Tech savvy terror outfits mushroom overnight
By Rajeev Sharma
The September 30, 2011 killings of United States-born radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Sameer Khan, another American of Pakistani origin, in a US air strike in Yemen, went almost unnoticed in India where only western news agency reports are carried and nothing more. The principal reason for this is that al-Awlaki and Sameer Khan did not threaten India and did not operate from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. They operated mostly in Arab Peninsula.
However, their role as al-Qaida propagandists of the radical Islam deserves to be noted. They were so effective in the use of Internet and the communication technology and even more, the use of the English language, that the West had really no answer to them.
As they fought al-Qaida in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the Taliban in the Af-Pak region, the US and Europe could not stem the conversion of many a Christian youth, and the neglected Black Americans, coming under the spell of the propaganda that came to them, not in foreign Arabic language, but in English. The confessions by these radical youth, when caught and were deposing before courts in America and Europe, were both embarrassing and alarming. It is a continuing phenomenon and there is no estimation as to how many such youths are around.
The task of al-Awlaki and of Khan, who edited al-Qaida’s web magazine Inspire, proliferated mainly in the post-9/11 decade and the key point is that they were able to win acceptance and convert people to their fold in the face of an avalanche of Western propaganda. Both al-Awlaki and Khan died in the same air strike in Yemen. The West is taking credit for having wiped out “a decisive factor” that made the terrorist group’s Yemen branch the most dangerous threat to the United States: its reach into the West.
However, there is no evidence whether they have ended, or are even aiming to end, the spell of propaganda that the two carried out so effectively. There are millions of cassettes and VCDs and DVDs in circulation that continue to spread the message of al-Awlaki, particularly popular for his fiery language and persuasive discourse.
What is more, they used the technology, particularly the Internet to spread their message. Issuing English-language sermons on jihad on the Internet from his hideouts in Yemen’s mountains, al-Awlaki drew Muslim recruits like the young Nigerian who tried to bring down a US jet on Christmas and Salem Shahzad, the Pakistani-American, behind the botched car bombing in New York City’s Times Square.
The September 30 drone attack was believed to be the first instance in which a US citizen was tracked and killed. Al-Awlaki was placed on the CIA “kill or capture” list by the Obama administration in April 2010 — the first American to be so targeted.The important thing to be noted is the extent and intensity to which groups such as the al-Qaida core and Al Qaida in Arab Peninsula (AQAP) appreciate the importance of the ideological struggle.
Published three days before the air strike against Khan and al-Awlaki, the seventh edition of Inspire contains an article written by Khan titled “The Media Conflict,” wherein he quotes AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi (aka Abu Basir) as stating, “media work is half of the jihad”.
The role of the media in propagating militant ideology has been revolutionised by the Internet, which allows small groups in remote corners of the globe to produce and broadcast material that is almost instantly available to people all around the world. As Stratfor, an American think tank surmises, “the jihadists have succeeded in radicalising and recruiting people from disparate countries. Products such as Inspire or the video and audio recordings of militant leaders such as al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri are a giant leap forward from the way militants communicated 25 years ago, when groups like November 17 would send communiqués to the newspapers and Hezbollah would release videos via major television networks of Western hostages they had kidnapped.”
The militant groups quickly recognised the significance of this media democratisation and were early adopters of the Internet. By the mid-1990s, White supremacists in the United States had established Stormfront.com, and in 1996, jihadists inaugurated azzam.com, a professional-looking website that allowed them to provide inspiration, news and instruction to adherents to their ideology and to potential recruits. Azzam.com eventually became an important mechanism through which funds for jihadist groups could be raised and willing volunteers could find ways to link up with jihadist groups in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia.
Thus, the Internet began to serve as a bridge that connected the ideological battlefield with the physical battlefield. In July 2010, AQAP launched the first edition of Inspire magazine. Khan, a longtime publisher of jihadist material, was chosen to spearhead the Inspire project for AQAP.
Khan’s antecedents and rise are interesting. He was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents but raised in the United States. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Khan began to publish an English-language pro-jihadist blog and eventually established jihadist websites and an Internet magazine called Jihad Recollections. It was the artistic similarities between Jihad Recollections and Inspire that helped identify Khan as the editor of Inspire.
Khan left his parents’ home in Charlotte, N.C., in 2009 to move to Yemen after he learned the FBI was investigating him for his connections to jihadist groups. Inspire was established intentionally to help further al-Wahayshi’s vision of jihadists adopting the leaderless resistance model. Its stated purpose was to radicalise and recruit young, English-speaking Muslims and then inspire and equip them to conduct attacks in the West.
Khan was only 16 years old when he began his jihadist propaganda activities in 2002, and he essentially grew up on the ideological battlefield. By the time he immigrated to Yemen in 2009, he was an experienced cyber jihadist.
In addition to his advanced computer security skills, Khan also energised the Inspire magazine project, and his youth, colloquial American English competency, graphic design flair and knowledge of American pop culture gave Inspire magazine an edgy quality that appealed to young, English-speaking Muslims.
Notably, Khan did not produce most of the written content for Inspire. In fact, he relied heavily on the speeches of al Qaida figures such as al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, the books of Abu Musab al-Suri and interviews with AQAP figures such as al-Wahayshi and al-Awlaki.
However, it was the way in which Khan packaged these materials that made them so appealing. Certainly, there may have been others working with Khan to produce Inspire, and other people undoubtedly can continue to translate portions of al Qaida speeches or interview AQAP leaders, but Khan was the driving creative force behind the project.
His death thus likely will have a substantial impact on the content and feel of Inspire — if the magazine continues at all.