US hacks al-Qaida / US does not hack al-Qaida

A couple of interesting stories are out yesterday and today.  Yesterday, we learned that the US had hacked Yemeni website that was run by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and replaced advertisements showing extremists killing Americans into ones that showed advertisements that showed the attacks killing Muslim civilians in the terror attacks.

From ABC News:

In a rare glimpse into cyberwarfare tactics, a top U.S. official has explicitly acknowledged that the U.S. government hacked into websites run by al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen, changing advertisements that boasted about killing Americans into advertisements that underscored the deaths of Muslim civilians in al-Qaida terror attacks.

During her keynote speech at the Special Operations Command gala dinner in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that State Department specialists attacked sites tied to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that were trying to recruit new members by "bragging about killing Americans."

"Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al-Qaida attacks have taken on the Yemeni people," Clinton said. "We can tell our efforts are starting to have an impact because extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the internet."

It had been suspected that the U.S. government played some role in shutting down several jihadi web forums earlier this year, but officials from the CIA and counterterrorism community had previously denied any involvement.

Wow, that’s pretty impressive (impressive is not the term I mean to use but you know what I mean).  The US government hacked into a terrorist propaganda website and changed images designed to recruit more people to their cause, and instead replaced them with images that undermine their cause.  They did this with technical knowhow that we all know the US possesses but always denies.

However, a subsequent article today in the Christian Science Monitor contradicts that earlier story.  Far from performing any hacking, any ham-and-egger could have done what the US did.  You just need to know how to login to a forum and upload images (and use Photoshop):

Early media reports of Secretary Clinton's speech created a buzz because they mischaracterized State's move on the Yemeni tribal sites as a hacking attack on a rogue website. That would have been novel since cyberwar hacking – taking over, spying on, or attacking a computer network or website – has been the province of intelligence agencies and US Cyber Command.

Apparently the only technical skills needed to do what the State experts did was to know how to create a new user account on the Yemeni tribal forum in question (an open public website, not a terrorist or Jihadi website) and to upload or post a new message and photo to it, experts on the matter say. Add to that an ability to use Photoshop.

"There was no hacking involved at all," says William McCants, a jihadi research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research and development center serving the Navy. "They [the State Department team] overtly message on non-jihadi forums that anybody can sign up for. They represent themselves as a member of the US government. By law they have to identify themselves."

In the specific instance mentioned by Clinton, Al Qaeda supporters apparently posted a picture that purported to be one of coffins holding US servicemen – draped with American flags and prepared to be loaded onto a cargo airplane, according to McCants and another researcher, both of whom had seen the picture. The message bragged about how many Americans Al Qaeda had killed.

What the State Department did was to run a counter message with a similar picture – but with the coffins draped with Yemeni flags and noting how many Yemenis the terrorist group had killed – the flags apparently Photoshopped onto the picture.

After reading this, it’s way less impressive.  It’s one of those tit-for-tat Internet discussions that many of us have had – someone says “Iron Man is the best superhero!” and then you respond with “No way!  Batman is way better!”  No major technical skill required.

Of course, I don’t that anyone ever asserted that the US hacked the website, rather, I think that Secretary of State Clinton made these remarks and the reporter in the original story misinterpreted what she said.

This is more of a story in politics about people in the State Department monitoring websites, trying to counter propaganda.  It’s not a story about security.

Move along, move along.

Unless, of course, you want to read about what the US is doing in this area.  In which case, feel free to read the article at your perusal.

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