War touches close to home

Anti-U.S. hackers hit Homer Web site

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

HOMER -- Seventeen-year-old Garrett Johnson hoped to create interest in the Web site he made as a community forum for Homer. He never expected the interest to come the way it did.

On Monday, Johnson learned his site, www.homerak.net, had been hacked by a group described by some as a mouthpiece of al-Qaida.

The pages Johnson created on his Web site remained as he had made them, but another page that Johnson had not created appeared as part of the site.

The page was topped by Arabic writing and an American flag breaking as a plane drops bombs on it. An English version of the page listed stories about American clashes with Afghanistan fighters and included stories titled, "Message to our Muslim Brothers in Iraq" and "From God's servant Osama bin Laden to the peoples of the countries allied with the American Government."

Johnson said having his page connected with such anti-American sentiment is a shock, since several members of his family are in the military. The page was quickly pulled off the Internet by the Web site host, Liquid Web, based in Lansing, Mich., but Johnson put up a banner on his site thanking all the men and women serving the United States just in case.

"I am pro-war on Iraq, American-born, and I love my country," Johnson's post read.

Reporter Adrian Humphreys of the National Post in Toronto broke the story. Humphreys said the tip about the Homer site's hidden page came from a research center in Washington, D.C., which has been monitoring the Internet for such sites.

According to Jack Flintz, system and security administrator for Liquid Web, it was Humphreys' call that caused the Web server to become aware that the hack had occurred.

Flintz said he is 95 percent sure that the hackers will be pinpointed and told the Homer News the illegal site came from Saudi Arabia.

Johnson said he had two separate people from Saudi Arabia join his site in the past week. He said he thought that was unusual, since the site is about Homer, so he tried to e-mail them. The e-mail address they provided somehow looped back to Johnson's own e-mail.

Johnson deleted the foreign members from the site, but didn't realize the full story until he got home from school Monday and found messages from several news organizations, as well as the FBI, on his machine.

"My mom was going crazy wondering what I did on the computer," Johnson said.

As it turned out, the FBI assured Johnson he was not suspected of creating the page. They asked him questions about the page and the foreign members the site had attracted in recent days, Johnson said.

Johnson, who has designed Web sites for profit in the past, said it appears the hackers were able to post the page onto the site because of the software he used to create the forum part of his site. Also, he said, the site was not complete when it was hacked.

According to Flintz, because the page in question was posted without the Web site owner's permission and because the material included could cause harm against a person, place or thing, Liquid Web pulled the page. The Internet Service Provider then contacted the FBI and is investigating the case further.

As for Johnson, who didn't even see the controversial page before the server pulled it, he hopes the recent hubbub over his site won't discourage people from visiting and joining the soon-to be-finished community page. On the upside, he said, his site received more than 1,000 hits in the 24 hours after the news broke.

"What are the chances of a site in Homer, Alaska, getting hacked by an al-Qaida site?" he asked.

Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.

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