The internet has changed the way humans communicate: the ability to connect with more people than ever before, more quickly and more easily, has fuelled our ability to follow passions and desires. Suburban housewives have Pinterest. Teenagers have Snapchat. Football fans can argue on forums and discuss highlights on YouTube.
But it’s not all fun and games, because the same advantages – speed, scale and anonymity – are available to less family-friendly enthusiasms. In fact, the internet makes a great place for terror fanboys to hang out and fantasise about committing violence. Attitudes are strengthened, opinions validated. And some of these people eventually become terrorists themselves.
In recent years, simple email has been a crucial part of the terrorrist’s arsenal. Both Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square Bomber, and Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood Shooter, were mentored by al-Qaeda talent spotter Anwar al-Awlaki via email. Despite the NSA’s best attempts, with a tiny bit of technical know-how emails can be made very secure.
But it’s not the humble email that has caught the imagination of the media and politicians. It’s the extremist websites – and, in particular, forums – on which young people are being radicalised. In the wake of Drummer Lee Rigby’s murder outside Woolwich barracks, a Cabinet-level task force announced discussions with internet service providers on a “new code of conduct requiring companies to be more proactive in taking down extremist websites and messages”.
So where are these websites and what are they like? J.M. Berger, an expert on jihadist forums and author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam, described the hierarchy of radical forums to us. “There’s a pecking order of forums, going from radical to extreme (supporting explicit violence) to terrorist (connected with an actual terrorist network). As you move up the pecking order, you have to work hard to get a membership.”
The perception that the web is flooded with extremist forums is pervasive, but a quick internet search shows just how effective the drive by national security services to shut down these sites has been. That said, while forums that host explicit advocation of violence tend to be hidden, radical forums that support the ideology of violent jihad can still be found with a bit of digging.
The most popular English language forum is Islamic Awakening. Its main forums are completely open and very active. Once you have been registered and posting for a while you can apply for access to the locked forum and only then with someone who knows you in real life vouching for you.
Like any other forum, it is populated by diverse personalities. Some people are polite and some rude, some are sincere and some flippant. On the whole, posters take their ideology seriously: theological discussions (known as “Koran-duelling”) take place about all matters of life.
Shia Muslims, Jews and other non-Muslims aren’t always talked about in the most pleasant way. But, in general, at least on the public areas of the site, you’re unlikely to find anything worse than the comment section on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.
The site used to openly host more extreme content than it does today. Archived copies of the site show that, in 2003, a thread was started called “Why I Support Sheikh Usama bin Laden (hafidhahullah)”. the post began with:
I support Sheikh Usama bin Laden (hafidhahullah) because it is my understanding that he is acting according to Quran and Sunnah, and that in doing his duty, as a Muslim, he is obeying Allah (SWT) and Allah (SWT) alone. Everything that he does and says is motivated by his desire to do what is right, as judged by Quran and Sunnah.
I support him because it is my understanding that he is a devout and humble Muslim, much given to remembering Allah (SWT). In truth, I support him – and applaud his actions – because he is an excellent example of all the virtues that a good Muslim should aspire to, as even a brief knowledge of his life will show.
Here’s the first comment on that post:
Your words ring true and proof is in the telling. Whenever brothers have not supported each other and disunity has abounded, blood has been shed… May Allah indeed forgive us our sins and protect us from the Hellfire…and may He give us the strength to triumph over our oppressors.
Times have moved on. With extremist forums falling prey to government attacks and the presence of counter-extremist agents, such blatant glorification of terror tends not to fly in public any longer. Now the more extreme content that is disseminated on the open part of the site is generally posted in the “Politics, Jihad and Current Affairs”, often as “news items”.
These news items are used to dump jihadi content from other sites onto the forum. These posts can get many views but people know better than to comment extensively on them. They include posts such as Mujahideen & Training, a call to take up armed jihad, Mujahideen strong in North Afghanistan, an update from the Taliban on their growing success against the “enemy” and Mujahideen eliminate 23 apostates in a large-scale operation in Ichkeria, a cross-post from the Kavkaz Center website detailing the successful murder of non-Muslims.
Occasionally someone judges it safe to comment on one of these posts and the true colour of the site seeps out as the community responds in kind to the initial pressure valve. One such thread was called There was never any such thing as an Al-Qaaida. The comments underneath included praise of Al-Qaeda:
it is clear who are the lions of jihad, the righteous, and who are the true oppressors and as you say, evil-doers, in this war. A very interesting video. The kuffar will always slander the righteous to oppress the innocent.
It got worse:
The end of America is destruction and they know that clearly . USA and Nato are slowly bailing out of afghanistan . Brothers please dont refrain yourself from jihad it is the most important obligation in this world of fitna . Help the mujahideen in any way you can to help them establish shariah
well, dont get me wrong
Eventually posters began to express support for global Islamic militants:
i think the US justice system may have manufactured the term, and the mujahideen appreciated the free PR. and Allah knows best. now alqaaida has become synonymous with any muslim uprising against tyranny and oppression whether from the kuffar or our illustrious leaders
And a reclamation of the responsibility for 9/11 for Muslims from some of the ‘truthers’ posting comments:
9/11 was done by mujahideen . If all odds are against you and Allah is with you then that is enough for you . At least it is the belief of the muslims . If you prefer the theories of kufar writers over the theories of islam then you are choosing the wrong side
In another post, someone posed the question: “What exactly is “al-qaaida’s ideology?“. The comments were surprisingly blunt.
There are certainly those within our faith who wish to subvert the image of our lions of jihad, al-Qaida. InshALLAH they will fail.
Brothers Allah is with the mujahideen . If you cant support them at least stop supporting the forces of dajjal. Mujahideen attacked the landmark of military status pentagon,landmark of economic status world trade center . It was and still is the biggest loss made to kufaar by mujhaideen
Only one member said that Al-Qaeda’s ideology was not compatible with Islam:
“Al Qaida members blow themselves up which is haram they also do this in places with disregard for children, women and the elderly. Their ideology is not an Islamic one but one that should be avoided at all cost.”
But he was quickly shot down:
so you have no islamic basis, just the word from the same zionist controlled, cia supported, kafir sources that you claim Al-CIAda are part of
ok, now we know you are a slanderer of muslims
It isn’t just support for violent jihad that’s expressed on these forums. Three weeks ago, someone made a post titled “Kufar, and yet Family.” In it, she described how she was going to lure her apostate brother out of the country on false pretences and then have him kidnapped and taken to a “mental health asylum” run by sheikhs. Apparently this had all been arranged. She hoped it would cure him of his “jinn”:
Only one person told her that kidnapping her brother was wrong. “This is probably the worst idea ever. The Daily Mail would love to report on this.”
There should be no doubt that online content alone is enough to convince someone to carry out violence. In 2010, British MP Stephen Timms was victim to a premeditated attack during which one of his constituents, Roshonara Choudhry, stabbed him with a kitchen knife. During police interviews, she revealed how the repetitive watching on YouTube of sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki convinced her to carry out the attack.
Written, audio and video content holds the power to radicalise minds. In practice, one-on-one interaction is key. The role forums play in facilitating these introductions was described to us by Berger: “Recruiting is done by individuals, not by forums themselves. Recruiters hunt in all of the forums, but now also on social media. However personal relationships still reign supreme in this area.
“Most recruitment involves a crucial stage in which someone knows someone in the real world. People who do most of their interaction with the jihadist movement online tend to stay online, but there are a handful of prominent online figures who have graduated to real-world terrorism.”
The “lone wolf” attacks warned of by some analysts haven’t materialised at scale, but smaller and harder to detect attacks are starting to become more frequent. It has been al-Qaeda’s strategy to encourage these attacks and the forums of which Islamic Awakening is the gateway play no small part.
While successful attacks have been small in number, we simply don’t know how many are prevented by the security services. It’s fair to infer from the several prevented attacks that get reported each year the number is very large. The number of extremist prevented from graduating to terrorists through early intervention will likely never be known.