Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Web of Lone Wolves

Fort Hood shows us that Internet jihad is not a myth.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Upon learning of the reported "missed" link between the alleged culprit responsible for the massacre at Ft. Hood -- Maj. Malik Nidal Hasan -- and Anwar al Awlaki, my heart sank for a multitude of reasons. Al Awlaki is an infamous character in the halls of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and he has been for several years at least. The cleric's recurring presence again in the Ft. Hood case seems to be powerful and disturbing evidence of how fringe extremists -- who otherwise might remain in obscurity with no real means of living out their private jihadi fantasies -- are quite literally being equipped for battle by so-called "theological" advisors known only to them through the Internet. In short, it is a reminder of how real online terrorism networks have become.

In mid-2008, I was invited by the FBI to look at the voluminous evidence they had gathered against a group of defendants who were caught plotting to attack various military installations on the East Coast, including Fort Dix in New Jersey. At first, I was a skeptic. Most of the men under scrutiny were Westernized Albanian Muslims who spoke little to no Arabic, were into hip-hop music, and were working as pizza delivery boys and taxi drivers. They didn't have any obvious connection to al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, they had never visited a real terrorist training camp, and they cut a pretty kooky appearance.  They certainly didn't seem to fit the classical terrorist stereotype.

But to my surprise, this motley crew of would-be homegrown killers turned out to be much more sophisticated than I had initially given them credit for.  Aside from having an unsettling interest in acquiring assault rifles, these young men had separately downloaded hundreds of megabytes of hardcore terror propaganda videos from the web, including the wills of Sept. 11 hijackers and the July 7 London suicide bombers, and instructional materials on how to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and carry out sniper attacks -- and they knew all about radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his online lecture series "Constants on the Path of Jihad." 

Upon learning of the reported "missed" link between the alleged culprit responsible for the massacre at Ft. Hood — Maj. Malik Nidal Hasan — and Anwar al Awlaki, my heart sank for a multitude of reasons. Al Awlaki is an infamous character in the halls of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and he has been for several years at least. The cleric’s recurring presence again in the Ft. Hood case seems to be powerful and disturbing evidence of how fringe extremists — who otherwise might remain in obscurity with no real means of living out their private jihadi fantasies — are quite literally being equipped for battle by so-called "theological" advisors known only to them through the Internet. In short, it is a reminder of how real online terrorism networks have become.

In mid-2008, I was invited by the FBI to look at the voluminous evidence they had gathered against a group of defendants who were caught plotting to attack various military installations on the East Coast, including Fort Dix in New Jersey. At first, I was a skeptic. Most of the men under scrutiny were Westernized Albanian Muslims who spoke little to no Arabic, were into hip-hop music, and were working as pizza delivery boys and taxi drivers. They didn’t have any obvious connection to al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, they had never visited a real terrorist training camp, and they cut a pretty kooky appearance.  They certainly didn’t seem to fit the classical terrorist stereotype.

But to my surprise, this motley crew of would-be homegrown killers turned out to be much more sophisticated than I had initially given them credit for.  Aside from having an unsettling interest in acquiring assault rifles, these young men had separately downloaded hundreds of megabytes of hardcore terror propaganda videos from the web, including the wills of Sept. 11 hijackers and the July 7 London suicide bombers, and instructional materials on how to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and carry out sniper attacks — and they knew all about radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his online lecture series "Constants on the Path of Jihad." 

In "Constants," al Awlaki argues, "Jihad does not depend on any particular land.  It is global. … No borders or barriers stop it." He continues, "If a particular people or nation is classified as … ‘the people of war’ in the Shariah, that classification applies to them all over the earth.  Islam cannot be customized to suit the conditions where you are, for instance Europe." 

Al-Awlaki’s fanatical "lone wolf" approach to jihad — broadcast virally over the Internet — was adopted with terrific gusto by, among others, the Fort Dix plotters, who were caught by the FBI in early 2007 discussing the extent of their devotion to al-Awlaki. In a conversation taped by the FBI in 2007, one said, "[T]his brother locked up in Yemen, Anwar al Awlaki the Imam in Washington D.C., they kicked him out of the U.S. and now they locked him up in Yemen. He was talking about jihad, the truth, no holds barred, straight how it is!  … In his own country they locked him up for speaking like this." 

In another conversation recorded by the FBI in February 2007, convicted Fort Dix conspirator Eljvir Duka repeatedly instructed other "recruits" to download copies of Anwar al-Awlaki’s lectures. "It’s called the Constants of Jihad, the Constants of Jihad and this, ever since I heard this lecture brother I want everyone to hear about it," he said. "You know why, because he gives it to you raw and uncut … this is the truth I don’t give a damn what everybody says this is Islam, this is the truth right here. … So this lecture is very necessary for people today, if you’re concerned. … [It is] verbal, audio, you have to download it."

Perhaps this is the most frustrating aspect of transnational vendors of hate and mayhem like al Awlaki. The Internet has inadvertently become a powerful tool in their hands, offering easy access to an interactive virtual universe where they can mobilize vulnerable, unstable people around the world and incite them to carry out acts of violence. And because the message is spread to individuals scattered across the globe, the violence comes in seemingly random bursts from unexpected sources – like pizza delivery boys, or even an Army psychologist. Even Web-savvy Holocaust Museum shooter James Von Brunn, for example, turned to the parallel virtual world of neo-Nazi radicals for instruction and support.

With such a generalized threat, it will be a continuing challenge for Western governments and societies to draw the fine line between what is protected under the freedom of speech and what is criminalized as direct incitement to murder.  In order to help address those critical determinations and intercept potential threats, the FBI and other government agencies must redouble their efforts at sharing intelligence in a timely and effective manner. They must train and empower agents and analysts, who are on the frontlines of the battle against terrorism, by training them about the players and issues peculiar to the blight of international terrorism. Surely, if homegrown extremists can train themselves to be al Qaeda aficionados using only their own home computers, then it is within the capabilities of a determined U.S. government to thwart them.

Evan Kohlmann is senior investigator for the NEFA Foundation and works as a private consultant and expert witness on behalf of the FBI, Scotland Yard, and other law enforcement agencies in cases involving suspected homegrown terrorists.

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