Swords Into Cupcakes: British Agents Hack Al Qaeda Website

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


Akin Adelakun
Akin Adelakun6 years ago


Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y6 years ago


By proportionality I meant responding with similar technology/weapons, not de jure limiting the scope of our response, although doing that is intelligent and prudent (more for us than for them-see below). It's the President's job to defend the U.S. by any and all means necessary. Since we are the no. 1 hardware/software society on the planet, advantage USA in that arena.

Back when I worked for our State Dept. I well remember the Serbian hack during the NATO campaign in Kosovo. It was ludicrous but they tried to flood lower-level unclassified Pentagon servers with infinite spam loops. Primitive but annoying; our folks responded by shutting down all their servers. Of course since Gen. Clark was leading our troops in a bombing campaign against Serbia (under U.N. resolution I might add), we could have taken out all their hard drives but this would have meant bombing every building in Belgrade's power grid (a stupid response which would have created massive opposition to us, military and political). Eventually it was decided to bomb just the generators and make the city go dark, but for other military reasons-we had already canned the spam.

Proportionality is a HUGE strategic advantage to the greater power, because it keeps your options open and your opponent guessing what else might happen to him. It also keeps skittish allies on your side-yes, those are useful because they help you logistically and that saves you money and time.

Stephen B.
Past Member 6 years ago

Hi Jonathan,

You make a good point. I should probably point out, though, that unless it is facing an enemy capable of doing severe damage in an unpreventable way, there is absolutely no incentive nor reason for proportionality. If the hack comes from a non-nuclear Iran in retaliation for Stuxnet, for example, why should the U.S. artificially put itself on equal footing with a lesser power? In fact, such a policy would cripple its massive military force in role most of its citizens prefer, to deter attacks bloodlessly,

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y6 years ago

The U.S. espouses a doctrine of proportionality, evolved from M.A.D. during the Cold War, so hopefully we wouldn't go to war over a cyberattack, we would respond in kind. Any actual physical response would have to be authorized by the CIC, regardless of whether the Pentagon deemed it an act of war or just malicious mischief.

In fact we already have responded to several (not very effective) attempts, from inside Serbia during the Bosnian War, China (multiple times all denied by their govt), and the former Soviet Union after it collapsed. Luckily we still hold a technical edge in such things.

Does raise an interesting point of how gray the line is between Presidential CIC latitude and the War Powers Act. What if the attack were broad enough to affect some of our power grids, killing a few elderly US citizens or hospital patients? Right now the Potus has the power to order limited action in the national interest if he advises the appropriate committees (Armed Services, Intelligence, Homeland Security).

So for all the hue and cry about the Pentagon going overboard, I think this admin. is actually being prudent in addressing the question pro-actively.

Stephen B.
Past Member 6 years ago

Hi Paul,

There are those who believe regular acts of war were false-flags. I realize it would be vastly easier to fake a cyber-attack, but if there was no damage done, it would be equally more difficult to get U.S. public support. Going to war without that is political suicide, so such an order would not come from the White House. As for a branch of the military running off on its own, the order for a war must come from the commander-in-chief. Random groups within the Pentagon lack the authority to start a war.

Paul T.
Paul T6 years ago

I'm not so sure about the part there that says "the Pentagon has now decided cyber attacks can constitute acts of war." I mean, that could also be an excuse for a preemptive attack, alla George Bush, by the Pentagon simply saying "We received a cyber attack." How would the public know if that was really true? They could use it to (falsely) justify a pre-emptive strike against another country.

Lori Ann H.
Lori Hone6 years ago


Hope S.
Hope S6 years ago

Good for them!

Ann Breeden
Ann Breeden6 years ago

I hopt they enjoyed the cupcakes. Way to go hackers!

Karen & Edward O.
Karen and Ed O6 years ago

Has anyone ever seen the movie "The Mouse that Roared"?