As terrorism expert Marc Sageman wrote in his book Leaderless Jihad, "The growth of the internet has dramatically transformed the structure and dynamic of the evolving threat of global Islamist terrorism by changing the nature of terrorists' interactions. The nature of this influence is still misunderstood both by the terrorists themselves and by the people who are fighting them."
Global Islamist terrorists have today shifted from meeting in restaurants and barber shops to meeting in online forums. Internet discussion forums have become the transnational meeting places of jihadists, especially al Qaeda affiliates. After 9/11, for example, al Qaeda used Alneda.com to post and disseminate its statements, theological justifications and propaganda materials. Counter-terrorism experts are only beginning to understand these new developments.
Although only about 6 percent of the population in the Middle East has access to a computer, Internet cafes have become hubs of youth radicalization, where jihadists can log in and discuss their religious and ideological viewpoints with like-minded individuals thousands of miles away.
In the counter-terrorism literature, there is an over-emphasis on studying websites as if they have "intrinsic power to influence people into taking arms against the West." The Internet, however, is not simply a collection of websites. It is also a system of communication. Through e-mail, listservs and chat rooms, jihadists enter a kind of echo chamber where identities are formed and radicalization is escalated. As Sageman notes, "Just as people are rarely convinced or radicalized by simply reading a newspaper story, so no one is converted by a website alone. It is the discussion of the newspaper article with one's friends and family and the interactive exchanges in the chat rooms that inspire and radicalize."
In an important new study published by the Quilliam Foundation entitled, "Cheering for Osama," we go beyond simply analyzing jihadist websites, to actually getting a sense of what they talk about on discussion forums, and the factors nudging them along the process of radicalization. The report examined 20 popular jihadist forums between January 2009 and May 2010.
Forums like Al-Falluja, one of the most popular al Qaeda affiliated forums with close to 18,000 registered members, become repositories of jihadi materials like martyrdom videos, recordings of terrorist attacks or speeches by senior jihadists. Users of these forums inhabit a bubble where dissenting posts are swiftly shouted down or deleted. As Mohammed Ali Musawi, the author of the Quilliam report, writes, "The self-sufficient Jihadist bubble that consequently exists within these sites not only serves as a safe space for like-minded Jihadist interaction, but also serves to safeguard Internet Jihadists against what they see as the many unsavory or hostile aspects of the Internet." These hostile aspects could be anti-jihadist messages or news of operation defeats and unsuccessful terrorist plots. As news like this never makes it onto the forum, many jihadists have a false sense that global Islamist operations are more successful than they actually have been.
Jihadist forums also serve to inspire members to take part in a ghazwa (raid or incursion) into non-jihadist websites. This "media jihad" often consists of posting jihadist material on non-jihadist forums as a way of increasing the potential for recruitment. Jihadists might post a video of an American Humvee being destroyed by an improvised explosive device (IED) or literature portraying Jihadists as taking extra precautions to ensure that innocent Muslims are not injured. These kinds of "jihadist media incursions," Musawi tells me, "try to show that jihadists are actually the only voice or the only people who are standing up for your average-Joe Muslim and his rights."
The report points to three broad discussion trends on jihadist forums: defense of global jihadist ideology and violence, exposition of the internal enemies of Islam and Muslims, and exposition of deviant and heretical sects who "worship manmade laws."
While the first trend is fairly obvious, the second highlights the fact that one of the primary objects of attack on jihadist forums are other Muslims: anti-jihadists, Shia Muslims and Sufis. Shia Muslims are presented as heretical, and posing a fundamental threat to the purity of Islam.
Participants on jihadist forums also attack "non-Islamic" methods of governance, since they run counter to their particular vision of an Islamic state. Individuals or organizations following secular laws or democratic principles are portrayed as deviant. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is often singled out for particular attack as members of the Brotherhood have contested in elections and "now largely believe in gaining power through elections or political maneuverings, rather than through overt terrorist violence."
I asked Musawi why anti-American rhetoric did not feature prominently in his report. One would suspect that a major topic of discussion on jihadist forums would be the evils of the West. "It goes without saying, of course, that anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric is present," he tells me, "but what was striking for us was the level of attack towards other Muslims." Anti-Americanism is simply taken for granted. I also asked why there was no mention of 72 virgins, a popular explanation for why jihadists engage in suicide bombing. "In the 18 months during which I monitored over 20 forums I have never come across anything to do with 72 virgins or anything of the like," Musawi tells me. Such simplistic explanations for Islamist violence persist despite the utter lack of evidence to support them.
The Internet has increasingly become an important factor in facilitating the organizing efforts of jihadists worldwide. As Marc Sageman notes, "Computer-mediated communication is what makes this decentralized leaderless organization of global Islamist terrorism possible and the forums have become its center of gravity." The Quilliam report sheds much needed light on what is now a major aspect of counter-terrorism strategy. As jihadists talk to each other online, create common goals and rail against common enemies, we would do well to listen in. Learning more about how they articulate their various grievances with the West is integral for devising better strategies in counter-radicalization.