Posts Tagged ‘online radicalisation’

I had a feature piece in today’s Observer newspaper in the wake of the Foley murder this week. This time focusing on the online reactions amongst the jihadi twittersphere to the murder and putting it in a wider context. For some reason, the piece appeared in the Observer app and newspaper, but not online yet. However, the editors have generously allowed me to repost it here. I did a number of interviews around this as well, but many have not yet appeared online. One for the Sunday Mail has shown up and another for a Columbian magazine called Semana. More undoubtedly on this general topic to come.

Extremists preach to the converted and bid to provoke a global reaction

Observer screenshot_August 2014

“What a beautiful message to America!” said Qaqa Britani, a Mancunian jihadist fighting in Syria  in response to the videoed murder of James Foley last week. Agreeing with him, another British fighter using the twitter handle @muhajirbritanni proclaimed “Allahu akbar, the best IS video so far, a message to america, Masha Allah Allahu akbar”. While incomprehensible to most people, the justifications offered by these fighters provide a view into their thinking, one that while at odds with public opinion has a warped logic that sustains them as they fight alongside Isis.

It is not the first time that Qaqa Britani has found notoriety for posting pictures of beheadings. Earlier this month he posted a picture of someone holding up a decapitated Assad regime fighter with the declaration “another nusayri head. We strike terror into their hearts by Allah’s permission!” In a nod to the fact that he was doing this for an audience, he then offered an apology for the bad lighting, stating “sorry my camera doesn’t have a flash”.

A couple of weeks later, another British fighter, identified as former rap MC Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, posted a picture of himself in Raqqa holding up a severed head with the statement “chillin’ with my other homie, or what’s left of him”.

By highlighting that these deaths have been done in the name of their god, the men are pointing to the strength and purity of their cause. For them, the murder of James Foley was an act that taunted the world and showed their power and the relative weakness of the American government, which was unable to prevent it.

Others took a different reaction to the murder, falling back instead into spurious comparisons. One pro-Isis twitter account @abulooz22 said: “2035 Palestians killed….barely a reaction 1 American killed…..World on IS.”

A British fighter using the name Abu Abdullah Britani, who is linked to the Rayat al Tawheed cluster of Brits fighting in Syria who have been responsible for a number of gruesome videos that have attracted public attention, took a similar approach, stating: “A brother severed one body part and the world went nuts. A drone severes a body into a hundred pieces but no one says nothing. #cheapBlood.”

These kinds of comparisons are typical of extremist narratives. Seeing the world through a narrow lens of confrontation between the west and Sunni Islam, all they are interested in is supporting evidence they selectively find around them.

Most grim of the reactions found to the video of Foley’s murder was that of British extremists who revelled in pride at the fact that it appeared to be one of their number in the video. “Beheaded by a British brother! What an honour!’ declared Qaqa Britani, while Abul Muthanna, believed to be the account of one of a group from Cardiff, reacted to a question about the video saying “lol the bruddas went on a mad one here, that british brother allahumma barik alayh what a lion!”

For those fighting in Syria, the narratives they broadcast through social media are aimed at people who already agree with them, as well as provoking a reaction from the world at large. Their aim is to justify, and the more extreme the justification, the more likely it is to generate a reaction. In this way, their narrative becomes debated and increasingly brought into the public conversation. Suddenly their extreme ideas are being pulled into the mainstream.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute

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A new post for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, exploring western jihobbyists use of the Internet and their connections with radical groups. I have a longer book chapter on a similar topic forthcoming – exploring the history of use of the Internet. A topic ripe for further contemplation I think – any tips for interesting articles warmly appreciated.

The jihad will be YouTubed

By Raffaello Pantucci | Thursday, December 15, 2011 | 11:23AM

Two weeks ago, 24-year-old Pakistani-American Jubair Ahmad admitted that 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. Around the same time, governments on both sides of the Atlantic published findings into the link between online activity and terrorism. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office published a paper that concluded “the internet does not appear to play a significant role in AQIR [al Qaeda influenced radicalization],” while in the United States, at a hearing on the Hill, RAND terrorism guru Brian Michael Jenkins concluded that jihadist websites “may create virtual armies, but these armies remain virtual.” But while the link between turning individuals from passive consumers into active terrorists may be weak, cases like that of Jubair Ahmad show the important role this virtual army can play in magnifying the message of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.

Jubair Ahmed is not the first Western individual who has helped establish websites or created video content in support of radical groups. One of the earliest was U.K.-based www.azzam.com, established in 1996, which provided a point from which groups in Afghanistan and Chechnya could broadcast their message while also telling potential recruits how to contact the groups. In addition,www.azzam.com  (using the moniker Azzam Publications) helped produce a series of videos and cassette tapes about the fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya that venerated fighters in the field.

By the mid-2000s, the Internet had become a more viable vehicle through which videos could not only be sold, but also streamed and downloaded. Recognizing the value of getting footage from the field out as quickly as possible, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was at the forefront of a new practice, turning videos into slick packages that could be uploaded onto radical forums. But what was most interesting was the revelation in late 2005 that British police in London had found a young Moroccan who turned out to be the infamous online jihadist known as Irhabi007 (terrorist007). Using this online handle, Younis Tsouli had set himself up as a key webmaster and designer for AQI, and was notorious for being able to find the webspace needed to publish the grim video American contractor Nicholas Berg’s beheading.

The novel aspect in Tsouli’s case was the fact that AQI leaders noticed his online abilities and started to use him as a key outlet for their material. There have been numerous other Western webmasters for important al-Qaeda linked websites – for example, in Belgium, Malika el-Aroud ran MinbarSoS, a website that provided a forum to recruit French-speaking Muslims to fight in Afghanistan. From the sunny Costa Blanca in Spain, Faical Errai helped run ansaraljihad.net, and provided assistance for radicals seeking to get to Afghanistan and Chechnya. But Tsouli appears to have been one of the first Western residents to have been actively solicited by groups in the field for his technical abilities.

And since Tsouli, we have seen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) use the skills of a young Pakistani-American radical blogger, Samir Khan, to help them produce Inspire magazine – a publication that has repeatedly shown up in the hands of recently arrested terrorist plotters. Khan and his American-Yemeni mentor Anwar al-Awlaki are now both dead, but in a reflection of the importance that AQAP placed upon al-Awlaki’s capacity to reach a Western audience through new media, communications found during the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound allegedly include an offer from AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi to put al-Awlaki in charge of the regional group. Bin Laden declined the request, possibly highlighting the different level of importance he placed upon new media capabilities in comparison to his regional affiliate leader.

A particularly surprising aspect of the Jubair Ahmad case is the volume of micromanagement that Talha Saeed put into creating the video. He tells Ahmad what images to include (not ones from the group’s infamous Mumbai attack), where to insert images of his father, the LeT leader, and what music to have over the video. Saeed is obliged to get someone in America to do the technical work for him – quite a long distance from which to direct the production of a short YouTube video using easily available technology – which likely reflects a greater facility with such technology had by people brought up in the West.

Just how easy it is to create these videos was seen recently in 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 is universal, it does seem as though it is aspirant jihadists in the West who find it easiest to use. There was no evidence that Gul was being directed by foreign terrorist organizations to produce his material, and his case shows the continued existence of young Westerners producing radical material on their own. It may indeed be the case that the virtual armies have yet to fully emerge as active warriors on the battlefield, but in the meantime they are doing a great deal to keep the jihadist flame alive on the Web, either by themselves or at the direction of organized parties.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst/Columbia University Press). His writing can be found at:http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.

My latest for the CTC Sentinel, this time looking at UK’s online counter-jihad. Some more detail on this story is going to appear in my forthcoming book. It is also the subject of a much bigger publication which I will eventually get around to doing. Understanding how to counter online terrorist activity is going to be a key question that needs answering.

The UK’s Efforts to Disrupt Jihadist Activity Online

Sep 26, 2011

The desire to find ways to moderate the internet as a tool for the spread of violence and radical ideas is not new or unique to the United Kingdom. This fight, however, is becoming more important as networks involved in terrorist activity increasingly turn to the internet as a vehicle through which to conduct planning, operations and radicalization.[1]

This article maps out this fight within a British context to shed light on how the problematic nexus of the internet and radical ideas is evolving, as well as how its importance has grown as traditional al-Qa`ida networks find themselves under even heavier pressure.

Historical Roots
The United Kingdom has long been a hub of online jihadist activity.[2] One of the earliest networks was the http://www.azzam.com family of sites that from 1994 to early 2002 provided interested people with a way of reaching out to jihadist groups fighting in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.[3] Its believed webmaster, a British Pakistani named Babar Ahmad who has admitted to engaging in militant activities in Bosnia, is currently in a British prison fighting extradition to the United States.[4]

A couple of years after Ahmad was arrested, police in London disrupted a group of three young men who appeared to be involved with a cell of Bosnian extremists planning an attack on a NATO base in the former Yugoslavia. The men were in fact part of a much wider network that stretched across the United Kingdom, and had links in Canada, Denmark, Sweden and the United States. Key cells in the United Kingdom were using the internet to draw in recruits and provide connections to extremist camps in Pakistan, while also acting as an online media center for al-Qa`ida in Iraq.[5] This network particularly alarmed British security planners who had never seen anything like it before, with then-Metropolitan Police counterterrorism head Peter Clarke saying “it was the first virtual conspiracy to murder that we had seen.”[6]

Yet the larger menace seems to be the way that the internet is able to act as a catalyst for information dissemination to extremists who have then gone on to conduct terrorist attacks. Two specific cases stand out as particularly worrying. First, Roshonara Choudhry, the seemingly well-integrated East London woman who self-radicalized online listening to Anwar al-`Awlaqi and then tried to kill a Member of Parliament for voting in support of the Iraq war. Second, Nicky Reilly, the mentally challenged young man who was persuaded by extremists he encountered online to attempt a suicide attack in an Exeter chain restaurant; diners were only saved by the fact that the bomb blew up in his face as he attempted to assemble it in the restaurant’s toilet.

The United Kingdom’s Reaction
In the face of this threat, the United Kingdom has launched a string of counter operations that seek to address the problem of terrorists using the internet from upstream disruption, to downstream arrests and trying to develop a strategy that is able to focus on this problem in a new way. In the recently refreshed Contest counterterrorism strategy, the British government identified that terrorists used the internet for “propaganda,” “radicalization and recruitment,” “communication,” “attack planning” and “cyber attack.”[7] The last of these, “cyber attack,” was identified as being of “low” probability, with the document identifying an incident in 2010 as the “first recorded incident of a terrorist ‘cyber’ attack on corporate computer systems.”[8] In that incident, a computer worm called “here you have” spread a virus that crashed computers and provided its creators with backdoor access to infected systems.[9] While security planners continue to watch this threat and expect it to grow “as the tools and techniques needed for cyber attack become more widely available,” it is largely the other ideological and operational aspects of support that the internet provides that British planners are targeting.[10]

According to the annual report by the parliamentary committee with oversight of Britain’s intelligence agencies, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s version of the American National Security Agency) spent a third of its efforts during the past two cycles on counterterrorism. The “bulk of this effort” was spent in “Pursue…namely, to stop terrorist attacks.” As with much of the British intelligence community, the focus shifted from solely “British Pakistani operations” to growing threats in Yemen and East Africa. The report also mentions that GCHQ’s work helped disrupt al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) plans in the previous year as well as specific “hostage-taking plans” by an anonymous group.[11]

In a particularly notable incident from mid-2010, British government-supported hackers penetrated AQAP systems and were able to insert a garbled code into the first edition of Inspire magazine, delaying its release by a few weeks.[12] In the operation, which was apparently separately considered by Pentagon planners but rejected by the Central Intelligence Agency,[13] British intelligence operatives inserted a code later revealed to be a list of cupcake recipes.[14] In a separate AQAP linked operation earlier in the year, British officers had arrested a Bangladeshi national named Rajib Karim who was working in information technology at British Airways while in direct contact with AQAP ideologue Anwar al-`Awlaqi. It is unclear how Karim was first picked up, but his electronic communications with al-`Awlaqi were one of the main planks of the prosecution’s case against him—showing as they did his intent to help the group launch attacks against aviation.[15]

In January 2008, British officers launched a more traditional operation in the wake of a posting on the al-ekhlaas.com forum proclaiming the creation of an al-Qa`ida branch in the United Kingdom.[16] After investigation, MI5 identified the source as a Blackburn native named Ishaq Kanmi, who local officers were able to video as he openly downloaded information off extremist forums at the local library.[17] Connected to Kanmi was a pair of local brothers convicted on other charges and Krenar Lusha, an Albanian immigrant who was identified from online chats he had been having with Kanmi. The conversations were enough to alarm officers who investigated further. When they burst into his home in August 2008, they found large amounts of radical material (including documents about how to build bombs and detonators), 71 liters of petrol, two kilograms of potassium nitrate and 14 mobile telephones.[18] While police and prosecutors were unable to ascertain exactly what Lusha was planning, they concluded that he was likely a “lone wolf” that they had happened to catch early.[19] His only connections to extremists came from his online contacts—similar in many ways to Nicky Reilly, the young man who attempted to detonate a bomb in an Exeter restaurant in May 2008.

This sort of approach was again seen in November 2010, when about a week after Roshonara Choudhry was convicted of attempting to kill a Member of Parliament, police in Wolverhampton arrested Bilal Zaheer Ahmad for posting inflammatory comments on a variety of English-language forums praising Choudhry and calling for others to emulate her. A long-time extremist, Ahmad went so far as to post lists of other MPs who had voted for the war, as well as providing their contact information and a link to buying knives at Tesco (a British retailer). He pled guilty and was jailed for 12 years.[20]

More significant in many ways, however, was the case against Mohammed Gul, a London-based student who was active on extremist forums and created videos that he published on YouTube celebrating the deaths of U.S. soldiers, highlighting the plight in Gaza and demonstrating how to make IEDs. While it took two attempts to convict him (the first jury was unable to reach a verdict), he was in the end jailed for five years in a case that was described by a senior officer as being “one of the first successful prosecutions relating to disseminating terrorist publications via the internet.”[21] Unlike many of the cases listed in this article that involved the internet as the main plank of the prosecution’s case to show the individual’s involvement in terrorism, Gul did not plead guilty. His successful conviction is likely to be followed by a further set of cases as police and prosecutors now see it is possible to convict individuals on such charges.

On the other end of the scale, there has been an effort by British security services to find ways of countering the spread of radical ideas using the internet. This has been met with mixed success. In one instance, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) sponsored the production of a short film that was to be released online that was intended to provide a dissuading narrative for young people drawn toward jihadist ideas. Called Wish You Waziristan, the film told the story of two young British-Pakistanis who end up in a training camp in Waziristan.[22] Independently produced with £33,000 of government funds, clips from the animated short were released onto YouTube in April-May 2011 with endings telling people to come back on May 29 to see the entire story. When a British Sunday newspaper discovered the provenance of the film’s funding, however, the FCO suddenly became concerned and instead put the film’s release on hiatus.[23] In a separate case, the FCO funded British online activists to go into jihadist forums such as al-Shamouk and challenge radical messages.[24]

The United Kingdom has also created a number of organizations that try to help counter the spread of radical ideas online by either providing a counternarrative through the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), or through trying to get the public to help alert them to extremist material they find online through the Counterterrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU), a specialist police unit. Success, however, has been mixed, with Contest branding the four year old RICU’s work “not…as successful as we want.”[25] Only created in 2010, CTIRU remains a young organization, although it has removed unidentified material from the internet on 165 occasions between July 2010-July 2011.[26]

Conclusion
Britain’s cyber-spooks and cyber-cops are highly adaptive and active in trying to counter the threat from Islamist radicalization online.[27] In doing so, they have conducted disruption operations, helped U.S. authorities (most notably with the case of Najibullah Zazi where it is understood that British intelligence agencies provided the key first hint of danger to New York authorities), and have now started to arrest some of the many online extremists that live in the United Kingdom. The successful prosecution of Mohammed Gul is instructive in this regard as it carves a path that British authorities are likely to increasingly use in the future to counter this threat.

The larger significance of this increasing focus on the online threat is two-fold. On the one hand, it demonstrates the growing level of concern about online extremists. As President Barack Obama and others have said, it is increasingly the threat of “lone wolf” extremists that concern them most—individuals who tend to be spurred to violence by material they find online rather than by traditional terrorist recruitment networks. Yet this is taking place as the general assessment about the capacity of traditional violent Islamist terrorist groups is going down. The open question that remains is whether these two trends are linked—and whether al-Qa`ida and affiliated groups are trying to increasingly turn to an online jihad as they see their efforts offline continuing to be disrupted.

Supporting the notion of the shift online being the product of increasing entropy among al-Qa`ida and affiliated groups is the fact that the British government is increasingly willing to expend its scarce counterterrorism resources on individuals like Mohammed Gul. While it was later revealed that Gul was in contact with more dangerous extremists in Germany, his case would unlikely have received any particular attention if security forces had large-scale plots to focus on instead. Consequently, while it would be unwise to conclude that Britain’s jihad has been wrapped up (and recent arrests in Birmingham indicate it remains a live concern), it does seem clear that it has moved into a new phase that is going to be characterized by plots with a strong online presence like many of those listed in this article. It is safe to conclude that Britain’s jihad is increasingly shifting online.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (C.Hurst & Co.).

[1] “Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” HM Government, July 2011, available at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/counter-terrorism/counter-terrorism-strategy/contest-summary?view=Binary.

[2] For an excellent early primer on British Muslim identity online that includes a discussion on the more extreme elements, see Gary R. Bunt, “ten.niatirb@malsi: ‘British Muslim’ Identities in Cyberspace,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 10:3 (1999).

[3] For information on azzam.com’s illegal activities, see U.S.A. v. Babar Ahmad, “Affadavit in Support of Request for Extradition of Babar Ahmad,” District Court of Connecticut, 2004.

[4]  “Terror Suspect Babar Ahmad is ‘No al Qaeda Rambo,’” BBC, May 9, 2011.

[5]  Raffaello Pantucci, “Operation Praline: The Realization of al-Suri’s Nizam, la Tanzim?” Perspectives on Terrorism 2:12 (2008).

[6] “The World’s Most Wanted Cyber-Jihadist,” BBC, January 16, 2008.

[7] “Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” p. 73.

[8] Ibid., p. 34.

[9] “Cyber Jihad Group Linked to ‘Here You Have’ Worm,” IDG News Service, September 10, 2010.

[10] “Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” p. 74.

[11] “Annual Report 2010-2011,” UK Intelligence and Security Committee, July 2011.

[12] “MI6 Attacks al Qaeda in ‘Operation Cupcake,’” Telegraph, June 2, 2011.

[13] “List of Cyber-Weapons Developed by Pentagon to Streamline Computer Warfare,” Washington Post, June 1, 2011.

[14] “Al Qaeda Magazine is a Cupcake Recipe Book,” PublicIntelligence.net, July 12, 2010.

[15] “Rajib Karim: The Terrorist Inside British Airways,” BBC, February 28, 2011. For more on what Karim was actually plotting, it is instructive to read his e-mails with al-`Awlaqi, available at http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/8880903.Excerpts_from_Rajib_Karim_terror_plot_messages/?ref=rss.

[16] “Skepticism Greets ‘Al Qaeda in Britain’ Founding,” Reuters, January 16, 2008.

[17]  “Man Jailed for Urging Blair and Brown Assassinations,” Press Association, June 24, 2010.

[18] “Would-be Terrorist who had Positively Reveled in Violence, Death and Destruction,” Derby Evening Telegraph, December 16, 2009.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Blogger Who Encouraged Murder of MPs Jailed,” BBC, July 29, 2011.

[21] “Man Jailed for Creating Extremist Videos and Uploading Them to the Internet,” Metropolitan Police Press Release, February 25, 2011.

[22] The film’s website is available at http://www.wishyouwaziristan.com, although it remains devoid of much content.

[23] “Foreign Office Faces Flak over Axed Counter-Terrorism Video,” Guardian, May 30, 2011.

[24] Personal interview, British activist, London, September 2011.

[25] “Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” p. 64.

[26] Ibid., p. 76.

[27] Additionally, this article does not touch on the United Kingdom’s ongoing fight against online right-wing extremists.