Link between child porn and Muslim terrorists discovered in police raids
A link between terrorism plots and hardcore child pornography is becoming clear after a string of police raids in Britain and across the Continent, an investigation by The Times has discovered. Images of child abuse have been found during Scotland Yard antiterrorism swoops and in big inquiries in Italy and Spain.
Secret coded messages are being embedded into child pornographic images, and paedophile websites are being exploited as a secure way of passing information between terrorists.
British security services are also aware of the trend and believe that it requires further investigation to improve understanding of terrorists’ methods and mindsets. Concerns within the Metropolitan Police led to a plan to run a pilot research project exploring the nature of the link. One source familiar with the proposal said that this could eventually lead to the training of child welfare experts to identify signs of terrorist involvement as they monitor pornographic sites.
Concerns have already been expressed at Cabinet minister level about the risk of vulnerable Muslim youths being exploited by older men.
Officers have noted that child sex abuse images have been found during investigations into some of the most advanced suspected plots. However, it is understood that the proposed research project was never implemented because the AntiTerrorism Branch was overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases it was having to deal with.
It is not clear whether the terrorists were more interested in the material for personal gratification or were drawn to child porn networks as a secure means of sending messages. In one case fewer than a dozen images were found; in another, 40,000.
British security sources confirmed that such a link had been discovered in several cases. They noted the contradiction between people supposedly devoted to theocracy and Islamic fundamentalism and their use of child pornography. “It shows that these people are very confused,” a source said. “Here they are hating Western decadence but actually making use of it and finding that they enjoy this stuff.”
Baroness Neville-Jones, Conservative security spokeswoman and former chairwoman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, said: “The information about a possible link between extremism and child pornography potentially provides useful insight into three things: the methods that extremists use to communicate; the methods they use to target vulnerable people in society; and the techniques they seek to use to conceal their online activities.” She added: “There is no doubt that these possible linkages should merit further research.”
The first British suspicions of a link between child sex abuse and jihadis emerged in London in 2006 when antiterrorism police in two unrelated investigations were shocked to find computerised images of hardcore child pornography. The key case that tipped off the security services to a plausible link involved the “White-chapel Rapist”, Abdul Makim Khalisadar. A former Mujahidin and a preacher at the East London Mosque, he was being examined for his links to a hardcore Islamic militant who was later convicted of terrorism. Khalisadar was never convicted of terrorist offences. The other investigation involved a young religiously observant Muslim.
The Times has learnt that a criminal investigation also found child pornography on computers after a raid in 2001 at a mosque run by an al-Qaeda recruiter in Milan. Italian police believe that the images were encoded with messages. At a forthcoming terrorism trial in Spain, the alleged mastermind of a Muslim cell has also been accused of downloading hundreds of child sex abuse pictures and videos.
Invisible ink for the internet age
Messages may be concealed within digital images and audio, video or other files. The method is called steganography, derived from the Greek for “covered writing”
Although the average person will not be able to detect the hidden messages by either listening to or viewing a file, the intended recipients can use applications to reverse the steganography process and gain access to the information
Experts say that the advancement in encryption technology is outpacing the authorities’ abilities to monitor suspected terrorists and paedophiles
Italian authorities uncovered files of child abuse images that had been manipulated by a terrorist cell after a raid on the Via Quaranta mosque in Milan in November 2001. Investigators claimed that the terrorist cell encoded the images before sending them to each other
The link might have remained unknown but for the case of a Muslim preacher from the East End of London who in 2006 was being investigated by police over his suspected links to a jihadi terrorist gunrunner.
To Scotland Yard’s surprise, the 26-year-old Abdul Makim Khalisadar, a former primary school assistant, was discovered to be downloading considerable quantities of child pornography. A DNA test showed he was the wanted “Whitechapel Rapist” who had violently attacked a woman in the street a year earlier. He was jailed for ten years for rape and perverting justice. Khalisadar, who has never been convicted of terrorist offences, and some friends concocted a false alibi that he was preaching at the East London Mosque when the attack happened. He was accused of possessing photographs of child sex abuse but these 11 charges were allowed to lie on file.
Khalisadar’s case came hot on the heels of the unexpected discovery of a few dozen images of hard-core child pornography during a raid on a suspected Muslim terrorist’s home during a separate investigation. It was enough to convince some officers that they had discovered a potentially important link.
But an investigation by The Times has discovered that the first evidence actually came on the Continent within a few weeks of the 9/11 massacres. The unlikely setting was the Via Quaranta mosque in Milan. This place of worship was, according to the book Al-Qaeda in Europe, by the terrorism expert Lorenzo Vidino, expressly “built to create a new gathering place for militants in the southern part of the city”. It was run by the al-Qaeda recruiter Abdelkadar Mahmoud Ed Sayed.
During a crackdown on the mosque, police were astonished to discover pornography on computer hard drives. But what was not reported then was that the haul included images of children being sexually abused that were encoded with messages as a clandestine method of communication. Ed Sayed was sentenced to eight years in absentia in 2004 for terrorism-related offences.
Stefano Dambruoso, Italy’s anti-terror magistrate, said: “In our experience in investigating Islamic cells linked to al-Qaeda, they use pornographic images simply to camouflage the content of their messages. They use the images — of men, women and children — as an instrument to hide messages of quite a different content.
“I would exclude the idea that they have paedophile tendencies. The most you can attribute to them is a relationship between men and women different from that of us Westerners, in which — as in many parts of the Arab world — wives are often very young girls of 11, 12 or 13 who because of family negotiations are given in marriage to men much older than them. But that is not paedophilia, it is a question of Arab culture.”
The Times has also found a case in Spain where an Islamic terror suspect is accused of downloading child pornography, a case in Yorkshire where child protection officers stumbled on a nail-bomb terror plotter, and a case in Salford where officers discovered a chemistry student visiting explosives websites and also downloading child abuse images.
One area that British anti-terror investigators are now keen to look at is the startling similarity in the way that jihadis and paedophiles target vulnerable young people, first befriending them and then slowly introducing them to warped behaviour that comes to be seen as normal. “What we were starting to see was a similarity in grooming that goes on in paedophilia and grooming that goes on in extremism,” said the anti-terror source.
The source explained that both types of criminal also share a need for great secrecy and indeed it is the paedophiles’ status as outcasts as well as their expertise in encryption techniques that may have first attracted the terrorists. Hardline Muslim recruits are often given passwords and keycodes to terrorism sites via internet chatrooms, although sometimes they come from sympathisers in local mosques. But recently British police have managed to crack some of the codes that prohibit outsiders from accessing the more hardcore jihadi sites. Using child porn sites might be one way round this.
Not every terrorist downloading child pornography is a Muslim, though. The British Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre was investigating the case of paedophile Philip Thompson, known as the Librarian because he lent out his 241,000 images of child abuse. They sent an intelligence file to police about a suspected associate, Martyn Gilleard, 31, a forklift truck driver and Hitler enthusiast from Goole on Humberside.
When officers turned up looking for child abuse images, they found 39,000 of them. But they also stumbled across Gilleard’s stash of machetes, swords, bullets, gunpowder and nail bombs. He wanted to start a race war.
In a commentary for The Times, David Canter, Professor of Psychology at the University of Liverpool, writes:
This shows that not all jihadis are spiritually driven men on a mission
Paedophilia and terrorism seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. We think of men who prey on children, and those who are a step away, collecting child pornography over the internet, as depraved isolated individuals wallowing in their own obsessions.
By contrast, despite the destruction of innocent lives that they crave, the popular view is that terrorists are driven by some external, if distorted, ideology that they at least see as a noble cause. The illegal child porn images found on the computers of a number of extremists give the lie to this simple division.
It is probably sensible for the police to take stock before assuming there is an inevitable link between terrorism, especially the jihadi variety, and child pornography. But it is possible that an extreme interpretation of Islam that regards male sexual urges as so uncontrollable that all women have to cover themselves from head to toe generates in some men a confusion about their sexuality and appropriate sexual partners. An interest in child pornography may be one consequence.
The link between child porn and terrorism may be more prosaic than the police believe. The sheer scale of child pornography images on the web now beggars belief. It is growing exponentially by the month. Millions of images are now being passed around the world, drawn from thousands of websites. It has to be asked whether there is something special about aspiring terrorists that leads them into child porn, or vice versa.
In their search for explanations for the link, investigators have let their imaginations run riot. Perhaps the secret internet child porn networks are a good cover for clandestine communications between terrorists.
The problem is that much of our understanding of terrorism is derived from the official statements of the leaders who play up ideological and spiritual claims. It is rare for our ways of thinking about terrorists to be informed by direct contact with them, where we can see them for what they actually are. They are often people with a poor understanding of what they are trying to achieve or the real consequences of their actions.
In recent studies that I have been able to carry out, it has become clear that many jihadis come to acts of terror because of the social groups to which they belong, or even through criminal enterprises. Their ideological commitment is often much weaker than their loyalty to their associates and the group with which they identify.
It is therefore not surprising that some terrorists share predilections and obsessions with a frighteningly large proportion of the adult male population. Paradoxically it may therefore be more revealing about the nature of jihadi and other terrorists. It shows that terrorists are not all spiritually or ideologically focused men on a mission.