When Humam Khalil al-Balawi exploded himself at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, last month, killing seven CIA officers, his suicide attack did not just have repercussions for the NATO effort in Afghanistan -- it also represented a giant leap forward for al Qaeda's global Internet movement. In the minds of Web jihadists, Balawi was more than just another suicide operative. He was one of them, someone whose thinking they trusted, knew intimately, and had been reading for years.
Before he became a Jordanian "triple agent," Balawi was the jihadi online pundit Abu Dujana al-Khorasani. Under that moniker, Balawi had been anonymously feeding his online readers a steady stream of jihadi missives since early 2007. His climb from eager chat-room participant to elite jihadi Web forum administrator to revered Internet pundit to triumphant suicide bomber helped forge a path that Web jihadists could finally hope to emulate.
The number of Web jihadists who make the transition to real-world terrorists is growing. Terrorists who have been radicalized online include Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Badr al-Harbi -- the Kuwaiti who posted more than 1,000 times on an al Qaeda Internet forum before blowing himself up in Iraq -- and now Balawi. In doing so, they have taught other Web jihadists how to upgrade their keyboards into suicide vests. With his many screeds posted to forums lionizing those who carry al Qaeda's torch, Balawi helped narrow the distance separating the global jihadi movement's fighters and its online sympathizers.
Balawi had developed into what can usefully be termed a jihadi pundit, leveraging his writings to achieve a prominent position within the online jihadisphere. Most Americans have never heard of this genre of al Qaeda literature, nor has the U.S government made it a priority to read, analyze, or translate these writings, largely because they contain no operationally relevant information. Nonetheless, jihadi punditry has become a critical part of the online radicalization process for both its producers and consumers. One can only speculate whether Jordanian and American intelligence had given Balawi's essays the intellectual due diligence they required. If so, his handlers should have been familiar with the seething rage for Arab governments and the West that suffused Balawi's writings. They would have well understood that this material was perversely vile, even when compared with that of his fellow al Qaeda pundits.
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According to the pro-al Qaeda media outlet Al-Yaqin, Balawi actually had two online identities. The first moniker, which has not been revealed outside the jihadi Web world before this article, was "Malik al-Ashja'e," the name of one of the Prophet Mohammed's pious companions. Using that identity, Balawi served as a Web administrator for the most elite al Qaeda forum, al-Hesbah. Balawi was better known, however, as "Abu Dujana al-Khorasani," whose writings, along with those of a handful of other elite jihadi pundits, served to bridge the thinking of al Qaeda's senior leadership with its global Internet-based movement. Other senior Web pundits like "Abd al-Rahman al-Faqir," "Yaman Mukhaddab," "Abu Shadiyah," and "Asad al-Jihad2" also routinely post essays to al Qaeda forums that dissect, parse, interpret, analyze, and promulgate jihadi thinking.
Each pundit varies in terms of his style, sophistication, tone, and viewpoint. One of Balawi's contemporaries named "Asad al-Jihad2," for instance, relies on an absurdist cocktail of prediction and bravado in his writings. He once bragged, "I conducted a study on the condition of the United States and the plights which Almighty God decreed for it. I was, by the grace of God, the first ever to write and congratulate the leaders of jihad and the mujahideen, and all the Muslims, for the beginning of the collapse of the United States."
The first wave of contemporary jihadi Web punditry emerged in 2002 and lasted until 2005. It was dominated by anonymous al Qaeda strategists, some of the most prominent of whom used the pen names "Abu Bakr Naji," "Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi," and "Lewis Attiyatallah" to write articles for several online al Qaeda magazines including Al-Ansar and Sawt al-Jihad. These authors, many suspected of being Saudis, generated serious scholarly thinking about al Qaeda's military strategy and international politics, and their work continues to be read widely. Also during this time, the jihadi Internet community was feverishly compiling and sharing the tactical know-how for implementing this strategic counsel.
The leading voices of this first wave eventually grew silent, likely due to aggressive Saudi counterterrorism efforts. In 2006, the next wave of pundits began to coalesce. This second cadre of e-jihadists focused less on strategy and more on interpreting, defending, and heralding the messages of al Qaeda's senior leaders. Pundits like "Husayn bin Mahmud," "Yaman Mukhaddab," and "Shaykh Attiyatallah" helped shore up al Qaeda's credibility, both politically and religiously, at a time of great transition and controversy for the organization, as it faced widespread anger among many Muslims due to its indiscriminate campaign of terrorism across Iraq.