The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
The view from jihadi Internet forums is fascinating these days as al Qaeda members and supporters react to the loss of their leader. Until al Qaeda officially confirmed Osama bin Laden’s death on Friday, confusion dominated the forums, with participants sharply divided between those who embraced the news and those who denied it.
The more stoic members were keen to ensure that their supporters did not lose heart. “We were not fighting for Osama,” Salmakh84 wrote on the Ansar forum. “We were fighting for Allah. The Jihad will continue even if the Amir [leader] is Shaheed [martyred]!!” Another user added: “Those who fought for shaykh usaamah know that shaykh usaamah has passed away, but those who fought for Allaah know that Allaah is alive and will never die.”
As forum members waited for al Qaeda to make a statement, one user pleaded, “Please be patient and put aside all speculations until we receive an official confirmation report from our brothers in the ranks.” Until yesterday, the only confirmation of bin Laden’s death had come from Western media –- an unacceptable source for jihadis. Links to mainstream news stories were flagged as coming from an “unconfirmed kafir [unbeliever] source,” and a user called Ansariyya wrote that he would never “believe a word that comes out of their lying deceitful mouths.” Another added, “Who cares what the kuffaruun [unbeliever] dogs are stating?”
Indeed, some jihadi forums even continued to insist that bin Laden was alive. As late as Thursday, the al Qimmah forum (which is linked to the al Shabaab movement in Somalia) and several others carried a video statement from a man calling himself Commander Waliu al Rahman, which claimed that bin Laden was alive.
Conflicting statements from senior U.S. officials regarding bin Laden’s last minutes only heightened distrust among forum users. According to U.S. President Barack Obama’s initial statement, there was a firefight at the compound, suggesting that bin Laden was armed. According to White House spokesman Jay Carney’s later statements, he was not. The administration also dismissed earlier suggestions that bin Laden had hidden behind his wife. The commenter Ummu Amarah, writing on the popular Ansar forum, summed up users’ frustration: “This is so crazy and confusing … maybe we should stop writing and talking about this news until our brothers have confirmed if the news is true or not.”
As forum members continued to speculate, a user calling himself Mujahid expressed his frustration at the lack of information: “Is there really still no official word out? It's weird on both ends, the story the americans are saying doesn't make sense and no official word has been put out yet by AQ pretty unusual.” Administrators from Ansar echoed those sentiments, pointing out that “More than 48 hours have passed and still there is no official statement from Al-Fajr media [al Qaeda’s official online news outlet] regarding the Martyrdom of Sheikh Osama bin laden. The supporters of the Mujahideen are waiting for the official statement with their hands on their hearts.”
Al Qaeda finally confirmed bin Laden’s death on Friday, May 6, on the Ansar and Shumukh forums. The fact “that the Americans have killed Osama is neither shameful nor disgraceful,” the announcement said, since ”men and heroes are only killed on the battlefield, and every soul has an appointed time.” It went on to warn that “Sheikh Osama did not build an organization that would die with him, nor would end with him.”
The delay between his death and the announcement was unusual. Typically, al Qaeda is quick to publicize the death of a leader and hail him as a martyr. In 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al Qaeda’s second in command, practically canonized Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, on the al Hesbah and Ikhlaas forums after he was killed by a U.S. air strike in Iraq. Similarly, when Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al Qaeda’s alleged financial chief, was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan last year, al Qaeda wasted little time in eulogizing him. Bin Laden and Zawahiri both released official statements of mourning.
Al Qaeda uses such announcements to inspire a wide audience of members –- and potential recruits –- with tales of heroism and the promise of paradise if they participate in jihad. But just how much does the chatter on these forums actually matter? Although jihadi forum members were once considered benign, evidence in recent years suggests that some are anything but armchair jihadis. Take the example of Humam Khalil al-Balawi, who claimed the lives of seven CIA personnel working at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan in December 2009. It was the deadliest attack against American intelligence officers since the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut, and Balawi became a forum users’ hero because he was one of their own.
Although Balawi had long been associated with extremism, he was also an enthusiastic participant on al Qaeda—linked forums. Over many years, he had risen from contributor to administrator and then to suicide bomber. His case is not exceptional. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has also used jihadi Web forums to communicate directly with Muslims in the West, using encrypted messages to offer detailed instructions on how to conduct jihad. One al Qaeda member, Anwar al-Awlaki, directed Major Nidal Hasan to carry out a terrorist attack at Fort Hood in 2009.
Of course, forum participants do not always become killers in order to serve the jihadi cause. From 2003 to 2005, a young Moroccan in London, Younis Tsouli, ran sophisticated Web sites for the Iraqi insurgency under the pseudonym Irhabi 007 (Terrorist 007). Shortly before British police arrested him, in October 2005, he published a twenty-page document explaining how to hack Web sites. When the controversy surrounding Jyllands-Posten’s publication of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed flared up the following year, jihadi hackers systematically bombarded the newspaper’s servers, causing them to overload and crash. On an al Qaeda forum, one member acknowledged, “I am certain that I see his [Younis Tsouli’s] fingerprints on numerous projects.”
Al Qaeda’s increasing reliance on Web forums is telling. Denied safe havens and the ability to educate sympathizers in training camps, the group has prioritized online outreach to radicalize and inspire lone wolves. Almost impossible to detect and requiring practically no preparation, their attacks are primitive but effective, as the case of Hasan demonstrated. And within hours of bin Laden’s death, material aimed at inspiring that kind of attack was reissued on key forums, including one video called “And Incite the Believers” and another celebrating the “blessed Manhattan raid,” a reference to 9/11.
A well regarded and prolific member of the online jihadi community, Assad al-Jihad 2 (Lion of Jihad 2), frequently posts articles on the Ansar and Shumukh forums written on behalf of al Qaeda, and is thought to be a senior member of the group. After news of bin Laden’s death first emerged, he polled forum users to assess their reactions. The overwhelming majority, more than ninety percent, believed that attacks against the United States would increase, and that bin Laden’s death would embolden the movement.
Bin Laden’s influence will linger online for years to come. His followers have been quick to renew their pledge to the jihadi cause and are promising new attacks. One contributor warned on the Ansar forum that “a million new bin Ladens will be born! And the flag of jihad will be raised! Inshallah.” Another, Husain Mahmoud, wrote, “We are a nation who build a lofty fortress with the skulls of its chivalrous men. Whenever a man dies in war, the fortress growers even higher, remaining ever so lofty and elevated!”
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation recently convened a private seminar for leading experts and practitioners to explore whether al Qaeda is in strategic decline. It is -- but, as one distinguished participant warned, “Don’t underestimate the ability of a declining threat to inflict great damage on its way down.” The al Qaeda statement confirming bin Laden’s death on Friday suggests that the movement will seek to avenge its leader’s demise, promising further attacks against the United States that “will even make the hair of babies turn grey.”