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Tech-savvy Americans track religious extremists on the Web

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Douglas J. Hagmann, director of the Northeast Intelligence Network, speaks about his job as a counter-terrorism investigator at a radio appearance(Please note that this photo's size is 2300x1700). (Courtesy of Douglas J. Hagmann)

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Douglas J. Hagmann, director of the Northeast Intelligence Network, speaks to a group of law enforcement officers in Orlando, Fla., about his experience as a counter-terrorism investigator (Please note that this photo's size is 2000x1700). (Courtesy of Douglas J. Hagmann)

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Aaron Weisburd, depending on an article that appeared in December 2004 at the Palestinian Information Center's Web site, says Hamas called him a "virus" that eats away at good Muslim Web sites. (C. Onur Ant/CNS)

A 48-year-old private investigator wakes up at 4 a.m. He sifts through chat rooms in which Islamic radicals meet online and reads the newspapers’ international sections. He hashes over the day’s events with colleagues. If he finds anything of concern--a new jihadist group, a threat from Iraqi insurgents or potential terrorist activity—-he reports his information to the federal authorities by the end of the day. Yet he never gets a reply.

That is how Douglas J. Hagmann of Erie, Pa., spends his days. Moved by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hagmann gathered a group of private investigators to hunt down “potential terrorist activity” online and inside the United States.

Hagmann is a passionate Internet watchdog and a member of a loosely organized effort to contain religious extremists online. These technology-savvy Americans have given up golf in their spare time to keep the rest of the country informed about the activities of potential terrorists. That's one of the ways videos shot by Iraqi insurgents or their press releases make it to American television stations and newspapers.

“It makes you cranky," Hagmann said. "But this operation is a labor of love for our country.”

Hagmann wages his battle along with his colleagues at Northeast Intelligence Network, a group of 18 private investigators he formed shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

“We want our children to inherit a safer America,” Hagmann said. “We don’t want them to experience what we did on 9/11.”

Hagmann's group is one of about a dozen that started tracking extremists online.

A private investigator for 21 years, Hagmann said he immediately started talking with his colleagues during the days following Sept. 11.

“We wanted to assist our government,” he said. “And everyone had the same kind of mindset. Everyone was like: Hang on! What can I do?”

Similarly, Aaron Weisburd of Carbondale, Ill., kicked off his “Internet Haganah” in the summer of 2002. His Web site is named after the Jewish paramilitary organization that became the Israeli Defense Forces after the creation of the state of Israel.

“It was abundantly obvious in 2002 that governments were barely aware of the extent of the problem,” Weisburd said. Being a native of Manhattan, his frustration over the World Trade Center attacks and the Palestinian uprising in the Middle East motivated him to act.

Tracking extremists doesn’t pay well--if at all. People devoted to hunting down what they perceive as terrorist activity, say they do the job at their own expense.

“It’s a burden, indeed” Hagmann said of the financial cost of tracking people and keeping personal files on everyone federal authorities might be interested in.

“Everyone that is a part of this North Intelligence Network does it at their own expense,” Hagmann said, except that they offset office expenses with the money coming from daily newsletters the network sends to its subscribers.

“Internet Haganah is not what I get paid to do,” said Weisburd, who is 43 and married. “I make my living as a consultant and researcher in the field of counterterrorism.”

Bigger organizations, like the Search for International Terrorist Entities, or the SITE Institute, offer daily reports to a larger network of clients, including giant media companies, and also accept donations.

Most of the time, those tracking religious extremists have no idea if they have done a good job because the federal authorities, citing security reasons, do not give them any indication if the information they have provided has been useful.

“We don’t receive feedback," said Hagmann, who shares the findings of his work with the FBI, CIA and the Joint Terror Task Force. "We don’t know if our information is making a difference.”

He added: “We might never hear about the results of what we do. But we are self-motivated.”

Still the excitement of tracking potential terrorists drives Hagmann and others.

“Sometimes, I say: 'Damn. I wanna know who this person is, where is he and why he’s doing what he’s doing,'” Hagmann said of his adversaries operating in online chat rooms.

“But we don’t set people up or bait them,” he said. “Like any good investigator, our subjects never know we are there.”

E-mail: coa2103@columbia.edu