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AL-QA’IDA’S VIRTUAL CRISIS by Dr Akil N Awan

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AL-QA’IDA’S VIRTUAL CRISIS by Dr Akil N Awan Powered By Docstoc
					   THE RUSI JOURNAL




AL-QA’IDA’S VIRTUAL CRISIS
AKIL N AWAN AND MINA AL-LAMI


The fight Al-Qa’ida has waged against the West has been fought on a virtual as well as
physical battlefield. Recently, many jihadist strongholds and hiding places on the web
have been shut down. This article charts the growth and the current crisis of Al-Qa’ida’s
‘media jihad’. 




O
          ver the last five years, the ideo-    starkly juxtaposed with the altruistic         was still in its infancy,9 but also employ-
          logical conflict that underlies       actions of young Muslim men from across        ing e-mail distribution lists to dissemi-
          the ‘Global War on Terror’            the globe, perceived as having forsaken        nate material to a diffuse but highly
has been conducted almost entirely on           families, careers and even their lives in      targeted audience. These pioneering
the Internet’s battlefield. As early as         order to defend their Muslim brethren          developments laid the groundwork for
2001, prominent jihadist ideologues like        from further Serb atrocities, generated        the ascendancy of the later media jihad,
Ayman Al-Zawahiri, acutely aware of             immense public support for these ‘Muja-        and are recognised and lauded as such
their increasingly marginalised status vis-     hideen freedom fighters.’5 The renewed         by contemporary jihadist strategist Abu
à-vis the mainstream media as a conse-          vigour of a popularly conceived legiti-        Musab Al-Suri in his Call to Global Islam-
quence of ‘the media war on terrorism’,2        mate defensive jihad necessitated media        ic Resistance.10 Nevertheless, despite
appealed:                                       organs that would publicise and convey         being ahead of their time, jihadist media
                                                                                               websites during this period inevitably
     we must get our message across to the          Early jihadist websites                    adhered to a Web 1.0 paradigm, in some
                                                                                               cases as a result of their avowed limited
     masses of the nation and break the
     media siege imposed on the jihad move-
                                                    catered specifically to a                  remit of news provision, but principally
     ment. This is an independent battle that       thirst for news media                      due to technological limitations of the
     we must launch side by side with the                                                      time.
     military battle.3                          news of the ‘heroic exploits of the Muja-            The late 1990s also witnessed
                                                hideen’ to sympathetic Muslim audi-            Al-Qa’ida’s first official foray into the
Bemoaning this ‘media siege’, they              ences around the world. Indeed early           virtual realm with its now infamous
increasingly turned to the Internet,            jihadist websites catered specifically to      Alneda.com, which also sought to provide
which quickly surpassed all other media         this news media need, as epitomised by         news coverage from Muslim conflict
forms in becoming the principal platform        the English language Azzam.com,6 which         zones, but crucially located this report-
for the dissemination and mediation of          described itself solely as ‘an independent     age within a broader jihadist ideological
the culture and ideology of jihadism.4          media organisation providing authentic         framework with a conspicuously prosely-
                                                news and information about Jihad and           tising bent. To this end, they published
Background                                      the Foreign Mujahideen everywhere.’7           key statements, communiqués, works,
The history of jihadism on the web can          The virtual media jihad continued to           and treatises from leading jihadist ideo-
be traced back further still to the early       gain momentum throughout the 1990s             logues, including Osama bin Laden’s infa-
1990s, with the Bosnian War (1992–              despite the denouement of the Bosnian
95) providing the initial impetus and           conflict in 1995, as by this time the jihad-      The late 1990s also
raison d’ être for the nascent jihadist         ist media front had simply diverted its
web presence. As revelations of perva-          gaze to the First Chechen War (1994–96)           witnessed Al-Qa’ida’s
sive war crimes committed by Serbian            and other nascent peripheral conflicts in
forces against Bosniak civilians began to       the Muslim world. The developments of
                                                                                                  first official foray into
emerge, foreign volunteers flocked to           the jihadist media apparatus during this          the virtual realm
Bosnia and fought alongside the Bosnian         period were truly groundbreaking, with
army as part of the El-Mujahid Brigades.        independent media groups such as the           mous twin ‘fatwas’ upon which the new
The popular perception of an iniqui-            seminal Islamic Media Center (IMC) not         global jihad was crucially predicated.
tous UN arms embargo preventing the             only producing and distributing online         More insidiously, Alneda.com is also
Bosniaks from defending themselves,             material,8 at a time when the Internet         believed to have held steganographi-

© RUSI JOURNAL FEBRUARY 2009 VOL. 154 NO. 1 pp. 56–64                                                       DOI: 10.1080/03071840902818605
                                                                                      AKIL N AWAN AND MINA AL-LAMI




                                                                                           the slogan ‘Hacked, tracked and now
                                                                                           owned by the USA’.15 Nevertheless, Alne-
                                                                                           da.com proved remarkably resilient, and
                                                                                           despite losing its domain name, contin-
                                                                                           ued to operate until at least 2003 as an
                                                                                           Internet parasite by furtively embedding
                                                                                           itself deep within the seemingly innocu-
                                                                                           ous sub-directories of multiple oblivi-
                                                                                           ous host websites.16 Messner’s tentative
                                                                                           successes inspired others to follow suit
                                                                                           and anti-jihadist cyber-vigilantes and
                                                                                           amateur sleuths, unfettered by official
                                                                                           governmental qualms over the infringe-
                                                                                           ment of constitutional guarantees for
                                                                                           freedoms of speech, and occasionally
                                                                                           employing illegal methods, emerged in
                                                                                           the renewed patriotic vigour of the post-

                                                                                              Many sites were
                                                                                              fleeting and
                                                                                              disappeared within
                                                                                              weeks or months
                                                                                           9/11 milieu. Notable amongst these was
                                                                                           the ‘Internet Haganah’ which, describing
                                                                                           itself as a ‘global intelligence network
                                                                                           dedicated to confronting internet activi-
                                                                                           ties by Islamists and their supporters,
                                                                                           enablers and apologists’,17 employed a
cally encrypted operational information      sion a major news agency had investigat-      ‘name and shame’ strategy by identify-
online, in addition to surreptitiously       ed the website in relation to a story and     ing site hosts and administrators and
directing trusted members to more clan-      contacted the Internet Service Provider       then informing the ISP on the nature of
destine websites.12 Concomitantly, this      (ISP) for comment, who then baulked           the material in question. Jihadist sites
evolutionary phase of the jihadist media     at the prospect of continuing to host         were often then suspended by their ISPs
front also witnessed the appropriation                                                     on the basis of unearthed content that
of early Web 2.0 capabilities, with the         It was only following                      violated their terms of service, sustained
development of rudimentary online                                                          lobbying campaigns from other site visi-
forums and blogs, where users not only          the momentous                              tors, or even implied threats of prosecu-
passively consumed online content but
actively contributed to its creation too.
                                                events of 9/11 that                        tion for materially aiding and abetting
                                                                                           terrorists. In other cases, jihadist sites
                                                the jihadist media                         were frequently hacked, usurped using
Post 9/11                                                                                  programmes like ‘Snapback’, or expe-
Whilst the 1998 twin terrorist bomb-            presence really became                     rienced incessant DoS attacks. In the
ings of US embassies in Dar es Salaam           an object of intense                       three years since its inception in 2002
and Nairobi focused greater attention                                                      until 2005, the Internet Haganah alone
of security services on the communica-          international scrutiny                     claimed to have been responsible for,
tive and operational uses of the Inter-                                                    or assisted in, the shutdown of more
net by Al-Qa’ida and affiliated groups, it   the ‘terrorist content’ in the new secu-      than 600 sites it claims were ‘linked
was only following the momentous             rity climate.14 Shortly thereafter, Alneda.   to terror’.18 Indeed, so pervasive was
events of 9/11 that the jihadist media       com’s subsequent incarnation was then         this sustained assault that it resulted
presence really became an object of          famously usurped by American porn-            in perhaps one of the most enduring
intense international scrutiny. Indeed       site owner Jon Messner for five days in       features of virtual jihadist media, namely
Alneda.com, was shut down at least           August 2002 before site administrators        their almost ephemeral nature. Many
three times in 2002 alone due to denial-     became aware of what had transpired,          sites were fleeting and disappeared
of-service (DoS) attacks.13 On each occa-    at which point he replaced the site with      within weeks or months, resurfacing

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AL-QA’IDA’S VIRTUAL CRISIS




shortly thereafter under different names       since its inception, and in spite of the       untraceable and indeed many jihadist
and guises, and with different ISPs. US        fact that the site owner was surprisingly      web forums actively encouraged users
security officials, who had adroitly moni-     candid with her own personal details.24        to employ many of these methods as a
tored key websites over prolonged peri-        Consequently, this observation combined        safety precaution before engaging in any
ods for intelligence purposes, were often      with the sophisticated and high-end            potentially incriminating virtual activ-
exasperated by these Internet vigilantes,      production values led some jihadist            ity.27
whose reckless actions inevitably drove        sites, such as Azzam.com and Maktabah                 The transition to Web 2.0 precipi-
the groups further underground and             Al-Ansaar, to cast aspersion on the site’s     tated the ascendancy of public and
away from surveillance.19                      authenticity in 2002, claiming that it was     semi-public, password-protected forums
      During this period, security servic-     a CIA front designed to monitor and even       (muntadayat), which implicitly shifted
es also began to take an active interest       entrap potential jihadists.25                  the onus of responsibility for content
in those suspected of running jihadist                                                        from administrators to users. Site admin-
websites and in December 2003, thirty-         Transition to Web 2.0                          istrators further absolved themselves of
one year old British IT support special-       The sustained assault on the jihadist          liability by posting disclaimers such as
ist, Babar Ahmad, was arrested under           media front resulted in a climate of anxie-    this one from the Al-Hesba forum which,
the UK Terrorism Act 2000 in connection        ty amongst Al-Qa’ida and jihadist website      somewhat conspicuously on an Arabic
with Azzam.com.20 Highlighting the inad-       administrators, precipitating the reali-       forum, was offered in English: ‘The post-
equacy of existing terrorism legislation       sation that the virtual jihadist presence      ings in the discussion forums do not
that was unable to prosecute against an        needed to be decentralised in the same         undergo monitoring, and do not neces-
inchoate offence of ‘glorifying terrorism’     way that it was becoming physically,26         sarily reflect Alhesbah’s views. Alhesbah
(controversially later remedied with the       such that attacks on any one node would        claims no responsibility or liability to third
Terrorism Act 2006), he was released six       not render the entire system defunct.          party links or images contained within
days later without charge, albeit after        Moreover, the change of strategy would         users’ posts.’28 The disclaimer from the
allegedly being severely brutalised in         also need to ensure they would be suffi-       Mujahedon.net forum was even more
police custody.21 Nevertheless, the grav-      ciently buffered from any potential legal      guarded: ’The postings in the discussion
ity with which governments began to            ramifications of hosting jihadist content      forums do not undergo monitoring, and
view the jihadist media threat warranted                                                      do not necessarily reflect Mujahedon.
Ahmad’s re-arrest eight months later,             Security services also                      net views. Mujahedon.net claims NO
following a US extradition request on                                                         responsibility or liability to third party
charges of providing material support to          began to take an                            links or images contained within users’
terrorists and conspiring to kill persons in      active interest in those                    posts. We do not encourage any kind of
a foreign country.22 In a damning indict-                                                     “terrorism” and we follow Swedish law
ment of British justice, as of February           suspected of running                        and order i.e. freedom of speech.’29
2009, and still awaiting potential extradi-
tion, Babar Ahmad had been held for over
                                                  jihadist websites                                  For many years a select clique of
                                                                                              Arabic, password-protected forums
four years without trial or charge by Brit-    in future. The glaringly obvious solution      provided the key arena for jihadist
ish authorities, as the UK Extradition Act     to both circumventing culpability vis-à-vis    media, with important communiqués,
2003 did not require the US to provide         online content, and decentralising media       statements, interviews, books, manuals
prima facie evidence when requesting           efforts entailed little more than complet-     and audiovisual content appearing first
the extradition of UK residents.               ing the transition to Web 2.0, thus dele-      and (sometimes exclusively) on them.
      The systematic disruption or             gating responsibility for user-generated       In addition to the provision of content,
removal of important jihadist websites,        content to a suitably large and diffuse        forums also served as an important
and the pending prosecution of indi-           body of anonymous web users instead,           communications medium for the global
viduals responsible for key sites, was so      who would ensure the longevity of the          cadres of jihad and their wider audi-
successful that websites which appeared        message irrespective of attacks on any         ences, which aside from facilitating the
unscathed by the campaign inevitably           single node. Although Internet access did      discussion and dissemination of new
faced suspicion. For example, the jihad-       leave a ‘digital signature’ of sorts, issues   material, also allowed ‘outreach’ facili-
ist news provider Jihadunspun.com, had         of traceability of users were easily over-     ties through which the uninitiated were
been so credible in its stated role that it    come through various means such as the         able to express discontent and discover
was at one point appearing within the          use of anonymous peer-to-peer (P2P)            a channel for its expression.30 Despite
top five search results on Google for          networks, ‘anonymising’ software that          the presumed egalitarian nature of Web
the term ‘jihad’, and included in Google       masked a computer’s actual IP address,         2.0 spaces, Jihadist media production on
News as a bona fide ‘news provider’,           and the use of proxy servers which acted       key forums was hierarchically organised
much to the chagrin of US officials and        as intermediaries between users and            and strictly regulated, with actors (e.g.
anti-jihadist civic groups.23 Moreover,        host servers thus masking users’ iden-         Al-Qa’ida in Iraq – ISI), producers (e.g.
Jihadunspun.com had continued to               tities. Consequently, employment of            Al-Furqan), distributors (e.g. Al-Fajr),
publish content with apparent impunity         such methods effectively rendered users        and specific forum posters controlling

© RUSI JOURNAL FEBRUARY 2009
                                                                                             AKIL N AWAN AND MINA AL-LAMI




                                                                                                  been fears of unpolished and unprofes-
                                                                                                  sional content undermining the credibil-
                                                                                                  ity of jihadist media and diverting atten-
                                                                                                  tion from ‘official’ sources.34
                                                                                                        Growing unease over the popularity
                                                                                                  and apparent ubiquity of jihadist media
                                                                                                  in Web 2.0 arenas, and its putative role
                                                                                                  in processes of radicalisation amongst
                                                                                                  young Western Muslim diasporic audi-
                                                                                                  ences,35 caused disproportionate alarm
                                                                                                  amongst not only Western governments
                                                                                                  and security services, but also within the
                                                                                                  media and thus broader society. Often
                                                                                                  with little understanding of the nature
                                                                                                  or function of jihadist content or the role
                                                                                                  of the Internet,36 attempts were made to
                                                                                                  curtail the ‘media exuberance’ of jihad-
                                                                                                  ist sympathisers on mainstream Web
                                                                                                  2.0 fora. For example, in 2006 follow-
                                                                                                  ing alerts from anti-jihadist groups, USA
                                                                                                  Today investigated some of the ‘jihad-
                                                                                                  ist’ communities hosted on the social
                                                                                                  networking website Orkut.com.37 In light
Al-Qa’ida’s second in command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.                                                 of this unwanted scrutiny, Google (who
                                                                                                  owned Orkut.com) felt compelled to
                                                                                                  symbolically delete some of the ‘terror-
every stage of the process.31 Thus users            by either perpetrators or subsequent          ism-related content’ alongside a number
on these forums were often more akin to             disseminators of the act. Moreover, the       of the more avowedly jihadist commu-
traditional categories of passive media             dissemination of the culture, ideology        nities hosted there.38 Indicative of the
consumers that appeared inimical to the             and media of jihadism across communi-         floundering uncertainty characteristic of
revolution in audience roles heralded by            ties on social networking sites like Orkut.   this period, in another case from 2006,
Web 2.0.                                            com and Facebook.com, and virtual
      The meteoric rise and growth of               worlds like Second Life was significant in       The meteoric rise and
jihadist forums was also accompanied                that these constituted novel arenas that
by the rapid adoption of other Web 2.0              appeared to be beyond the scope of offi-
                                                                                                     growth of jihadist
tools that fostered more genuine collab-            cial jihadist media organs. Consequently,        forums was also
oration and participation, including                the jihadist message, intended for, or
file-sharing portals, podcasts, personal            only available to, smaller parochial audi-       accompanied by the
spaces, social networking sites, virtual            ences was increasingly granted much              rapid adoption of other
worlds and the blogosphere. This was                more diffuse audience penetration.
hardly surprising considering that Web                     However, this diffuse dissemination       Web 2.0 tools
2.0 applications increasingly became the            of jihadist content across Web 2.0 plat-
most popular sites on the Web during                forms outside of the ambit of forums,         the very same organisation – Google
this period.32 Mainstream file-sharing              was not necessarily welcomed by Jihad-        – chose not to censor content on its lead-
platforms like YouTube.com, which host-             ist media organs. Indeed, in Septem-          ing weblog hosting service Blogspot.com,
ed jihadist videos, such as statements              ber of 2006, Al-Boraq Media Institute         after it was accused of hosting several
from Al-Qa’ida leaders and IED attacks              published a detailed policy document          sites for actual terrorist groups such as
on Coalition forces, were instrumental              entitled ‘Media Exuberance’ which             Al-Qa’ida in Iraq.39 In the wake of persis-
in facilitating the wider dissemination of          sought to curtail the unsanctioned and        tent complaints, Google responded by
jihadist content, and significantly, outside        ‘exuberant’ proliferation and production      maintaining its policy of free expression,
of its traditional ambit too. For example,          of unattributed jihadist media by free-       accepting that some of their blogs may
the video beheading of Nick Berg was                lance amateurs, which it felt was divest-     be unpopular or deemed offensive and
downloaded from Ogrish.com (a popular               ing key jihadist media organs (As-Sahab,      instead posted disclaimers and warnings
‘gore’ site) a staggering 15 million times          Al-Fajr, Global Islamic Media Front etc.)     before flagged blogs that read: ‘Some
upon release,33 which granted the mate-             of control over production, mediation         readers of this blog have contacted
rial a considerably higher publicity profile        and dissemination of jihadist content.        Google because they believe this blog’s
than could have possibly been envisaged             The principal concerns appeared to have       content is hateful. In general, Google

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AL-QA’IDA’S VIRTUAL CRISIS




does not review nor do we endorse the            were removed, and a number of users          ‘Result of Seven Years of Crusades’,
content of this or any blog.’40                  with usernames explicitly lionising jihad    which was designed to coincide with the
                                                 or jihadist leaders had their accounts       commemorations of 9/11 and had been
Lieberman Campaign                               suspended,46 most jihadist videos which      eagerly anticipated on jihadist forums.
The most high profile campaign to curtail        did not contain ‘violent or hate speech      The wave of unprecedented closures
the activities of jihadist media on main-        content’ were not removed as they did        may also have been linked to the arrest
stream Web 2.0 fora emerged in May of            not violate community guidelines.            of five key individuals on the same day
2008, when US Senator Joseph Lieber-                                                          by the Saudi Ministry of Interior for
man wrote to Google urging them to               Forum Closures                               propagating terrorist thought over the
‘immediately remove content produced             Despite this new security environment in     Internet, using numerous pseudonyms
by Islamist terrorist organizations from         which growing concerns over virtual radi-    and accounts to promote and dissemi-
YouTube’, which he suggested Al-Qa’ida           calisation and recruitment came to the       nate Al-Qa’ida’s ideas on multiple jihad-
and ‘Islamist terrorist organizations use        fore, jihadist forums continued to oper-     ist forums.47 It is entirely feasible that
to disseminate their propaganda, enlist          ate, at least superficially, with apparent   these individuals were key forum admin-
followers, and provide weapons training          impunity. Behind the scenes however,         istrators whose physical incarceration
– activities that are all essential to terror-   the innate nature and liability disclaim-    not only spelt the end of their virtual
ist activity’.41 His lobbying campaign was       ers of jihadist forums, which provided       personas, but also the ability to resur-
predominantly based upon the find-               some protection from potential incrimi-      rect the forums for which they were
ings of the 2008 report ‘Violent Islamist        nation, failed to furnish immunity from      responsible. Whilst a statement from the
Extremism, the Internet, and the Home-           the ongoing anti-jihadist web assault.       Al-Fajr Media Centre rushed to assure its
grown Terrorist Threat’ by the Senate            Consequently the roster of top forums        followers that the downing of the three
Committee on Homeland Security and               used by Al-Qa’ida changed on a regular       sites was due to ‘technical problems’,
Governmental Affairs, which he himself                                                        members on other forums fulminated
chaired.42 He further pressed, ‘this                ‘CIA agents and Al-                       against the ‘vicious attack’, which they
should be a straightforward task since                                                        claimed originated variously with the
so many of the Islamist terrorist organi-           Fajr experts engaged                      ‘Anglo-Americans, Zionist-Crusaders or
zations brand their material with logos             in one of the fiercest                    Saudis’.48 One prominent article posted
or icons identifying their provenance. In                                                     on numerous forums, entitled ‘The film
addition, please explain what changes               electronic battles in the                 that downed the three sites’ suggested
Google plans to make to the YouTube
community guidelines to address violent
                                                    history of cyberwar’                      that: ‘While 9/11 2008 seemed to be a
                                                                                              quiet and normal day to many, there was
extremist material and how Google plans          basis, subject to site closures, transfers   turmoil behind the scenes. CIA agents
to enforce those guidelines to prevent           and hacking attempts. Nevertheless, as       and Al-Fajr experts engaged in one of the
the content from reappearing’. Google            a genre, jihadist forums survived and        fiercest electronic battles in the history
initially refused to honour Lieberman’s          continued to wholly dominate the virtu-      of cyberwar’.49 Moreover, it suggested
request of removing all such material,           al jihadist landscape. In fact, the stark    the attack had been prompted by the
defending the decision on their blog:            juxtaposition of the jihadists’ success      release of the video to the CIA from Al-
‘While we respect and understand his             in propounding their narrative, and          Jazeera, who had been sent a copy ahead
views, YouTube encourages free speech            the dismal failure of the Global War on      of its release in the expectation that they
and defends everyone’s right to express          Terror to either silence or counter this     would broadcast the video in full.50
unpopular points of view. We believe             message, engendered an aura of invin-              Despite the setback, the delayed
that YouTube is a richer and more rele-          cibility around these forums. In terms of    video did eventually surface on other
vant platform for users precisely because        propagandistic value alone, they became      forums and file-sharing platforms
it hosts a diverse range of views, and           the bane of governments everywhere,          (including YouTube), albeit after the
rather than stifle debate, we allow our          and apparently little could be done to       all important commemorative date of
users to view all acceptable content and         mitigate their effects. However, contrary    9/11 had passed. While this strategic
make up their own minds.’43 However,             to all expectations, the jihadist forums     blow to Al-Qa’ida’s media capabilities
this statement was somewhat prema-               suffered a momentous reversal on 10          was widely lauded, it was not accompa-
ture as Google appeared to acquiesce             September 2008, when, without warn-          nied by attendant claims of responsibil-
to Lieberman’s relentless lobbying only          ing, the three main forums sponsored         ity. Consequently, speculation was rife
four months later,44 with the announce-          by Al-Fajr Media Centre (Al-Qa’ida’s         over who might be responsible, with a
ment that YouTube had in fact revised            key media wing), Al-Ikhlaas, Al-Firdaws,     number of potential culprits including
its community guidelines to dissuade             and Al-Buraq, suddenly ceased to oper-       state bodies (mainly USA, UK, Israel and
the uploading of material that would fall        ate. The immediate antecedent to the         Saudi Arabia), counter-terrorism groups,
under Lieberman’s new ‘potentially radi-         forums’ disruption appeared to have          anti-jihadist vigilantes, Shia groups, and
calising’ terrorist rubric.45 While many         been the imminent release of Al-Qa’ida’s     even Al-Qa’ida itself, who, it was suggest-
videos advocating or depicting violence          latest video production by As-Sahab,         ed, felt that their media was proving far

© RUSI JOURNAL FEBRUARY 2009
                                                                                         AKIL N AWAN AND MINA AL-LAMI




too revelatory in terms of intelligence        were also rendered offline. The only cred-     jihadist forums), and the group provided
information.                                   ible jihadist forum still extant was now       an effective functional alternative within
      The disruption of these three key        Al-Faloja, which quickly became oversat-       this otherwise censored environment.
forums severely curbed the Jihadists’          urated with new members and material.          However, the tentative success of Knights
communication and dissemination capa-          Still reeling from the loss of their virtual   of Al-Nusra Invasion was to be short-
bilities, leaving only the veteran Al-Hesba    sanctuary and anticipating the imminent        lived, and on 20 December, the burgeon-
forum to maintain Al-Qa’ida’s official web     closure of Al-Faloja, members frantically      ing Facebook group itself was closed,
presence. However, Al-Hesba, one of the        searched for viable alternatives.              leaving supporters completely bereft
earliest and by far most credible jihadist                                                    of exclusively jihadist virtual arenas.
forums, proved incapable of absorbing          Facebook                                       However, in a rapidly changing environ-
the influx of virtual refugees from the        The most popular solution propounded           ment, Shumookh Al-Islam reopened on
closed forums, particularly as its strict      was the ‘Invasion of Facebook’ project,        the same day, and was followed a few
security measures would only grant             with key members stating, ‘we shall start      days later by the reinstatement of Al-
membership upon recommendation                 using Facebook as a new jihadi media tool
from a credible current member. Other          and to counter the ongoing cyber-attack           Whether or not jihadist
less popular forums, such as Al-Faloja,        on jihadi websites. Through posting our
and Shumook Al-Islam51 attempted to fill       productions and news on Facebook, we
                                                                                                 forums can re-emerge
the void by accepting the mass of virtual      will be able to reach the American public         remains to be seen
jihadist refugees, and consequently, both      opinion and make it see the facts its
grew considerably in popularity and stat-      administration is trying so hard to hide’.52   Faloja on 23 December 2008. Neverthe-
ure in subsequent weeks. Despite the           The campaign stressed its unique advan-        less, as of January 2009, the four key
availability of these alternative platforms,   tages as an effective networking tool of       jihadist forums – Al-Ikhlaas, Al-Firdaws,
forum members were cognisant of the            global reach, illustrating this point with     Al-Buraq and Al-Hesba – remain closed
fact that jihadist media itself was now        reference to Barack Obama’s prolific use       in the gravest indication of the future of
facing its gravest existential threat, and     of Facebook during his successful elec-        Al-Qa’ida’s official presence on the web.
that lesser forums would inevitably be         tion campaign. Members advocating
targeted next. Rather than meekly await        this strategy argued that it was entirely      Conclusion
the inevitable, they turned their atten-       inconceivable that intelligence agencies       Whether or not jihadist forums can re-
tion to proactively countering the assault     could close Facebook, and in the event of      emerge remains to be seen, however,
instead, and with the motto ‘today your        specific Facebook group closures, would        even if they were to be resurrected or
sites, tomorrow your lands and homes’,         simply persist in constantly creating new      replaced in the immediate future, it
ad hoc groups like the Internet Invasion       groups and new accounts, in addition to        could not remove the tarnished image
Brigade of Al-Maghreb and Al-Nusra             invading other non-jihadist groups. The        of the impotent and fickle nature of a
Media Brigade were formed specifically         purpose of creating a group on Facebook,       beleaguered movement. Conversely,
to engage in a virtual counter-initiative.     suggested one member on Al-Faloja, ‘is         the sustained assault on jihadist forums
This info-war would be conducted princi-       not to introduce jihadi forum members          has not resulted in a jihadist informa-
pally along three fronts:                      to Facebook, but to introduce Facebook         tion blackout that many security serv-
                                               users to jihadi forums’.                       ices naively anticipated, and jihadism,
     1) by disseminating jihadist content            The Facebook appeal received             albeit in somewhat attenuated form,
     through Web 2.0 file-sharing portals      widespread support on Al-Faloja, with          has survived and indeed spread unim-
     (focusing on uncensored sites like        prominent animated advertisements              peded across other Web 2.0 platforms.
     Megavideo.com, and Tubemogul.             and banners which read ‘Al-Faloja forum        Naturally, this diffuse web penetration
     com, following YouTube’s increasing       invites you to invade Facebook’, publicis-     has displayed some limitations, particu-
     censorship of jihadist content);          ing the campaign. In a prescient move,         larly as other Web 2.0 fora are unable
     2) by identifying and invading sites      senior members filled with a sense of          to competently fulfil all of the functions
     in order to spread the jihadist ideol-    foreboding asked fellow members to             served by forums. For example, popular
     ogy, with a particular focus on           ‘quickly subscribe to Facebook before all      file-sharing platforms cannot cater for
     moderate Arabic forums and popu-          our forums are hacked’, and on 12 Decem-       non audiovisual content,54 or serve as a
     lar social networking sites like Face-    ber 2008, the plan finally came to fruition    communications medium. Moreover, the
     book;                                     with the establishment of the Facebook         media environment provided by these
     3) by hacking ‘Western’ sites.            group ‘Knights of Al-Nusra Invasion’.53        platforms impose their own restrictions
                                               Barely a week later, on 19 December, al-       and censorship, and so while Youtube
However, whilst these plans were               Faloja joined the growing list of closed       continues to host propagandistic films
being formulated, more jihadist forums         jihadist forums. However, by this time         like As-Sahab’s ‘The Power of Truth’ and
suffered closure and by late November          the Facebook group membership had              ‘Result of Seven Years of Crusades’,55 it
2008 Al-Hesba, Shumookh Al-Islam,              proliferated (with many members joining        nevertheless actively deletes graphic
Hanein and the English site Infovlad.net       under their familiar nom de guerres from       violence such as beheading videos or

                                                                                                                                    61
AL-QA’IDA’S VIRTUAL CRISIS




footage of ‘Juba the Sniper’. Perhaps of        physically engage in the jihad. Such indi-    ambit. Moreover, this trend parallels
greater concern to jihadists has been           viduals had, in the past, been shamed         the evolution of the jihadist movement
the evolution of a far less controlled and      for remaining behind and limiting their       itself, which has metastasized across the
non-hierarchical media environment, in          contribution to words rather than deeds.      globe as a social phenomenon – crucially
which the role of jihadist authorities in       However, the rise of the ‘media jihad’        amongst a younger, unaffiliated, and
setting the agenda amongst supporters           legitimised this choice, and media jihad-     increasingly diasporic demographic for
and framing the ‘jihad’ is contested, and       ists gained a modicum of respectability.      whom Al-Qa’ida represents little more
ultimately threatens to divest Al-Qa’ida        However, in the absence of this arena, it     than a motif.
leadership of all but a perfunctory spir-       seems inevitable that more virtual and              The jihadists’ goal, ultimately, is to
itual role.                                     media jihadists may feel compelled to         communicate a meta-narrative – a prism
      Ironically, this unheralded and           relinquish their virtual personas in favour   through which they require the Muslim
unprecedented disruption of jihadist            of real-life jihadist operations.             masses to view contemporary conflicts
media may in fact make individuals more               It is difficult to foresee the long-
susceptible to radicalisation (at least in
the short term), as divesting potential
                                                term effects of this sustained assault
                                                in such a rapidly shifting environment,
                                                                                                  It is difficult to foresee
jihadists of both cathartic spaces to vent      however it would be eminently impru-              the long-term effects of
grievances and frustration,56 and remov-        dent and premature to characterise
                                                this episode as the tolling of the death          this sustained assault
    Jihadist media have                         knell for jihadist media. Jihadist media
                                                have shown remarkable resilience in           as part of a wider global attack on Islam,
    shown remarkable                            the past, in their ability to utilise new     by what they perceive to be the Zion-
                                                technological innovations, to adapt to        ist-Crusader alliance, in response to
    resilience in the past                      the restrictive measures increasingly         which they claim to serve as the crucial
                                                imposed upon them, and to continue            vanguard. The unsanctioned and exuber-
ing online fora in which to conduct ‘media      to operate with apparent impunity in a        ant proliferation of jihadist media over
or information Jihad’, may lead to a resort     hostile socio-political context. Although     diffuse Web 2.0 fora by autonomous
to actual physical violence and terrorism.      jihadist media is indeed facing its grav-     individuals may serve to divest Al-Qa’da
For example, a posting on Shumookh Al-          est existential threat to date, the crisis    of control of the message. But the over-
Islam (following its reinstatement on 20        is liable to simply expedite the evolu-       arching narrative is so alluringly simple,
December 2008) lamented, ‘with the              tion of jihadist media that is already        and so germane to current events, that
closure of all our sites, you [the Crusad-      well underway. This evolutionary phase        its self-perpetuation is assured, so long
ers and their agents] have left us with no      is witness to the inexorable transition       as ‘Islamic’ conflicts remain unresolved
choice but to physically join the caravan       from strictly regulated, hierarchical         and Muslim grievances persist. ■
of jihad. With no jihadi sites through          media provision in exclusively jihadist
which we can support our brother Muja-          virtual arenas (which stifled debate and      Dr Akil N Awan is RCUK Fellow and
hideen, there is no point for us to stay        proverbially preached to the converted),      Lecturer in International Terrorism at
behind. We shall join them. Your act has        to decentralised, autonomous, diffuse         Royal Holloway, University of London.
shamed us and caused us to think “what          media production and dissemination
is left for us?”’ One of the previous           over unregulated, and easily contested        Ms Mina Al-Lami is a Research Associate
perennial debates on jihadist forums had        Web 2.0 platforms, to multifarious audi-      at Royal Holloway, University of London.
focused on the status of those who fail to      ences outside of the traditional jihadist

NOTES
1   This article draws on research              3   Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Fursan Taht Rayah          during the 1980s to denote Muslim
    undertaken for the Economic and                 Al-Nabi (Knights Under the Prophet’s          fighters during the Soviet invasion
    Social Research Council research                Banner), Part 11, Section 1A (2001),          of Afghanistan), see for example US
    project: ‘Legitimising the discourses of        <http://alarabnews.com/alshaab/GIF/28-        Assistant Secretary of State and Peace
    radicalisation: political violence in the       12-2001/Zawahri.htm>.                         Envoy to Bosnia Richard Holbrooke’s use
    new media ecology’, led by Andrew                                                             of the term in a 2005 interview
    Hoskins (University of Warwick), Ben        4   A N Awan, ‘Virtual Jihadist media:            with PBS <http://www.pbs.org/
    O’Loughlin and Akil N Awan (both Royal          Function, legitimacy, and radicalising        newshour/bb/bosnia/july-dec05/
    Holloway University of London).                 efficacy’, European Journal of Cultural       holbrooke_11-22.html>.
                                                    Studies (Vol. 10, No. 3, 2007),
2   P Hammond, ‘The Media War on                    pp. 389–408.                              6   Azzam.com was run by the UK
    Terrorism’, Journal for Crime, Conflict                                                       publishing house Azzam Publications
    and the Media (Vol. 1, No.1, 2003), pp.     5   This was a common and uncontested             and eponymously named after Abdullah
    23–36.                                          designation at the time (just as it was       Yusuf Azzam, a highly influential

© RUSI JOURNAL FEBRUARY 2009
                                                                                              AKIL N AWAN AND MINA AL-LAMI




    Palestinian scholar and advocate for        14 Paul Eedle, ‘Al-Qa’ida Takes Fight For            subsequent activism, <http://www.
    defensive jihad, particularly during the       “Hearts And Minds” To The Web’, Jane’s            jihadunspun.com/articles/20030911-
    Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He also        Intelligence Review (August 2002).                ashes.to.light/>.
    served as an early mentor for Osama bin
    Laden in Afghanistan.                       15 Mike Boettcher, ‘Pornographer says            25 Interestingly, the claim was iterated
                                                   he hacked al Qaeda: “I wanted to do              by Rita Katz, director of the Search For
7   The website is no longer active, however,      something...I know the Internet”’, CNN.          International Terrorist Entities Institute
    an archived version of its mission             com, 9 August 2002, <http://archives.            in 2003; S Shane, ‘The Web as al-Qaida’s
    statement can be found at <http://web.         cnn.com/2002/US/08/08/porn.patriot/>.            Safety Net’, The Baltimore Sun, 28
    archive.org/web/20000510182502/                                                                 March, 2003.
    http://www.azzam.com/>.                     16 Michelle Delio, ‘Al-Qaeda website
                                                   refuses to die’, Wired.com, 7 April 2003,     26 See for example, Abu Musab Al-Suri’s
8   Professional audiovisual content was           <http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/                theory of ‘nizam la tanzim’ (system and
    naturally distributed on CD-ROMs in an         news/2003/04/58356>.                             not organisation) which advocates a
    era prior to high speed Internet access,                                                        ‘leaderless resistance’ in his 2005 Call to
    broadband and live video streaming, but     17 <http://internet-haganah.com>;                   Global Islamic Resistance.
    sold online through the websites, for          Haganah is a Hebrew word meaning
    example Azzam Publications produced            ‘defence’ that stems from the name            27 The now defunct mujahedon.net forum
    and sold a number of titles, including         of an early Zionist militia operating in         provided detailed instructions on the
    the renowned ‘Martyrs of Bosnia’, and          British Mandate Palestine.                       use of such methods for new users
    ‘Russian Hell in the Year 2000’.                                                                in the form of a sticky post featured
                                                18 Jonathan Lasker, ‘Watchdogs sniff out            prominently on its homepage.
9   Lia Brynjar, ‘Jihadi Web Media                 terror sites’, Wired.com, 25 February
    Production’, paper presented to                2005, <http://www.wired.com/politics/         28 <http://www.alhesbah.com>
    ‘Check the Web: Monitoring, research           security/news/2005/02/66708>.
    and analysis of jihadist activities on                                                       29 <http://www.mujahedon.net>
    the Internet’, Berlin, 26–27 February       19 Carmen Gentile, ‘Cyber Vigilantes Track
    2007, <www.mil.no/multimedia/                  Extremist Web Sites, Intelligence Experts     30 Akil N Awan, ‘Virtual Jihadist media:
    archive/00092/Jihadi_Web_Media_Pro_            Balk at Effort’, FoxNews.com, 22 March           Function, legitimacy, and radicalising
    92100a.pdf>.                                   2008, <http://www.foxnews.com/                   efficacy’.
                                                   story/0,2933,340613,00.html>.
10 Abu-Musab Al-Suri, ‘Theory of Media                                                           31 For a detailed study of the media
   and Incitement in the Call to Global         20 The actual website, Azzam.com, had               production process, see Daniel Kimmage,
   Islamic Resistance’ in Call to Global           been officially shut down shortly after          The Al-Qaeda Media Nexus: The Virtual
   Islamic Resistance, Chapter 8,                  9/11, however a number of mirror-sites           Network Behind the Global Message
   section 8 (2005). Available at                  persisted for some time thereafter.              (RFE/RL: Washington, 2008).
   <http://mobasher.110mb.com/
   AbuMusabSyrian.htm>.                         21 Although the resulting Independent            32 As of January 2009, a search on Alexa.
                                                   Police Complaints Commission (IPCC)              com revealed that seven out of its top
11 These were the 1996 ‘Declaration of             inquiry concluded Ahmad‘s complaints             ten websites worldwide in terms of
   War against the Americans Occupying             could not be substantiated, the ‘Free            traffic ranking (excluding search engines)
   the Land of the Two Holy Places’ and            Babar Ahmad Campaign’ maintains                  could be classified as belonging to Web
   the 1998 ‘Statement from the World              allegations of systematic abuse, see             2.0.
   Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and        <http://www.cageprisoners.com/
   Crusaders’, available at <http://www.           prisoners.php?id=1268>.                       33 David Talbot, ‘Terror‘s Server’, in
   mideastweb.org/osamabinladen1.htm>.                                                              Technology Review, February 2005,
                                                22 USA v Babar Ahmad, Affidavit in support          <http://www. technologyreview.com/
12 G Weimann, United States Institute of           of request for extradition of Babar              web/14150/?a=f>.
   Peace Special Report No. 116                    Ahmad. No. 3:04M240(WIG), September
   ‘www.terror.net – How Modern                    2004, <http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/             34 David Kimmage, The Al-Qaeda Media
   Terrorism uses the Internet’                    ct/Documents/AHMAD%20extradition                 Nexus: The Virtual Network Behind the
   (Washington, 2004), <http://www.usip.           %20affidavit.pdf>.                               Global Message.
   org/pubs/specialreports /sr116.html>.
                                                23 Akil N Awan, ‘Virtual Jihadist media:         35 For more on processes of radicalisation,
13 Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks are             Function, legitimacy, and radicalising           see A N Awan, ‘Antecedents of Islamic
   attempts to make a computer resource            efficacy’.                                       Political Radicalism Among Muslim
   unavailable to its intended users, usually                                                       Communities in Europe’, Political Science
   by saturating the target with external       24 The site was run by Khadija Abdul                & Politics (Vol. 41, No. 1, 2008),
   communications requests, such that it           Qahaar (formerly Beverly Giesbrecht)             pp. 13–17.
   cannot respond to legitimate traffic, or        from Vancouver, BC, Canada. A lengthy
   responds so slowly as to be rendered            biography entitled From Ashes to Light        36 In the most prominent example, Judge
   effectively unavailable.                        chronicles her conversion to Islam and           Peter Openshaw, presiding over the 2007


                                                                                                                                             63
AL-QA’IDA’S VIRTUAL CRISIS




   trial of ‘cyber-Jihadist’ Younes Tsouli (aka   41 For a copy of the letter see                   portion of the video and were fiercely
   Irhaabi007) interrupted proceedings to            <http://lieberman.senate.gov/                  criticised by Al-Qa’ida sympathisers on
   state, ‘The trouble is I don’t understand         newsroom/release.cfm?id=298006>.               Arabic forums for ‘manipulating’ public
   the language. I don’t really understand                                                          opinion by broadcasting only parts of the
   what a website is’; Lewis Page, ‘Judge         42 The report can be accessed at                  video that made Al-Qa’ida appear ‘as if
   in tech trial says he “doesn’t know               <http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/_files/        it’s descending from loss to defeat’.
   what a website is”’ TheRegister.com,              IslamistReport.pdf>.
   17 May 2007, <http://www.theregister.                                                        51 This is spelt online as Shmo5alislam.net,
   co.uk/2007/05/17/judge_website_                43 See <http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.      using the phonetic system that replaces
   shocker>.                                         com/2008/05/dialogue-with-sen-                unique Arabic consonants with Latin
                                                     lieberman-on.html>.                           numerals.
37 K Hunt, ‘Osama bin laden fan clubs build
   online communities’, in USA Today, 8           44 As a triumphant statement on               52 See for example <http://www.al-faloja.
   March 2006, <http://www.usatoday.                 Lieberman’s website announced,                info>.
   com/tech/news/2006-03-08-orkut-al-                see <http://lieberman.senate.gov/
   qaeda_x.htm>.                                     newsroom/release.cfm?id=302825>.           53 The now defunct group was available
                                                                                                   at <http://www.facebook.com/group.
38 Examples of explicitly-named jihadist          45 See <http://uk.youtube.com/                   php?gid=56004446512>.
   communities on Orkut included: ‘Osama             blog?entry=YMavGxHoewU>.
   Bin Laden tHe HeRo’, <http://www.orkut.                                                      54 A particularly pertinent point considering
   com/Community.aspx?cmm=3595115>;               46 For example see <http://www.youtube.          that text materials account for the vast
   and ‘Jihad lovers’, <http://www.orkut.            com/user/mujahidfesabeelillah>.               majority of jihadist media production;
   com/Community.aspx?cmm=31397322>.                                                               Kimmage’s 2008 study of jihadist media
                                                  47 ‘Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, ‘Saudi Arrests Five       showed that in July 2007, text products
39 These include ‘The Caliphate Voice                Web “jihadis”’, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat             (statements, periodicals, essays, books)
   Channel’, <http://cvc-online.blogspot.            10 September 2008, <http://www.               accounted for 90 per cent whilst videos
   com> and the previous incarnation,                asharqalawsat.com/english/news.               accounted for only 9 per cent.
   ‘The Mujahideen Shura Council’,                   asp?section=1&id=14016>.
   <http://albayanat.blogspot.com>.                                                             55 Available at <http://uk.youtube.
                                                  48 See for example <http://www.alhesbah.         com/watch?v=l_ooEt-yoaA> and
40 Dana Rosenblatt, ‘Cyber-spies tracking            com>.                                         <http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=
   terror on Web’, CNN.com, 29 September                                                           puecNYmQXQc> respectively.
   2006, <http://edition.cnn.com/2006/            49 Taken from the ‘Al-Jazeera talk’ forum
   WORLD/europe/09/28/internet.                      <http://www.aljazeeratalk.net/>.           56 A N Awan, ‚Radicalization on the
   spying/>.                                                                                       Internet? The Virtual Propagation of
                                                  50 Al-Jazeera in fact only aired a small         Jihadist Media and its Effects‘, in RUSI
                                                                                                   Journal (Vol. 152, No. 3, June 2007).




© RUSI JOURNAL FEBRUARY 2009

				
DOCUMENT INFO
Description: The fight Al-Qa’ida has waged against the West has been fought on a virtual as well as physical battlefield. Recently, many jihadist strongholds and hiding places on the web have been shut down. This article charts the growth and the current crisis of Al-Qa’ida’s ‘media jihad’.