Militants play cat and mouse to post killings on the Web
Islamic militants who want the world to witness their attacks and beheadings in Iraq have engineered new ways to ensure their videos appear on the Internet, defying efforts to banish them from cyberspace.
Leading insurgent groups such as Iraq's al Qaeda wing may struggle to find permanent hosts for their Websites but can still point surfers to their gory videos and photographs from well-established and less sensational Islamist sites.
In one such Internet clip, a blast and a fireball shake the camera as militants repeat "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) on a video purporting to show this month's truck bombing of a Baghdad hotel. Stray dogs are seen running away from the scene.
Analysts say the fixed sites, which deny having ties to militants and allow postings by ordinary users, have become a reliable platform for militant groups.
"Gone are the times when Islamist sites had to constantly move around. They are more stable now and easier to find, providing a reliable meeting place," said a European defense analyst who declined to be named.
The sites are a powerful propaganda and recruiting tool for militant groups. Despite being a target of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, they can quickly switch Web-hosting companies and authorities have found it difficult to close them.
"It becomes an endless 'whack-a-mole' game, where a site is shut on one server but pops up on another," said Roger Cressey, a former White House official who heads a security consultancy.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda Organization for Holy War in Iraq says it will soon launch its permanent site with news of its operations against "crusader" U.S. forces.
That may sound like bad news for Western intelligence agencies, but one analyst said those seeking to limit the impact of the violent postings might prefer the Websites to be stable.
"There are definite advantages from a security agency's point of view ... sites that are forced to move frequently are harder to keep track of."
For the first time, analysts said, the sites' continuity has provided militant groups with their own media. They have become as essential to news coverage as satellite televisions and news agencies, often breaking news of attacks and beheadings in Iraq.
Even Osama bin Laden's network appears to favor posting his messages online to ensure they are not edited by Arab television under U.S. pressure to deny al Qaeda a propaganda platform.
"They don't need to go to TV stations or the Arab press. They don't need to invite a CNN journalist for an interview, like Osama bin Laden did in the 1990s. They can put messages online," the defense analyst said.
"It's probably just a question of time before we get a live transmission of a decapitation."
Amir Golestan, head of U.S. Web hosting firm Micfo, said the FBI had probed his company's hosting of a top Islamist Website, Al Ansar, which often carries major militant messages first.
"They (FBI) said if they find any legal issues they will contact us but we have not heard from them,"Golestan said, adding that Al Ansar has since moved to another host.
Robert Corn-Revere, a Washington lawyer and expert in free-speech law, said that under U.S. law companies cannot be held liable for hosting Websites with anti-U.S. content.
"The question is whether (a site) provides material support to a terrorist organization," he said, adding authorities could then build a case using laws passed since the Sept. 11 attacks.
London-based analyst Paul Eedle, who closely follows pro-al Qaeda sites, said: "Washington proclaims to stand for freedom of speech, so to campaign publicly for closing sites could rebound on it politically."
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