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.
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."