Understanding Online Radicalization: The Jihadi Forums

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 TWO in this series will appear tomorrow: "Understanding Online Radicalization: The Jihadi Blogs."