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 revolution.muslimpad.com) 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 Jihadology.net and co-edits the blog al-Wasat.