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Jihad: Coming soon to a computer near you?

March 31, 2010

By Michael S. Smith II

The Pentagon’s grand strategists have long claimed the United States provides the source-code for globalization’s DNA (See Thomas P.M. Barnett). And these “big thinkers” have for years pointed to the likelihood that globalization would manifest massive backlashes as Western ideals are introduced to emerging markets within the world’s less-developed countries, Muslim nations in particular. Today, the most pronounced example of this scenario is crashing on our shores in a manner that reveals a somewhat ironic trajectory. This backlash — the global spread of radical Islamist ideologies — is now being delivered to America via the foremost vehicle used to broaden globalization’s reach, the World Wide Web.

Launched in 2008, in the ever-expansive universe of Salafi Muslim web forums focused on bolstering support for global jihad the Arabic-language Ansar al-Mujahideen Network is a relative newcomer. Still, this forum has developed one of the most significant followings. This is largely due to the fact that certain Ansar al-Mujahideen correspondents have reliably posted to the network’s website the freshest versions of propaganda purveyed by al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliate organizations. As if the Ansar al-Mujahideen Network’s efforts to publicize militant diatribes of leading jihadi figureheads were not a significant enough issue, analysts from the counter-terrorism community have recently discovered a new aspect of this network’s toxicity.

On March 11, 2010, forum participant “ansar007” posted to the network’s website a banner announcing the upcoming launch of the “Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum.” While this network already hosts mirror sites that provide English and German translations of the contents made available on the network’s primary Arabic-language site, this new product reflects a lethal trend at the forefront of jihadi recruitment efforts today:  A focus on radicalizing English speakers, well-positioned Westerners chiefly.

Since the November 5, 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, the name Anwar al Awlaki has become just as synonymous with the jihad al Qaeda has launched against America and our allies as Osama bin Laden. An American-born al Qaeda cleric hiding in Yemen, al Awlaki is known to have assisted two of al Qaeda’s 9/11 hijackers when they arrived in the U.S. to prepare for what would become the most lethal terrorist attacks on America’s homeland. (Spelled as “Aulaqi,” Anwar al Awlaki’s name first appears within “The 9/11 Commission Report” on page 221.)* During more recent years, counter-terrorism officials have credited al Awlaki with inspiring a significant list of “homegrown” terror plots in the U.S.

Members of the Caswell County, North Carolina terrorist cell who where caught plotting an attack on the Marine Corps facilities at Quantico last year are known to have followed al Awlaki’s teachings. So too did members of the so-called “Fort Dix Six,” a group of radical Islamists arrested by the FBI in 2008 while preparing to launch an attack on military personnel stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

On November 6, 2009, it became all too clear that for quite some time Anwar al Awlaki had actually been hiding in plain sight. He was running what had become one of the most effective tools for reaching a large audience of well-positioned Westerners, and cultivating interests in al Qaeda’s version of jihad among them. This tool, al Awlaki’s English-language blog, was even used to publish al Awlaki’s translations of important jihadi publications that were previously of little use to anyone who did not read Arabic. The boldness of Awlaki’s cyber jihadi endeavors is perhaps most pronounced by the fact that he was literally running a Facebook account. His “fan base” for which reached nearly 5,100 before the account was shut down soon after the Fort Hood massacre.

Today, the growth of English-language cyber jihadi sites represents one of the most paramount issues confronting America’s national security interests. For some observers, it is tempting to characterize this trend as something which might actually make it easier for investigators and analysts to thwart future attacks against America and our allies. Yet the bigger picture suggests that is a very dangerous way of assessing this very hot issue.

A central tenet of the philosophies espoused by leading online jihadi recruiters like Anwar al Awlaki is known as “leaderless jihad.” This concept emphasizes the importance of the individual’s role in the global jihad that is today being waged against America and our allies. Champions of this concept seek to inspire members of their audiences to take up arms now. Further, they discourage their followers from viewing their attainments of bona fide memberships in organizations like al Qaeda as a necessary step to take before committing themselves to jihad vis-à-vis acts of terrorism.

Ultimately, for the counter-terrorism professionals tasked with protecting America against the jihadi threat, the rise of “leaderless jihad” makes it exponentially harder to identify the types of attacks radicals will seek to launch in our backyard. Not to mention who exactly we should be expecting to launch them. After all, groups of individuals tend to leave behind far more footprints for investigators to track than do so-called “lone wolf” terrorists who will increasingly be inspired by English-language jihadi web forums.

Will the “Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum” soon be coming to a computer near you? The safe answer:  Quite possibly.

Considering the recent indictment of “Jihad Jane,” a white American woman who converted to radical Islam and used the Internet to try to inspire other Americans to take up the cause of violent jihad, considering al Qaeda’s online recruitment of a young Nigerian who attempted to attack America on Christmas Day of 2009, it is clear the face of militant Islam is now a truly global one. What’s more, this movement has found a solid foothold here in the United States.

Unfortunately, aside from of course the destruction of our way of life, there are few specific answers to questions focused on the matter of how the leaders of this movement who are now using the Web to recruit new foot soldiers will use their new Western recruits to achieve this goal. Yet it is certain the intentions of individuals joining this movement are anything but peaceful, and their recruitments from within the U.S. will likely prove explosive.

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*A searchable pdf of The 9/11 Commission Report is accessible online via http://www.gpoaccess.gov/911/pdf/fullreport.pdf

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