Al Qaeda Wants to Be Friends

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At the beginning of 2010, I began emailing with a young jihadist who went by the online sobriquet of Abu Talhah al-Amrikee. Abu Talhah was a sophisticated poster with a broad understanding of U.S. geopolitics and the mechanics of Internet jihad. He posted on a range of online jihadi forums, while also starting a YouTube channel and his own blog, a screen shot of which is pictured here, The Mujahid Blog. In March, he told me, "In 2010 both [his] youtube page and several others have seen more traffic than in all of 2009." As it turned out, Abu Talhah was a pseudonym for Zachary Chesser, a 20-year-old Muslim convert from suburban Virginia, who would reach infamy for threatening the South Park creators with death for mocking Mohammed and who was indicted this summer for supporting the Somali al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab.

Read Jarret Brachman's November 2010 Watching the Watchers 

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Chesser had a theory of online jihad, which he set out in long posts on his blog and in emails to me. He advocated a sort of propaganda jujitsu, using the West's research into counterterrorism against it. Here's one version of his tips for waging "counter counter terrorism," posted on the Somali jihadi site al-Qimmah.

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Chesser's not the only avid Internet jihadist out there -- not by a long shot. The al Qaeda web universe at large is made up of hundreds of sites. At any given time six to 12 of these are web forums operated by trusted affiliates or supporters of the group and flocked to by members of the faithful. This image features a screen shot from the main page of one of the most trafficked al Qaeda discussion forums, al-Shumukh al-Islam Network. This page shows banner ads, like the ones on Western sites advertising new coffee drinks or luxury travel, linking to al Qaeda media productions, including a new release by al-Andalus Media, the official outlet of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- the fact that it's in duplicate indicates that it's new -- and a new production from American al Qaeda senior member Adam Gadahn. The as-Sahab logo on the right of the Gadahn banner is a stamp of authenticity from the al Qaeda senior leadership's media-production wing.

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In addition to Arabic-language subforums, the al-Shumukh website also offers English and German sections, a multilingual approach that is growing increasingly common on the larger pro-al Qaeda web forums. Other subforums shown here include one on current issues, one on jihad in the Caucasus, one on news about captured jihadists, one on religious issues, a special forum about women and issues regarding the Muslim family, and a password-protected subforum dedicated to the now-captured jihadi historian and propagandist, Abu Musab al-Suri. As with any forum, some threads receive no replies, others will generate tens if not hundreds of posted replies.  

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Another al Qaeda web forum, the al-Mojahden Electronic Network, is a primary dissemination point for al Qaeda-related media. This forum is the first major al Qaeda-affiliated website to launch Facebook pages. It tends to be among the most "techie" in focus, hosting multiple forums on technical aspects of waging violent jihad, including pirating software and showing off homemade al Qaeda propaganda images. The number of participants on this forum, however, is noticeably less than those of some less tech-focused al Qaeda web forums.

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The Arabic-language Ansar al-Mujahideen Network website is an active pro al Qaeda web forum that hosts tens of thousands of postings on everything from current events to religion to all things al Qaeda. This forum includes a "Language and Translation Department" that crowdsources translation, employing its users' language skills to, for example, translate essays from self-styled al Qaeda pundits writing in Arabic into Urdu, German, or English.

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Ansar al-Mujahideen Network has an English-language version that is one of the most trafficked al Qaeda forums online. English-speaking participants from all over the world use the site to share links to al Qaeda videos and fan the flames of violent extremism, for instance trying to rally Algerians to turn against their government for spreading lies about al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This graphic features a banner ad for an attack video released by the Taliban's media outlet, al-Emara. The image also shows some new attempts to restrict entry to the site's full forum, only allowing new members to be admitted through personal introductions and mandating log-in by password.

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Al-Qimmah is a Somali-language extremist web forum, with both Arabic and English subforums. The site is one of the primary places to find content from al-Shabab, as well as most of al Qaeda's online propaganda. The banner featured at the top of the site advertises a new video celebrating Humam al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who killed eight CIA members in Afghanistan in 2009, known to most online jihadists as Abu Dujana al-Khorasani.

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This forum, Islamic Awakening, is a less extreme site that still offers links to harder-core forums, such as this one to al-Qimmah's English subforum. Readers on sites like Islamic Awakening can come from across the ideological spectrum, including those who reject al Qaeda, those who approve of al Qaeda's ideology but not its use of violence, and those who embrace terrorism as a legitimate method. Because of the ideological plurality represented in these forums, there tends to be a lot of debate, though much of the discourse is still juvenile. This kind of infighting on jihadist sites is common but not that well-known publicly. As shown here, most of these forums also give their users the chance to promote threads using social media: Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets.

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Groups affiliated with al Qaeda also maintain their own online presence. This is one of the Taliban's official websites, al-Emara, which provides viewers with regular news and updates about recent operations as well as original multimedia content including attack videos and official Taliban statements for downloading. It has an English-language section as well.

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Other popular sites include file repositories or storehouse websites. This website serves as a de facto library for al Qaeda's global movement, housing a vast array of readings from jihadi authors, alive and dead, from legendary jihadi clerics like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Nasr al-Fahd to operational strategists like late Saudi commander Yusuf al-Ayiri. Texts on this site are arranged both according to theme and by author and have been downloaded and viewed on screen tens of thousands of times. The site recently launched an English-language section.

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Here's a sample of the library's content: a list of works produced by al Qaeda's top theological voice, Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi. It includes links to his monographs, transcripts of interviews, and even some poetry.

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Beyond the web forums and library sites, al Qaeda material can now be found across social media platforms. This graphic shows an official YouTube page for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its al-Malahim media outlet. Many of the group's propaganda videos can be viewed here; some of them now have English subtitles.

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Al-Mojahden Electronic Network is the first major al Qaeda affiliated web forum to launch its own Facebook page. With nearly 200 fans, the page offers a convenient way for al-Mojahden to advertise news, events, and new releases. Facebook fans of this site and other jihadi pages seem to come from all over the world, including a sizable percentage hailing from Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. These jihadi Facebook users post a variety of images -- including of themselves -- as well as links to a variety of al Qaeda material.

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Some recently released audiotapes from Osama bin Laden (Oct. 1 and 2, 2010), offer a good demonstration of how extremist content finds its way across the al Qaeda web world. The tapes were first posted by as-Sahab's media distribution liaison to the major al Qaeda discussion forums, like this one, the Al-Mojahden Electronic Network.

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If you click on the animated banner, you are taken to the actual thread, which features a long list of redundant links to the files in various sizes and formats.

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Enthusiastic participants tend to respond to these postings with their own celebratory postings. In this case, an al Qaeda web user has adopted bin Laden's image as his personal avatar and uploaded a photo of bin Laden to show his delight over the new release.

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Other users, as shown here, create minute-by-minute snapshots of the entire product so that other participants can more readily see what they are about to download.

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Once users download an al Qaeda media product, they tend to repost it to other al Qaeda forums or, in this case, free file-sharing sites, linking back to their uploads so that more and more backup copies are created.

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And eventually, like everything these days, the video makes it onto Facebook, via the al-Mojahden Electronic Network's page.

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