How’s this for a sweet twist in the war on terror? Reports surfaced Friday that British intelligence agents successfully hacked an al Qaeda website last year and swapped a recipe for a home-made bomb for a series of cupcake recipes.
The agents infiltrated Inspire, a new al Qaeda English-language magazine set up by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and aimed at the West. As The Telegraph reports,
When followers tried to download the 67-page colour magazine, instead of instructions about how to “Make a bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom” by “The AQ Chef” they were greeted with garbled computer code.
The code, which had been inserted into the original magazine by the British intelligence hackers, was actually a web page of recipes for “The Best Cupcakes in America” published by the Ellen DeGeneres chat show.
Written by Dulcy Israel and produced by Main Street Cupcakes in Hudson, Ohio, it said “the little cupcake is big again” adding: “Self-contained and satisfying, it summons memories of childhood even as it’s updated for today’s sweet-toothed hipsters.”
By contrast, the original magazine featured a recipe showing how to make a lethal pipe bomb using sugar, match heads and a miniature lightbulb, attached to a timer.
The Washington Post reported the United States had considered targeting Inspire but an interagency kerfuffle ensued.
The head of the newly formed U.S. Cyber Command, Gen. Keith Alexander, argued that blocking the magazine was a legitimate counterterrorism target and would help protect U.S. troops overseas. But the CIA pushed back, arguing that it would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence. The proposal also rekindled a long-standing interagency struggle over whether disrupting a terrorist Web site overseas was a traditional military activity or a covert activity — and hence the prerogative of the CIA.
The CIA won out, and the proposal was rejected. But as the debate was underway within the U.S. government, British government cyber-warriors were moving forward with a plan.
Inspire is produced quarterly by U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and sent as a pdf file, the AP says. Al-Awlaki is linked to the thwarted bombing of a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, and last year’s attempt to blow up cargo planes heading to the U.S. Reports say it took al Qaeda almost two weeks to unscramble the contents and repost the magazine. The hackers also successfully removed articles by Osama bin Laden and one by his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri entitled “What to Expect in Jihad.”
A British government official who confirmed the attack was a success said in an interview with the AP yesterday that the government is “increasingly using cybertools as part of our work.”
News of the hack comes on the heels of a Wall Street Journal article published Tuesday that the Pentagon has now decided cyber attacks can constitute acts of war.
Extremists increasingly turn to the internet to spread their messages, the AP notes. As the escalating threat of cyberwarfare looms ever larger, it will be interesting to see how new cyber attacks are handled, and whether or not a call for military intervention will ever be warranted.
Photo courtesy of kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop) via Flickr