Last summer, there was a bit of fuss about about an alleged Al Quaeda associate produced glossy electronic magazine, called "Inspire", written in English, for the benefit of wannabe jihadi extremists in the USA and the UK etc, without arabic language skills.
This week, the Washington Post has repeated the story with the added twist of uncritically "crediting" British Intelligence with carrying out a stupid "cyber attack", which the US authorities had supposedly decided not to go ahead with.
By Ellen Nakashima,
31 May 2011
Last year, for instance, U.S. intelligence officials learned of plans by an al-Qaeda affiliate to publish an online jihadist magazine in English called Inspire, according to numerous current and senior U.S. officials. And to some of those skilled in the emerging new world of cyber-warfare, Inspire seemed a natural target.
The head of the newly formed U.S. Cyber Command, Gen. Keith Alexander, argued that blocking the magazine was a legitimate counterterrorism target and would help protect U.S. troops overseas. But the CIA pushed back, arguing that it would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence. The proposal also rekindled a long-standing interagency struggle over whether disrupting a terrorist Web site overseas was a traditional military activity or a covert activity -- and hence the prerogative of the CIA.
The CIA won out, and the proposal was rejected. But as the debate was underway within the U.S. government, British government cyber-warriors were moving forward with a plan.
When Inspire launched on June 30, the magazine's cover may have promised an "exclusive interview" with Sheik Abu Basir al-Wahishi, a former aide to Osama bin Laden, and instructions on how to "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom." But pages 4 through 67 of the otherwise slick magazine, including the bomb-making instructions, were garbled as a result of the British cyber-attack.
It took almost two weeks for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to post a corrected version, said Evan Kohlmann, senior partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, which tracks jihadi Web sites.
Mainstream media commentators and Twitterati have dubbed this as "Operation Cupcake", and have gleefully repeated and elaborated it, without bothering to analyse the story at all.
If this was a deliberate "cyber attack", then it was extremely inept.
- Even the Washington Post article mentions that a corrected version of the .pdf file was being distributed after less than 2 weeks, so what exactly did this supposed "disruption" actually achieve ?
Like most internet censorship, it has suffered from the
Streisand effect. As a result of the publicity, many more people have now downloaded copies of Inspire magazine than ever would have bothered to otherwise.
You can download copies of all 5 editions (so far) of "Inspire" magazine, as well as proof of the "Cupcake" corruption from the Public Intelligence website.
They, like us, are also sceptical of the provenance of this magazine. It could so easily be some sort of scam perpetrated by one of the unscrupulous wannabe private sector "terrorist trackers" who provide convenient "evidence" in support of multi-billion dollar counter-terrorism budgets and repressive laws.
- If "British intelligence" was involved in this alleged incident, then why was such an obviously American "Cupcake" recipe used as the criminal damage payload to corrupt the .pdf file ? Even the wikipedia entry for Cupcake recognises that these are called "Fairy Cakes" in the United Kingdom.
Since "Inspire" magazine is supposedly aimed at internet self-radicalising wannabes in the United Kingdom and the USA etc, why would British intelligence use an American "joke" ?
- British intelligence agencies i.e. GCHQ, MI5 the Security Service, MI6 the Secret Intelligence Service, the Metropolitan Police SO15 Counter Terrorism Command and the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, all claim to work within the law.
The Police (but not the Intelligence Agencies) have legal powers to demand that an Internet Service Provider removes a file from a public website under the Terrorism Act 2006 section 3.
The Intelligence agencies and the Police may have legal powers for Intrusive Surveillance involving otherwise illegal computer access ("hacking").under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
None of them have any legal exemption from the Computer Misuse Act 1990, as amended by the Police and Justice Act 2006, to modify or corrupt any computer data:
(c)to impair the operation of any such program or the reliability of any such data; or
This offence is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and / or an unlimited fine.
- The corrupted first edition of "Inspire" magazine contains not only the amateur pipe bomb "recipe", which is rather less sophisticated information than what you could pick up from watching episodes of US criminal forensics tv dramas like CSI or NCIS etc., but also some screenshots of a supposed "jihadist" data encryption program and a "public key":
Al-Ekhlaas Network ASRAR El Moujahedeen V2.0 Public Key 2048 bit-
This is encryption system is neither open source like GnuPG or PGP, nor is it compatible with them.
There must be reasonable suspicion that this is a crude attempt to con wannabe jihadists into using an encryption system which can be read by someone else and which immediately self-incriminates a user of it as a"terrorist suspect".
- The contact emails for "Inspire" magazine are all, suspiciously, only from entirely USA based free email providers: hotmail,com, gmail.com, fastmail.net and yahoo.com.
Why would any Al Quaeda associated group choose to give the US authorities automatic access to their Communications Traffic Data (email addresses, IP addresses, web browser details , times and dates and amount of data transmitted etc.), even if the contents of emails are actually strongly encrypted ?
- It is unclear if there was any "hacking" at all. Anyone could simply have seeded a corrupted / faked / amended copy of the Inspire magazine (.pdf) into a per to peer file sharing network e.g. using BitTorrent.
The British mainstream media has been busy publishing stupid, anonymous briefings from Whitehall officials which use the idiotic "neither confirm nor deny" formula, which, given the proven lies which it has been used to cover up in the past, is as good as an admission of guilt in the public mind.
However they cannot decide which branch of "British Intelligence" should be praised or blamed for "Operation Cupcake"
e.g. The Daily Telegraph claims it was MI6 the Secret intelligence Service
British intelligence has hacked into an al-Qaeda online magazine and replaced bomb-making instructions with a recipe for cupcakes.
By Duncan Gardham, Security Correspondent
7:16PM BST 02 Jun 2011
A Pentagon operation, backed by Gen Keith Alexander, the head of US Cyber Command, was blocked by the CIA which argued that it would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence, according to a report in America.
However the Daily Telegraph understands an operation was launched from Britain instead.
Al-Qaeda was able to reissue the magazine two weeks later and has gone on to produce four further editions but one source said British intelligence was continuing to target online outlets publishing the magazine because it is viewed as such a powerful propaganda tool.
It is alarming how many of the hundreds of "news" stories on this topic around the world appear to be simply churnalism, blindly parroting the Daily Telegraph and its naming of MI6.
However, the Guardian claims it was GCHQ:
GCHQ officers sabotaged online jihadist magazine in English as part of cyber war against terrorists
Richard Norton-Taylor, security editor
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 2 June 2011 19.40 BST
Whitehall sources have revealed that British intelligence officers successfully sabotaged the launch of the first English language website set up by an al-Qaida affiliate.
The officers, understood to be based at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, attacked an online jihadist magazine in English called Inspire, devised by supporters of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
A pdf file containing fairy cake recipes was inserted into Inspire to garble most of the 67 pages of the online magazine, including instructions on how to "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom".
Though the authenticity of claims made about Inspire have been questioned, British security and intelligence sources say they believe the magazine, and the bomb-making instructions, were genuine.
The sabotage took place a year ago, following a dispute between agencies in the US about who should take on the role of attacking the Inspire website.
Publicising the achievement amounted to little more than a propaganda exercise - "just to let them know", as one British official put it on Thursday.
The Associated Press also goes for GCHQ and also seems to be be complicit in being briefed by anonymous government spokesmen, who cannot be challenged directly.:
By PAISLEY DODDS, Associated Press - 03 June 2011
"We're increasingly using cybertools as part of our work," a British government official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters said Friday, confirming that the Inspire magazine had been successfully attacked.
The hackers were reportedly working for Britain's eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, which has boosted its resources in the past several years.
But choosing to hack into al-Qaida-affiliated websites or other systems is also risky business for intelligence agencies. Infiltrating a site can often expose sources and methods, a second British official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss cybersecurity matters. He would not specify how Inspire was hacked.
British officials consider al-Qaida in the Arabian Pensinsula to be a significant threat to U.K. interests.
The local newspaper website This Is Gloucestershire, assumes that it must have been GCHQ in Cheltenham:
Saturday, June 04, 2011, 07:00
By emma tilley firstname.lastname@example.org
A GCHQ spokesman said news of the operation was "pure speculation."
She said: "We cannot confirm or deny any of our operational capabilities."
This Cold War anonymous briefing nonsense is simply not good enough any more when dealing with internet stories from overseas.
Named official spokesmen either Home Office or Foreign Office officials or the Ministers who are supposedly elected to be accountable to the public for the actions of their bureaucrats, should be issuing a very firm denial of any British involvement in such a stupid plot.
The main reason for an unambiguous official denial should be the forthcoming terrorism trial of the Cardiff, London and Stoke on Trent plotters who were charged on 27th December 2010:
ENGAGING IN CONDUCT IN PREPARATION FOR ACTS OF TERRORISM, contrary to section 5(1) of the Terrorism Act 2006.
PARTICULARS OF OFFENCE: on diverse days between the 1 day of October and 20 day of December 2010, with the intention of committing an act or acts of terrorism, engaged in conduct in preparation for giving effect to that intention, namely and including, downloading, researching, obtaining and discussing materials and methods; researching, discussing, carrying out reconnaissance on, and agreeing potential targets; travelling to and attending meetings; igniting and testing incendiary material.
Those charged with the above are:
Gurukanth Desai - aged 28 - of 89 Albert Street, Cardiff.
Omar Sharif Latif - aged 26 - of 28 Neville Street, Cardiff.
Abdul Malik Miah - aged 24 - of 138 Ninian Park Road, Cardiff.
Mohammed Moksudur Rahman Chowdhury - aged 20 - of 26 Stanliff House, Cassilis Road, London (E14).
Shah Mohammed Lutfar Rahman - aged 28 - of 64 St Bernard's Road, London.
Nazam Hussain - aged 25 - of 47 Grove Street, Stoke-on-Trent.
Usman Khan - aged 19 - of 4 Persia Walk, Stoke-on-Tent.
Mohibur Rahman - aged 26 - of 81 North Road, Stoke-on-Trent.
Abul Bosher Mohammed Shahjahan - aged 26 - of 9 Burmarsh Walk, Stoke-on-Trent.
Eye Spy magazine, whose mostly uncritical pro-intelligence agency and pro-police editorial viewpoint, seems to ensure that they are thrown various tidbits of information, report:
"MI5 Surveillance Success - Alleged terror plotters surveilled and targeted iconic buildings and symbols of London"
Eye Spy, Volume IX, Number Eight 2011 (issue 72) page 40
Other materials found in residences included an al-Qaida support journal called 'Inspire' that contained bomb-making instructions. The features included: 'How to make a pipe bomb in the kitchen of your mom'; 'What to expect in jihad' and 'Tips for brothers in the US'
Obviously the alleged British "Operation Cupcake" failed to prevent these plotters from getting hold of the full first edition of "Inspire" magazine with the full pipe bomb recipe.
Since no actual explosives or firearms or money etc. was found, this will be Yet Another Terrorism Thought Crime Trial, where, presumably one of the key bits of evidence will be the downloading and possession the alleged "Inspire" magazine.
If "British Intelligence" continue to simply "neither confirm nor deny" that they were involved in altering or faking this edition of "Inspire" magazine, then there is every chance that a judge and jury will believe that it has been planted by "British Intelligence", thereby prejudicing its use as evidence in the trial.
Unless the British Government explicitly denies any involvement in "Operation Cupcake", then Intelligence Agency witnesses will be subpoenaed to be cross examined in Court. The prosecution may then have to drop the charges, for fear of revealing intelligence "operational sources and methods".