Rising terrorism arrests in America, particularly the breaking up of 22 plots between May 2009 and November 2010, have sparked questions about how young Muslim men become terrorists. Although radicalization has become a catch phrase in the media, little has been written about the methods, websites, and actors involved in the process.
This series, “Understanding Online Radicalization,” seeks to shed light on how the Internet functions as a tool for radicalizing would-be terrorists. It will answer questions about the kinds of websites popular among jihadists, how these sites have used new media and technology, and how they appeal to young people.
Understanding the world of online jihadists gives us insight into what motivates its participants and what drives some of them to act out their violent fantasies.
Jihadi Forums: The Ansar al-Mujahideen Network
For converts to violent Islamism, the ideology that has motivated attacks ranging from 9/11 to the Fort Hood massacre, the Internet is the ultimate tool in their arsenal. It guides, educates, and provides a sense of community among the isolated Western followers of the path of jihadists.
In particular, jihadi forums provide a one-stop shop for news, publications, and media. Though the forums lack the organized worldview of jihadi blogs, they do provide some of the strongest links bonding would-be terrorists to one another and to larger networks abroad.
Among the jihadi forums, Ansar al-Mujahideen [AM] and its sister site Ansar al-Mujahiden English Forum [AMEF] provide a readily accessible example of the potential of websites in this genre. AM began in 2008 as a “rather low-frills, Arabic-language clone forum with questionable credibility and a membership of mostly silent observers,” according to counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann. Although the website grew by leaps and bounds even before Kohlmann’s February 2010 article on the site, it has since become one of the primary beacons among aspiring radicals in the West.
The construction of the Arabic-language edition of the site is simple but graphically sharp. Well-designed ads at the top of the page highlight the latest publications by a number of jihadi media groups, including al-Qaeda branches, Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab, and independent scholars of jihad. Underneath these ads is a ringing endorsement of the site by Jordanian Islamist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, followed by links to general news about the ummah (Muslim nation), specific theaters of war, a “College of Electronic Jihad,” and many more dedicated sub-forums.
The world of jihadi forums is a fast-moving place, where groups post links to books, articles, videos, and other multimedia using mostly Western file transfer services. Although there is an expectation that most of these links will be taken down, AM features an archive of key texts and “redeploys” significant ideological manuscripts and technical manuals in a timely fashion.
AMEF, the English-language brand of AM, is a smaller and more focused version of its parent website. It features the same glossy links to new jihadi publications as well as the slightly back-dated English translations of those items, but features less sub-categories. For AMEF, the spotlight is on news of the ummah, jihadi media, publications, and press releases.
Materials posted to the forum can be divided into three general categories: “The War on Islam,” the need to fight back, and a smaller subset of publications that support traditional Islamist points of view.
Using violent sections of traditional Islamic texts linked to historic events, the forum presents the view of constant war between Islam and all other ideologies. In its latest episode of this epic war, the forces of disbelief are led by Americans and Jews, who seek to manipulate and oppress Muslims and Islam.
Grievances with American foreign policy — whether real or imagined — reinforce their beliefs. Self-declared scholars dismiss the sell-out Westernized intellectuals on the circuit of mainstream Islamic conferences, often with a high degree of success. Their message has a strong degree of acceptability among predisposed youth, who believe Islam is under attack and subsequently feel alienated when their local religious leaders fail to take actions to protect Islam and Muslims. Jihadist forums provide a powerful answer to the anger these youth experience, combining violence with theological justification.
Once readers buy into the general notion of conflict between Islam and other ideologies, materials on the forum illustrate the how, when, where, and why of carrying out terrorist attacks.
Biographies of previous attackers provide inspiration, video series and glossy magazines give technical training, and “authentic” scholars of jihad provide targets to strike. Presented in a closed forum session, inspired individuals can confidentially prepare themselves and others to follow through on their ideology and to become heroes of the faith who will be idolized by the next generation of online jihadists.
In recent years, ideologues popular among Western jihadists — such as Yemeni-American scholar Anwar al-Awlaki — have tried to dissuade forum members from travelling to the lands of jihad. Instead, they have encouraged a greater focus on media production and so-called “homegrown” attacks, which are meant to leave the smallest paper trail for American intelligence agencies to follow.
Other major themes include teaching participants how to avoid Western intelligence operations, and expanding dawah (proselytizing). There has also been a growth in “supporting” materials, which supply a more general Islamic education. The move has been a response to the accusations of more moderate clerics, who attack extremists for their weak grasp of general Islamic principles and their calls for conflict without tangible ends.
AM and AMEF have made strong headway among American and European audiences. Faical Errai, a 26-year-old Moroccan living in Spain who founded the webpage, was arrested by Spanish Guardia Civil forces and later deported to his home country. According to Spanish trial documents and researcher Raff Pantucci at the ICSR, Errai had personally used the AM website to fundraise and direct fighters to Chechnya and the Taliban-dominated Pakistani province of Waziristan. From Spain, Errai boasted of directing Libyan terrorists to war zones, a marker of the international success of AM. After Errai’s arrest, the website was taken over by other jihadists, who continued the same mission and expanded the group to include AMEF.
AMEF became a major site for American and European jihadists who did not possess fluency in Arabic. Examples include convicted American terrorists Colleen LaRose (Jihad Jane), Zachary Chesser (Abu Talha al-Amriki), and Emerson Begolly (Asadullah al-Shishani), who were all major contributors to AMEF. German couple Fritz and Filiz Gelowicz, both convicted of providing material support to jihadi groups, were also regular participants.
For Chesser and Jihad Jane, the radicalization process was fairly similar. Both were converts who bought into “The War on Islam” narrative, who experienced significant radicalization outside the Internet, and who later became major participators in online forums. Chesser, who was apprehended before joining al-Shabaab, told investigators about his participation in AMEF and al-Shabaab forum alqimmah.net. He was also a leading activist for the Revolution Muslim blog, and was the founder of “themujahidblog.” Jihad Jane was also an active participant on AMEF and Revolution Muslim, which later became islampolicy.com.
Begolly, a would-be terrorist who was nabbed well before becoming operational, was an active participant in several forums including AMEF, Shumukh al-Islam, and Fallujah, according to SITE intelligence group.
With large numbers already radicalized, AMEF and AM have also begun to expand their reach into new technology. In October 2009, AM’s “Mobile Detachment” created a special data package for cell phones, according to expert Nico Prucha at jihadica.com. Aside from speeches and educational materials, the package includes an encryption program for jihadists to communicate securely, as well as new data packages that capitalize on new and older materials.
Part 2 - Understanding Online Radicalization: The Jihadi Blogs
In the next part of the series, we will examine jihadi blog Revolution Muslim and its successor, Islam Policy. Unlike jihadi forums, which are online warehouses of information, blogs take a more limited amount of data and weave a narrative from the chosen items.
Revolution Muslim / Islam Policy
Few websites, even in the jihadi world, can claim to have singlehandedly created terrorists. One American blog, the now-defunct Revolution Muslim [RM] site, and its successor, Islam Policy [IP], illustrate the power that jihadi blogs can wield.
If jihadi forums represent a one-stop shop for jihad material, jihadi blogs are the ideological factories that put the pieces together. Although lacking the sophisticated graphics of professional jihadi sites, Revolution Muslim and Islam Policy provided a narrative that justifies jihad.
The group also strived to exploit freedom of speech to encourage al-Qaeda’s mission of destroying the West, although they would eventually step over the line and into the waiting hands of law enforcement.
RM’s message was so powerful that it motivated a secular British woman to become an extremist, and then an attempted murderer. Roshonara Choudhry, an aspiring teacher studying at King’s College in London, underwent a total change after watching Anwar al-Awlaki videos and participating in RM’s forums.
Choudhry’s plot targeted her local member of parliament at a meet-and-greet. While pretending to shake hands with him she stabbed him twice in the stomach. She later told the judge that she wanted to be a “martyr,” and refused to defend herself in a secular court she didn’t recognize.
The key to the blog and the organization’s success comes from its humble origins. RM started as a small collection of misfits in 2007, when founders Yousef al-Khattab and Younes Abdullah Muhammad gathered together a handful of like-minded Islamists to promote the teachings of radical cleric Abdullah el-Faisal. El-Faisal guided the group through online classes taught in video chat rooms, as the group’s small and fringe street dawah (proselytizing) team recruited stray Islamists.
The group’s vocal presence in New York City’s Times Square and outside of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York encompassed more than shouting slogans and passing out pamphlets; RM’s blunt support for the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda, and its affiliate organizations gave it a recruiting edge over similar Islamist organizations.
That’s not to say that RM’s message was much different than that found on many jihadi forums. Revolution Muslim preached the common message that the West is at war with Islam, and that means Islam must defend itself.
But RM’s distinguishing factor was its ability to reinforce these sentiments with Western and jihadi news sources and to connect terrorists to relevant videos by catchy preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki. RM drilled its message home with protests, online speeches by el-Faisal, and chat room sessions discussing jihad. By catching young converts early, RM shaped the worldview of these new Muslims and molded them into supporters of al-Qaeda.
RM was so successful at its mission that it absorbed other jihadi startup blogs, as described in the criminal complaint against Abdel Hameed Shehadeh. Although he was charged with making false statements in a matter involving international terrorism, agents alleged that Shehadeh had additional connections to terror, including RM. Shehadeh created a jihadi blog called civiljihad.com, which quickly became a mirror site of RM.
RM’s success can also be measured in the number of terrorists it produced. Zachary Chesser, a Muslim convert and former leader of the group, was convicted of trying to join Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab and for making threats to the South Park cartoonists. The currently leader of IP, Jesse Morton (aka Younus Abdullah Muhammad), was arrested last month in Morocco and will be extradited to the U.S. to face charges for his role in those threats.
Several other terrorists participated in RM’s activities. Neil Bryant Vinas, who plotted to blow up trains on the Long Island Rail Road, was a friend of RM’s former leader Yusuf al-Khattab. Tarek Mehanna, convicted on material support charges, and Daniel Maldonado, who is serving 10 years for training with al-Shabaab, were also acquaintances of the group.
Ultimately, the fame that brought new members to RM would bring it down. In April 2010, Zachary Chesser was drawn into RM’s sphere and issued threats against South Park’s creators for their Muhammad cartoon. The threat, coupled with Chesser’s later indictment for trying to join al-Shabaab, was the first time someone was convicted for information posted on RM’s blog. It would not be the last.
On November 4, 2010, a British member of RM posted a detailed threat against British parliamentarians, as well as a salute to Roshanara Choudhry’s involvement with the blog. The post prayed for Choudhry release, encouraged others to follow her path, reposted the documents that most inspired her, and outlined how and where to strike the politicians. Shortly thereafter, RM’s website was shut down and British police arrested Bilal Zaheer Ahmad for making the post.
RM leader Younus Abdullah Muhammad, the senior leader of RM following the arrest of Chesser and the departure of senior member Yusuf al-Khattab, refused to let the group die. Muhammad founded a successor group called Islam Policy, and linked various Revolution Muslim websites to it. He added other elements, such as an emphasis on Islamic economics and TV commentary for anti-American English news site Russia Today. By mainstreaming the group, he could continue promoting al-Qaeda’s ideology while becoming an international media star.
However, the South Park incident soon caught up with Muhammad. An indictment showed that he was a key player in formulating the “credible” threats for which Chesser took the fall.
Although RM/IP’s history is more developed than many blogs, it shows the power that the jihadist narrative has. Without RM, those indicted for terrorism would not have had the reinforcement and community that motivated their attacks.
Ali Teymouri is a researcher specializing in jihadi publications and translations. He believes that moderate Muslims need to support American counterterrorism efforts, and is committed to making that happen.
Part 3 - Understanding Online Radicalization: Facebook and Social Media
The first two parts of this series covered the two primary website types that jihadists create to radicalize individuals, namely blogs and web forums. The third part of this series will focus on jihadi social media and how jihdaists use Facebook.
“Islam can dominate, over the world, only by jihad,” says the very plain jihadi website realjihad.tk. It reminds readers that jihad doesn’t have stages, and that “lame excuses” like making a living shouldn’t stand in the way.
RealJihad lacks the sharp graphics, interactive chat rooms, and other tools used by more sophisticated jihadi blogs and forums. Despite this, it has a leg up on its competitors: it is one of the primary links provided on the Facebook page of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistani terror organization.
Jihadi radicalization occurs on a number of sites and is not limited to the dedicated sites, blogs, and forums commonly used by terrorist supporters. Jihadists exploit popular Western social media sites, like Facebook, to radicalize, build contact networks, and pass information.
“All users, to learn all detailed rules related to JIHAD, read from this source,” says a user on Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Facebook page, directing readers to an English-language recruiting site. “All users, plz try to read and understand the rules and virtues of JIHAD, through this weblink,” he states on another post with another link. Likewise, Jaish-e-Mohammad’s reputation for daring attacks on the Indian army and even on India’s parliament provides a base around which social media users rally.
Other designated terrorist organizations ranging from Hamas to al-Shabaab have already taken advantage of Facebook, with their spokesman units and media groups establishing pages dedicated to terror. Popular jihadi forums like Ansar al-Mujahideen and its English counterpart also operate closed discussion groups on Facebook.
Facebook is also inconsistent about applying standards against unofficial terrorist pages. Al-Shabaab, whose media page on Facebook was recently taken down after the Investigative Project on Terrorism wrote about it, can still influence Facebook users through an unofficial page run by the group’s supporters. More specific pages are dedicated to al-Shabaab’s followers in Kenya and elsewhere.
Self-appointed teachers — “ustadhs” — and other young radicals are also creating their own communities outside of mainstream mosques and social groups. “I don’t have sabr [patience] for the jahil [ignorant] Westernized Muslim,” says self-appointed teacher and internet extremist Khalifah al-Akili, in a posting praising Osama bin Laden and criticizing a young Muslim against extremism. “Osama [bin Laden] dedicated his life to Islam and I don’t see why his acts weren’t justified in Islam,” chimes in al-Akili’s friend, Amir Khan.
Al-Akili’s radical postings and his open support for al-Shabaab and other al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups are characteristic of the Facebook-brand extremist. “May Allah bring death to the kuffar [disbelievers] and the munafiqeen [hypocrites] that wish to celebrate the death of any of the mujahideen,” al-Akili said in response to the killing of bin Laden. “Read it and learn it … and practice it,” he wrote about 44 Ways to Support Jihad, a text by al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki.
Many of those who believe in al-Akili’s brand of extremism don’t follow through on it. Although many buy into the critical ideas of radicalization, such as the glorification of martyrdom and Islam’s war with the West, most are wannabe terrorists without the means or ability to carry out attacks. However, a small minority carry ideology into action.
A Muslim convert from Baltimore, Antonio Martinez [Muhammad Hussain], was a test case for how far social media extremists might actually go. On his Facebook page, he describes himself as just “a yung brotha from the wrong side of the tracks who embraced Islam.” But it didn’t take long for him to buy into the radical narrative being preached on Facebook.
Martinez was caught by the FBI in a Facebook sting operation after using the site to call for violence to stop the oppression of Muslims. In December 2010, the FBI set up the 21-year-old with a fake car bomb, and apprehended it after he drove to an intended target and attempted to detonate it. Martinez’s affidavit also describes his Facebook affiliations with “Call to Islam” and “Authentic Tawheed,” two online movements promoting jihadi ideology.
Government agents have even discovered terrorist plots conceived entirely on Facebook. Awais Younis, who plotted to bomb the D.C. metro and the capital’s shopping district Georgetown, was discovered when someone reported threats he made through the site’s chat function. Younis described a plan to build a pipe bomb and stated that he knew “what types of shrapnel would cause the greatest damage.”
Younis’ threats developed over a short period of time. “That is the problem with Americans[,] they cant leave well enough alone until something happends [sic] then they sit there wondering why we dropped the twin towers like a bad habit hahaha,” he told an unnamed Facebook friend. By the time police swooped in on him, Younis was already planning to place a pipe bomb underneath a sewer head in Georgetown during rush hour to maximize casualties.
The growth of social networks and even full-fledged plots on Facebook defies the expectations of some experts. In 2008, George Washington University professor Marc Lynch wrote that Facebook extremists would struggle with the question of how to “get your people in, and keep intelligence agents out.” The past few years have proven that security may be a consideration; but, the draw of the world’s largest social network has penetrated even the jihadi world.
This is a great research of Ali Teymouri on the jihadi forums and blogs. Please go inside the links of Pajamas Media web page to find out the jihadi websites Ali is talking about. Thank you.
Photo: Ansar al-Mujahideen Forum
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