Islamic hackers use Homer Web site to promote bin Laden's terrorist group

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

ANCHORAGE - An extremist Islamic group hacked into an Internet bulletin board run by a Homer-area high school student, turning it into an al-Qaida propaganda outpost calling for attacks on the United States in response to the war on Iraq.

More than 1,000 people used the portal since the information was posted over the weekend. The information had been removed by Tuesday morning.

The Islamic group has been moving its Internet site regularly for at least a year.

The brief brush with world events perplexed Garrett Johnson, 17, who set up the Web site www.homerak.net in his spare time and works weekends at an Anchor Point service station. He hadn't checked his site in several days. The Arabic pages could no longer be found by the time he started getting calls Tuesday from East Coast reporters and the FBI.

"It was all over before I knew what was going on," Johnson told the Anchorage Daily News. "At first I wondered if the FBI was going to be busting down my door wondering if I was al-Qaida related."

Johnson has two relatives in the Navy stationed in the Persian Gulf and hastened to make a point of his patriotism on his Web site.

Still, he said, he'd been suspicious that something was going on. He'd set up the Web page as a community forum and chat room several months ago and was still adding features and writing code. He had five registered members, including him and his girlfriend. Then on Saturday two new members signed up, both from Saudi Arabia.

"That sort of weirded me out," he said. "I'm thinking, we're having a war over there."

Johnson was the victim of an illegal hacking, said Eric Gonzalez, an FBI special agent based in Anchorage.

"They hack into someone else's site, so that instead of looking at photos of Homer you're looking at al-Qaida propaganda," he said.

Derotha Ferraro, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, looked at the site Monday night after hearing about it from a Canadian reporter. She said it had "lots of visuals and pictures of Bin Laden."

According to a report Tuesday in the Toronto-based newspaper National Post, the Homer Web site called on Iraqis to draw U.S. soldiers into street fighting, where heavy casualties might cause the American people to lose their stomach for war. It provided links to gruesome photos of what appear to be civilian war casualties. Most of it was written in Arabic.

The site was run by the Center for Islamic Studies and Research, a group described as "the mouthpiece of al-Qaida" by Josh Devon, an analyst with the SITE Institute, a terrorism research group in Washington, D.C.

"This is one of al-Qaida's most important Web sites. Clearly the point is to recruit people to Jihad (holy war)," Devon said. "It regularly issues the al-Qaida leadership's latest communiques."

For a while the Islamic Center maintained access to its new site through U.S. host companies, but Internet watchdog groups pressed those companies to remove the material. Free-speech rights make it legal to post most such material on the Internet, but private host companies can make their own policies about what's appropriate, Devon said.



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