Al Qaeda's Armies of One

Meet the next generation of jihadi pundits.

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.

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.


As this second wave of pundits concentrated on playing defense, 2007 saw the rise of a third wave of al Qaeda commentators eager to go on the offense. Employing a self-promotional writing style, a penchant for stinging sarcasm, and an insatiable blood lust, pundits like "Abd al-Rahman al-Faqir" and "Asad al-Jihad2" -- and Abu Dujana al-Khorasani -- helped re-energize al Qaeda's Web activism. The forum administrators lionized these pundits, building them up as role models for the scores of wannabe al Qaeda forum denizens who would never make it to the battlefields. Following in the footsteps of Web pundits like Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, those who had been radicalized online were learning that they too could be jihadi heroes -- all they needed was a catchy writing style and an Internet connection.

In the summer of 2009, an official al Qaeda propaganda outlet, Al-Fajr Media, released an interview it had conducted with Abu Dujana al-Khorasani in its e-magazine, Vanguards of Khorasan. In it, Balawi, still using the Abu Dujana pen name, explained that he had recently arrived in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and joined with the mujahideen fighters. His transition from author to fighter -- from theory to practice -- was not unprecedented, but nevertheless extraordinary given his prominence within the global al Qaeda movement. Abu Dujana's fans collectively praised his decision to exchange his pen for the sword.

The jihadisphere is now teeming with aspiring pundits -- fresh voices trying to make it big and establish a popular online following. Consider the example of new forum participant, Bakhsuruf al-Danqaluh, whose reputation was made literally overnight when another respected participant compared his writing style to that of Abu Bakr Naji, the heralded early 2000s pundit, author, and strategist.

One of the most prolific and respected al Qaeda pundits today is actually a first-generation jihadi writer using the name "Shaykh Abu Ahmad Abd al-Rahman al-Masri." An Egyptian national, al-Masri was active during the jihadi crucible years, living in Afghanistan from 1987 to 1992, he has said, to "follow up on the [various] jihad projects [taking place]." According to him, he failed in his efforts at the time but has since generated a bevy of books and essays, many of which are disseminated with high-gloss artwork by the Al-Ansar Mailing Group, a pre-eminent jihadi media organization. He has also published articles in the Taliban's official magazine, Al-Sumud.

Al-Masri's writings are now touted as "must reads" by jihadi Web forum administrators and often appear translated into English on Western jihadi websites. Despite his towering reputation among al Qaeda readers and his long history working inside the global jihadi movement, al-Masri's name appears almost nowhere in open source English counterterrorism reporting. The goal of al-Masri's works, like those of Balawi, is to force Muslims into choosing between two courses of action: passively accepting the status quo or changing it through violence.

When Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- another jihadi Web user-turned-operative -- tried to explode a bomb hidden in his underwear aboard Northwest Flight 253, al-Masri issued a celebratory memo that same day. He wrote, "From the womb of the ummah of the truth the heroic commandos are born.... They wrote these lessons on the page of existence with their pure blood.... Among these lions, we have the brother, the heroic jihadist, Omar al-Farouk." Al-Masri issued a similar celebratory memo after Abdullah al-Assiri's failed assassination attempt on Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi deputy interior minister in charge of the kingdom's counterterrorism efforts.

Al-Masri is not likely to follow in Balawi's footsteps as a suicide bomber. He is, however, one of a number of elite jihadi online pundits who sustain al Qaeda's monopoly over the rhetorical battle space and fan the flames of jihadi violence by encouraging others to kill themselves for the cause.

For years, Web jihadists have had ample access to both ideological material that teaches them why they should commit terrorism, and the requisite tactical knowledge of how to kill. Nevertheless, cases of Web jihadists entering the battlefield have been anomalous. The online jihadisphere is decentralized, even democratic, making mass mobilization next to impossible without a leader to rally the troops. The recent phenomenon of Web jihadists joining the physical fight, culminating with Balawi, seems to have provided just the kind of role model for which al Qaeda Web users have been longing. If so, countries across the world -- and particularly the United States -- should brace themselves for an exodus from the Web forums and onto the battlefield by self-styled al Qaeda armies of one.


A Failure to Imagine the Worst

The first step toward preventing a nuclear 9/11 is believing it could happen.

In his first speech to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. President Barack Obama challenged members to think about the impact of a single nuclear bomb. He said: "Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city -- be it New York or Moscow, Tokyo or Beijing, London or Paris -- could kill hundreds of thousands of people." The consequences, he noted, would "destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life."

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, who could have imagined that terrorists would mount an attack on the American homeland that would kill more citizens than Japan did at Pearl Harbor? As then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified to the 9/11 Commission: "No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon ... into the World Trade Center, using planes as missiles." For most Americans, the idea of international terrorists conducting a successful attack on their homeland, killing thousands of citizens, was not just unlikely. It was inconceivable.

As is now evident, assertions about what is "imaginable" or "conceivable," however, are propositions about our minds, not about what is objectively possible.

Prior to 9/11, how unlikely was a megaterrorist attack on the American homeland? In the previous decade, al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000 had together killed almost 250 and injured nearly 6,000. Moreover, the organization was actively training thousands of recruits in camps in Afghanistan for future terrorist operations.

Thinking about risks we face today, we should reflect on the major conclusion of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission established to investigate that catastrophe. The U.S. national security establishment's principal failure prior to Sept. 11, 2001, was, the commission found, a "failure of imagination." Summarized in a single sentence, the question now is: Are we at risk of an equivalent failure to imagine a nuclear 9/11? After the recent attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, this question is more urgent than ever.

The thought that terrorists could successfully explode a nuclear bomb in an American city killing hundreds of thousands of people seems incomprehensible. This essential incredulity is rooted in three deeply ingrained presumptions. First, no one could seriously intend to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single attack. Second, only states are capable of mass destruction; nonstate actors would be unable to build or use nuclear weapons. Third, terrorists would not be able to deliver a nuclear bomb to an American city. In a nutshell, these presumptions lead to the conclusion: inconceivable.

Why then does Obama call nuclear terrorism "the single most important national security threat that we face" and "a threat that rises above all others in urgency?" Why the unanimity among those who have shouldered responsibility for U.S. national security in recent years that this is a grave and present danger? In former CIA Director George Tenet's assessment, "the main threat is the nuclear one. I am convinced that this is where [Osama bin Laden] and his operatives desperately want to go." When asked recently what keeps him awake at night, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answered: "It's the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear."

Leaders who have reached this conclusion about the genuine urgency of the nuclear terrorist threat are not unaware of their skeptics' presumptions. Rather, they have examined the evidence, much of which has been painstakingly compiled here by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former head of the CIA's terrorism and weapons-of-mass-destruction efforts, and much of which remains classified. Specifically, who is seriously motivated to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans? Osama bin Laden, who has declared his intention to kill "4 million Americans -- including 2 million children." The deeply held belief that even if they wanted to, "men in caves can't do this" was then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's view when Tenet flew to Islamabad to see him after 9/11. As Tenet (assisted by Mowatt-Larssen) took him step by step through the evidence, he discovered that indeed they could. Terrorists' opportunities to bring a bomb into the United States follow the same trails along which 275 tons of drugs and 3 million people crossed U.S. borders illegally last year.

In 2007, Congress established a successor to the 9/11 Commission to focus on terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. This bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism issued its report to Congress and the Obama administration in December 2008. In the commission's unanimous judgment: "it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

Faced with the possibility of an American Hiroshima, many Americans are paralyzed by a combination of denial and fatalism. Either it hasn't happened, so it's not going to happen; or, if it is going to happen, there's nothing we can do to stop it. Both propositions are wrong. The countdown to a nuclear 9/11 can be stopped, but only by realistic recognition of the threat, a clear agenda for action, and relentless determination to pursue it.