world is wired now: either you take the risks that come with giving people—not just the government—this kind of access to information or you leave them. I take them.”
The Medium is the Massage - Marshall McLuhan.
Last edited by Mark Gobell on Mon Aug 06, 2007 9:09 pm; edited 4 times in total