By Joby Warrick
Article Launched: 09/12/2007 01:31:41 AM PDT
WASHINGTON – Early Tuesday morning, a South Carolina Web designer who works at home managed to scoop Al-Qaida by publicly unveiling its new video, a feat she has accomplished numerous times since 2002. Within hours, cable news stations were broadcasting images of Osama bin Laden commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and crediting the 50-year-old woman, who uses the pseudonym Laura Mansfield.
A similar event occurred Friday, when another group beat Al-Qaida by nearly a full day with the release of the first video images of bin Laden to appear publicly since 2004. That group, the SITE Institute, provided the tape to government agencies and news organizations at a time when many well-known jihadist Web sites had been shut down in a powerful cyberattack by unknown hackers.
It was the latest round of electronic warfare between Al-Qaida and a small community of individuals and companies that troll the Internet for messages from terrorists – as a livelihood, a personal obsession or both. The groups compete to be the first to find and post a new video or message. Frequently, they accomplish their goal several steps ahead of government agencies who turn to them for the material.
Since Friday, at least three high-profile video messages have been snatched from Al-Qaida-affiliated Web sites by groups using computer tricks, personal connections and ingenuity to find and download password-protected content. For some, it is a mission rife
with contradictions: They maintain that they are seeking to serve their country while ensuring wide distribution of the words and images of terrorists intent on the destruction of the United States. They say their aim is to undermine support for the cause by disseminating what they consider to be outrageous statements.
“It’s not about bragging rights, it’s about the mission,” said Ben Venzke, founder of IntelCenter, a private intelligence firm. Venzke said there is value in giving Americans advance word of Al-Qaida’s plans.
The bin Laden video that surfaced Friday was promoted on several Islamist Web sites in messages posted by Al-Sahab, a group that produces some of Al-Qaida’s propaganda videos. U.S. officials believe the video was intended for release Saturday.
The acquisition of the video Friday came just before a cyberattack shut down dozens of Al-Qaida-supporting Web sites. Past attacks have been linked to hackers operating independently. The result was that bin Laden succeeded in gaining the American audience he had sought for his address, but he lost control over how and where his words were published.
The woman using the name Mansfield credited “persistence and tenacity” in obtaining an early copy of Tuesday’s bin Laden tape. “You have to look constantly,” said the self-described “computer geek” and Arabic speaker, who said she was motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks to apply her skills toward exposing Al-Qaida’s Internet secrets. “The video may be in an accessible place for only 15 minutes, and if you’re not there at the right time, you miss it,” she said.
The woman uses a pseudonym because she fears for her safety, saying she often receives hateful and threatening e-mails from Al-Qaida sympathizers.