American Jihadi

The death of Samir Khan in Yemen marks the end of a key figure in the Internet jihad.

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.

Khan's blog (hosted at is believed to be the inspiration for Revolution Muslim, a radical spinoff from ITS that spawned some of the biggest American jihadi characters of the past three years, most notably Zachary Chesser. Now in prison, Chesser's rise to prominence was capped by the threatening of the creators of South Park in April 2010 over a story line involving the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.

In 2004, Khan moved with his parents to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he continued his online exploits in his parent's basement. As the Iraq war was increasing getting more violent, Khan's postings became more extreme as he posted content from al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq. At one point, his parents were so concerned about his obsessive use of the Internet that they sometimes unplugged it.

Prior to his departure to Yemen, in early 2009, Khan started his foray into larger publishing and independently released, edited, and wrote for a new online jihadi magazine titled Jihad Recollections. Although it only lasted four issues, it was a precursor to the more popular Inspire magazine that he helped edit with Awlaki. It also helped lower the bar for aspiring jihadists, especially for native English-language speakers. For instance, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was arrested in November 2010 for the Portland Christmas-tree-lighting plot, wrote an article for Jihad Recollections -- as did Jesse Morton, a co-founder of Revolution Muslim. Mohamud later submitted an article to Inspire.

Khan moved to Yemen in October 2009. It's still unclear whether it was because he had been tapped by Awlaki to come over, but it's likely he was feeling the heat from U.S. counterterrorism officials -- many of his online friends had, by this time, been arrested. Once in Yemen, Khan helped edit and write articles for Inspire magazine, which has released seven issues since June 2010, the latest earlier this week. Many experts see the most recent issue as a bit of a dud due to the lack of content compared with the previous six issues. But, in retrospect, it is probably a bit thin because Khan and others were on the run from U.S drones.

Khan's provocative style in Inspire caught the attention of the media, though, with titles such as "How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," "The Ultimate Mowing Machine," and "I Am Proud to Be a Traitor to America." Indeed, Inspire even lived up to its name, having been found in the apartments and computers of some American jihadi plotters over the past year. An Inspire article was also used as a bomb-building guide by Naser Abdo, who failed in an attempt at a second Fort Hood attack.

Khan was also active on Facebook under his alias Abu Risaas. Although his account is no longer active, following his departure for Yemen in 2009, according to Aaron Weisburd who actively collects data on online usage by jihadists, Khan had 39 Facebook friends and 18,800 friends of friends -- showing the strength of his community. Simply put, Khan was the node, connecting various networks within the online jihadi community.

Although Khan was never in the same league as Awlaki in terms of religious stature and oratory skills, Khan made up for it in his ability to connect disparate groups online and facilitate information not necessarily readily available in English. For thousands of would-be radicals, he made the jihadi cause accessible. As such, if Khan indeed is dead, he will go down as one of the most important pioneers and influential figures in the history of the American jihadi movement.

Aaron Y. Zelin is a researcher in the department of politics at Brandeis University for Jytte Klausen, who is in charge of the Western jihadism project from which some of the above information was culled. He also maintains the website and co-edits the blog al-Wasat.


The Zero-Sum Game

Listen up, Obama. By Jan. 1, there should be not a single U.S. troop remaining on the ground in Iraq.

Let me be clear. The United States should have no -- zero -- troops in Iraq on Jan. 1, 2012, when the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the two countries requires a complete withdrawal (this number excepts, of course, a small military presence at the U.S. Embassy's Office of Military Cooperation -- a presence that exists in almost every embassy worldwide). This is not about delivering on an Obama campaign promise or saving money. This is about doing the right thing for both the United States and Iraq. Although the White House's proposal to keep approximately 3,000 troops in Iraq is better than the rumored 17,000 desired by the commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, maintaining any American presence is simply the wrong decision for both parties.

Despite having both a political problem and a terrorism problem, Iraq is now a reasonably stable country that must have the opportunity to chart its own course. Yes, the 2010 national election failed to provide any bloc with a clear mandate and has resulted in a political stalemate. Yes, the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq continue to commit atrocities against both Iraqi Shiites and the moderate figures of their own Iraqi Sunni community. And yes, Iranian groups and their proxies continue to destabilize Iraq in order to diminish its effectiveness as a buffer state against Iranian ambitions. But despite these issues, Iraq continues to muddle along without returning to the chaos of 2004 to 2008. This is a very real accomplishment of which both the United States and Iraq should be proud, even if the road to get here was excessively long and costly.

It is time for Iraq to stand on its own -- without a U.S. presence to disrupt its politics. There are significant factions within both Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni communities that would look favorably on a residual U.S. force in Iraq. They need to move on. The lingering U.S. troop presence on Iraqi soil is -- quite understandably -- perceived as an insult to Iraqi nationalism by significant portions of their fellow citizens. This is an issue that must be taken off the table so that Iraqi politics can normalize, not least with regard to Iraq-Iran relations. Ironically, it is by leaving Iraq that the United States can best let Iraq stand up to its Iranian neighbor. Ending what Iraq's neighbors perceive as its "occupation" by U.S. forces will finally permit Iraq to complete the normalization of regional relationships.

Iraq does have some serious security gaps that it will have to address, likely through the use of U.S or other Western contractors. Airspace control remains a concern for the Iraqis, but numerous aerospace firms will be happy to provide the equipment and the trainers to remedy this problem. The recently announced purchase of F-16 fighter jets from the United States is a good first step toward true airspace control. The Iraqis, however, will need to hire trainers for the pilots of their still-fledgling air force. The Iraqis may similarly require continued training on the use of their artillery pieces and the tactical employment of other weapons systems. But these technical gaps can easily be filled, and the market will respond quickly to Iraqi petrodollars.

Honoring the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is equally critical for the United States. Leaving Iraq on the terms dictated by its sovereign government will put to bed the very real perception that the United States invaded the country to transform it into its "51st state." Should the United States need to intervene in another country, it will be very helpful to be able to point to Iraq as evidence that the United States does leave when asked. While U.S. diplomats in Baghdad are reportedly in negotiations to amend the SOFA to allow a residual presence, this effort could -- and should -- be turned off quickly.

Some prominent U.S. foreign-policy leaders, such as Sen. John McCain and other public figures, have argued that it is in the U.S. interest to leave a residual force in Iraq to counter Iranian influence. This logic is misguided. Iran has been able to make inroads in Iraq largely because of the U.S. presence. Among Iraqi nationalists -- the Sadrists in particular -- the U.S. presence, which they still refer to as "occupation," has overshadowed increasing Iranian influence. Once the United States leaves, the nationalists can then turn their full attention to what a legitimate relationship with Iran might look like, recall that they did fight a very long and bloody war with their Persian neighbor, and recognize that they have no desire to be anyone's client state.

Although the argument for eliminating the U.S. presence in Iraq is not about U.S. domestic politics, it is certainly good domestic politics. It culminates the U.S. military mission in Iraq in a truly bipartisan manner, with the current Democratic president overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. forces as negotiated by his Republican predecessor. Cost savings, while hard to estimate, would not be insignificant. The marker of 3,000 troops put forward by the administration is a good step toward these goals, but it should be willing to truly close the deal and execute the currently signed agreement.

Finally, the debate over the U.S. military presence is distracting policymakers from the real issues in the United States' future relationship with Iraq -- the role of the State Department (and particularly its ambitious police-training mission) and of the American business community. It is these two instruments of U.S. "soft power" that will shape U.S.-Iraq relations going forward, and to put it frankly, the sooner the military can get out of their way, the better.

The State Department police-training mission -- the contours of which I helped set some years ago -- does appear to have learned from earlier errors. The State Department has avoided the earlier confusion involved in contracting out this mission and has instead hired the trainers as temporary government employees. A well-qualified ambassador, who will report directly to the chief of mission, James Jeffrey, has been positioned in Baghdad to oversee the mission, giving senior hands-on oversight. And rather than attempting to train the rank-and-file patrolmen, the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has focused on the systematic problems -- management, pay, promotions, and especially logistics -- in the more senior police headquarters.

Serious concerns remain about continued funding from Congress and the possibility that the mission could be sabotaged by the risk-adverse nature of diplomatic security officials (though concerns about al Qaeda and Iranian-sponsored terrorism are valid). But this mission appears to be in a much better position to assume police training from the U.S. military than many of those involved in its creation dared hope when the transition was planned in 2008 and 2009. But it can only benefit by continual monitoring by senior policymakers.

To be frank, American business (with the notable exception of the oil and oil-services sectors) has not thrived in Iraq -- a problem not experienced by the Turks, the French, or the Chinese. There are many reasons for this fact, and the U.S. mission in Baghdad should elevate the priority it gives to assisting American businesses attempting to enter Iraq. The long-term Strategic Framework Agreement that accompanied the Status of Forces Agreement makes it clear that Iraq desires a long-term commercial (and cultural) relationship with the United States. Although there are numerous barriers to this aspirational goal -- corruption issues, legal issues, language barriers, and in some quarters a lingering resentment of Americans -- quiet engagement by the U.S. Embassy could go a long way toward reducing and remediating these obstacles. Visiting American business people should be able to view the U.S. government officials in Iraq as their allies.

There are issues that could prevent Iraqis from immediately taking complete control of their security. The disputed "Green Line" that marks the boundary between the provinces of the Kurdistan region and Iraq's Arab provinces remains a potential flashpoint for ethnic violence. While it is in the interest of both parties to have a peaceful settlement of territorial and other claims, the presence of Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces in this tense region heightens the possibility of an unfortunate incident, which could spiral out of policymakers' control. U.S. forces have done an admirable job in dampening tensions along the Green Line, but some kind of outside presence on this border may be desirable until a final settlement of Kirkuk (the primary territory in dispute) can be reached.

This presence, however, does not have to be American. Accepting the fact that the SOFA requires the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of the year, the United States and Iraq might find it worthwhile to look for some other external force or international organization that could put a peacekeeping force in place. The United Nations is, of course, the traditional source for such a force, but time is short. One can perhaps see some other international organization -- potentially the European Union or even the Gulf Cooperation Council -- responding to an Iraqi request for a limited third-party presence. Initial reports indicate that the Arabs and Kurds are managing the tensions themselves, but the situation should still be monitored carefully.

Finally, all international agreements are subject to modification by consent. If the Iraqi government -- of its own accord, without U.S. pressure -- comes to desire an extension of a small U.S. presence in Iraq, then that should be carefully considered. I do not believe it is in Iraqi leaders' interest for them to ask for an extension of the U.S. presence, but they certainly have the right to manage their own relations with the United States. But the visible U.S. diplomatic pressure on the Iraqis to come to this decision, as exemplified by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's comments in Baghdad, should immediately cease, so that any request will not be tainted.

In short, it is time for the United States to stop being a "helicopter parent" to the Iraqis. To extend the metaphor: The Iraqis have graduated and are now legally of age. Let them go. They will doubtless not do everything perfectly or in the way the United States would prefer. So be it. They are no longer America's wards, no longer its charges, no longer in receivership.

This is how the U.S. war in Iraq ends.

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