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Terror War on the Web

An Arizona Internet company unknowingly hosted an extremist Web site, raising questions about freedom of speech

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During the Super Bowl, Scottsdale-based GoDaddy.com, one of the world's largest Web site providers, paid $4 million to air a 30-second commercial. It was the one where a curvy brunette, who couldn't quite keep everything tucked inside her tight-fitting tank top, was testifying before Congress.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company also can take credit for inadvertently making a different kind of impression.

For weeks before the big game, GoDaddy.com hosted Mawsuat.com, an Islamic-extremist site that featured a diagram showing how carry out an assassination attempt against a motorcade, as well as a recipe for making a chemical weapon.

The cost to produce the Mawsuat.com site? It could have been less than $100.

The site vanished, however, when GoDaddy.com removed it from its servers after being notified by Internet Haganah, a private effort describing itself as an "Internet counterinsurgency" against Islamic-extremist sites linked to terror groups.

"Our legal department is handling this case, and I cannot comment on the matter," said Nick Fuller, a spokesperson for GoDaddy.com.

GoDaddy.com is the flagship company of The Go Daddy Group, Inc., which includes Wild West Domains, Inc., a domain reseller company. GoDaddy.com hosts thousands of Web sites, and its success has not gone unnoticed. Go Daddy Group won the Arizona Corporate Excellence Award for fastest growing privately-held company in 2003, and the Arizona Corporate Excellence Award for most innovative large company in 2004.

Also taking note of GoDaddy.com's success, and the Web sites they host, are the U.S. State Department, the Defense Department and the Justice Department. GoDaddy.com is not the focus of any publicly known investigation, but they have become entangled in a debate over whether the government and military should take action against the growing presence of Islamic extremism on the Internet.

"There are some tremendous questions being raised about this," says Retired U.S. Army Reserve Col. Lawrence Dietz. One question, he says, is "whether they (CIA, FBI) have the legal mandate and the authority to do this (shut these sites down)."

Dietz, who now works for a Silicon Valley-based computer security firm, knows how to wage information warfare. He led NATO's I-War (information war) in Bosnia. When asked if the United States is losing the I-War against Islamic extremists, he hesitates.

"I think so," he then says.

He says one big I-War thorn for the United States has been the Internet. Experts say the presence of Islamic radicalism on the Web has grown markedly since Sept. 11. The Internet has become a vital means of communication, financing and indoctrination for jihadism, widely believed to be a decentralized movement. Moreover, the cost of broadcasting a political message to the world has taken an unprecedented plunge. "It's a high-visibility, low-cost activity," says Dietz.

Consider the Nick Berg execution, which was filmed with a camcorder, formatted into a Microsoft Windows Media Player file and posted on the Web site Al-ansar.net. The State Department has designated Al-ansar as a foreign terror organization. The Web site was hosted by a company in Malaysia, and hours after posting the Berg video, the Malaysian government forced the company to shut the site down.

Dietz says the Berg video is fueling an internal debate among the State Department, the Department of Defense and others about how to handle terror sites. Some claim the U.S. government should confiscate servers or hack extremist sites with a defacement or denial of service attack, he says. However, Dietz believes that others within the State Department argue that censoring Web sites would be a double-standard against our nation's policies of promoting free speech.

The government apparently remains on the sidelines. Meanwhile, out of a home in Illinois, A. Aaron Weisburd runs Internet Haganah (haganah.org.il), a grassroots effort confronting Islamic radicalism on the Internet. In Hebrew, "haganah" means defense. Weisburd's tactics, however, are hardly defensive.

A native New Yorker, the 40-something Weisburd and his "small band of researchers, analysts, translators and consultants" from around the globe have shut down 600-plus Web sites--some allegedly raising funds for Hamas, Hezbollah and insurgents in Iraq. One site stated that a donation for as little as $3 buys one bullet.

Weisburd says first a site is researched, and a Whois inquiry is made. If they find evidence of extremism, they'll try to persuade its hosting company to remove it from the hosting company's servers. Surprisingly, much of Internet Haganah's work is focused on the United States, where Web sites are cheap and privacy policies assured.

"There are close to 300 sites listed in our database," wrote Weisburd, who asked to speak through e-mail. "Most of them are kept online by American companies."

For instance, GoDaddy.com. One can still view a Mawsuat.com "mirror" page of the motorcade-assassination diagram on haganah.org.il. The diagram was originally published in the Al Battar Assassination Guide, "produced by Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula," writes Weisburd.

Weisburd says in no way is GoDaddy.com promoting terror, and in many ways, the company is a good corporate citizen. GoDaddy.com donated $250,000 for tsunami relief; they've adopted military units overseas, and founder Bob Parsons is a proud veteran who was wounded in Vietnam. But many Web hosts are simply not aware of their clients' content, believes Weisburd. Most terror sites are written in Arabic. And considering one company can host thousands of sites, most companies lack the capacity to monitor each one, he states.

Weisburd says his goal is simple: to keep the extremists moving from address to address, striking "at the heart of their identity."

"The object isn't to silence them; the object is to keep them moving, keep them talking, force them to make mistakes, so we can gather as much information about them as we can, each step of the way."

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