The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct

How George Kennan is still the best guide to today's villain inside a victim behind a veil.

For three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has bedeviled the United States, resisting both incentives and disincentives and working all the while to foil American designs in the Middle East. If 20th-century Russia was to Winston Churchill a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, for observers of contemporary Iran, the Islamic Republic often resembles a villain inside a victim behind a veil.

Seeking to understand their mysterious foe, American analysts most commonly invoke three historical analogies to explain its character and future trajectory: Red China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The chosen metaphor pretty much dictates the proposed response, and most prescriptions for U.S. policy have come down to one of these variations: attempt to coax the Iranian regime into modernity; forget the diplomatic niceties and "pre-emptively" attack it to prevent or delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons; or contain it in hopes it will change or collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions.

After a momentous decade of watching Iran from both Tehran and Washington, interviewing hundreds of Iranians from across the political spectrum, and closely following the writings and statements of top Iranian officials, my advice for Barack Obama's administration as it came to office last year was to dispense with the historical metaphors and instead try to probe, via engagement, a seemingly facile but fundamental question: Why does Iran behave the way it does? Is Iranian foreign policy rooted in an immutable ideological opposition to the United States, or is Iran just reacting to punitive U.S. policies? To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, is Iran a nation or a cause?

I had always thought that the Islamic Republic was sui generis -- a political system unprecedented in modern times. But in the ensuing months, Iran's cynical response to Obama, followed by the massive post-election crackdowns, show trials, and forced confessions, made me think that historical analogies might shed some light on Iran after all. But which metaphor, if any, fits?

For proponents of the China comparison -- often foreign-policy realists -- the Iranian regime is fundamentally pragmatic, not ideological, and yearns for a rapprochement with the United States. Viewed through this relatively benign prism, Tehran's support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, its alliances with radical leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Iraq's Moqtada al-Sadr, and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, its Holocaust denial, and its weekly jeers of "death to America" are seen as defensive reactions to a hostile United States. The analogy implies that a bold U.S. gesture, à la President Richard Nixon's famous 1972 trip to Beijing, could bring about a "grand bargain" with Tehran.

Many have noted that the propitious geopolitical circumstances fueling Nixon's rapprochement with Chinese leader Mao Zedong -- mutual concern about the looming Soviet threat -- do not exist when it comes to today's Iran. While Mao didn't exactly go around waving the Star-Spangled Banner, the China analogy also vastly underestimates the extent to which anti-Americanism is central to the identity of the Islamic Republic's current leadership, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei's contempt for the United States, documented in three decades' worth of writings and speeches, has been remarkably consistent. Whether the topic is foreign policy, agriculture, or education, he seamlessly relates the subject to the cruelty, greed, and sinister plots of what he calls American "global arrogance." Former senior Iranian officials, including even a former president, have told me that in private discussions Khamenei has declared, "Ma doshmani ba Amrika ra lazem dareem," i.e., "We need enmity with the United States." A month before the tainted presidential election of June 2009, Khamenei declared that Iran would face a national "disaster" if a candidate who attempted to thaw relations with America came to power.

While the "grand bargain" option garnered special attention during the George W. Bush years, when Washington shunned dialogue with Tehran, Obama's unprecedented and unreciprocated overtures to Tehran -- including two personal letters from the U.S. president to Khamenei -- undercut the narrative that Iran's hard-liners, despite their own rhetoric, secretly aspire to cordial relations with the United States.

They don't. Indeed, underneath the ideological veneer, the anti-Americanism of Iran's hard-liners is driven in no small part by self-preservation. They are acutely aware of the argument made by many Iran analysts over the years that a rapprochement with the United States could spur unpredictable reforms that would significantly dilute their hold on power. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the powerful Guardian Council, put it plainly in a 2009 interview with Etemad newspaper: "If pro-American tendencies come to power in Iran, we have to say goodbye to everything. After all, anti-Americanism is among the main features of our Islamic state."

But if Iran is no 1970s China, ripe for an accommodation, the opposite view -- that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a latter-day Adolf Hitler and Iran is Nazi Germany -- is no closer to the mark. For the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who bluntly told a Los Angeles audience in 2006 that "It's 1938, and Iran is Germany," the Islamic Republic is incorrigibly fundamentalist, messianic, and hence, undeterrable. Continued engagement, then, is tantamount to appeasement, and the use of military force might well be inevitable. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently added his name to the small but strident list of people who have endorsed this surprisingly persistent line of thinking.

Yet though the Iranian regime is homicidal toward its own population and espouses a hateful ideology, there is little evidence to suggest it is also expansionist and genocidal. Even the U.S. Defense Department describes Iran's military power -- underwritten by a budget less that 2 percent the size of America's -- as largely deterrent in nature. What's more, despite Ahmadinejad's repugnant rhetoric and delusions of grandeur, his control over the Iranian state is not comparable to the absolute power Hitler wielded in Germany.

So, should we dispense with the historical analogies altogether? Not quite. In fact, few contemporary analyses capture the nature of today's Islamic Republic better than a masterpiece I first read in college: diplomat George F. Kennan's incisive and unapologetic 1947 essay on the Soviet Union, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Kennan's article, published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "X" because the author was a serving U.S. official, set the tenor of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union until it finally collapsed in 1991 under the weight of its economic mismanagement and moral exhaustion.

Like all such comparisons, the analogy is far from perfect. The Soviet Union was an irreligious empire with nuclear weapons and global reach, while the Islamic Republic is an aspiring nuclear power whose influence outside the Middle East is limited. But like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home. Also like the men who once ruled Moscow, Iran's current leaders have a victimization complex and, as they themselves admit, derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam.


Read Kennan's essay with the Islamic Republic in mind -- replacing "Soviet Union," "Stalin," and "communism" with their Iranian equivalents -- and the parallels are quite evident. Here's 10 striking examples of Kennan's text anticipating today's Iran. They offer time-tested insight into the machinations and gradual decay of Tehran's paranoid, opaque regime. Kennan's wisdom does not call on the United States to shun dialogue with Tehran, but merely to temper its expectations. In the process, Kennan would caution, America should remain "at all times cool and collected" -- and allow the march of history to run its course.

1. Iran's sense of siege is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"[I]deology, as we have seen, taught them that the outside world was hostile and that it was their duty eventually to overthrow the political forces beyond their borders. Then powerful hands of Russian Iranian history and tradition reached up to sustain them in this feeling. Finally, their own aggressive intransigence with respect to the outside world began to find its own reaction.… It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right."

2. The security apparatus designed to protect the state has begun to subsume it.

"The security of Soviet the Islamic Republic's power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party Supreme Leader, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police Basij and Revolutionary Guards, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state. The 'organs of suppression,' in which the Soviet Iranian leaders had sought security from rival forces, became in large measures the masters of those whom they were designed to serve."

3. The looming foreign enemy is needed to justify domestic suppression.

"[T]here is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow Tehran on the menace confronting Soviet Iranian society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home."

4. Revolutionary ideology has not evolved.

"Of the original ideology, nothing has been officially junked. Belief is maintained in the basic badness of capitalism liberalism, in the inevitability of its destruction, in the obligation of the proletariat downtrodden believers to assist in that destruction and to take power into its their own hands."

5. The Islamic Republic may make tactical offers of compromise, but its enmity toward the West is strategic.

"It must inevitably be assumed in Moscow Tehran that the aims of the capitalist Western world are antagonistic to the Soviet regime Islamic Republic, and therefore to the interests of the peoples it controls. If the Soviet Iranian government occasionally sets its signature to documents which would indicate the contrary, this is to [be] regarded as a tactical maneuver permissible in dealing with the enemy (who is without honor) and should be taken in the spirit of caveat emptor. Basically, the antagonism remains."

6. The United States must focus on a long-term strategy, rather than short-term tactics.

"Soviet Iranian diplomacy [is] at once easier and more difficult to deal with than the diplomacy of individual aggressive leaders like Napoleon and Hitler. On the one hand it is more sensitive to contrary force, more ready to yield on individual sectors of the diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power. On the other hand it cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory on the part of its opponents. And the patient persistence by which it is animated means that it can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only [by] intelligent long-range policies on the part of Russia's Iran's adversaries -- policies no less steady in their purpose, and no less variegated and resourceful in their application, than those of the Soviet Union Islamic Republic itself."

7. Ideological fatigue has set in.

"The mass of the people are disillusioned, skeptical and no longer as accessible as they once were to the magical attraction which Soviet Iranian power still radiates to its followers abroad."

8. The succession of power in the Islamic Republic is uncertain.

"[A] great uncertainty hangs over the political life of the Soviet Union Islamic Republic. That is the uncertainty involved in the transfer of power from one individual or group of individuals to others.

"This is, of course, outstandingly the problem of the personal position of Stalin Khamenei. We must remember that his succession to Lenin's Khomeini's pinnacle of pre-eminence … was the only such transfer of individual authority which the Soviet Union Islamic Republic has experienced.… Thus the future of Soviet Iranian power may not be by any means as secure as Russian Iranian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men of the Kremlin Islamic Republic."

9. You can't reach an accommodation with a regime that needs you as an adversary.

"It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet Iranian regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union Iran as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet Iranian policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist Islamist and capitalist liberal worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power."

10. U.S. policies can expedite, but not engineer, political change in Iran.

"It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone could exercise a power of life and death over the Communist Islamist movement and bring about the early fall of Soviet power the Islamic Republic in Russia Iran. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet Iranian policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin Islamic Republic a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet Iranian power."



Watching the Watchers

Al Qaeda's bold new strategy is all about using our own words and actions against us. And it's working.

On July 21, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Zachary Adam Chesser on charges that he twice tried to join al-Shabab, the fast-growing Somali terrorist group that has become a close ally of al Qaeda. On October 20, he pleaded guilty to three counts of providing material support to terrorists, communicating threats, and soliciting crimes of violence: He faces upwards of 20 years in jail. Chesser, a 20-year-old Virginian turned radical convert to Islam better known by his Internet sobriquet Abu Talhah al-Amrikee, had become a minor online celebrity in April when he issued a threat against Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the cartoon series South Park. Parker and Stone, Chesser warned, would probably be killed after airing an episode depicting the Prophet Mohammed wearing a bear costume.

It is tempting to dismiss Chesser as just another suburban white kid lashing out at the world. But his story is not the irrelevant absurdity it appeared, not merely another terrorist folly like exploding underpants and the undetonated bomb in Times Square. Chesser, in fact, was the real thing: a significant al Qaeda propagandist for a new moment, South Park fatwa and all. In less than two years, under various identities, Chesser had promoted an extensive collection of radical papers, videos, and blog posts to an astonishing array of online outlets, from the hardest-core al Qaeda discussion forums to mainstream Islamic websites to social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. He even recorded his own jihadi war tunes.

I know all this because I stumbled upon Chesser five months before his arrest: We became improbable pen pals. I first met Chesser virtually, after he posted a comment to my al Qaeda-monitoring blog correcting what he believed to be a mistake I had made. He was bothered by my depiction of his hero, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemeni cleric who has been tied to a growing number of terrorist plots in the United States. I dismissed that post and Chesser's next one as the usual splenetics of a low-level al Qaeda supporter. It was not until his third post to my website in mid-March, commenting on rifts he saw within the U.S. counterterrorism community, that I suspected "Abu Talhah al-Amrikee" might be different from my typical jihadi critic. Out of curiosity, I emailed him -- and surprisingly, he responded. From there we became what you might call hostile friends, sparring over a wide array of topics, including U.S. domestic politics, recent terrorist plots, al Qaeda personalities, and even my own counterterrorism colleagues. We had been discussing the possibility of holding an in-person, public debate just before his arrest.

Under the banner of Abu Talhah al-Amrikee, Chesser's goal was breathtakingly ambitious: He was trying to make al Qaeda's radical ideology more accessible to Americans -- and thus inspire more people like the Times Square bomber to take up the jihad at home. And Chesser thought he was on his way to doing that, offering his readers a guide to what he called "Counter Counter Terrorism" in a long series of articles he penned and posted to al Qaeda websites before his arrest. His starting premise was that al Qaeda's online supporters were easily fooled, lazy, and in need of direction. "How are we so gullible that we fall for tricks that our enemy admits are tricks before he tries them on us? This is nonsense and we should not be like this," he wrote, before going on to offer detailed guidelines for outsmarting the watchers.

In one of our March exchanges, Chesser bragged about his success as a jihadi web publisher; he was, he believed, Americanizing violent jihadi thought:

In 2010 both my youtube page and several others have seen more traffic than in all of 2009. In my case 2010 is 80% of my views so far. Also, the UK was formerly where most of my views were located, but now the United States is on top with Canada closing in.… The growth of my page and some others I pay attention to is looking to hit a rate that would produce more than 1,000,000 views per year. There are currently no jihadi youtube pages with even that many total views.

Whatever his actual traffic, Chesser had become the newest incarnation of a dangerous online phenomenon al Qaeda has inspired over the last several years -- one that is helping the group transcend its image as a brutal terrorist organization and attract a much broader spectrum of followers, particularly in the West. In full view of us, al Qaeda is cultivating a nimble, sophisticated global network of Internet activists, amateur pundits, and general well-wishers working to bring al Qaeda to the masses.

This is no longer the original al Qaeda, the highly centralized organization of Osama bin Laden and his closest acolytes, or even its post-9/11 incarnation as a network of affiliates, but a global, fluid, and adaptive amoeba: a kind of collectively self-aware organism, one that closely monitors what Western experts are saying about it -- and plots ways to turn those ideas against the United States. The process goes something like this: 1) The U.S. government does something that garners international media coverage, like announcing a new military strategy in Afghanistan or failing to adequately respond to a domestic catastrophe; 2) Self-styled jihadi intelligence analysts, like Chesser, read the coverage and start spinning it to their advantage, either to prove how bad Americans are or to give their movement a heads-up about an impending shift in U.S. approach; 3) America's al Qaeda media-monitoring machine spots those jihadi analysts talking about us and writes about it, spinning up the U.S. government; 4) The jihadists, who monitor us monitoring them, then post links and/or translations about us watching them watching us.

In short, they watch us, we watch them, and then they watch us watching them. Rinse, repeat. This is the new al Qaeda.

I BECAME AN AL QAEDA WATCHER in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Like many who felt the call to national service after 9/11, I wanted to do my part. But neither my professional skill set nor my constitution lent itself well to hunting al Qaeda operatives in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. I was a nerdy graduate student at the time, armed only with a laptop and a fascination with jihadi literature.

Back then, al Qaeda was a hierarchically managed terrorist group directed by bin Laden and friends. They had a small but real measure of support throughout the Islamic world, and the United States' main concern was stopping the next 9/11, primarily through what the U.S. military refers to as the kinetic fight -- killing and arresting bad guys.

Around 2003, al Qaeda began to morph into a network of regional franchises, coordinated but not necessarily commanded by the group's senior leadership, thought to be hiding in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I had just landed my first real job in the field that year, thanks to a graduate fellowship working as an intelligence analyst at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center.

Like any eager young analyst, I started trying to make sense of my enemy, whose ranks seemed to be growing in number each day. Between its headquarters in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands and increasingly active regional affiliates in Iraq, North Africa, and Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda had developed a bottomless well of foot soldiers from which to draw. To keep up, I spent most of each day reading reports, sifting through piles of flashcards, and tirelessly studying spaghetti-looking link charts; my mind became a swirling jumble of "Abus" and "Abd als." But as diabolical as al Qaeda seemed to be, I was learning that not all al Qaedas were created equal.

Sure, more bad guys were blowing things up in more places than ever before. But to increase its numbers and reach, al Qaeda had lowered the bar for entry. This meant that the group's global ranks were rife with individuals more concerned about shedding blood than long-term consequences. They didn't know history. They didn't care about strategy. They only wanted to showcase their newfound power to themselves and the world, no matter what the implications for the jihad as a whole.

The result: Like all terrorist movements, al Qaeda was burning itself out. By conducting attacks that provoke a government overreaction against the community they claim to represent, terrorist groups are often blamed for doing more harm than good -- alienating their most important constituencies. The question is when, not if.

Al Qaeda learned this lesson the hard way, losing virtually all support from the Islamic world after its regional affiliates launched waves of bombings against Muslim targets in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria. By 2005, with increased security pressure on every battlefront and discontent mounting from within because of their failure to repeat 9/11, al Qaeda's big guns knew they had to change their approach. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group's chief operating officer, announced that year that al Qaeda had transcended its founding role as a terrorist organization. "Al Qaeda is spreading, expanding, and getting stronger," he declared. "It has turned, with God's grace, into a vanguard popular organization confronting the new Crusader-Zionist campaign in defense of all usurped Muslim lands. It is also resisting all the apostate and agent regimes dominating our Muslim nation. It is joined by Muslims from all the Muslim countries."

Al Qaeda's brain trust had arrived at two conclusions around this time. First, senior leaders realized that the al Qaeda brand name had attracted a global support base that happened to be highly skilled at using computers and the Internet. But rather than viewing al Qaeda as a fantasy football league, where they would just log on and check the latest stats, these "jihobbyists" -- as I termed this army of net-dwelling al Qaeda enthusiasts working out of barren studio apartments or their parents' basements -- had to be convinced to use their time and skills more effectively.

Second, according to al Qaeda, world opinion would turn against the United States if only the true extent of America's crimes were revealed. That truth, however, has been papered over by a series of lies and myths propagated by the Jewish-controlled media. Therefore, all al Qaeda must do is show the world the unvarnished truth about America's policies and actions. By exposing that truth for what it is and undoing the lies of the Crusader-Zionist media machine, al Qaeda's position as the last defender of justice would finally become clear for all to see.

The problem was that al Qaeda's centralized propaganda machine did not have the time, freedom, or resources to collect the evidence necessary to dispel those "myths." Top leaders like bin Laden and Zawahiri were too busy simply trying to stay alive. What they needed was an army of researchers with copious free time and high levels of technical know-how to whom they could outsource this function. Enter the jihobbyists.


Al QAEDA'S WEB WORLD EVOLVED in fits and starts. Before 9/11, there were only a handful of websites that trafficked in actual al Qaeda ideology and propaganda. In 2002, hundreds of al Qaeda fan sites started popping up, including dozens of web-based discussion forums. These forums, the virtual equivalent of a junior-high slumber party, allowed al Qaeda supporters to expand their use of the Internet from simply downloading material to becoming persistent participants in an interactive community. As al Qaeda began bypassing mainstream media outlets like Al Jazeera to push more of its own material directly online, jihobbyists began flocking to the web en masse.

By 2005, al Qaeda's virtual world looked like the Mos Eisley bar in Star Wars, crammed with shadowy miscreants from the farthest reaches of the universe. There were the "official" al Qaeda media organizations, with names like as-Sahab, al-Furqan, and Labayk Media, which recorded, edited, and released their own propaganda, including beheading videos, online magazines, books, attack videos, interviews with bin Laden, and more.

Al Qaeda's media groups would send these releases to jihadi web forums, like al-Faloja, al-Ekhlaas, and al-Hesbah, where they would be posted for the thousands of online jihobbyists who now gathered to interact. There were also independent jihadi clerics posting their own rants. And there were loosely affiliated media organizations publishing everything from al Qaeda video games to meticulously footnoted English translations of radical screeds. In other words, the jihadi web was buzzing. The problem for al Qaeda was that there was no method to the commotion -- just madness.

Most of my first few years monitoring jihadi media were spent in these online trenches, talent-scouting for the occasional independent thinker among the droves of thoughtless warmongers. I would log on to the al Qaeda forums, read their online magazines, watch the video statements, and try to understand what was on their minds.

I eventually discovered that al Qaeda pundits and strategists were mining Western literature for dastardly inspiration, exploring everything from media reports about lingering post-9/11 security vulnerabilities to societal disputes that might be usefully exploited. One of the cleverest jihadi pundits at this time was Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi. Drawing on the works of revolutionaries and military strategists including Mao Zedong, Carl von Clausewitz, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, as well as various American thinkers, Qurashi hoped to remake the global jihadi movement in the image of a revolutionary strategist. According to Qurashi, his aim was "encouraging the spread of the military culture within the ranks of the Islamic movement."

Qurashi believed that al Qaeda's adherents needed to study theories and strategies of warfare to grow from a terrorist organization into a full-blown revolutionary movement. Some of the most advanced thinking on such warfare, he argued, had been written by Americans. For instance, citing an October 1989 article published in the Marine Corps Gazette, Qurashi explained to al Qaeda the notion of "fourth generation," or asymmetric, warfare: "The military targets will not be confined to the destruction of regular armies but will involve the destruction of popular support for fighters within the enemy community." He cited approvingly the authors' prediction that the "newscast will be a more lethal weapon than several armored brigades."

At the time, only a handful of American counterterrorism researchers had ever heard of Qurashi, much less thought that studying him would help in the fight against al Qaeda. Most analysts, operators, and policymakers were still hopelessly entrenched in a 9/11 mode of thought. "Connecting the dots" remained the phrase of choice. They believed practical solutions were needed, not interesting new questions.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated the news, and rightly so. U.S. soldiers were being killed by improvised explosive devices, not online book reports by brainiac jihadi writers. Although the U.S. government was starting to understand that al Qaeda was producing sophisticated analyses of our own thinking about its style of warfare, the government's focus was justifiably operational, not conceptual -- Qurashi's writings were just too arcane to worry about.

What did interest the U.S. government about al Qaeda's online activities was its relationship to the actual wars going on. Reports that al Qaeda's cybersupporters were using the Internet to recruit, coordinate, fundraise, and even conduct reconnaissance in support of their war effort pushed President George W. Bush's administration into a Cold War-like spending frenzy. Agencies across the military and intelligence community staffed up new al Qaeda media units. Private companies began peddling pricey Internet-monitoring subscriptions to government clients. And a flurry of independent counterterrorism researchers began sounding the alarm over the latest scary al Qaeda Internet posting.

But the focus was wrong. Most of the attention (and money) was being dedicated to tracking the day-to-day releases from al Qaeda's Internet propaganda machine. Sure, reports that the winner of a jihadi web-design contest could supposedly fire a missile at U.S. troops with a stroke of his home keyboard were compelling, but they didn't matter much. Although reporting on those kinds of online advancements briefed well and kept the funds flowing, this approach fundamentally failed to situate al Qaeda's Internet activities in the broader strategic context. We had enlisted an army of al Qaeda watchers to track the day-to-day commotion, but few saw the bigger picture: that al Qaeda's global movement was increasingly learning from us about how to defeat us.

IN AUGUST 2006, A SENIOR AL QAEDA LEADER writing under the nom de guerre of Abu Jihad al-Masri published an ambitious online treatise called The Myth of Delusion -- a kind of through-the-looking-glass version of the 9/11 Commission report, written by a self-styled terrorist mastermind. The dense 150-page book was filled with inaccuracies and ludicrous portrayals of the U.S. intelligence community: "Revelations" include the purported information that the CIA is spending millions of dollars to create fake Islamic charities that secretly do the U.S. president's bidding against Islam. But it was significant in that it was one of the first major jihadi works to try to show why the United States failed on 9/11, rather than trumpeting why al Qaeda succeeded.

For Abu Jihad, al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks against the United States shattered the myth of American invincibility and exposed America's true weakness. His frustration, though, was that his peers were thinking too tactically about how to discredit their adversaries. He wanted to push his movement to think more conceptually about waging war against the United States.

Al Qaeda's military campaign against America could be bolstered by an intense media campaign, Abu Jihad counseled, one that would turn the U.S. government's own reports, news, and research back against it. In Abu Jihad's thinking, who is better positioned to assess America's strategies, strengths, and vulnerabilities than America's government intelligence agencies, national media, and academic researchers? All al Qaeda needed to do was begin reading their works and putting those lessons into practice. "From the words of your mouth," he sneered in the book's introduction, "I condemn you."

Al Qaeda had long found success employing this jujitsu approach, reverse-engineering its adversary's strengths. On 9/11, after all, al Qaeda had used America's own planes against the United States, to deadly effect. In 2004, al Qaeda leveraged the Internet, broadcasting a horrifying beheading video of American businessman Nicholas Berg that sparked an unprecedented online jihadi free-for-all. In 2002, American al Qaeda leader Adam Gadahn ("Azzam al-Amriki") began issuing video threats against the United States, showing that even Americans were climbing the terrorist organization's corporate ladder. Today, most of al Qaeda's propaganda video footage is ripped straight from American documentaries and newscasts.

Abu Jihad's 2006 effort to formalize this methodology and create an online militia of al Qaeda "intelligence analysts" was clever. It did not, however, spark a paradigm shift in jihadi thinking -- at least, not immediately. The book was too long, too esoteric, and just too dull to capture the imagination of the global al Qaeda movement.

But its ideas soon went viral, in the form of a propaganda video titled The Power of Truth and issued by as-Sahab, one of al Qaeda's official media organs. Emceed by Zawahiri, the video parades clip after clip of American counterterrorism experts, general officers, policymakers, and media personalities talking about how effective al Qaeda is and how ineffectual the United States has been, including terrorism researcher Peter Bergen, former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay, former U.S. counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, and New York Times reporter John Burns. In one typical line, retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, says, "It is no surprise what happened. We created this insurgency; we allowed it to happen." Zawahiri had already test-fired a similar video approach in a September 2006 documentary titled Knowledge Is for Acting Upon. But that video was still too earnest. Zawahiri needed something more Michael Moore-ish, an exposé that would hold the attention of his viewers. He found it with The Power of Truth.

The new video hit the jihadi web universe like a bombshell, lighting up chat rooms filled with enthusiastic supporters singing Zawahiri's praises. After years of self-consciously justifying his importance to the global movement, Zawahiri was finally relevant again. The Power of Truth is now the first thing I show my students after handing out the syllabus in my undergraduate terrorism course.

Rather than just feeding the al Qaeda movement a fish, Zawahiri was teaching terrorist sympathizers how to fish: He was mass-producing the formula for turning America's own words against it. Jihobbyists swiftly took to the methodology, patrolling the net for exploitable tidbits that they could leverage against the United States. After years of al Qaeda's online movement chasing the latest fad like 5-year-olds going for a soccer ball, the jihobbyists finally had some direction, stability, and even metrics for effectiveness; just like everyone else, al Qaeda's webmasters could now obsess over their traffic stats and Facebook friends. The importance of The Power of Truth was affirmed one year later when it made the "must-see al Qaeda videos" shortlist in a massively popular online jihadi book, A Course in the Art of Recruitment.

Al Qaeda's senior leaders had become motivators-in-chief of the global jihadi movement and in so doing, freed themselves from actually having to conduct real-world operations. A video release could now be just as damning to American credibility as an attack in the physical world, according to this new line of thinking. Leading al Qaeda thinkers had long seen that propaganda was useful for riling up their base and thumbing their noses at the West. But they now realized that the web could transform passive consumers of their ideology into active producers of it.

Bin Laden himself seems to have signed up, perhaps recognizing that although most jihobbyists were not willing to leave their jobs or their families to die for al Qaeda, they would certainly be willing to conduct research or create propaganda on its behalf. Whatever the rationale, he has significantly changed the nature and tone of his public pronouncements in the last couple years. Today, he sounds much less like a bloodthirsty terrorist and more like a jihadi journalist, an itinerant truth-teller seeking to expose the ugliness of today's world. Open calls for unrestrained killing like his 2003 command to his followers to "kill Americans and Jews with a bullet, a knife, or a stone" have been replaced with more reasoned appeals to be smarter, not necessarily more lethal: "In order to avoid the failures that prevented the liberation of Palestine over the past decades, the present generation should study the reasons for the failure and take lessons from them. I will participate with you in that," he counseled in 2008.

By January of this year, bin Laden was even arguing that al Qaeda was the world's only hope for solving the global-warming crisis. "Talking about climate change is not an intellectual luxury but an actual fact whose importance cannot be dismissed," he said. "O mankind, O inhabitants of this Earth, it is neither fair nor just, nor is it reasonable or rational, to leave the entire burden on the mujahideen alone in fighting against a problem that is harming the entire world."

Bin Laden's tonal shift reflected the fact that propaganda was no longer a one-way road -- it could be crowdsourced, broadening its impact and appeal. And in the process, al Qaeda morphed from a terrorist group that halfheartedly used the Internet to promote itself into an Internet movement that halfheartedly uses terrorism to promote itself. The goal is the same -- to inspire a global movement to organically and violently resist the "Crusader-Zionist" assault against Islam. It is the means that have changed.


LIKE THE PROVERBIAL PSYCHO killer from a low-budget horror film, al Qaeda just won't seem to die. Its members have been bombed in South Asia, hunted across the Middle East, and arrested throughout Europe. The group's senior leadership is reeling from drone strikes, and its global support base is fractured. But true to horror-film form, al Qaeda has once again risen from the dead. The Internet is proving to be the ultimate safe haven.

Al Qaeda's latest incarnation poses two new problems for the United States. First, despite being banged up, al Qaeda has managed to attract more Americans to its side in recent years than ever before, both in terms of those willing to wage attacks in the real world and those seeking to advance the jihadi cause in cyberspace. In a recent video titled A Call to Arms, senior American al Qaeda member Adam Gadahn instructed his viewers: "The mujahid brother Nidal Hasan used firearms in his assault on Fort Hood, but the fact is, today's mujahid is no longer limited to bullets and bombs when it comes to his choice of a weapon. As the blessed operations of September 11th showed, a little imagination and planning and a minimal budget can turn almost anything into a deadly, effective, and convenient weapon which can take the enemy by surprise and deprive him of sleep for years on end." Zachary Chesser was neither the first in flexing his imagination for the good of al Qaeda, nor will he be the last.

The second problem is that those web-based al Qaeda supporters have come to believe that we are the best propaganda they have. Al Qaeda's new methodology is premised on turning us against us. It is the al Qaeda version of issuing us our Miranda rights: Anything we say can and will be used against us in a court of jihadi public opinion -- be it President Barack Obama's speeches about the economy, U.S. military statistics about soldier suicides, or American media coverage of detainee abuse charges. Whereas bin Laden and company have a long track record of trying to show us how bad we are, al Qaeda's new approach is to let us show us how bad we are. Worse yet, al Qaeda has now outsourced this to an army of guerrilla analysts like Chesser.

Take Chesser's attempt to redirect my term "jihobbyist" back against me. My use of the term, he argued, will cause law enforcement to underestimate the threat of online jihadists while pushing people like him to take action to prove that they are a threat. So "when a domestic attack does occur," he wrote, the "jihobbyist" label could "cause people to blame Jarret Brachman for any shortfalls in attention being payed [sic] to domestic threats."

And that's exactly the point, in a way: What makes al Qaeda's new approach so powerful is that it is now easier than ever for passive jihadi supporters to become active al Qaeda participants, particularly in the West. They no longer need to wait for al Qaeda propaganda. Just like Chesser and the growing number of other American jihadi propagandists operating online, anyone can repost videos, write articles, create Facebook and Twitter accounts, and start blogs filled with content intended to show the world how awful the United States is.

This Power of Truth approach, rooted in finding actual "evidence" of U.S. missteps, has the added benefit of being all the more believable to empirically minded Westerners. Al Qaeda hopes that its online armies of jihobbyists will someday log off and launch their own Fort Hood or Times Square attacks. And eventually, some of them will.

Illustration by Sean McCabe for FP