- By Raffaello PantucciRaffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a China program associate with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Two weeks ago, 24-year-old Pakistani-American Jubair Ahmad admittedthat he had been making videos for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) from his Woodbridge,Virginia home under the direction of LeT leader Hafiz Saeed’s son Talha. Aroundthe same time, governments on both sides of the Atlantic published findingsinto the link between online activity and terrorism. In the United Kingdom, theHome Office publisheda paper that concluded "the internet does not appear to play a significantrole in AQIR [al Qaeda influenced radicalization]," while in the United States,at a hearing on the Hill, RAND terrorism guru BrianMichael Jenkins concluded that jihadist websites "may create virtualarmies, but these armies remain virtual." But while the link between turningindividuals from passive consumers into active terrorists may be weak, caseslike that of Jubair Ahmad show the important role this virtual army can play inmagnifying the message of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.
Jubair Ahmed is not the first Western individual who has helpedestablish websites or created video content in support of radical groups. Oneof the earliest was U.K.-based www.azzam.com,established in 1996, which provided a point from which groups in Afghanistanand Chechnya could broadcast their message while also telling potentialrecruits how to contact the groups. In addition, www.azzam.com (using the moniker Azzam Publications) helpedproduce a series of videos and cassette tapes about the fighting in Bosnia andChechnya that venerated fighters in the field.
By the mid-2000s, the Internet had become a more viablevehicle through which videos could not only be sold, but also streamed anddownloaded. Recognizing the value of getting footage from the field out asquickly as possible, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was at the forefront of a newpractice, turning videos into slick packages that could be uploaded ontoradical forums. But what was most interesting was the revelation in late 2005that British police in London had found a young Moroccan who turned out to be theinfamous online jihadist known as Irhabi007(terrorist007). Using this online handle, Younis Tsoulihad set himself up as a key webmaster and designer for AQI, and was notoriousfor being able to find the webspace needed to publish the grim video Americancontractor Nicholas Berg’s beheading.
The novel aspect in Tsouli’s case was the fact that AQIleaders noticed his online abilities and started to use him as a key outlet fortheir material. There have been numerous other Western webmasters for importantal-Qaeda linked websites – for example, in Belgium, Malikael-Aroud ran MinbarSoS, a website that provided a forum to recruitFrench-speaking Muslims to fight in Afghanistan. From the sunny Costa Blanca inSpain, FaicalErrai helped run ansaraljihad.net, and provided assistance for radicalsseeking to get to Afghanistan and Chechnya. But Tsouli appears to have been oneof the first Western residents to have been actively solicited by groups in thefield for his technical abilities.
And since Tsouli, we have seen al-Qaeda in the ArabianPeninsula (AQAP) use the skills of a young Pakistani-American radical blogger, SamirKhan, to help them produce Inspiremagazine – a publication that has repeatedly shown up in the hands of recently arrestedterroristplotters. Khan and hisAmerican-Yemeni mentor Anwar al-Awlaki are now both dead, but in a reflectionof the importance that AQAP placed upon al-Awlaki’s capacity to reach a Westernaudience through new media, communicationsfound during the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’sPakistani compound allegedly include an offer from AQAP leader Nasiral-Wuhayshi to put al-Awlaki in charge of the regional group. Bin Ladendeclined the request, possibly highlighting the different level of importancehe placed upon new media capabilities in comparison to his regional affiliateleader.
A particularly surprising aspect of the Jubair Ahmad case isthe volume of micromanagement that Talha Saeed put into creating the video. Hetells Ahmad what images to include (not ones from the group’s infamous Mumbaiattack), where to insert images of his father, the LeT leader, and what musicto have over the video. Saeed is obliged to get someone in America to do thetechnical work for him – quite a long distance from which to direct theproduction of a short YouTube video using easily available technology – whichlikely reflects a greater facility with such technology had by people broughtup in the West.
Just how easy it is to create these videos was seen recentlyin a case in the United Kingdom in which a law student, Mohammad Gul,was convicted of producing YouTube videos that glorified terrorist violence.While clearly the technology to make such videos is something that isuniversal, it does seem as though it is aspirant jihadists in the West who findit easiest to use. There was no evidence that Gul was being directed by foreignterrorist organizations to produce his material, and his case shows the continuedexistence of young Westerners producing radical material on their own. It mayindeed be the case that the virtual armies have yet to fully emerge as activewarriors on the battlefield, but in the meantime they are doing a great deal tokeep the jihadist flame alive on the Web, either by themselves or at thedirection of organized parties.
RaffaelloPantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study ofRadicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming "We Love Death AsYou Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen" (Hurst/Columbia UniversityPress). His writing can be found at: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.