Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his legion of online jihadis is more determined than ever.
- By Evan F. KohlmannEvan Kohlmann is a senior investigator for the NEFA Foundation, and continues to work as a private counterterrorism consultant and expert witness on behalf of the FBI, Scotland Yard, and other law enforcement agencies.
Late on the evening of May 1, al Qaeda’s online social networking forums were shaken awake as would-be jihadists from around the globe logged in to discover if reports of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a U.S. military raid deep inside Pakistan were true. As rumors of the terrorist mastermind’s demise began to spread, stunned forum participants insisted that the White House announcement was part of a new scheme devised by the CIA to trick and demoralize bin Laden’s diehard supporters. Ill-tempered forum administrators began threatening to permanently ban anyone who even dared to express sorrow based on "unverified crusader rumors" of bin Laden’s demise. Dozens of message threads on the death of bin Laden have since been censored by administrators; many others were simply deleted.
The last month has been a grueling ordeal for both al Qaeda’s webmasters and the morbid flock of virtual jihadists who make up an increasingly important hub of the terrorist network’s infrastructure. As opposed to fixed dot-com websites, al Qaeda’s foot-soldiers, couriers, and supporters inhabit a loosely organized network of mostly password-protected online discussion forums. While these shadowy forums have provided jihadist movements with a powerful tool for communications, propaganda, and recruitment, they also have allowed outside observers an insider’s view into the unusual personalities lurking behind the terror group — as well as their hierarchy, mindset, and methodology — one that is particularly important now, as al Qaeda struggles to regroup after the killing of its figurehead and founder.
With al Qaeda’s remaining leaders still hiding quietly out of sight, these online forums provide one of the most compelling windows into the thinking of bin Laden’s cadre as they mourn the passing of their revered icon. By quietly observing the conversations, interested observers were able to witness jihadists go through their own peculiar stages of grief in real time — from disbelief and grief to rage and defiance.
No matter what they may claim in retrospect, the sudden news of bin Laden’s death came as a staggering blow to his supporters. His passing was particularly difficult to accept in light of the litany of other losses the group has endured over the past two years — including the killing of its former third-in-command Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a.k.a. Shaykh Saeed — largely the result of a relentless campaign of lethal missile strikes by unmanned U.S. drone aircraft along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. On May 2, defying warnings from forum administrators not to speculate over bin Laden’s then-uncertain fate, user Abu Zubaydah insisted on offering his deepest respects "to the family of the martyr … and also Shaykh Ayman Zawahiri, who in a single year lost Shaykh Saeed and now his other companion on the path…. By Allah, it is a year of sorrow."
In the hours immediately following news of bin Laden’s violent demise, al Qaeda forum users and administrators were also preoccupied with another gnawing concern: the state of their own personal security. The media soon reported that U.S. Navy SEALs had seized an intelligence jackpot of hard drives, flash data disks, and other records of electronic communications from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. One of the most credible and respected users on al Qaeda’s top-tier "Shamukh" web forum, "Yaman Mukhadab," posted a warning to fellow jihadists advising that these were "the most dangerous 72 hours in the struggle of Al Qaeda with the Zionists and Crusaders … in the history of the jihad struggle." He cautioned, "it is possible that America has infiltrated mujahideen communications and will seek to unveil the masterminds behind big [terrorist] operations."
For Mukhadab, this possibility was cause enough for jihadist cells to shut off further communications with their handlers and push forward with terrorist operations on their own. "As far as I see it, any group of mujahideen that are assigned to an operation should go forward and execute it … without hesitation or delay, and to completely avoid trying to communicate with anyone … or to seek new orders," he urged.
The palpable sense of melancholy and panic brewing in the hearts of al Qaeda’s supporters on the web was soon swamped by a tidal wave of raw, unbridled rage — particularly after images of jubilant crowds of Americans celebrating outside the White House and at Ground Zero were broadcast around the world. One user, Ta’er Muhajir, posted an open message addressed to "you who danced in front of the White House…. We, too, will start to dance the next time we hear about a massacre that befalls you, just as we danced when your rotten corpses were spread across the Pentagon and the World Trade Center."
Another forum user, Mukhadab ad-Dima (an alias translating to "drenched in blood"), pointed to the "big crowds in front of the White House" and demanded, "who will be the hero who will turn their night into day and their morning into hell, and who will renew the September glories — who will follow next in the list of our heroes?"
Forum user Abu al-Qassam al-Maqdisi acknowledged his sorrow over bin Laden’s death, but vowed to "continue on this path." Addressing U.S. President Barack Obama directly, he mocked, "if you think that by killing Shaykh Abu Abdullah [bin Laden] you have finished off al Qaeda, then you are totally delusional… the martyrdom of Shaykh Osama didn’t weaken us and didn’t disappoint us — it just gave us more passion to stay steadfast on this path."
These repeated declarations of defiance inevitably turned to the question of how best to avenge the "martyrdom" of bin Laden. Another registered user, Abu Musab al-Maqdisi, complained about the doom and gloom on the forums, arguing, "It would have been better to see the knife of [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi being sharpened to the point that I can behold its shine from here." He urged fellow bin Laden supporters, "[N]ow the battle has begun to eradicate the state of infidels, America, and anyone who stands alongside it from within the Muslim lands. It’s only a matter of hours."
While mainstream media speculation on who will assume bin Laden’s now-vacant position at the helm has ranged wildly — from al Qaeda security chief Saif al-Adel to fugitive Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — there simply has been no serious discussion on top-tier al Qaeda web forums of any potential successor other than bin Laden’s longtime deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al Qaeda’s online constituents are so taken with the idea that Zawahiri will be the next leader that they have taken to casually referring to al Qaeda as "Jund Ayman" ("The Soldiers of Ayman").
Forum users have also taken it upon themselves to vigorously contest snarky comments from al Qaeda critics that disparaged the alliance between bin Laden and Zawahiri. User Muheb Ruyat al-Rahman dismissed these prevalent critiques as "poison," asking, "Do you really think our Shaykh Osama couldn’t distinguish the worthless from the valuable, or the beautiful from the ugly?" Rahman insisted, "Our Shaykh Osama, may Allah have mercy on him, is our Shaykh Ayman, and our Shaykh Ayman is our Shaykh Osama."
The underlying theme that emerges from the discussions taking place on al Qaeda’s elite chat forums is that, while the United States may have succeeded in removing a larger-than-life icon for the global jihadist movement, the movement’s hardline followers are now, perhaps more than ever, determined to persist in their armed struggle. Even in the absence of bin Laden’s operational leadership, his legacy continues to live on in the hearts and minds of those within al Qaeda’s social network. The concern remains that the seething vitriol now brewing in the dark corners of the web may eventually translate from mere words into meaningful acts of violence and retribution.