Western intelligence agencies could not believe their good fortune, when al Qaeda came through with an unbelievable Christmas present. Over the last month, the brains behind al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri (the number two guy), made several announcements encouraging terrorism fans to make greater use of the Internet. This includes downloading al Qaeda ringtones for their cell phones, as well as al Qaeda approved videos. This last bit involves files as large as 120 megabytes. Al Zawahiri also encouraged followers to regularly download new pronouncements and terrorism "how to" documents.
It's no secret that intelligence and police agencies the world over monitor Internet activity by actual, or wannabe, Islamic terrorists. Many terror plots have been foiled because of this surveillance. But the new al Zawahiri announcements made the job so much easier. While some al Qaeda Internet users know how to cover their tracks, or at least make it more difficult to be tracked, most do not. These are the newbies that for intelligence experts find easier to work and exploit. And the little guys, if they are serious, eventually lead you to the big fish.
What was al Zawahiri thinking? No one knows. Al Zawahiri is a big fan of the Internet, but he is apparently less familiar with how many tools intelligence agencies have available for tracking Internet users, what they are doing, and who they are doing it with. Some of these tools are classified, but many are available to corporate users (for protecting secrets, or controlling misbehavior by employees.) The communications companies that run the Internet also have specialized tools to track, and identify, data that is moving through their network. The terrorists don't have a clue, but the people tracking them now have a lot more.
There's also a certain irony to all this. In several countries, the local Islamic radicals persecute users of the Internet, as well as those who use stuff like ring tones. At the same time, al Qaeda just released the second version of its custom encryption software (Mujahideen Secrets 2), which makes it easier for intel agencies to spot terrorist email. One must never expect logic and consistency from this crowd, or much respect for Western code breaking capabilities.