Ever since the first issue of Inspire magazine, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's English-language publication, released in late June 2010, Samir Khan became a household name in the counterterrorism community. His work in the jihadi community, though, started a decade earlier in the streets of New York City.
Khan, who was reportedly killed in an airstrike in Yemen on Friday, Sept. 30, alongside his mentor, Anwar al-Awlaki, was not a religious authority. But he helped create the media architecture of the American online jihadi community, an Internet incubator for radicalization.
Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Khan's family moved to New York City in 1993 when Samir was 7. When he was 15, Khan attended a camp sponsored by the nonviolent yet fundamentalist Islamic Organization of North America. There he first came into contact with members of the Islamic Thinkers Society (ITS), a rebranding of an offshoot of the British-based jihadi organization Al-Muhajiroun, that first expanded into New York in 2000. As such, the ITS is one of the longest-running organizations in the United States that sympathizes with the jihadi message -- though it does so through nonviolent aims such as "street dawahs." That said, the ITS has made many connections to the global jihad over the years.
Take, for instance, one individual who was at the founding of the New York Al-Muhajiroun, a man named Mohammed Junaid Babar. Al-Muhajiroun allowed Babar to travel to Pakistan and join al Qaeda, where he was instrumental in helping set up a training camp for the 7/7 London bombers. The ITS was also linked to a plot in 2004 to set off bombs at the Republican National Convention, and two members were arrested in June 2010 after plotting to travel to Somalia to join the jihad. Bryant Neal Vinas, a Dominican convert from Long Island who was convicted of plotting to bomb the Long Island Railroad on the orders of al Qaeda, also started out with ITS.
After connecting with ITS in 2001, Khan created his own blog, The Ignored Puzzle Pieces of Knowledge, under the online handle Inshallahshaheed (God willing, a martyr). At times over the course of his online jihadi career, he also went by Abu Risaas and Abu Jabbal. His blog bounced around between a variety of hosts due to ISP violations. But Khan finally found an online home hosted by the Islamic Networking Forum (formerly called ClearGuidance), which was the brainchild of Sarfaraz Jamal.
This blogging and forum community spawned some of the most important figures in the American jihadi movement in the past five to six years.
For instance, Daniel Maldonado (Daniel al-Jughaifi), a foreign fighter in Somalia who was captured in January 2007, was an administrator of the Islamic Networking Forum. Through the forum, Maldonado met Omar Hammami, an American citizen who is now a commander for the al Qaeda-linked Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia.
Maldonado was close to Massachusetts jihadists Tarek Mehanna and Ahmed Abu Samra, who also pursued their paths to radicalization through blogs and Internet forums. Abu Samra eventually tried to join al Qaeda in Iraq. Mehanna was arrested and is awaiting trial for providing material support to terrorists.