Understanding Online Radicalization: The Jihadi Forums

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.