As we are reeling from the revelation of yet another attempted plot to assassinate Lars Vilks for his cartoon image of Mohammed as a dog, the media would have us believe that such “radical” and “extreme” violence is something new – something that has evolved in Islam over time. Conversely, according to IslamWatch, “Muhammad’s life is a testament of ceaseless raids and plundering expeditions of highway caravans and waging wars against the infidel” in which “he himself had orchestrated more than one hundred raids, plundering expeditions and wars.” In the days of Muhammed, groups of men required to meet together physically to plan and carry out their offensives. From those fledgling days of congregated warfare, to yesterday’s small groups who trained together in order to execute their missions, to today’s “lone wolf,” the terrorists have shown an amazing ability to adapt to changing technologies. The terrorist of the future will find the tools of the internet increasingly important for their “open source jihad.” If we do not meet the terrorists on this internet battlefield, it will be at our own expense.
Mohammed had to hold planning meetings with his advisors, recruit men to follow him, institute training camps, and then follow through with his raids. Because of the lack of technology, all of these things demanded real, physical proximity. Fast forward to 1983. An organization known as “Islamic Jihad” claims responsibility for the bombings of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Planning meetings for this were allegedly held in Damascus – a physical meeting place. In 1993, the first World Trade Center bombing was conducted by Ramzi Yousef and others. Ramzi had spent time in Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and received explosives training there. His uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who funded the mission, began his jihad training in his youth and was also trained by Al Qaeda after personally meeting Afghan mujahid Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. Khalid Sheik Mohammed went on to plan other terrorist attacks and eventually to mastermind the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 2001. In 1998, the US Embassy bombings in Tanzania, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were pulled off by 21 people associated with Egyptian Islamic Jihad – including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The operatives for this attack had trained together at Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon. While these groups were becoming increasingly efficient, there was still a need for centralized planning and human interaction in order to ensure success.
Today we are finding that the evolving state of terrorism is trending toward a “lone wolf” scenario. On November 5, 2009, Nidal Hassan acted alone when he opened fire at Ft. Hood and killed 13 people and wounded 30 more. It later turned out that Hasan had been in email contact with radical Islamic cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who is widely believed to be an al Qaeda recruiter. In December of 2009, five American youths from Virginia were arrested in Islamabad, Pakistan, where they had tried to contact terrorist groups to volunteer for Jihad after having made email contact with Taliban organizations beforehand. On Christmas Day of 2009, Nigerian-born Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had been in contact with Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen, tried to bring down an airliner over Detroit, but succeeded only in giving himself some nasty burns on his upper thighs, thereby earning himself the derisive nickname “the underwear bomber.” Al Awlaki admitted when interviewed that he had “kept in contact” with Abdulmtallab. Most recently, the YouTube hirabist Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose, whose downward spiral was documented by members of Operation YouTube Smackdown, The Jawa Report, Quoth The Raven, Internet Anthropologist Think Tank and others, began an online relationship with terrorists, traveling to Europe to allegedly marry a foreign national in order to commit the murder of Lars Vilks of Sweden, hoping ultimately to become a martyr. She used internet chat rooms and emails to help organize the plan and recruit others into it. In each of these cases, the internet has played an vital role in bringing together easily manipulated individuals and terrorist mentors.
As we look to the future, the trend away from centralization and toward individuals acting, seemingly on their own, is likely to continue. Rather than converging en masse to strategize with one’s followers, a mentor now only requires a simple laptop and internet access or internet active cell phone whereby he may send instructions to would-be jihadis. The terrorist blog mujahidblog.com (link anonymized) calls this “open source jihad” and explains that it benefits violent jihad because, among other things, it can be accessed anywhere with no physical gathering space necessary, people who are not very well educated can be easily motivated to fight, and that because of the nature of the internet it provides “amplified propaganda capabilities.” Indeed, Anwar Al Alwiki, who had been in contact with both Nidal Hasan, the Ft. Hood shooter, and Farouk Abdulmutullab, the Christmas Day epic fail bomber, has produced a pamphlet outlining “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” (also found here and here on YouTube.) Along with the admonitions of fundraising for the Mujahideen and encouraging others to fight in Jihad, number 29 is an item which he lists as “WWW Jihad.” He calls these people the “internet mujahideen” and encourages them to establish discussion forums related to Jihad, to establish email lists, to post or email Jihad literature and news, and to set up websites related to Jihad. These admonitions play directly into the activity we have seen on the internet, and will continue to do so in the future.
From the time of Muhammed, Islamic jihad has featured violence against non-believers which demanded tangible presence to be executed. As terrorist movements become increasingly characterized by “lone wolf” scenarios and as radical Islamic clerics call for even greater use of technology to both join them together and also to spread propaganda, terrorist’s use of forums such as YouTube, Twitter, MySpace, LiveLeak and Facebook and any other internet technologies which evolve to encite and train their followers will become that much more important to their ability to conduct the business of terrorism.
These uses of technology and the internet must be taken seriously if we wish to impede the spread of terrorism. To disregard threats posed over the internet, which is emerging as a vital terrorist tool for battle, is to seal our own fate.