Thursday, February 23, 2006

Muslim hackers, angered by the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, have defaced nearly 3,000 Danish Web sites in the past month in what could be the biggest politically motivated cyberattack to date.

Those knowledgeable about the subject say the worldwide protests over a Danish newspaper’s decision to publish the caricatures may prove to be something of a coming-of-age moment for Internet mujahedeen — Islamic extremists committed to electronic terrorist attacks.

“They see this as a huge opportunity,” said Stephen Ulph, a terrorism analyst with the Jamestown Foundation who monitors Web forums and chat rooms used by Muslim hackers. “You can feel the excitement. … There’s a sense that they can make a real difference.”

Roberto Preatoni, founder and administrator of, which tracks Web attacks, says his site has monitored 2,817 defacements of Danish sites since Jan. 21, when the cartoon controversy first boiled over into worldwide street demonstrations and riots.

“That is at least 10 times, maybe more like 20 times, the number of attacks we would expect in such a time frame,” he said.

In addition to the Danish sites, thousands of Web sites in Europe and Israel have been defaced.

“This is the biggest, most intense assault,” Mr. Preatoni said, adding that it eclipsed the hacker attacks that accompanied the row over a U.S. spy plane forced down in China in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He said the phenomenon represented “the emergence of the digital ‘umma,’” an Arabic term for the global Muslim community.

Some of the defacements supported the global boycott of Danish goods called by Muslim leaders after the decision of the government there to support the newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s decision to publish the caricatures.

A group calling itself the Internet Islamic Brigades included pictures of the July suicide bombings in London and the threat “I will bomb myself in Denmark very soon, as my brothers in Islam did in U.K.”

The tactics of the cyberterrorists are as varied as their messages, Mr. Ulph said, citing efforts that he had seen to influence the outcome of an online poll by a German news site, a coordinated 24-hour-long attack on the Jyllands-Posten and other Danish sites, and a failed call for an international day of embassy burning on Feb. 13.

“This is the new front line,” of the global jihad movement, he said.

Mr. Ulph said one of the striking features of the assault was how well-organized it was. He called it the “most recent demonstration of the efficiency, coordination and ingenuity of the Internet mujahedeen.”

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