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How CBS News Looks For Terrorist Tracks Online

(AP Photo/PA, Tim Ockenden)
On Friday, CBSNews.com ran a story by London-based producer Tucker Reals suggesting that the London bomb plot might have been foretold on the Web.

"Hours before London explosives technicians dismantled a large car bomb in the heart of the British capital's tourist-rich theater district," the story said, "a message appeared on one of the most widely used jihadist Internet forums, saying: 'Today I say: Rejoice, by Allah, London shall be bombed.'"

I asked Reals how CBS found the posting, which was in the "al Hesbah" chat room.

"We have a team who very closely monitors jihadi web forums for us," he said, noting that news networks like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are also monitored. "[The team] sends out messages daily, such as, 'here's video of a hummer being blown up in Iraq, posted on this forum.' The message they sent out Friday morning caught my eye."

Some media organizations, including CNN, have questioned the CBSNews.com report. On Friday, correspondent Octavia Nasr said "we cannot find this claim anywhere. It is not on the Islamic website…Now [Hesbah] is a major, major website. So we entered that website. There is nothing to that effect. Now some times people post things that the administrator goes back and takes out. So there is that chance that something like this happened. But that, by itself, is indication that the posting was not credible."

As it turned out, the posting was removed, according to the CBS journalist – a member of the team mentioned above – who first found it. (This did not happen until Sunday, however.) Because his job entails infiltrating jihadi Web sites for a Western news organization – an occupation that would not endear him to some of the more militant members of those forums – I am not using the journalist's name here.

"They pulled the post and everything this guy had written," said the journalist. "It's like he did not exist – he simply is not there." He said he copied the post into a Word document before the deletion took place in order to retain a record.

I asked the journalist, who was born in Cairo and studied translation, about his methods. He said he checks more than 100 jihadist Web sites per day, many of them password protected. He portrays himself as a forum participant, though he hardly ever posts anything himself. "It's very difficult to get a password nowadays," he said. "There is one site where I have been trying for two years without success." When he started monitoring the Web in 2003, he said, it was far easier to get access.

I asked him why he had flagged this particular message from among the hundreds of anti-Western messages that appear on these sites daily.

"It was his tone that intrigued me," he said. "It sounded almost too confident." He also said that the post seemed legitimate because of who was behind it – "this is someone who had been a very active participant in the forum," he said. Still, there was no way to confirm whether or not the person responsible for the message had anything to do with the attack. "It's very difficult to judge the credibility of these messages."

The lead story now on CBSNews.com about the plot includes new information from the team, including details about a February 20, 2006 posting on a different site from someone identifying himself as Mohammed Asha, of Jordanian nationality. A Mohammed Asha born in Amman was arrested in connection with the plot on Saturday. "we have had to put up with you in the West for a long time," the post, which references the Danish cartoon controversy, says. "But now, after you insulted our prophet, we shall not forgive you."

London Bureau Chief Jennifer Siebens told me that it's important for news outlets to monitor the sites where posts like this are often found.

"The Arab world is incredibly complex, and we have a long way to go to understand it," she said. "This is a very, very logical place for us to start."