CHAT ROOMS

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FBI looks at radical Islam site in family massacre


Wednesday, February 02, 2005
By Maria Zingaro Conte
Journal staff writers


The site, barsomyat.com, monitored an Internet chat room at PalTalk.com where Christians and Muslims, including the father in the murdered family, often participated in angry discussions about religion.
Barsomyat.com also tracked and posted information about the Christian posters on PalTalk, according to a report published in the New York Sun.
Among pictures recently posted on barsomyat.com were those of the family: Hossam Armanious, 47; his wife, Amal Garas, 37; Sylvia, 16; and Monica, 9. They were found on Jan. 14, bound and stabbed to death inside their Oakland Avenue home in the Heights. The Web site is currently disabled.
 
According to the published report, there were about 40 discussion threads on barsomyat.com denigrating the Christians who have posted on PalTalk and sometimes they even provide identifying information about them.
The information given for one Christian PalTalk user included both his online user name, his real name and his home city. Launched in 1998,
PalTalk is one of the top chat room portals on the Internet, with more than 3.1 million users.
More recently, a posting on barsomyat.com called Hossam Armanious a "dirty dog" and "curser of Muhammad," and called Garas "his filthy wife," according to a published report, which also quoted the posting as saying "they got what they deserved for their actions in America."'
FBI special agent John Conway confirmed that barsomyat.com was being investigated for possible connections to the killings but could give few details about the status of the investigation, citing its ongoing status.
Conway said that while religious hatred is being considered as a possible motive, many other motives are also being investigated, including robbery.
Authorities discovered that cash had been taken from the house, but the theory has been somewhat confounded by the fact that several pieces of jewelry were left behind. Authorities are also looking into the possibility of a vendetta with roots in Egypt and are looking into the Armanious' finances.
"We're exploring every possibility that's out there from robbery to home invasion to the religious connection. Everything that could have possibly led to this murder is being investigated," Conway said.
Hossam Armanious, who immigrated to the United States with his family from Egypt in 1997, regularly posted on the PalTalk site under the user name "I Love Jesus."
Some acquaintances of the Armanious family told investigators that Hossam Armanious had received death threats two months before the murders warning him to stop posting on PalTalk.
If Hossam Armanious did receive a threat on the Internet, he did not voice concern to family members in the days before the grisly crime, said Ehmad Fahmy, a relative. Since threats are common on PalTalk religious sites, he added, Armanious may have dismissed it.
"I would think, if it was serious, he would have told us," Fahmy said. "Maybe he didn't say anything because it happens all the time. Maybe he didn't say anything because it didn't really happen."
Yesterday, Monir Dawoud, acting president of the American Coptic Association, called on investigators to refer the murders to the hate crimes unit of the FBI. The killings have sparked tensions between Coptic and Muslim Egyptians in Jersey City, reflecting similar tensions that have simmered in Egypt for years.
Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio, whose office is leading the investigation, said it is too soon to tell if it would be appropriate to bring in the bias crimes unit since it is still uncertain whether religion was a motive.
"The FBI is already involved in the investigation, as we know and as the American Coptic Association knows, and certainly if the FBI personnel who are working on the case think it's appropriate for any specialized unit to become involved, we will abide by that decision."
DeFazio also noted that the bodies of the victims were not mutilated, religious items in their home were not desecrated and that no religious messages were left by the killers.
Investigators are also quick to note that it is still unclear whether the reference to Hossam Armanious and Garas on barsomyat.com were posted before or after the killings.
"The timeline is an important factor," DeFazio said, noting that if the information appeared there after the murders, it probably was not connected to the crime
Barsomyat.com is administered by VizaWeb, a hosting company based in Woodbury, Minn., but the site is registered to a single individual. Authorities have not been able to contact the man, whose name has not been released but who lives in Jordan, DeFazio said.
The FBI declined to comment on whether VizaWeb was cooperating with authorities in the investigation, and several telephone numbers listed for VizaWeb on the company's Web site were not working yesterday. Barsomyat.com is currently disabled.
A computer taken from the home of the victims is also being searched by FBI forensics experts.
DeFazio said that although PalTalk administrators have said it is not possible for hackers to obtain personal information about the people who post in their chat rooms, authorities are investigating whether the site can be hacked into.
They are also checking the victims' computer for signs that it had been hacked, but so far no evidence of that has been found, the prosecutor said.
According to Rebecca Wright, an associate professor of computer science at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, any chat room could be susceptible to hackers.
"With any system that's attempting to provide some type of security, there are many levels at which the security could be compromised," she said.
Hackers could easily access the information if it is unencrypted, she said, or it could be obtained by people who gained physical access to the computers that store identifying information, and it is even easier to use trickery to fool system administrators into releasing personal information about chat room posters.
It would also have been possible for someone to hack into the computer being used by Armanious if he had unknowingly downloaded spyware onto his computer, Wright said.
"It's a combination of technology and fooling people into doing things," she noted. "But from them looking at the chat room to teleport the wire, that's probably not doable without some kind of further action on the user's part."
Investigators may not be able to trace the threat if it was not recorded, said Columbia University professor Steven Bellovin, a computer security expert.
"The bottom line is, unless someone is deliberately making logs, its not likely they would find something from chat," Bellovin said.
Yet even if the Jersey City killings were motivated by Internet postings, the crime has not deterred others from continuing to engage in inflammatory online chat.
For more than a week, a chat room devoted to the Armanious family was among the top five most popular on PalTalk.
The chat room creator said he launched the "Coptic Family Murder: Who Did It?" room on Jan. 17 - four days after the bodies were found.
For about a week afterward, it was among the five most visited rooms among the more than 2,500 on PalTalk.
"This room is started by me and I started it because of what happened in Jersey and you are welcome to come here to my room and talk about whatever you like," said the administrator, who goes by the handle "Mossad Agent."
The room also enables users to speak to one another using microphones.
The chat room dedicated to the slain family is rife with vitriol and insults, usually directed at Islam, by room regulars.
A kind word about Islam, disagreement with the hatred, or even a plea to tone down the rhetoric can get posters kicked out and once bounced, a user cannot re-enter a room for 24 hours.
Chatters with vile nicknames such as Coptic Slayer also barge into the room and are quickly bounced.
The room is also regularly visited by chatters using foul language, interpreted by administrators as an attempt to have PalTalk close the room, which has a G rating.
On the other hand, hatred directed at Islam was common and seemingly welcome.
"Moslem never drink water just blood to live," read one posting.
The company that runs PalTalk condemned any hate speech.
"PalTalk does not condone the use of any unlawful, threatening, abusive, profane, offensive, defamatory, or hateful text or voice communication or images or the espousal of any racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable material," the company said in a statement.
Most chat room posters say they believe the Armanious family was killed for religious reasons, but there is the occasional caution against jumping to conclusions.
"If it turns out to be a religiously motivated killing then that's one thing," one person wrote. "But if it isn't, we are going to look really stupid here."

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