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For almost two years, intelligence services around the world tried to uncover the identity of an Internet hacker who had become a key conduit for al-Qaeda. The savvy, English-speaking, presumably young webmaster taunted his pursuers, calling himself Irhabi -- Terrorist -- 007. He hacked into American university computers, propagandized for the Iraq insurgents led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and taught other online jihadists how to wield their computers for the cause.
Suddenly last fall, Irhabi 007 disappeared from the message boards. The postings ended after Scotland Yard arrested a 22-year-old West Londoner, Younis Tsouli, suspected of participating in an alleged bomb plot. In November, British authorities brought a range of charges against him related to that plot. Only later, according to our sources familiar with the British probe, was Tsouli's other suspected identity revealed. British investigators eventually confirmed to us that they believe he is Irhabi 007.
The unwitting end of the hunt comes at a time when al-Qaeda sympathizers like Irhabi 007 are making explosive new use of the Internet. Countless Web sites and password-protected forums -- most of which have sprung up in the last several years -- now cater to would-be jihadists like Irhabi 007. The terrorists who congregate in those cybercommunities are rapidly becoming skilled in hacking, programming, executing online attacks and mastering digital and media design -- and Irhabi was a master of all those arts.
But the manner of his arrest demonstrates how challenging it is to combat such online activities and to prevent others from following Irhabi's example: After pursuing an investigation into a European terrorism suspect, British investigators raided Tsouli's house, where they found stolen credit card information, according to an American source familiar with the probe. Looking further, they found that the cards were used to pay American Internet providers on whose servers he had posted jihadi propaganda. Only then did investigators come to believe that they had netted the infamous hacker. And that element of luck is a problem. The Internet has presented investigators with an extraordinary challenge. But our future security is going to depend increasingly on identifying and catching the shadowy figures who exist primarily in the elusive online world.