When British police broke down Younis Tsouli's door in October 2005 in a leafy west London neighborhood, they suspected the 22-year-old college student, the son of a Moroccan diplomat, of little more than having traded e-mails with men planning a bombing in Bosnia. It was only after they began examining the hard drive on Tsouli's computer that they realized they had stumbled upon one of the most infamous -- and unlikely -- cyberjihadists in the world.
Tsouli's online username, as they discovered, was Irhabi007 ("Terrorist007" in Arabic). It was a moniker well known to international counterterrorism officials. Since 2004, this young man, with no history of radical activity, had become one of the world's most influential propagandists in jihadi chatrooms. It had been the online images of the war in Iraq that first radicalized him. He began spending his days creating and hacking dozens of Web sites in order to upload videos of beheadings and suicide bombings in Iraq and post links to the texts of bomb-making manuals. From his bedroom in London, he eventually became a crucial global organizer of online terrorist networks, guiding others to jihadist sites where they could learn their deadly craft. Ultimately, he attracted the attention of the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When British police discovered this young IT student in his London flat, he was serving as Zarqawi’s public relations mouthpiece on the Web.
Tsouli's journey from computer geek to radical jihadist is representative of the wider evolution of Islamist terrorist networks today. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the threat confronting the West has changed dramatically, but most governments still imagine their foe in the mold of the old al Qaeda. The enemy today is not a product of poverty, ignorance, or religious brainwashing. The individuals we should fear most haven’t been trained in terrorist camps, and they don't answer to Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. They often do not even adhere to the most austere and dogmatic tenets of radical Islam. Instead, the new generation of terrorists consists of homegrown wannabes -- self-recruited, without leadership, and globally connected through the Internet. They are young people seeking thrills and a sense of significance and belonging in their lives. And their lack of structure and organizing principles makes them even more terrifying and volatile than their terrorist forebears.
THE NEW FACE OF TERROR
The five years between Osama bin Laden's 1996 declaration of war against the United States from his safe haven in Afghanistan to the attacks of 9/11 were the "golden age" of what could be called al Qaeda Central. Those days are long over, but the social movement they inspired is as strong and dangerous as ever. The structure has simply evolved over time.
Today's new generation of terrorists constitutes the third wave of radicals stirred to battle by the ideology of global jihad. The first wave to join al Qaeda was Afghan Arabs who came to Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. They were, contrary to popular belief, largely well educated and from solidly middle-class backgrounds. They were also mature, often about 30 years old when they took up arms. Their remnants still form the backbone of al Qaeda's leadership today, but there are at most a few dozen of them left, hiding in the frontier territories of northwest Pakistan.
The second wave that followed consisted mostly of elite expatriates from the Middle East who went to the West to attend universities. The separation from family, friends, and culture led many to feel homesick and marginalized, sentiments that hardened into the seeds of their radicalization. It was this generation of young men who traveled to al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s. They were incorporated into al Qaeda Central, and today there are at most about 100 of them left, also in hiding in northwest Pakistan.
The new, third wave is unlike its predecessors. It consists mostly of would-be terrorists, who, angered by the invasion of Iraq, aspire to join the movement and the men they hail as heroes. But it is nearly impossible for them to link up with al Qaeda Central, which was forced underground after 9/11. Instead, they form fluid, informal networks that are self-financed and self-trained. They have no physical headquarters or sanctuary, but the tolerant, virtual environment of the Internet offers them a semblance of unity and purpose. Theirs is a scattered, decentralized social structure -- a leaderless jihad.
Take the case of Mohammed Bouyeri, perhaps the most infamous member of a network of aspiring jihadists that Dutch authorities dubbed the "Hofstad Netwerk," in 2004. Bouyeri, then a 26-year-old formerly secular social worker born to Moroccan immigrants in Amsterdam, could also trace his radicalization to outrage over the Iraq war. He became influential among a loosely connected group of about 100 young Dutch Muslims, most of whom were in their late teens and born in the Netherlands. The network informally coalesced around three or four active participants, some of whom had acquired a local reputation for trying (and failing) to fight the jihad abroad. Some of the initial meetings were at demonstrations for international Muslim causes, others at radical mosques, but mostly they met in Internet chatrooms. Other popular meeting spots included Internet cafes or the few apartments of the older members, as most of the network still lived with their parents. The group had no clear leader and no connection to established terrorist networks abroad.
On Nov. 2, 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri brutally murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street, nearly sawing off van Gogh's head and pinning a five-page note threatening the enemies of Islam to his victim's chest. Bouyeri had been enraged by van Gogh’s short film, Submission, about Islam's treatment of women and domestic violence, and written by former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali. After killing van Gogh, Bouyeri calmly waited for the police in the hope that he would die in the gunfight that he expected would follow. He was only wounded and, less than a year later, sentenced to life in prison. A series of raids against other members of the network uncovered evidence of plans to bomb the Dutch parliament, a nuclear power plant, and Amsterdam’s airport, as well as assassination plots against prominent Dutch politicians.