- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

LONDON Intelligence officials believe al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are using public Internet forums to plan attacks and move fighters between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A senior counterterrorism expert said investigators are analyzing coded messages they suspect are exchanges among the terrorists and local tribal leaders in villages along the border between the countries.

The messages came to light after a study highlighted numerous postings from people in Yahoo Web site discussion groups inquiring about taking vacations in the border region. They received replies assuring them of a warm welcome.

"Of all the places in the world to vacation, that border is very near the bottom of my list," said Michael Wilson, a military intelligence analyst and founder of the U.S. management consultancy 7Pillars Partners.

He said trial transcripts show that the cells involved in the failed millennium eve plot to bomb Los Angeles airport used Web-based discussion groups to communicate with al Qaeda planners based in Jordan.

"Their communications back with the al Qaeda core were structured in wedding terminology, probably enough to pass casual examination, unless you knew who was talking," said Mr. Wilson, who has been analyzing the group's communications for nearly a decade.

He added that short codes suspected to contain detailed orders for U.S. sleeper cells have been found hidden in picture and audio files, a process of concealment called steganography.

"There is good reason to believe that al Qaeda is using codes, but we don't quite have a good mapping on the meaning of the coding systems yet," he said.

"People are mistaking their competence because they think of these men as living in caves and primitive, which is far from the truth, indeed."

U.S. authorities also believe that Abu Zubaydah, who is suspected of being Osama bin Laden's chief operations planner and is in U.S. custody, used a Web site to plan the September 11 attacks on the United States and to communicate with the hijackers.

The messages were discovered earlier this year when investigators looked at a password-protected section of the Web site now deleted and found 2,300 coded messages and data files.

Traffic analysis shows a surge of communications that began in May 2000 and peaked in July and August last year. Visitors had dwindled to zero by Sept. 9.

Al Qaeda also uses the Internet to communicate overtly with its followers, and statements and messages attributed to the leadership emerge on a number of militant Islamic Web sites.

These include www.alneda.com (meaning "The Call" in Arabic), which has been described as "bin Laden's home page." The Web site was inaccessible yesterday.

A recent statement, purporting to be a joint message from bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, complains that security leaks have threatened to expose plans for attacks.

Headed "Warning on Security of Information," the message says, "We should caution on this matter, which constitutes a higher risk than the espionage of the enemy against us."

Mr. Wilson said the statement shows al Qaeda's "justified concerns about operational security."

"The world is on alert now, including intelligence agencies and law enforcement in every country. A casual comment or slip of an operational detail can be picked up in a remote backwater and sped through the network in a bare instant," he said.

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