Several key al-Qaeda Web forums have been offline for 11 days, the longest sustained outage since the sites began operations in 2004. The reasons for the outage have not yet been made clear, though the extent and duration have led to rumors of a cyberattack on the sites.

Shumukh al-Islam, one of the main sources for al-Qaeda communications and videos, went offline on March 22. Since then, four other sites have gone down.

The last major blackout of al-Qaeda forums took place in mid-2010, when the al Fallujah forum was offline for at least a week. That was caused by British intelligence officials who acted after the CIA reportedly blocked a proposed Pentagon plan to move forward. The CIA argued al-Qaeda intelligence would be disrupted by such an attack.

In June last year, the al-Shamukh forum was taken offline in what some experts claimed may have been a cyberattack by Western intelligence agencies.

U.S. government agencies played no part in the most recent outage, according to The Washington Post. Indeed, there remains doubt whether or not the outages were actually caused by cyberattackers, since many other al-Qaeda forums remain active.

Agencies in the U.S. have been using such forums for years to gather intelligence and monitor chatter among extremists. With that in mind, some government officials have argued against shutting down al-Qaeda forums. However, there are other officials who are concerned by the existence of such sites, since they have been used to call for attacks and to recruit extremists.

There’s some evidence pointing towards the outages being a result of a cyberattack, according to Will McCants, a senior fellow at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. In addition to the duration and scope of the outages, McCants, a former State Department counterterrorism official, said administrators usually indicate technical problems on their sites by discussing them on another forum.

Evan Kohlmann, senior partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, which tracks the sites, said though the interruption of al-Qaeda forums are often fruitless, the most recent outages have disrupted communications within the network.

“At least temporarily, the social networking among jihadists has been disrupted,” Kohlmann told The Washington Post. “The remaining forums are really struggling to attract the participation of users.”

“Speculation continues to grow over whether the arrest in Spain of Mudhar al-Malki, a senior jihadi forum admin, is the cause of the outage,” he added on Twitter. “In the past, admins have abruptly taken jihad forums offline in cases of suspected infiltration by law enforcement or intelligence agencies.”

Some of the comments on the remaining operational forums indicate a smattering of defiance and frustration among their users.

“Life without Shumukh and Fida’ is unbearable ... they are the Titanic supporting the foundation for the triumphant sects fighting in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia,” a user wrote on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic Forum in an Arabic message translated by The Washington Post.

In the past, U.S. officials have used diplomatic channels to take down extremist sites that posed a perceived threat to Americans personnel or interests. That tactic has worked in more than a dozen cases, with countries in Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the Pacific cooperating. The sites that have gone dark in the most recent incident were hosted in countries such as Malaysia, Panama, and the Gaza Strip.

With dedicated forums under threat from cyberatttacks and the authorities, some al-Qaeda forum members have suggested moving to new arenas to discuss their activities.

“I suggest to the brothers having a page for the jihadi forums on Facebook and twitter,” wrote Al-Muktafi bel-Lah.

Photo of Ayman al-Zawahiri by fotosinteresantes