TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The State Department has launched a different sort of raid against al-Qaida — hacking into al-Qaida websites in Yemen.
In a rare public admission of the covert cyber war against extremists, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says U.S. cyber experts based at the State Department hacked tribal websites, replacing al-Qaida propaganda that bragged 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 Wednesday. “Extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet.”
Speaking alongside Adm. Bill McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Clinton said the effort is part of a multipronged attack on terrorism that goes beyond raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden to include diplomats working alongside special operations forces to shore up local governments and economies and train local forces.
Clinton says the cyber attack 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-Qaida’s attempts to recruit new followers.
“Together, they will work to pre-empt, discredit and outmaneuver extremist propaganda,” Clinton said.
Offensive attacks on extremist sites are generally attributed to the Pentagon’s U.S. Cyber Command, though seldom acknowledged publicly.
The target of the attack, Yemen’s al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is considered one of al-Qaida’s most dangerous offshoots.
Yemen was the launching pad for three foiled al-Qaida attacks on U.S. targets: the Christmas 2009 attempt to down an American airliner over Detroit with an underwear bomb and the sending of printer cartridges packed with explosives to Chicago-area synagogues in 2010. In the past month the CIA thwarted yet another plot by AQAP to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb which could have been undetectable by conventional airport scanners.
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