Exclusive: Bin Laden associate warns of cyberattacks

A London-based fundamentalist Islamic cleric with known ties to Osama bin Laden said al-Qaeda and various other fundamentalist Muslim groups around the world are actively planning to use the Internet as a weapon in their "defensive" jihad, or holy war, against the West.

In an exclusive interview Monday with Computerworld, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of the London-based group Jama'at Al-Muhajirun and the spokesman for Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, said all types of technology, including the Internet, are being studied for use in the global jihad against the West.

"In a matter of time you will see attacks on the stock market," Bakri said, referring specifically to the markets in New York, London and Tokyo.

His comments represent the first time that a high-profile radical Muslim cleric with known links to bin Laden has spoken publicly about the use of cybertactics for offensive purposes.

According to Bakri, a Syrian-born Muslim cleric whom the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and British intelligence have tied to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers and others seeking flight training in the U.S., Islam justifies the use of "all types of technologies" in the defense of Muslim lands, including psychological and economic weapons "or a weapon of mass destruction."

Jihad groups around the world are very active on the Internet, Bakri said, speaking from a cell phone near his north London office. And while his group, Jama'at Al-Muhajirun, is primarily focused on supporting the political goals of Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups, Bakri said the military wings of these various groups are also using and studying the Internet for their own operations.

"That is what al-Qaeda is skillful with," said Bakri. "I would not be surprised if tomorrow I hear of a big economic collapse because of somebody attacking the main technical systems in big companies," he said, referring to an ongoing threat of an attack.

To date, al-Qaeda's cybercapabilities have been the subject of much debate. Most Internet security professionals have doubted such groups' interest in cybertactics on the grounds that physical bombings and other forms of attack provide the fear and bloodshed that al-Qaeda is looking for. However, in recent statements made by bin Laden, the terror leader has shown a clear desire to inflict catastrophic damage on the U.S. economy as a way to force the U.S. to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan and to curtail its support for Israel.

"There are millions of Muslims around the world involved in hacking the Pentagon and Israeli government sites," said Bakri. "The struggle will continue," he said, referring to the millions of young bin Laden supporters who are now studying computer science as a way to support the cause.

"I believe that Osama bin Laden has earned his leadership and most [Muslim students] who are graduating in computer science and computer programming and IT technology are supporting Osama bin Laden," Bakri said.

"I would advise those who doubt al-Qaeda's interest in cyberweapons to take Osama bin Laden very seriously," he said. "The third letter from Osama bin Laden a few months ago was clearly addressing using the technology in order to destroy the economy of the capitalist states.

"This is a matter that is very clear, and Osama bin Laden must be taken very seriously."

Omar Bakri Muhammad: Bin Laden's man in LondonBorn in 1958 in Syria, Islamist Sheikh Omar bin Bakri Muhammad was recruited as a young man by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood movement and participated in its revolt against then-Syrian President Hafez Assad. As a result, he was expelled from Syria and moved to Beirut, Lebanon.

In Beirut, Bakri joined Sheikh Khalil Al-Mat and the local branch of Hizb Al-Tahrir. In 1983, he took the alias of Omar Fustuk and settled in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he established "Al-Muhajirun" as a front for the Hizb Al-Tahrir in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Muhajirun now has offices in Britain, France, Germany, Pakistan and the U.S.

Bakri became a legal resident of Britain in 1993, and in March 1996 he applied for citizenship.

Between 1994 and 1998, Bakri gave speeches at Islamist rallies in London's Trafalgar Square and Wembley Stadium. He also founded the Al-Khilafa publishing house in London and serves as a judge in the Shari'a, or Islamic Law, Court of the UK. Bakri also claims to be the spokesman of the International Islamic Front, the political wing of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, led by Osama bin Laden. Bakri has also stated that he has actively sought recruits for other groups, such as Hamas, Hizbollah, as well as various liberation movements in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of the London-based group Jama'at Al-MuhajirunPrior to last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an FBI memo written by agent Kenneth Williams and e-mailed to the FBI's Washington headquarters on July 10, 2001, noted a connection between Middle Eastern men in Phoenix-area flight schools and Bakri's London-based Al-Muhajirun.

The sheik has also been involved with issuing a fatwa - an Islamic call to action - that noted airports as one of several legitimate attack targets in the U.S., as well as another fatwa that called for the assassination of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.

-- Dan Verton.

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