NEAL CONAN, host:
News this week about a group of alleged terrorists in Canada came with a cyber twist. According to Canadian officials, the suspects communicated using e-mail and chat rooms, and visited Jihadist Web sites.
A new article in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine delves into the shadowy world of online Jihadists. The article was written by Nadya Labi, a freelance reporter based in New York City. She joins us now from our bureau in New York.
Good to have you on the program today.
Ms. NADYA LABI (Freelance Reporter): Thanks very much. Good to be here.
CONAN: I assume you wrote this article long before this story broke in Canada, but if the authorities are correct and these suspects did use the Internet to organize, any surprise to you?
Ms. LABI: Not really. And in fact, though I did write the article before the Toronto arrests, the Toronto arrests there seemed to be linked loosely to, in fact, the London arrests that I talk about in my piece…
CONAN: Mm hmm.
Ms. LABI: …and Irhabi 007.
CONAN: And who is Irhabi 007?
Ms. LABI: Irhabi 007 is the identity of an online personality that private analysts began to notice in early 2004. He - no one knew who he was at the time. Irhabi means terrorist in Arabic, and it refers to a single man. So people assumed he might be a man, although who knew at the time? He could be a woman. Over time, analysts began to watch him, and noticed that he began to play a more and more important role in the Jihadi network.
CONAN: Yeah, you say he made some rookie mistakes. Initially an enthusiast, but he got better and better to the point where he was able to do some things that a lot of people were really surprised at - distributing, for example, images of a beheading.
Ms. LABI: Exactly. In the beginning, when Irhabi came online, many analysts thought he seemed to be a hot-head. And, in fact, his posts were not that impressive, and he was distributing news articles that may have run on CNN and translating the headlines from English into Arabic. Nothing too impressive.
Over time, however, his role began to become more important, and he was involved in much more disturbing activities, like, for example, distributing copies of suicide videos and engaging in distributing anonymizing software to encourage members to hide their identity. And also engaging in distributing software for hacking. And, some say, going so far as to help al-Zarqawi draft a Web site.
CONAN: Hmm. We're talking with Nadya Labi about her article in this month's issue of the Atlantic Monthly Magazine, Jihad 2.0. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Now you say helping al-Zarqawi. You intimate more than helping. You intimate that there was some contact.
Ms. LABI: Well, in talking to analysts, they disagree as to how deep Irhabi's role was. Everyone is agreed that he was playing a very, very important role in terms of dispensing security tips to other members and helping terrorists to move files, like files - videos of suicide bombings. It's very difficult to be able to know with certainty the extent of the connection, because one needs to know exactly what was happening behind the scenes and how close the connections were.
Certainly, some analysts believe - some very credible analysts - that Irhabi was in contact with al-Zarqawi, or al-Zarqawi's people, at least to the degree that he was in some kind of e-mail contact. Others think the connection may not have gone that deep.
CONAN: And your article also describes a fascinating network of people going on the Web determined to stop these Jihadist Web sites.
Ms. LABI: Exactly. Since the beginning of the online Jihad, when really no one was paying attention to this phenomenon - arguably, perhaps even it hadn't become a top priority for law enforcement - private individuals went online, and they started noticing what was going on and they became concerned. And many of those individuals - like Aaron Weisburd, like Rita Katz at the SITE Institute - became involved and began monitoring these sites, because they felt that they would potentially pose a threat over time.
CONAN: And, eventually, some of these individuals and some governments tracked down Mr. Irhabi 007, and found who they believe to be the man, a guy in London.
Ms. LABI: Exactly. Irhabi 007, we can't know for certain who he is, but it certainly appears that a London arrest that took place last fall, that resulted in the arrest of three individuals - one of those individuals, sources say, intelligence sources say, is Irhabi 007, or at least one of the identities of Irhabi 007.
CONAN: And it's unclear, as you suggest right there, that he is the only one. More to the point, you say the damage has been done. He's left a legacy.
Ms. LABI: Exactly. The online Jihad, as I said, when it was first developing in 2003, 2004, was not a very sophisticated network. However, it changed. It changed particularly because of the influence of al-Zarqawi, who, as we all remember, distributed the video of Nicholas Berg, which had quite an instantaneous effect, and in fact, helped to increase al-Zarqawi's influence.
People recognize that. People notice that. Other would-be terrorists decided, hey, let's look at the Internet. It seems to be a pretty powerful medium. And people like Irhabi helped the Internet develop so that it has become a much more sophisticated network where members can go online and they can attempt to hide their identities in ways that makes it very, very hard for law enforcement to find them.
CONAN: And indeed, recruit the young people for Jihad and for suicide attacks.
Ms. LABI: Well, that appears to be one of the risks. And certainly, according to law enforcement in numerous countries at this stage, they are alleging that indeed, that is what happened - that these teens may have met online. And eventually, it appears that some of these conversations may have resulted in actual plans to commit attacks.
CONAN: Nadya Labi, thank you very much.
Ms. LABI: Thank you.
Ms. LABI: Nadya Labi, a freelance reporter, based in New York City. Her article, Jihad 2.0, appears in the July issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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