Understanding Online Radicalization: The Jihadi Blogs
Although "radicalization" has become a catchword, little has been written about the methods, websites, and actors involved in the process. (This is Part Two of a series. Part One is here.)
June 20, 2011 - 12:00 am
In the first part of our series, “Understanding Online Radicalization,” we examined the one-stop shop of jihadi forums.
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.
(This is Part Two of a series. Part One is here.)