Argument

The Worst of the Worst

These are some of the jihadi pundits who are making waves on al Qaeda's Web forums today -- and could potentially trade their keyboards for suicide vests tomorrow.

Asad al-Jihad2

Who is he? The most flamboyant and popular jihadi pundit currently on the forums. His recent announcement that he was "logging back on" after a hiatus has reinvigorated online participants who have been eagerly anticipating his return.

Sample quote: "I will disclose something about [myself]: When I see the planes hitting the towers, I exclaim loudly 'God is Great.'  I cannot hide my happiness every time I see this clip, which heals Muslims' chests, praise be to God first and foremost."

 

Abd al-Rahman al-Faqir

Who is he? A senior jihadi pundit whose work concentrates heavily on the role of the media and perception management. His essays have been amassed into a 290-page compilation book and reposted on jihadi forums.

Sample quote: "There is nothing more dangerous to the United States than stirring up social issues and mobilizing racial groups, as well as focusing on the class system that is unique to this, the largest capitalist nation in the world.... I am willing to donate $10 to Obama for his fulfillment of a personal favor and for his success in instigating racial tension in the United States when it was unable to find anyone to stir it up."

 

Hafid al-Hussain

Who is he? A popular jihadi Web activist and instigator. He has sought to call attention within the al Qaeda Internet forums to a number of campaigns. One initiative was designed to enlist members of four premier al Qaeda forums to invade American websites and spread al Qaeda messages. He has also promoted a campaign to convince men to marry the widows of dead martyrdom operatives.

Sample quote: "Therefore, we encourage the followers of the master of prophets Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him) and the sisters and brothers to be considerate of this matter, and perpetually to publicize and upload it to the forums, urging and encouraging the brothers in the Hijaz, Egypt, Syria, and the Islamic Maghreb to marry the wives of martyrs. This is in order to protect the Sunni girls and save the honor of your sisters and the orphans. O brothers in Islam, is this difficult?"

 

Shaykh Abu-Abd-al-Rahman al-Yafi'i

Who is he? A newer pundit who has seized the forums' attention with his playful writing style that draws on puns, poetry, excessive hyperbole, and irony. He tends to make arguments that bifurcate the world into good Muslims and others. Importantly, he makes ample use of Quranic and Hadith justification in his arguments, a quality that distinguishes him from most other pundits and substantiates his use of "Shaykh" in his pseudonym.

Sample quote: "The shaykhs of the Marines and all Arab and non-Arab 'Marines intellectuals' know very well that they are orbiting the worldwide terrorist campaign to defame the intentions of the Muslim mujahideen, who seek to resume the caliphate on the path of the Prophet and to remove all obstacles on the way to achieve that noble mission and sacred ordainment.... By God, I feel sorry for your reality, you miserable people. How can you judge the mujahideen for their mistakes, they are certainly not angels, while your eating, drinking, standing, sitting, sleeping, and traveling are a worse sin, which is abstaining from ordained jihad in due time. By God, the movements of the mujahideen -- standing, sitting, laughter, sleeping, waking, eating, and drinking -- are all good deeds."

 

Abu Shadiyah

Who is he? A rising star in the jihadi forums. Cocky and brash, yet formal in his writing style, Abu Shadiyah has amassed a huge following in a short amount of time. Some of his writings take the form of poetry.

Sample quote: "Al Qaeda is the one who will carry out the pre-emptive strike
Al Qaeda is the one who outlines the features of the battle
Al Qaeda is the one who drags the enemy into the battlefield
Al Qaeda is the one who sets the zero hour
Al Qaeda is the one who makes peace and make truces. It is the one who fights and carries out strikes."

 

Ziyad Abu Tariq

Who is he? Abu Tariq has been publishing since 2007 on the jihadi forums. His essays often focus on the role of jihadi pundits and the reasons these forums and media groups exist.

Sample quote: "On the media side, al Qaeda surely relies on advocate authors. This fact clearly suggests the wide horizons of al Qaeda because there are many ideas to be read between the lines.... [W]hen al Qaeda wants to convey messages ... it appoints one of its great scholars to undertake this task using the jihadist forums.... [Asad al-Jihad2] has conveyed many messages for al Qaeda to the followers as well as the opponents.... 'Yaman Mukhaddab' has posed terrifying questions to the enemy's face that made them nervously cower. The professional 'Abu Shadiyah' dots the i's and crosses the t's and clarifies the way of dissolving alliances. 'Ubadah Bin-Samit' kills them silently and opens the fire of his limited and unlimited media fronts on them. The fingers of 'Husni Salamah' take their breath away and tighten the grip around their throats. The general administrator 'Mujahid' attacks them with his raid of glory and enablement, invades their borders, and drives them crazy. 'Hadi al-Arwah' takes them to the basements of nightmares and sadness with his realistic analysis of al Qaeda threats. The very witty 'Muhami al-Dawlah' makes them feel depressed and starts the bidding with 200 killed persons, hopes for 100,000, and increases the number."

 

Shaykh Abu Ahmad Abd al-Rahman al-Masri

Who is he? An old-hand Egyptian jihadi author who now publishes a prolific number of essays and short monographs. Beyond the al Qaeda Web forums, a number of more formal jihadi media outlets and magazines have begun publishing his work, which suggests that he is becoming a more trusted personality in the inner rings of al Qaeda's movement. Recent reports have surfaced that he is ill, which could really mean that he is sick -- or potentially is code for being under duress.

Sample quote: "O Muslim masses everywhere, this blood cannot be stopped except by blood. This fear will not be killed except by blood. The body and sins of the ummah [the Muslim community] will not be purified except by blood."

 

Yaman Mukhaddab

Who is he? A revered jihadi analyst who is rumored to be "close" to al Qaeda. After a short posting hiatus, Mukhaddab returned in September 2009, though the pace of his writings has decreased noticeably. His writings are premised on the idea that al Qaeda is very clear about its strategy and goals. All jihadists need do is listen carefully to understand their rationale. His recent writings about the need to attack Germany were well received in the jihadi forums.

Sample quote: "I expected a decisive announcement from al Qaeda ... 15 days from my having written an article on this subject here in al-Hisbah.... By the grace of God, Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir's announcement of the beginning of a new stage different from its predecessors came out 16 days from the date of my writing the article. This success that God granted me in deducing the plans of al Qaeda ... gives me confidence to believe -- and God knows best -- that I have understood and comprehended al Qaeda's strategy and implementation plans very well.

Argument

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.