NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Terrorism and Privacy Encryption

September 13, 2001

Extremist groups, including Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden's network, are using popular Web sites to post encrypted messages to their agents plotting guerrilla activities, security sources say, according to a Reuters story from earlier this year.

  • The Internet has become the medium of choice among many guerrilla groups to pass on hidden messages, replacing the classified columns in newspapers that Cold War-era spies used to deliver their secrets.
  • "This is warfare on the cheap, and very easy to activate," said Yonah Alexander, head of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
  • Security experts said some messages are scrambled using free encryption programs set up by groups that advocate privacy on the Internet. These messages are then decrypted using a code known only by the recipient and sender.
  • Internet bulletin boards carrying pornographic and sports information are among the most popular hosts for extremist groups such as bin Laden's, said cyber-intelligence expert Ben Venzke.

Just as the recipient reading a coded classified ad would know what to look for, a secret message could be embedded, or encrypted, in an image seen by millions on an Internet bulletin board.

According to a USA Today report, bin Laden began using encryption five years ago, but increased its use after U.S. officials revealed they were tapping satellite telephone calls from his home in Afghanistan.

Source: Sue Pleming, "Muslim Extremists Utilize Web Encryption," Reuters, February 6, 2001.


Browse more articles on Government Issues