Pentagon researcher unveils World of Warcraft terror plot

Noah Shachtman of Wired's Danger Room blog writes,

The American military and intelligence communities are increasingly worried that would-be bin Ladens might gather in a virtual world, to plan a real-life attack. But the spies haven't given many details, about how it might be done. Now, a Pentagon researcher has laid out how such a terror plot might unfold. The planning ground is World of Warcraft. The main target of this possibly nuclear strike: the White House.
Pentagon Researcher Unveils Warcraft Terror Plot (WIRED)


  1. Or they might gather in someone’s living room to discuss their plot. Horror! The Pentagon should pre-emptively bug everyone’s homes to prevent this sort of mis-use of living space.

  2. I really don’t know how useful this is… I’ve heard this hype more than once and ask myself each time if it is telling us something we don’t already know…

  3. Insert >Terror Plot< , >School Shooting< , >Campus Pantie Raid< , or just plain >Playing WoW< . We must protect our, >Security< , >Children< , >Panties< , >XP points

  4. This “research” pretty much fails to impress me. Techniques using code language has been known for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years. I personally was introduced to it while watching “‘Allo ‘Allo” some 25 years ago, so it’s fairly main stream. Just because they’re doing it as part of a WoW game hardly makes it revolutionizing. And please, I find it hard to swallow that Pentagon would have any problem getting a lvl 70 character should they want one. Heck, there ought to be at least a hundred hard core players among the 23 000 Pentagon employees :)

  5. I personally think this is totally likely (having stumbled upon some odd conversations while running about in the wilds of Asheron’s Call), the communication is hard to track, and if the game is located on say, a Korean server, it would be hard to create any backdoor to monitor.

    The only solution I can see would be to plant operatives in the game to monitor known terrists. I, for one, would work for the CIA tracking terrirsts in WoW by ganking newbs for phat lewt, so long as I’m paid >$100K a year for my 1337 skillz.

  6. The best part about their example is that it’s obviously written by someone that’s barely played WoW. There’s nothing worth raiding in Stonetalon, it’s practically a newbie zone. If a level 70 wanted to go there and raise hell, they could do it pretty much by themselves. There’s no ‘Keep’ in that zone. Getting ‘Dragon Fire’ is no big spell o’ doom, it’s just one of the mage talents.

    No one would EVER have a conversation like this – it’s just another one of their ‘Movie Theatre Plots’ that they’ll use as an excuse to monitor WoW’s servers. How in the HECK they expect to find anything useful out of 50 servers worth of Trade chat is beyond me.

    WTB Government that’s not freaking nuts

  7. I personally think this is totally likely (having stumbled upon some odd conversations while running about in the wilds of Asheron’s Call), the communication is hard to track, and if the game is located on say, a Korean server, it would be hard to create any backdoor to monitor.

    You would have to be a bloody idiot to do this rather than simply sending email encrypted with gpg like everybody else who values their privacy does.

    Thank goodness we are protected from incredibly stupid terrorists. They might blow down some parking meters or something.

  8. “looking in-game for characters run by Abdullah and Salim holding private chat about blowing up the White House garden gnomes won’t get you a handle on what’s going on”

    (to quote “Halting State” by Charles Stross…)


  9. Yes they might do this. There’s a few hundred thousand things they “might” do. It seems to me that the war on terror must be pretty ineffective if they need to lok for “might” instead of having some solid leads.

    Though I suppose the reason they have so few real leads on terrorist plots is.. maybe the terrorists aren’t plotting anything? Yes we’ve all heard that absesnce of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but it sure as hell was the last time.

  10. So everyone remember to watch out for suspicious individuals screaming “Leeroy Jenkins!” when in Washington DC.

  11. Wrong MMO. They should be looking at Habbo Hotel. Why? “hobble oath” is an anagram of “habbo hotel.” Clearly (clearly…) something is up at the “hotel.”

  12. Wouldn’t they just be better off in a game that had a map editor? I mean if they really wanted to plan something, this would a be much better solution.

  13. I wonder how many 13 year olds are going to get arrested because they kept ninja looting some homeland security agent they were playing WoW with.

  14. Come to think of it, didn’t the Secret Service solve this problem back in 1990 with Steve Jackson Games? I remember hearing something about that somewhere…


  15. Interesting post, but the headline is more than a little misleading. Maybe it should read, “Pentagon researcher hypothesizes World of Warcraft terror plot.”

  16. That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. I agree with all the posters above.

    Maybe the person who presented this has kids who play WoW. “I’ll get those damn kids for yelling at me about ‘wiping’ them.. whatever the f-k that means.. I bet they are talking behind my back right now on their ‘chat rooms'”

  17. First to elaborate on what they got wrong. Names in world of warcraft cannot contain numbers, underscores, or all caps. The first letter and no other letters are capitalized. Spells are not stored in your inventory because they aren’t items. The map they pulled is of a different zone that doesn’t actually depict Stonetalon, it simply indicates the direction of the zone relative to the current zone map. You can’t even get to Stonetalon from the area they zoomed in on.

    More importantly, why would terrorists use convoluted codewords on a 3rd party server capable of being monitored by thousands of blizzard employees and anyone else with access, not to mention blizzard’s invasive policy of scanning client computers for hacks (which can be manipulated by authorities to scan for other things) leaving them completely vulnerable, when they can just talk directly using standard encryption over regular internet traffic which is almost impossible to intercept and decrypt without access to one of the computers being used.

    Trying to keep tabs on every means of communication over the internet is ludicrous since it’s all one big communication tool sprouting thousands of ways to communicate over it, and more every day. They’re too used to the ease of opening people’s mail and tapping phones. If they had their way AT&T would probably be the sole internet provider and you’d only be allowed to use their approved chat protocols for easy interception.

  18. This MMO scenario was hatched by the same people who ignored first hand accounts from Florida flight instructors of suspicious students who stated that they had no interest in learning how to land a plane.

    Clearly the principle of Occam’s Razor does not apply to American security.

  19. OMG! They could be communicating through BLOG COMMENTS right now, and disguising their conversation around the story at hand! Nobody would be the wiser! The government needs to track all comments made on the Internet!!

  20. I think an even better parallel can be made by cutting WoW out of the equation. Let’s draw a new scenario:

    What if a bunch of terrorists* got together on Fridays to play poker. Except it’s not poker it’s really an elaborate series of briefings on their plan to release nerve toxin in the white house during a tour. They use a lengthy series of code words and mask the plans behind the banter of a game, in case they’re being watched or monitored…

    Therefor, logically, the only reasonable and proportional response is to place a live wiretap on every single poker table in America. All of them. We need to monitor poker. The game. The whole game. We need total information awareness inside this “World of Poker”, in case one poker table may be used at one point to form a terrorist plot.

    Mind you, we made the scenario up. We don’t have any evidence of terrorist World of Poker players, but we’ve created something that looks plausible if you squint, therefor any terrorist attack involving poker planning is now YOUR FAULT unless you allow them to use Secret Poli…. Ahem, Department of Homeland Security Agents** to watch poker.

    Still sound like a good idea?

    *Who hate America
    **Who love America

  21. @5:

    > Heck, there ought to be at least a hundred hard core players among the 23 000 Pentagon employees :)

    More. Many more.

  22. Is this what the Alterac Valley changes have lead to? Damn you, Alliance! Is a boycott not enough — now you must threaten some strange Keep in Stonetalon with arson?

    Oh, Blizzard, what hast thou wrought?

    Wait, this is supposed to be terrorists plotting? Er, never mind…no wonder they sound nothing like an actual in game discussion. One would think that terrorists who actually played the game would make it sound like a more legitimate in-game conversation.

    “Northrend is a code word for Canada!”

  23. I guarantee you not one of the people that came up with this believes it for a second. This is typical, “we need to be visibly coming up with important shit to justify our jobs” stuff.

    A relative of mine used to work for one of the big “Beltway Bandit” consulting firms a few years ago. When they were working on a proposal for security consulting for the Athens Olympics, one of the things they actually came up with to explain what on Earth they could do that would be of any use to the Athens olympic committee was, and this is the actual phrase: “terrorist graffiti.”

    Yes, the claim was that terrorists might use graffiti as a communications channel. Hide it in plain sight by using those crazy words the kids made up that you don’t understand.

    I could never figure out quite how that was supposed to work. What would you tag? “Bomb goes here,” maybe? Or “If you can read this, don’t be here Thursday at 7:00.” I have no idea.

  24. I think someone at Homeland Security is trying to justify all those hours playing World of Warcraft. (“It was for National Security”! Honest!”) Either that or they are back to huffing paint.

    Personally I am going with the “huffing paint” theory.

  25. I hope they’re monitoring Barrens chat. There’s always something suspicious going on there…

    What other ridiculous ideas are they going to come up with, and why am I paying for this?! ):

  26. #31 posted by mdh , September 16, 2008 11:28 AM

    “I’m in ur base, killin’ ur d00dz!”

    or perhaps:

    I’m in ur base, killin’ ur drOOdz!

  27. At least we can safely note they didn’t actually play WOW.

    So we know our tax dollars don’t go to WOW accounts.

  28. #32: What is “Chuck Norris” code for?

    I disagree with this article on one point, and that’s the banter really sounds nothing from the banter in WoW I’ve ever heard. You don’t know how much money a character has, so there’s no way of saying “The guy with X money is the target.”. The idea that WoW MIGHT be used for terror hidden in game lingo is silly. This pentagon researcher makes a whole lot of mistakes and generalizations (a common ploy) in order to call to attention one more thing the government isn’t monitoring.

    Someone in the comments on the article suggested the guy should field calls for FEMA. Isn’t that how Walter Simmons got his start? (Obscure reference)

  29. @ #34 HALLOWEEN JACK


    We have a winner!

    Not only is this a great excuse to have WoW installed, it may even be a blatant attempt to fool the government into thinking that playing WoW 12 hours a day should be this guy’s new job description.

  30. Maybe somebody got whacked on the head after reading Halting State. Really, the only thing communicating via WoW has going for it is security through obscurity, which is the least effective type of security out there. If the government considers security through obscurity systems insurmountable, we’re screwed.

    A much more obscure way to communicate would be to start out with something like guerrilla mail, select a blog or series of blogs that allows commenting in archives, develop a language of code words and hop from post to post, blog to blog. For extra kicks, use guerrilla mail to distribute a one-time pad, and use numbers at the end of a username to create number blocks to transmit messages via the usernames as well. Heck, you could even toss numbers in the post itself that correspond to the one time pad. It’d be nearly indistinguishable from normal surfing, and the various messages would be spread across so many different servers that it’d be pretty hard for any government to lock in on specific users/ip addresses, especially since the query and response could be on totally different sites. Throw TOR in the mix and it’d take Jason Bourne or James Bond to crack the thing. Is it overly complicated? Yes. Would it work? Probably.

  31. We need to monitor all chats on all MMO’s. The terrorists hate our freedom and the freedom our MMO’s offer. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Freedom isn’t free, it costs folks like you and me, freedom costs $1.05

  32. It’s called paranoia, and this mental state needs to be treated – seriously. Cut the funding for this cr@p research

  33. Cinemas are to be closed. Plotters may use cover of darkness and plot something.

    National Parks are to be closed. Plotters may go out into the wilderness and plot something.

    etc. etc.

    I feel a headache coming on.

  34. Finally, here is my chance to be a gov’t consultant and make lots of money! If WoW has this potential, so does KoL. I think the Pentagon needs to hires someone who knows her way around the Obligatory Pirate’s Cove, the Goatlet and Delgrassi Knoll, someone who has a few hardcore oxygenarian runs under her belt and who’s spent some time in Hobopolis.

    Yoo hoo, General Paranoid! Yes you, you with the big budget. I’m ready to be a patriotic American and do my duty. I’ll help keep my country safe from Ninja Snowmen and Orcish Frat Boys, all for a very reasonable fee. Making money, after all, is the American way.

  35. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who saw this and immediately thought “Huh? Stonetalon’s only like a 20 or 30 zone, and it’s not even an instance, why would you have a raid there?”

    If you were really going to plan anything using Stonetalon, it would have to be an ecoterroist attack on a big company.

  36. Can we get some of what they’re smoking? Of course with all that DHS funding, they can affort the really good stuff.

  37. Howdy folks, this is your friendly reminder from the establishment to Live In Fear! If you don’t live in fear, the terrorists win!

  38. What’s to worry? The terrorists will be ganked, KS’d, pissed off by gold pharmers, or they will become addicted to WoW and never terrorize again.

    “No Abdulla No! I have a raid tonight on Molten Core and cannot come to the bombing.”

  39. Does the Pentagon not know about the secure channel problem?

    How do these scary boogeymen agree to meet in WoW in the first place? They have a conversation offline and agree to chat in a particular time and place on a particular server. They agree on a mapping of various stupid obvious code phrases* to various sooper-sekrit phrases, like “Keep” means “White House.”

    How do they secure this offline conversation? If they don’t have a secure channel for it, then the feds are going to know where and when to monitor WoW. If they DO have a secure channel, why do they need WoW?

    *The “sample” terrorist plotting reminded me of a Monty Python bit in which a pimp is talking on a phone, trying not to sound like a pimp talking on a phone. “Yes sir, your watch is ready….your WATCH….your CHINESE WATCH.”

  40. The punchline to these imbecilities which are sadly not jokes: “we need to start watching and listening to people in virtual worlds”.

    The part that is funny is just how clueless intelligence experts seem to be about gathering meaningful intelligence in such an environment. It’s extremely unlikely to work, at best. More realistically, it’s just damned impossible.

    These people need to learn and accept that there are some places where they simply can’t be standing around, breathing on people’s necks while they talk to one another, and adjust their strategies accordingly.

    Having a game plan that relies on accomplishing the impossible is hardly professional and indeed borders on mental retardation.

  41. Having a game plan that relies on accomplishing the impossible is hardly professional and indeed borders on mental retardation.

    Ladies and Gentleman, The President of The United States.

  42. that’s pretty scary…plus now you know the government has an extra eye on you since you play war craft. i think it’s silly that people would use warcraft for terror plots. i mean you’re pretty much wrapped up in the game…when would you have time for ploting anything?haha

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