Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat: Part Three of Five
by SENATE COMMITTEE ON HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS
May 21, 2008
The Terrorist Internet Campaign
Propaganda has always been integral to the violent Islamist movement, especially for the purpose of attracting followers. Printed materials, videos of terrorist activities, including operations and training, and recordings of sermons and speeches espousing the virtues of the violent Islamist ideology have been distributed and sold around the world for decades. But today, for an individual seeking information on this ideology, the Committee found that the Internet provides the most accessible source of information - both passive, in the form of static Web pages, and interactive, in the form of chat rooms and discussion forums that can connect interested individuals with extremists around the world.
The use of the Internet by violent Islamist extremists is constantly in flux, with websites appearing and disappearing regularly. Yet despite the dynamic nature of the websites, there is a generally organized framework for the dissemination of the core terrorist enlistment message. For those who want to know more about violent Islamist ideology, immense caches of information and propaganda are available online. Some material is produced by organized groups committed to advancing this ideology around the world, while other material is produced by self-starting individuals, who themselves may have "signed on" to the ideology's virtual network. These self-appointed amplifiers of the violent Islamist message may not be part of a known terrorist organization, but they choose to advance the cause, not necessarily with guns but with propaganda. Much of this material is readily available through web searches and is often discussed in chat rooms and other online forums where those interested in learning more about the violent Islamist ideology begin the radicalization process and seek out like-minded individuals.
A. Al Qaeda's Operation
Today, al Qaeda manages a multi-tiered online media operation in which a number of production units associated with al Qaeda or allied violent Islamist organizations produce content consistent with the core terrorist enlistment message. This sophisticated structure is a natural outgrowth of al-Qaeda's previous multimedia efforts. Al Qaeda has long had a media Committee and once operated the now defunct http://www.alneda.com/, which pushed the core terrorist enlistment message and disseminated officialstatements from al Qaeda leadership.
Al Qaeda also recognized, prior to 9/11, the value of videotaping attacks and disseminating the statements of terrorists who kill themselves in the name of violent Islamist ideology. Post 9/11, al Qaeda leadership has accelerated their media campaign as necessary to pursuing their global ideological cause. In what is now a well-known letter to the former al Qaeda commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote, "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battleield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our people."
Several examples of al-Qaeda afiliated regional production centers include:
- Al-Furquan Media (afiliated with The Islamic State of Iraq)
- As-Sahab Media (afiliated with al Qaeda High Command)
- Media Commission or Media Committee (afiliated with al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb)
- Sawt al-Jihad (afiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula)
These production centers, which often include an icon or logo to identify themselves and their propaganda, are highly sophisticated operations that utilize cutting-edge technology. Videos may be relatively straightforward recordings of attacks, or they may be intricate productions with graphics, sound effects, banners, subtitles, animation, and stock footage. These centers also produce online magazines, official statements, news updates, articles, white papers, and even poetry. The use of songs, symbols, and imagery is integral, adding layers of meaning and emotion to what is being seen or heard.
Once content is created by as-Sahab, al-Furquan, or one of the other production units, it is then funneled through a clearinghouse before it is posted on the Internet. One of the most active Internet clearinghouses today is the al-Fajr Media Center, which was established in January 2006. Like the production centers, al-Fajr is almost entirely virtual. The approval process for dissemination is unclear, but once approved, content is moved from al-Fajr to pre-approved websites. On a daily basis, al-Fajr issues a host of material including statements from violent Islamist groups taking credit for attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, and elsewhere.
These terrorist groups use clearinghouses for two primary reasons. First, along with the icons and logos that identify production centers, clearinghouses help ensure a message's authenticity. A product released by al-Fajr is recognized as "genuine" and helps maintain message discipline. Because the violent Islamist movement is committed to its strict interpretation of the religion and its long-term goal to destroy the West, message discipline helps prevent deviation from either. Second, the clearinghouse process facilitates the near-instantaneous dissemination of new propaganda. Content approved by a clearinghouse is posted on pre-approved web forums like al-Ekhlaas, al-Hesbah, al-Buraq, or al-Firdaws that include some of the most "exclusive" violent Islamist websites - where access is tightly controlled. The "approved" message is then reposted all over the Internet tobecome the subject of discussion and debate.
The propaganda regularly produced by this process finds its way to literally thousands of violent Islamist websites across the Internet, many of which are either "mirrored" versions of one another or "simply bulletin boards" that disseminate the same material created by the production houses.
This distribution system provides built-in redundancies so that propaganda remains accessible even if one or more of the sites are not available.
Twin suicide bombings in Algeria on December 11, 2007, and a subsequent suicide bombing on January 29, 2008, illustrate how this propaganda dissemination process works. Al-Zawahiri announced in 2006 that the Salafist Group for Preaching and Fighting in Algeria had officially aligned with al Qaeda. In forming the alliance, the group assumed the new name al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb and reinvigorated its online operation with the creation of the Media Commission. Very soon after the Algerian attacks, the Media Commission released statements through al-Fajr taking credit for the attacks and providing background and pictures of the suicide bombers. Al-Fajr posted the statement online where it was then viewed and disseminated around the world. The statements included quotes from the Koran, celebrated the attacks themselves, and hit all three points of the core terrorist enlistment message.
Al Qaeda also uses its online campaign to bypass traditional media and speak "directly" to followers, in part because the terrorist groups believe their message is diluted when replayed or reported by news outlets. In December 2007, al-Zawahiri announced in an as-Sahab produced video that he would answer questions submitted by followers via some of the more exclusive web forums. In a subsequent as-Sahab video released on April 2, 2008, al-Zawahiri tried to address certain issues that
were undermining al Qaeda's credibility among its supporters, including al-Qaeda's responsibility for killing innocent Muslims and the writings of Sayid Imam al-Sharif. In his new book, al-Sharif, a one-time proponent of violent Islamist ideology and a religious mentor to al-Zawahiri, renounced violence as ineffective and religiously unlawful for the purpose of forcing political change. Al-Zawahiri not only tried to discredit al-Sharif's new position in his video response, he also released a book on the Internet purporting to refute many of al-Sharif's arguments.
Over the last year, al Qaeda also made a tactical decision to increase its production of online propaganda and make more of it accessible to English-speaking audiences. Al Qaeda has sought out English translators and, according to Charlie Allen, the Chief Intelligence Officer at the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS), al-Qaeda has "ratcheted up the speed and accuracy of translated statements openly marketed to U.S. and English-speaking audiences." For example, al Qaeda has added subtitles to its video products and made appeals directly to Americans, including specific religious, ethnic, and racial populations in the United States and elsewhere. On September 8, 2007, as-Sahab released a video of an Osama bin Laden monologue titled "Message to the American People."
This video followed the as-Sahab release of an interview with al-Zawahiri, in which he made the following plea:
That's why I want blacks in America, people of color, American Indians, Hispanics, and all the weak and oppressed in North and South America, in Africa and Asia, and all over the world, to know that when we wage Jihad in Allah's path, we aren't waging Jihad to lift oppression for the Muslims only, we are waging Jihad to lift oppression from all of mankind, because Allah has ordered us never to accept oppressions, whatever it may be.
According to Dr. Jarret Brachman, the Director of Research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, one goal of this tactical decision was to attract particular groups al-Qaeda perceives as "self-starting radicals who [could] reach back to A[l] Q[aeda's] high-command, much like we saw in London with Operation Crevice and the 7/7 attacks." DHS' Chief Intelligence Officer, Mr. Allen, also recognizes a similar intent in the changes to al Qaeda's recent propaganda campaign, which has been assisted by supporters in the United States:
Al Qaeda's leadership has delivered over the past twelve months, an unprecedented number of audio and video messages and has increased its translation capability, diversity of subject matters, and media savvy to reach out to wider audiences globally. Its objective is to gain wide Muslim support, empathy, financing, and future recruits. ... To help al Qaeda target U.S. citizens, several radical websites in the United States have re-packaged al-Qaeda statements with American vernacular and commentary intending to sway U.S. Muslims.
B. The Purveyors of Violent Islamist Ideology
The Internet hosts a vast electronic repository of texts and treatises by the zealots who have given shape to the supposed theological justifications for violent Islamist ideology and the strategies for advancing its cause. These zealots and their ideas, which have inspired attacks in the West and elsewhere, are considered by some to be the "center of gravity" of the violent Islamist movement, more so perhaps than bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. According to testimony received by the Committee, websites that host this material "allow the Internet to function as a kind of virtual extremist madrassa" enlisting and inspiring followers around the world.
One such leader is Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a formally trained cleric who served as the spiritual guide for al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's former commander in Iraq. Al-Maqdisi created, and his followers have maintained, a website dedicated to the cleric that includes a large library of downloadable books on the supposed theological justifications for violent Islamist ideology.Links to English translations of al-Maqdisi's writings and many other violent Islamist zealots like Abu Qatada al-Filistini, Abdullah Azzam, or Sayid Imam, have been made readily available online by at-Tibyan Publications, which appears to be a global distribution network of like-minded multilingual supporters of violent Islamist ideology who have taken it upon themselves to translate texts and make them available to Western audiences. At-Tibyan Publications appears to have been at least one of the organizations to translate the English version of "39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad." This online text has been one of their most popular and widely disseminated publications.
The at-Tibyan Publications website also has a list of "recommended scholars" that include al-Zarqawi, Sayid Qutb - whose writings help lay the foundation for contemporary violent Islamist ideology - and one of the leading but lesser known violent Islamist "scholars" named Abu Musab al-Suri. Al-Suri, a one-time associate of bin Laden who was connected to the March 11, 2004, bombings in Madrid, wrote a 1,600-page screed entitled The Call for Global Islamic Resistance. In addition to recapping the history of the violent Islamist movement, al-Suri's text, which has been heavily discussed online, prescribes ways to advance the cause of the ideology in a post 9/11 global environment. Al-Suri's propaganda includes the creation of global Islamic resistance brigades - isolated cells committed to advancing the violent Islamist extremist agenda.
Though many of the zealots whose writings have been made available by at-Tibyan Publications have been killed or captured, their ideas persist, and the Internet has played a role in keeping those ideas alive and proliferating them with increasing momentum. The organization of the Internet campaign has also helped retain message discipline outside of al-Qaeda's efforts. For example, at-Tibyan Publications did not release al-Sharif's most recent writings, which undermined the terrorists' use of violence, posting instead his earlier writings espousing violence as a necessary tactic for the global violent Islamist movement.
C. Other Violent Islamist Media
Other material available online may be less doctrinal or structured. However, much of it appears designed to appeal to younger audiences who may be the most vulnerable to the influence of the core terrorist enlistment message. One of the older and more prolific media organizations is the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). This group, which does not appear to have any official connections to al Qaeda leadership, produces and distributes violent Islamist material designed to inform, inspire, and recruit followers into the global violent Islamist movement. GIMF tries to reach as wide an audience as possible by disseminating material in different languages and by tailoring its content to appeal to a range of nationalities, educational backgrounds, and age groups. Original content produced by GIMF may include religious, military, or ideological texts, online magazines, and videos of speeches and military operations. At one point, the GIMF also broadcast a streaming television broadcast called the Caliphate Voice Channel. One of GIMF's most popular products was a videogame called "The Night of Bush Capturing," the object of which is to hunt and kill the President of the United States.
Followers of the ideology also produce content that supports the goals of violent Islamists. One of the most well-known examples is the rap video "Dirty Kuffar" (Kuffar means "nonbeliever"), which was downloaded onto millions of computers or watched online. In the video, the rapper, waving a gun and a Koran, praises bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks and disparages
Western leaders with lyrics such as:
Peace to Hamas and the Hezbollah
OBL pulled me like a shiny star
Like the way we destroyed them two towers ha-ha
The minister Tony Blair, there my dirty Kuffar
The one Mr. Bush, there my dirty Kuffar
Throw them on the fire.
The song is performed against a changing backdrop of images of world leaders morphing into animals or fictional characters and scenes of terrorists engaging in military training and attacking coalition forces in Iraq.
D. Chat Rooms
With the proliferation of violent Islamist ideology on the Internet, anyone looking to learn more about the ideology can easily find it online. For those enticed by its message, either through the Internet or from another source, a likely first stop on the web would be one of the chat rooms or other online discussion forums that "are now supplementing and replacing mosques, community centers, and coffee shops as venues for recruitment and radicalization." Access to chat rooms, however, is tightly controlled. Several layers of validation are often required before access may be granted. Topics of discussion are also restricted, and dissenting views are rarely tolerated.
Chat rooms also allow for potential followers to maintain their anonymity, which helps draw in a much wider audience. Though young males constitute a solid majority of those participating in these forums, women are becoming increasingly active. Once individuals are admitted to them, chat rooms offer users access to each other and to the global violent Islamist virtual network.
Part Four will examine virtual training camps and the U.S. response.
Note - The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views, and/or philosophy of The Family Security Foundation, Inc.