Since 2007, al-Qaida has incorporated sophisticated encryption technology into its arsenal, according to a new report from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The development was prompted by numerous security breaches of the group’s online activities by Western government agencies, including cracking emails by al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki to “tens of thousands” of his supporters.
The report traces the history of al-Qaida’s encryption technology, “from basic software first used by a few high ranking members to mass online distribution available to major Al-Qaeda-affiliated websites and chat rooms.” The issue recently made news when it was revealed that bin Laden had stored massive amounts of encrypted data on hard drives and storage devices in his compound.
On Jan. 1, 2007, the al-Qaida linked media organization Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) announced the release of a simple encryption program called “Mujahideen Secrets.” The promotional material for the program stated that it was “the first Islamic computer program for secure exchange [of information] on the Internet,” and claimed that it provided “the five best encryption algorithms” and “data compression [tools].”
About a year later, the Al-Ekhlas forum announced an upgraded version called “Mujahideen Secrets 2,” featuring “the highest level of technical multicast encryption.” The new program also was intended to function as a support for mujahideen on the battlefield in general and al-Qaida’s Iraqi branch in particular. For less tech-savvy users, GIMF produced a January 2009 video showing how to download and use its software.
A September 2009 post on jihadi site hanein.info, announced that the newly formed ‘Technical Research and Study Center‘ would “specialize in researching technical matters in the fields of information, communication, and electronics.” The group created “Mobile Secret” software for cell phones and PDAs, posting the data on numerous jihadi web forums.
Jihadi magazines, particularly from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], also provided details on how to use the technology and its importance. The October 2009 issue of AQAP’s Sada al-Malahim magazine featured an article from the group’s leader Nasir al-Wuheishi, promising to “make contact with anyone who wants to wage jihad with us.” Similar articles have appeared in each issue of AQAP’s English-language Inspire magazine.
American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been an avid promoter and user of such technology. A Wikileaks document released in March showed American officials had cracked encryption codes to reveal intelligence about Awlaki’s contacts in the West. Since then, Inspire magazine and Awlaki have promoted “Asrar al-Mujahideen,” the latest generation of the group’s intelligence.