US starts hacking game with Yemen’s al-Qaeda

US starts hacking game with Yemen’s al-Qaeda

US starts hacking game with Yemen’s al-Qaeda

This image shows pages from the eighth issue of ‘Inspire’ magazine, al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine which calls for firebombing campaigns in the US. AFP photo

The U.S. State Department has launched a different sort of raid against al-Qaeda, engaging in a cat-and-mouse game to replace anti-American al-Qaeda ads on Yemeni tribal websites.

Experts based at the U.S. State Department swapped al-Qaeda ads on Yemeni websites that bragged about killing Americans with ones showing the deadly impact of al-Qaeda tactics on Yemenis themselves, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 23. “Our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al-Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni people,” Clinton said. In response, “Extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet,” she said.

‘Parody and poke holes’

Clinton said the cyber maneuver was launched by an interagency group of specialists, including diplomats, special operators and intelligence analysts, housed at the State Department. Called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, its experts patrol the Internet and social media to counter al-Qaeda’s attempts to recruit new followers. “Together, they will work to pre-empt, discredit and outmaneuver extremist propaganda,” the Associated Press quoted Clinton as saying. Rather than hacking the sites covertly, the State Department specialists challenge the extremists in open forums.

“We parody and poke holes in what they do,” a State Department official explained, in a cyber “cat-and-mouse game.” Last week, Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, launched a new series of banner attack ads focusing on the group’s fight with America, and featuring images of coffins draped with the U.S. flag, the official said.

The State Department team countered the attack by buying space on the same site with new ads, featuring the coffins of Yemeni civilians. Clinton described the cyber effort as part of a larger, multipronged attack on terrorism that goes beyond attacks like the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden to include the propaganda battle, and the longer, slower campaign of diplomats working alongside special operations troops to shore up local governments and economies and train local forces.

The U.S. has been working to stabilize the fledgling government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who replaced ousted Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi has faced the twin challenges of Saleh loyalists refusing to relinquish their government and military posts, and of al-Qaeda attacks in the south, where the group has established a large safe haven from which to attack Yemeni troops. On May 21 al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch killed 96 soldiers in one of the deadliest attacks the country’s capital has experienced in years.