Al-Qaeda’s most famous web propagandist is jailed, but the internet remains its best friend BY HIS own admission, he never fired a single bullet or “stood for a second in a trench” in the great jihad against America . Yet the man who called himself “Irhabi007” — a play on the Arabic word for terrorist and the code-name for James Bond — was far more important than any foot soldier or suicide-bomber in Iraq . He led the charge of jihad on the internet.
In doing so, Irhabi007 was a central figure in enabling al-Qaeda to reconstitute itself after the fall of the Taliban and its eviction from Afghanistan . Al-Qaeda (“the base”) and its followers moved to cyberspace, the ultimate ungoverned territory, where jihadists have set up virtual schools for ideological and military training and active propaganda arms.
Irhabi007 pioneered many of the techniques required to make all this happen. He was a tireless “webmaster” for several extremist websites, especially those issuing the statements of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq . Intelligence agencies watched powerlessly as Irhabi007 hacked into computers, for instance appropriating that of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to distribute large video files, and taught his fellow cyber-jihadists how to protect their anonymity online.
Despite his celebrity, this was not good enough for Irhabi007. “Dude,” he complained to a fellow cyber-jihadist (who called himself “Abuthaabit”) during one encrypted web chat, “my heart is in Iraq .”
Abuthaabit: How are you going to have enough to go there?Irhabi007: I suppose someone gotta be here!
Abuthaabit: This media work, I am telling you, is very important. Very, very, very, very.Irhabi007: I know, I know.
Abuthaabit: Because a lot of the funds brothers are getting is because they are seeing stuff like this coming out. Imagine how many people have gone [to Iraq ] after seeing the situation because of the videos. Imagine how many of them could have been shaheed [martyrs] as well.
Irhabi007’s desire for real action may have led to his downfall. He was not only involved in a dispersed network of jihadi propaganda, but also, it seems, in a decentralised web of terrorist plots. In October 2005 police in Bosnia arrested a cyber-jihadist who called himself “Maximus”, a Swedish teenager of Bosnian extraction called Mirsad Bektasevic. He and three others were later sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years for plotting attacks that were to take place either in Bosnia or in other European countries.
Among the material recovered from Mr Bektasevic’s flat, police found 19kg of explosives, weapons, a video with instructions for making a suicide vest and a video recording of masked men proclaiming their membership of “al-Qaeda in northern Europe ”. On his computer they found evidence of contacts with other jihadists across Europe . Among them was Irhabi007.
Two days later, British police raided a flat in a terraced house in west London next to one of the rougher pubs in Shepherd’s Bush. After an altercation, they arrested Younis Tsouli (pictured above). The elusive Irhabi007 turned out to be the 22-year-old son of a Moroccan tourism board official and a student of information technology. Two other men, also students, were arrested at the same time, although Mr Tsouli had never met them except on the internet.
The trial of Mr Tsouli and his co-defendants—Waseem Mughal, a British-born graduate in biochemistry (aka Abuthaabit), and Tariq al-Daour, a law student born in the United Arab Emirates—came to an end this month when they belatedly pleaded to charges of incitement to murder and conspiracy to murder. The court also heard that Mr al-Daour ran a £1.8m credit-card fraud and used the funds to buy equipment for jihadi groups. Mr Tsouli and Mr Mughal used stolen credit-card numbers to set up jihadi websites. Mr Tsouli was sent to jail for ten years; the others received shorter sentences.
There have been several arrests in Denmark , where a 17-year-old man of Palestinian origin was convicted last February for his involvement in Mr Bektasevic’s plot. Three others were found guilty, but the jury’s verdict was overturned. Irhabi007 has also been reported to be linked to plots in America , where two men living in Atlanta , Georgia , have been charged with planning attacks against civilian and military targets in and around Washington , DC , including the Capitol, the World Bank, the George Washington Masonic Memorial and a fuel depot. According to the indictment, the two men—Syed Ahmed, 21, and Ehsanul Sadequee, 19—sent Irhabi007 photographs of the proposed targets, and also travelled to Canada to meet fellow plotters and discuss attacks.
Many of the details are still subject to court restrictions. But these interlinked investigations underline the words of Peter Clarke, the head of the counter-terrorism branch of London ‘s Metropolitan Police, who said in April that his officers were contending with “networks within networks, connections within connections and links between individuals that cross local, national and international boundaries”.
In light of this month’s failed attempts to set off car bombs in London and at Glasgow airport, allegedly by a group of foreign doctors and other medical staff, one exchange of messages found on Irhabi007’s computer, in a folder marked “jihad”, makes intriguing reading. “We are 45 doctors and we are determined to undertake jihad for Allah’s sake and to take the battle inside damaged America , Allah willing,” ran part of it.
The message purported to set out a plot to attack a naval base, apparently Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida, with the aim of achieving the “complete destruction” of the USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier, and 12 escort vessels, as well as blowing up “clubs for naked women” around the base. “The anticipated number of pig casualties is 200-300,” said the author, unidentified except for the boast that he had been discharged from the Jordanian army. He claimed to have the support of a pilot who would provide air cover for the operation, but he lacked one essential piece of information that he asked Irhabi007 to provide: a guide for making car bombs.
The FBI said it had investigated the plot at the time and found it to be “not credible”.
Nevertheless, the capability of the internet to promote terrorism is worrying intelligence agencies. According to America ‘s National Intelligence Estimate in April 2006, “The radicalisation process is occurring more quickly, more widely and more anonymously in the internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint.”
Past technological innovations, such as telephones or fax machines, have quickly been exploited by terrorists. But the information revolution is particularly useful to them. To begin with, encrypted communications, whether in the form of e-mail messages or, better still, voice-over-internet audio, make it much harder for investigators to monitor their activity. Messages can be hidden, for instance, within innocuous-looking pictures.
More important, the internet gives jihadists an ideal vehicle for propaganda, providing access to large audiences free of government censorship or media filters, while carefully preserving their anonymity. Its ability to connect disparate jihadi groups creates a sense of a global Islamic movement fighting to defend the global ummah, or community, from a common enemy. It provides a low-risk means of taking part in jihad for sympathisers across the world.
The ease and cheapness of processing words, pictures, sound and video has brought the era not only of the citizen-journalist but also the terrorist-journalist. Al-Qaeda now sends out regular “news bulletins” with a masked man in a studio recounting events from the many fronts of jihad, whether in Iraq , Afghanistan , Chechnya or Palestine .
Jihadi ticker-tape feeds provide running updates on the number of Americans killed (about ten times more than the Pentagon’s death toll).
Battlefield footage of American Humvees being blown up to shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great) appear on the internet within minutes of the attacks taking place. The most popular scenes are often compiled into films with musical soundtracks of male choirs performing songs such as “Caravans of Martyrs”. Jihadists have even released a computer video game, “Night of Bush Capturing”, in which participants play at shooting American soldiers and President George Bush. Inevitably, experts say, jihadists have also started to create “residents” in the virtual world of Second Life.
As well as war fantasies, there is sometimes also a dose of sexual wish-fulfilment. A video recording by a Kuwaiti ideologue, Hamid al-Ali, declares that a martyr in the cause of jihad goes to paradise to enjoy delicious food, drink and a wife who will “astonish your mind” and much else besides; her vagina, apparently, “never complains about how much sex she had”, and she reverts back to being a virgin.
The internet is awash with communiqués from insurgent groups extolling their own success or denouncing rivals.
Even the most hunted figures, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-most-senior figure in al-Qaeda, regularly put out video statements commenting on political developments within just a few days.
In short, the hand-held video camera has become as important a tool of insurgency as the AK-47 or the RPG rocket-launcher. As Mr Zawahiri himself once put it in an intercepted letter to Zarqawi, “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.” Or as one jihadi magazine found on Irhabi007’s computer explained: “Film everything; this is good advice for all mujahideen [holy warriors]. Brothers, don’t disdain photography. You should be aware that every frame you take is as good as a missile fired at the Crusader enemy and his puppets.” Just before his arrest, Irhabi007 had set up a website that, he hoped, would rival YouTube, to share jihadi videos. He called it Youbombit.com.
Of jihad and camels
The internet’s decentralised structure, with its origins in military networks designed to survive nuclear strikes, now gives jihadi networks tremendous resilience. Jihadi websites constantly come and go, sometimes taken down by service providers only to reappear elsewhere, sometimes shifted deliberately to stay ahead of investigators. As one expert put it: “It’s like the old game of Space Invaders. When you clear one screen of potential attackers, another simply appears to take its place.”
The number of extremist websites is increasing exponentially, from a handful in 2000 to several thousand today. Some are overtly militant, while others give jihad second place to promoting a puritanical brand of piety known as “salafism”, that is modelled on the earliest followers of the Prophet Muhammad and regards later developments as degenerate. Most are in Arabic, but some have started to translate their material into English, French and other languages to reach a wider audience.
The most headline-grabbing material on the internet is the military manuals—whether as books, films or PowerPoint slides—giving instruction on a myriad of subjects, not least weapons, assassination techniques, the manufacture of poisons and how to make explosives. But intelligence agencies say there is nothing like having hands-on experience in a place like Iraq , or at least a training camp. In the latest attempted attacks in London and Glasgow , for example, the attackers clearly botched the manufacture of their car bombs even though many of the alleged plotters were well educated.
Still, internet-based compilations such as the vast and constantly updated “Encyclopedia of Preparation”, as well as militant e-magazines such as the Tip of the Camel’s Hump (used to mean “the pinnacle”) found on Irhabi007’s computer, make it easier for self-starting groups around the world to try their hand at terrorism. The Dutch counter-terrorism office, which publishes many of its studies on extremism, concludes that the existence of virtual training camps “has the effect of lowering the threshold against the commission of attacks”.
Many jihadi websites put their most inflammatory information and discussions in password-protected areas. Here participants can be gradually groomed, invited to take part in more confidential discussions, drawn into one-on-one chats, indoctrinated and at last recruited to the cause.
But the very anonymity that the internet affords jihadists can also work against them; it lets police and intelligence agencies enter the jihadists’ world without being identified. Many postings to web forums are filled with (rightly) paranoid postings about who is watching. A lengthy posting on a Syrian jihadi site in 2005, entitled “Advice to Brothers Seeking Jihad in Iraq ”, said raw recruits offering only “enthusiasm or impetuousness or love of martyrdom” were no longer wanted.
Instead, the mujahideen needed money and experienced fighters, but they should not assume that the smuggling routes through Syria were safe. It advocated communicating in secret through trusted sources in mosques rather than on the internet, noting that “this forum, like the others, is under...surveillance; any information is obviously not secret, so any individuals you meet and correspond with on the forums cannot be trusted at all.”
Contributors to jihadi web sites are regularly told not to divulge secrets. When news of Irhabi007’s arrest emerged last year, some of the postings stressed the need for greater caution online. One of these, signed by “Badr17”, gave the warning “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.”
Open university of jihad
One of the most prolific al-Qaeda strategists is Abu Musab al-Suri. He is now in American custody, but his 1,600-page opus, “The Global Islamic Call to Resistance”, survives. It advocates the creation in the West of self-starting, independent terrorist cells, not directly affiliated to existing groups, to stage spectacular attacks.
For many who study the jihadi websites, however, the bigger danger is indoctrination.
The Dutch domestic intelligence service, the AIVD, regards the internet as the “turbocharger” of jihadi radicalisation. Stephen Ulph, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, an American research institute that monitors terrorism, says the internet provides an open university for jihadists. At least 60% of the material on jihadi websites deals not with current events or with war videos, but instead concerns ideological and cultural questions.
Jihadists, Mr Ulph says, are fighting less a war against the West than “a civil war for the minds of Muslim youth”. In this process of radicalisation, “the mujahideen attract the uncommitted armchair sympathiser, detach him from his social and intellectual environment, undermine his self-image as an observant Muslim, introduce what they claim is ‘real Islam’, re-script history in terms of a perennial conflict, centralise jihad as his Islamic identity, train him not only militarily but also socially and psychologically.”
A key text is the ever-expanding e-book, “Questions and Uncertainties Concerning the Mujahideen and their Operations”, which seeks to arm jihadists with responses to questions and doubts about their actions, ranging from the admissibility of killing Muslims, the use of weapons of mass destruction and the acceptability of shaving one’s beard for the sake of jihad. “It is important we do not get distracted by focusing on organisations rather than against ideology,” argues Mr Ulph.
The point is underlined in a study by the Combating Terrorism Centre at America ‘s military academy at West Point , which has tried to “map” the most important ideological influences by searching citations in jihadi online documents. Top of the list is Ibn Taymiyya, a scholar who lived at the time of the medieval Mongol invasions. He strove to return Islam to the pure faith of Muhammad’s followers, advocated jihad to repel foreign invaders and taught that Mongol leaders who converted to Islam were not really Muslims because they did not implement sharia. These ideas strike a chord with today’s jihadists, who see Americans as the new Mongols.
Osama bin Laden does not make the top ten most-cited figures, even among modern authors. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the theorist jailed in Jordan (and who directly inspired Zarqawi), is regarded as a higher authority. And Mr Zawahiri, the ubiquitous internet propagandist who is often described as the real brains behind al-Qaeda, does not even figure in the jihadists’ intellectual universe.
Western intelligence agencies trawl the internet to look for evidence of terrorist plots, but lack the resources or desire to challenge the wider ideology. In a global network, outside the control of any single government, attempts to close down extremist sites are little more than short-lived harassment. What is needed is a systematic campaign of counter-propaganda, not least in support of friendly Muslim governments and moderate Muslims, to try to reclaim the ground ceded to the jihadists.
“Intelligence agencies are dealing with the problem once people have manifested themselves as existing terrorists,” says Professor Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at Georgetown University . “We have to find a way to stanch the flow. The internet creates a constant reservoir of radicalised people which terrorist groups and networks can draw upon.”
So Irhabi007 may be off the internet, but others like him remain. Among the most prolific is a figure who roams the web by the name of, yes, Irhabi11.