Watching the Watchers
Al Qaeda's bold new strategy is all about using our own words and actions against us. And it's working.
On July 21, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Zachary Adam Chesser on charges that he twice tried to join al-Shabab, the fast-growing Somali terrorist group that has become a close ally of al Qaeda. On October 20, he pleaded guilty to three counts of providing material support to terrorists, communicating threats, and soliciting crimes of violence: He faces upwards of 20 years in jail. Chesser, a 20-year-old Virginian turned radical convert to Islam better known by his Internet sobriquet Abu Talhah al-Amrikee, had become a minor online celebrity in April when he issued a threat against Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the cartoon series South Park. Parker and Stone, Chesser warned, would probably be killed after airing an episode depicting the Prophet Mohammed wearing a bear costume.
It is tempting to dismiss Chesser as just another suburban white kid lashing out at the world. But his story is not the irrelevant absurdity it appeared, not merely another terrorist folly like exploding underpants and the undetonated bomb in Times Square. Chesser, in fact, was the real thing: a significant al Qaeda propagandist for a new moment, South Park fatwa and all. In less than two years, under various identities, Chesser had promoted an extensive collection of radical papers, videos, and blog posts to an astonishing array of online outlets, from the hardest-core al Qaeda discussion forums to mainstream Islamic websites to social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. He even recorded his own jihadi war tunes.
I know all this because I stumbled upon Chesser five months before his arrest: We became improbable pen pals. I first met Chesser virtually, after he posted a comment to my al Qaeda-monitoring blog correcting what he believed to be a mistake I had made. He was bothered by my depiction of his hero, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemeni cleric who has been tied to a growing number of terrorist plots in the United States. I dismissed that post and Chesser’s next one as the usual splenetics of a low-level al Qaeda supporter. It was not until his third post to my website in mid-March, commenting on rifts he saw within the U.S. counterterrorism community, that I suspected “Abu Talhah al-Amrikee” might be different from my typical jihadi critic. Out of curiosity, I emailed him — and surprisingly, he responded. From there we became what you might call hostile friends, sparring over a wide array of topics, including U.S. domestic politics, recent terrorist plots, al Qaeda personalities, and even my own counterterrorism colleagues. We had been discussing the possibility of holding an in-person, public debate just before his arrest.
Under the banner of Abu Talhah al-Amrikee, Chesser’s goal was breathtakingly ambitious: He was trying to make al Qaeda’s radical ideology more accessible to Americans — and thus inspire more people like the Times Square bomber to take up the jihad at home. And Chesser thought he was on his way to doing that, offering his readers a guide to what he called “Counter Counter Terrorism” in a long series of articles he penned and posted to al Qaeda websites before his arrest. His starting premise was that al Qaeda’s online supporters were easily fooled, lazy, and in need of direction. “How are we so gullible that we fall for tricks that our enemy admits are tricks before he tries them on us? This is nonsense and we should not be like this,” he wrote, before going on to offer detailed guidelines for outsmarting the watchers.
In one of our March exchanges, Chesser bragged about his success as a jihadi web publisher; he was, he believed, Americanizing violent jihadi thought:
In 2010 both my youtube page and several others have seen more traffic than in all of 2009. In my case 2010 is 80% of my views so far. Also, the UK was formerly where most of my views were located, but now the United States is on top with Canada closing in.… The growth of my page and some others I pay attention to is looking to hit a rate that would produce more than 1,000,000 views per year. There are currently no jihadi youtube pages with even that many total views.
Whatever his actual traffic, Chesser had become the newest incarnation of a dangerous online phenomenon al Qaeda has inspired over the last several years — one that is helping the group transcend its image as a brutal terrorist organization and attract a much broader spectrum of followers, particularly in the West. In full view of us, al Qaeda is cultivating a nimble, sophisticated global network of Internet activists, amateur pundits, and general well-wishers working to bring al Qaeda to the masses.
This is no longer the original al Qaeda, the highly centralized organization of Osama bin Laden and his closest acolytes, or even its post-9/11 incarnation as a network of affiliates, but a global, fluid, and adaptive amoeba: a kind of collectively self-aware organism, one that closely monitors what Western experts are saying about it — and plots ways to turn those ideas against the United States. The process goes something like this: 1) The U.S. government does something that garners international media coverage, like announcing a new military strategy in Afghanistan or failing to adequately respond to a domestic catastrophe; 2) Self-styled jihadi intelligence analysts, like Chesser, read the coverage and start spinning it to their advantage, either to prove how bad Americans are or to give their movement a heads-up about an impending shift in U.S. approach; 3) America’s al Qaeda media-monitoring machine spots those jihadi analysts talking about us and writes about it, spinning up the U.S. government; 4) The jihadists, who monitor us monitoring them, then post links and/or translations about us watching them watching us.
In short, they watch us, we watch them, and then they watch us watching them. Rinse, repeat. This is the new al Qaeda.
I BECAME AN AL QAEDA WATCHER in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Like many who felt the call to national service after 9/11, I wanted to do my part. But neither my professional skill set nor my constitution lent itself well to hunting al Qaeda operatives in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. I was a nerdy graduate student at the time, armed only with a laptop and a fascination with jihadi literature.
Back then, al Qaeda was a hierarchically managed terrorist group directed by bin Laden and friends. They had a small but real measure of support throughout the Islamic world, and the United States’ main concern was stopping the next 9/11, primarily through what the U.S. military refers to as the kinetic fight — killing and arresting bad guys.
Around 2003, al Qaeda began to morph into a network of regional franchises, coordinated but not necessarily commanded by the group’s senior leadership, thought to be hiding in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I had just landed my first real job in the field that year, thanks to a graduate fellowship working as an intelligence analyst at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center.
Like any eager young analyst, I started trying to make sense of my enemy, whose ranks seemed to be growing in number each day. Between its h
eadquarters in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands and increasingly active regional affiliates in Iraq, North Africa, and Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda had developed a bottomless well of foot soldiers from which to draw. To keep up, I spent most of each day reading reports, sifting through piles of flashcards, and tirelessly studying spaghetti-looking link charts; my mind became a swirling jumble of “Abus” and “Abd als.” But as diabolical as al Qaeda seemed to be, I was learning that not all al Qaedas were created equal.
Sure, more bad guys were blowing things up in more places than ever before. But to increase its numbers and reach, al Qaeda had lowered the bar for entry. This meant that the group’s global ranks were rife with individuals more concerned about shedding blood than long-term consequences. They didn’t know history. They didn’t care about strategy. They only wanted to showcase their newfound power to themselves and the world, no matter what the implications for the jihad as a whole.
The result: Like all terrorist movements, al Qaeda was burning itself out. By conducting attacks that provoke a government overreaction against the community they claim to represent, terrorist groups are often blamed for doing more harm than good — alienating their most important constituencies. The question is when, not if.
Al Qaeda learned this lesson the hard way, losing virtually all support from the Islamic world after its regional affiliates launched waves of bombings against Muslim targets in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria. By 2005, with increased security pressure on every battlefront and discontent mounting from within because of their failure to repeat 9/11, al Qaeda’s big guns knew they had to change their approach. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s chief operating officer, announced that year that al Qaeda had transcended its founding role as a terrorist organization. “Al Qaeda is spreading, expanding, and getting stronger,” he declared. “It has turned, with God’s grace, into a vanguard popular organization confronting the new Crusader-Zionist campaign in defense of all usurped Muslim lands. It is also resisting all the apostate and agent regimes dominating our Muslim nation. It is joined by Muslims from all the Muslim countries.”
Al Qaeda’s brain trust had arrived at two conclusions around this time. First, senior leaders realized that the al Qaeda brand name had attracted a global support base that happened to be highly skilled at using computers and the Internet. But rather than viewing al Qaeda as a fantasy football league, where they would just log on and check the latest stats, these “jihobbyists” — as I termed this army of net-dwelling al Qaeda enthusiasts working out of barren studio apartments or their parents’ basements — had to be convinced to use their time and skills more effectively.
Second, according to al Qaeda, world opinion would turn against the United States if only the true extent of America’s crimes were revealed. That truth, however, has been papered over by a series of lies and myths propagated by the Jewish-controlled media. Therefore, all al Qaeda must do is show the world the unvarnished truth about America’s policies and actions. By exposing that truth for what it is and undoing the lies of the Crusader-Zionist media machine, al Qaeda’s position as the last defender of justice would finally become clear for all to see.
The problem was that al Qaeda’s centralized propaganda machine did not have the time, freedom, or resources to collect the evidence necessary to dispel those “myths.” Top leaders like bin Laden and Zawahiri were too busy simply trying to stay alive. What they needed was an army of researchers with copious free time and high levels of technical know-how to whom they could outsource this function. Enter the jihobbyists.
Al QAEDA’S WEB WORLD EVOLVED in fits and starts. Before 9/11, there were only a handful of websites that trafficked in actual al Qaeda ideology and propaganda. In 2002, hundreds of al Qaeda fan sites started popping up, including dozens of web-based discussion forums. These forums, the virtual equivalent of a junior-high slumber party, allowed al Qaeda supporters to expand their use of the Internet from simply downloading material to becoming persistent participants in an interactive community. As al Qaeda began bypassing mainstream media outlets like Al Jazeera to push more of its own material directly online, jihobbyists began flocking to the web en masse.
By 2005, al Qaeda’s virtual world looked like the Mos Eisley bar in Star Wars, crammed with shadowy miscreants from the farthest reaches of the universe. There were the “official” al Qaeda media organizations, with names like as-Sahab, al-Furqan, and Labayk Media, which recorded, edited, and released their own propaganda, including beheading videos, online magazines, books, attack videos, interviews with bin Laden, and more.
Al Qaeda’s media groups would send these releases to jihadi web forums, like al-Faloja, al-Ekhlaas, and al-Hesbah, where they would be posted for the thousands of online jihobbyists who now gathered to interact. There were also independent jihadi clerics posting their own rants. And there were loosely affiliated media organizations publishing everything from al Qaeda video games to meticulously footnoted English translations of radical screeds. In other words, the jihadi web was buzzing. The problem for al Qaeda was that there was no method to the commotion — just madness.
Most of my first few years monitoring jihadi media were spent in these online trenches, talent-scouting for the occasional independent thinker among the droves of thoughtless warmongers. I would log on to the al Qaeda forums, read their online magazines, watch the video statements, and try to understand what was on their minds.
I eventually discovered that al Qaeda pundits and strategists were mining Western literature for dastardly inspiration, exploring everything from media reports about lingering post-9/11 security vulnerabilities to societal disputes that might be usefully exploited. One of the cleverest jihadi pundits at this time was Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi. Drawing on the works of revolutionaries and military strategists including Mao Zedong, Carl von Clausewitz, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, as well as various American thinkers, Qurashi hoped to remake the global jihadi movement in the image of a revolutionary strategist. According to Qurashi, his aim was “encouraging the spread of the military culture within the ranks of the Islamic movement.”
Qurashi believed that al Qaeda’s adherents needed to study theories and strategies of warfare to grow from a terrorist organization into a full-blown revolutionary movement. Some of the most advanced thinking on such warfare, he argued, had been written by Americans. For instance, citing an October 1989 article published in the Marine Corps Gazette, Qurashi explained to al Qaeda the notion of “fourth generation,” or asymmetric, warfare: “The military targets will not be confined to the destruction of regular armies but will involve the destruction of popular support for fighters within the enemy community.” He cited approvingly the authors’ prediction that the “newscast will be a more lethal weapon than several armored brigades.”
At the time, only a handful of American counterterrorism researchers had ever heard of Qurashi, much less thought that studying him would help in the fight against al Qaeda. Most analysts, operators, and policymakers were still hopelessly entrenched in a 9/11 mode of thought. “Connecting the dots” remained the phrase of choice. They believed practical solutions were needed, not interesting new questions.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated the news, and rightly so. U.S. soldiers were being killed by improvised explosive devices, not online book reports by brainiac jihad
i writers. Although the U.S. government was starting to understand that al Qaeda was producing sophisticated analyses of our own thinking about its style of warfare, the government’s focus was justifiably operational, not conceptual — Qurashi’s writings were just too arcane to worry about.
What did interest the U.S. government about al Qaeda’s online activities was its relationship to the actual wars going on. Reports that al Qaeda’s cybersupporters were using the Internet to recruit, coordinate, fundraise, and even conduct reconnaissance in support of their war effort pushed President George W. Bush’s administration into a Cold War-like spending frenzy. Agencies across the military and intelligence community staffed up new al Qaeda media units. Private companies began peddling pricey Internet-monitoring subscriptions to government clients. And a flurry of independent counterterrorism researchers began sounding the alarm over the latest scary al Qaeda Internet posting.
But the focus was wrong. Most of the attention (and money) was being dedicated to tracking the day-to-day releases from al Qaeda’s Internet propaganda machine. Sure, reports that the winner of a jihadi web-design contest could supposedly fire a missile at U.S. troops with a stroke of his home keyboard were compelling, but they didn’t matter much. Although reporting on those kinds of online advancements briefed well and kept the funds flowing, this approach fundamentally failed to situate al Qaeda’s Internet activities in the broader strategic context. We had enlisted an army of al Qaeda watchers to track the day-to-day commotion, but few saw the bigger picture: that al Qaeda’s global movement was increasingly learning from us about how to defeat us.
IN AUGUST 2006, A SENIOR AL QAEDA LEADER writing under the nom de guerre of Abu Jihad al-Masri published an ambitious online treatise called The Myth of Delusion — a kind of through-the-looking-glass version of the 9/11 Commission report, written by a self-styled terrorist mastermind. The dense 150-page book was filled with inaccuracies and ludicrous portrayals of the U.S. intelligence community: “Revelations” include the purported information that the CIA is spending millions of dollars to create fake Islamic charities that secretly do the U.S. president’s bidding against Islam. But it was significant in that it was one of the first major jihadi works to try to show why the United States failed on 9/11, rather than trumpeting why al Qaeda succeeded.
For Abu Jihad, al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks against the United States shattered the myth of American invincibility and exposed America’s true weakness. His frustration, though, was that his peers were thinking too tactically about how to discredit their adversaries. He wanted to push his movement to think more conceptually about waging war against the United States.
Al Qaeda’s military campaign against America could be bolstered by an intense media campaign, Abu Jihad counseled, one that would turn the U.S. government’s own reports, news, and research back against it. In Abu Jihad’s thinking, who is better positioned to assess America’s strategies, strengths, and vulnerabilities than America’s government intelligence agencies, national media, and academic researchers? All al Qaeda needed to do was begin reading their works and putting those lessons into practice. “From the words of your mouth,” he sneered in the book’s introduction, “I condemn you.”
Al Qaeda had long found success employing this jujitsu approach, reverse-engineering its adversary’s strengths. On 9/11, after all, al Qaeda had used America’s own planes against the United States, to deadly effect. In 2004, al Qaeda leveraged the Internet, broadcasting a horrifying beheading video of American businessman Nicholas Berg that sparked an unprecedented online jihadi free-for-all. In 2002, American al Qaeda leader Adam Gadahn (“Azzam al-Amriki”) began issuing video threats against the United States, showing that even Americans were climbing the terrorist organization’s corporate ladder. Today, most of al Qaeda’s propaganda video footage is ripped straight from American documentaries and newscasts.
Abu Jihad’s 2006 effort to formalize this methodology and create an online militia of al Qaeda “intelligence analysts” was clever. It did not, however, spark a paradigm shift in jihadi thinking — at least, not immediately. The book was too long, too esoteric, and just too dull to capture the imagination of the global al Qaeda movement.
But its ideas soon went viral, in the form of a propaganda video titled The Power of Truth and issued by as-Sahab, one of al Qaeda’s official media organs. Emceed by Zawahiri, the video parades clip after clip of American counterterrorism experts, general officers, policymakers, and media personalities talking about how effective al Qaeda is and how ineffectual the United States has been, including terrorism researcher Peter Bergen, former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay, former U.S. counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, and New York Times reporter John Burns. In one typical line, retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, says, “It is no surprise what happened. We created this insurgency; we allowed it to happen.” Zawahiri had already test-fired a similar video approach in a September 2006 documentary titled Knowledge Is for Acting Upon. But that video was still too earnest. Zawahiri needed something more Michael Moore-ish, an exposé that would hold the attention of his viewers. He found it with The Power of Truth.
The new video hit the jihadi web universe like a bombshell, lighting up chat rooms filled with enthusiastic supporters singing Zawahiri’s praises. After years of self-consciously justifying his importance to the global movement, Zawahiri was finally relevant again. The Power of Truth is now the first thing I show my students after handing out the syllabus in my undergraduate terrorism course.
Rather than just feeding the al Qaeda movement a fish, Zawahiri was teaching terrorist sympathizers how to fish: He was mass-producing the formula for turning America’s own words against it. Jihobbyists swiftly took to the methodology, patrolling the net for exploitable tidbits that they could leverage against the United States. After years of al Qaeda’s online movement chasing the latest fad like 5-year-olds going for a soccer ball, the jihobbyists finally had some direction, stability, and even metrics for effectiveness; just like everyone else, al Qaeda’s webmasters could now obsess over their traffic stats and Facebook friends. The importance of The Power of Truth was affirmed one year later when it made the “must-see al Qaeda videos” shortlist in a massively popular online jihadi book, A Course in the Art of Recruitment.
Al Qaeda’s senior leaders had become motivators-in-chief of the global jihadi movement and in so doing, freed themselves from actually having to conduct real-world operations. A video release could now be just as damning to American credibility as an attack in the physical world, according to this new line of thinking. Leading al Qaeda thinkers had long seen that propaganda was useful for riling up their base and thumbing their noses at the West. But they now realized that the web could transform passive consumers of their ideology into active producers of it.
Bin Laden himself seems to have signed up, perhaps recognizing that although most jihobbyists were not willing to leave their jobs or their families to die for al Qaeda, they would certainly be willing to conduct research or create propaganda on its behalf. Whatever the rationale, he has significantly changed the nature and tone of his public pronouncements in the last couple years. Today, he sounds much less like a bloodthirsty terrorist and more like a jihadi journalist, an itinerant truth-teller se
eking to expose the ugliness of today’s world. Open calls for unrestrained killing like his 2003 command to his followers to “kill Americans and Jews with a bullet, a knife, or a stone” have been replaced with more reasoned appeals to be smarter, not necessarily more lethal: “In order to avoid the failures that prevented the liberation of Palestine over the past decades, the present generation should study the reasons for the failure and take lessons from them. I will participate with you in that,” he counseled in 2008.
By January of this year, bin Laden was even arguing that al Qaeda was the world’s only hope for solving the global-warming crisis. “Talking about climate change is not an intellectual luxury but an actual fact whose importance cannot be dismissed,” he said. “O mankind, O inhabitants of this Earth, it is neither fair nor just, nor is it reasonable or rational, to leave the entire burden on the mujahideen alone in fighting against a problem that is harming the entire world.”
Bin Laden’s tonal shift reflected the fact that propaganda was no longer a one-way road — it could be crowdsourced, broadening its impact and appeal. And in the process, al Qaeda morphed from a terrorist group that halfheartedly used the Internet to promote itself into an Internet movement that halfheartedly uses terrorism to promote itself. The goal is the same — to inspire a global movement to organically and violently resist the “Crusader-Zionist” assault against Islam. It is the means that have changed.
LIKE THE PROVERBIAL PSYCHO killer from a low-budget horror film, al Qaeda just won’t seem to die. Its members have been bombed in South Asia, hunted across the Middle East, and arrested throughout Europe. The group’s senior leadership is reeling from drone strikes, and its global support base is fractured. But true to horror-film form, al Qaeda has once again risen from the dead. The Internet is proving to be the ultimate safe haven.
Al Qaeda’s latest incarnation poses two new problems for the United States. First, despite being banged up, al Qaeda has managed to attract more Americans to its side in recent years than ever before, both in terms of those willing to wage attacks in the real world and those seeking to advance the jihadi cause in cyberspace. In a recent video titled A Call to Arms, senior American al Qaeda member Adam Gadahn instructed his viewers: “The mujahid brother Nidal Hasan used firearms in his assault on Fort Hood, but the fact is, today’s mujahid is no longer limited to bullets and bombs when it comes to his choice of a weapon. As the blessed operations of September 11th showed, a little imagination and planning and a minimal budget can turn almost anything into a deadly, effective, and convenient weapon which can take the enemy by surprise and deprive him of sleep for years on end.” Zachary Chesser was neither the first in flexing his imagination for the good of al Qaeda, nor will he be the last.
The second problem is that those web-based al Qaeda supporters have come to believe that we are the best propaganda they have. Al Qaeda’s new methodology is premised on turning us against us. It is the al Qaeda version of issuing us our Miranda rights: Anything we say can and will be used against us in a court of jihadi public opinion — be it President Barack Obama’s speeches about the economy, U.S. military statistics about soldier suicides, or American media coverage of detainee abuse charges. Whereas bin Laden and company have a long track record of trying to show us how bad we are, al Qaeda’s new approach is to let us show us how bad we are. Worse yet, al Qaeda has now outsourced this to an army of guerrilla analysts like Chesser.
Take Chesser’s attempt to redirect my term “jihobbyist” back against me. My use of the term, he argued, will cause law enforcement to underestimate the threat of online jihadists while pushing people like him to take action to prove that they are a threat. So “when a domestic attack does occur,” he wrote, the “jihobbyist” label could “cause people to blame Jarret Brachman for any shortfalls in attention being payed [sic] to domestic threats.”
And that’s exactly the point, in a way: What makes al Qaeda’s new approach so powerful is that it is now easier than ever for passive jihadi supporters to become active al Qaeda participants, particularly in the West. They no longer need to wait for al Qaeda propaganda. Just like Chesser and the growing number of other American jihadi propagandists operating online, anyone can repost videos, write articles, create Facebook and Twitter accounts, and start blogs filled with content intended to show the world how awful the United States is.
This Power of Truth approach, rooted in finding actual “evidence” of U.S. missteps, has the added benefit of being all the more believable to empirically minded Westerners. Al Qaeda hopes that its online armies of jihobbyists will someday log off and launch their own Fort Hood or Times Square attacks. And eventually, some of them will.