From December 5, 2012 to January 29, 2013, al-Qaeda's top-tier forum Shamukh al-Islam was down (with a brief return for a few days after December 17). The suppression of the forum is likely the work of an intelligence agency, but no claim of responsibility has been announced. It has also accelerated an already growing trend: the migration of jihadi propaganda from web forums to social media.
In response to the blackout, many jihadi groups, media outlets, and individuals created new accounts on Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook). Others have likely migrated to popular second-tier forums like Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (AMAF), which occurred the last time the al-Qaeda approved forums went down in late March/early April 2012. During that period, I was in the middle of collecting and analyzing data (from February 1, 2012 to April 31, 2012) on a number of jihadi forums spanning multiple languages and Twitter accounts for a New American Foundation paper, which showed empirically for the first time that lower-tier forums did indeed fill the vacuum created by the main forum's absence.
Both of these forum takedowns -- in March and April, as well as in December and January -- exposed the limits of al-Qaeda's official online media procedures, which are headed by its distribution network al-Fajr Media. Al-Fajr is responsible for coordinating between al-Qaeda Central (AQC), its affiliates' media outlets (As-Sahab Media for AQC, al-Malahim for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Furqan for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Andalus for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)), and the forum administrators. In both takedown cases, al-Fajr could not deliver content from the al-Qaeda affiliates, at least in an official capacity, to the online masses.
Media outlets, groups, and ideologues that, while not expressly affiliated, are inspired by al-Qaeda's worldview have not been hindered by this process, and therefore have not evolved mechanisms for releasing their content. Previously, popular online jihadi essayists like Abu Sa'd al-Amili wrote articles when the forums when down, encouraging readers to be patient and to understand that the forums would persist and would not be defeated. On December 23, 2012, however, Abdullah Muhammad Mahmud, a writer for the jihadi news agency Dawa al-Haqq Foundation for Studies and Research, which is disseminated via a Wordpress blog, provided guidance to online jihadi activists. Mahmud told his comrades that going forward, it was legitimate to use Twitter and Facebook as sources of information for jihadi-related issues. This advice was in a sense revolutionary, as jihadis had previously emphazized the importance of the forums as a method for authenticating materials, to prevent forgeries of official group content. At the same time, though, many grassroots activists had already been active on online social media platforms for a few years on an individual basis.
If the dissemination of official releases is no longer to be done centrally, it has the potential to make the forums obsolete, and usher in a new era whereby jihadi activists primarily rely on social media platforms to interact with one another. It could also force groups that are part of al-Fajr's distribution network to evolve and change their methods of content dissemination. There is already some evidence that this shift has started during the ongoing forum takedown.
Evan Kohlmann, an expert on online jihadism, noted on December 10, 2012: "Due to the absence of top jihad chat forums, al-Shabab (formerly @HSMPress) in Somalia has been forced to rely on Twitter to distribute its latest video release. This may be the first time that any terrorist group allied with Al-Qaida has ever used Twitter as the exclusive point of release for media." It should be highlighted that unlike other al-Qaeda affiliates, al-Shabab releases its content through the distribution network Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). Al-Qaeda in Iraq's creation in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (@jbhatalnusra), has also over the past few weeks used Twitter as the first point of release of its content, outsourcing what would be a forum thread with a ‘justpaste.it' page.
On January 25, Twitter shut down al-Shabab's extremely active account, which had some 20,000 followers and often featured pithy, tongue-in-cheek tweets attacking Western governments or other adversaries. Twitter said the ban was in response to a tweet sent by al-Shabab announcing that they would kill French hostage Denis Allex, and then saying they had done so, violating Twitter's rules against violent messages. But just yesterday, al-Shabab opened a new account, from which a tweet was issued that read, "For what it's worth, shooting the messenger and suppressing the truth by silencing your opponents isn't quite the way to win the war of ideas."
AQI and AQAP also used alternate methods to release their content. Instead of going through al-Fajr, AQI used the independent Iraqi-focused al-Yaqin Media to post its content to Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum. AQAP sent its content through Abdullah bin Muhammad, a rising jihadi star online, through his Twitter account. The only group that seems to have been left behind in this brave new world is al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan.
It is possible during the takedown in March/April 2012 that some of the forums learned by creating backup options. Both the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (@as_ansar) on April 13 and the Somali al-Qimmah Islamic Network (@AlqimmahNetwork) on April 9 created Twitter accounts once they returned. Both now feature links to their Twitter accounts prominently on the front page of their forums. This may be an effort to diversify the forums' ways of communicating with the public and delivering content.
Since the formal period of my study on the state of the jihadi forums and some Twitter accounts ended at the end of April 2012, others have also joined Twitter - though unsurprisingly, none that use al-Qaeda in their official name. They include -- in the order that they joined -- Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen's media outlet Madad News Agency (@W_mdd); Asad al-Jihad2 (@AsadAljehad2), a prominent online jihadi essayist; Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (@MinbarTawhed), a library of jihadi scholarly materials; Jabhat al-Nusra (@JbhatALnusra), the premier jihadi organization active in Syria; Muhammad al-Zawahiri (@M7mmd_Alzwahiri), the brother of AQC's leader and an influential Egyptian jihadi in his own right; Jihad Archive (@jehadarchiv), a website that archives old jihadi organization videos and statements; Abu Sa'd al-Amili (@al3aamili), a popular online jihadi writer; Fursan al-Balagh Media (@fursanalbalaagh), a jihadi translation and transcription service for official al-Qaeda and affiliated content; and Dr. Iyad Qanibi (@EYADQUNAIBI), a popular jihadi ideologue from Jordan.
There is some evidence that use of Facebook is also growing at the expense of the forums, and that individuals are moving jihadi content to invitation-only Facebook groups and pages. The nature of this activity is unclear at this point without further study. Additionally, some jihadi organizations - Jabhat al-Nusra, Jama'at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Jaysh al-Umma, and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia - have even gone so far as to establish their own personal forums.
But while more jihadis continue to be attracted to Twitter and Facebook, al-Qaeda's official distribution route through al-Fajr media has yet to replace its tried and true method of authentication using its approved forums. Also, online jihadis' reactions to the return of Shamukh after it was down for more than seven weeks illustrated that they were still attached to using the forums. In the future, it is possible that if Shamukh were to be suppressed again, al-Qaeda could confer legitimacy on the second-tier forum Ansar al-Mujahidin, which is already seen as trustworthy by online grassroots activists. In the past, after al-Fallujah Forum was permanently taken offline, it conferred legitimacy on Shamukh. AMAF like others forums, though, uses the same tools and is almost certainly vulnerable to the same kind of takedown tactics. And although Twitter provides a more public platform than a password-protected forum, one crucial utility of forums for jihadis is the ability to have relatively private conversations among themselves. At the very least, now more than ever, there is a hybrid ecosystem for online jihadis.
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is author of a recent New America Foundation study on the state of the global jihad online. It provides a qualitative, quantitative, and cross-lingual analysis based on data from February 1, 2012 - April 31, 2012.
The following article was adapted from the author's recently released report, "Breaking the Bonds Between al-Qa'ida and Its Affiliate Organizations."
The death of Osama bin Ladin and the fall of Arab dictators have left al-Qa'ida's leadership in disarray, its narrative confused, and the organization on the defensive. One silver lining for al-Qaida, however, has been its affiliate organizations. In Iraq, the Maghreb, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, al-Qa'ida has used local groups to expand its reach, increase its power, and grow its numbers. This string of mergers is not over. In places as diverse as the Sinai Peninsula and Nigeria, al-Qa'ida-linked organizations are emerging. However, the jihadist world is more fractured than it may appear at first glance. Many Salafi-jihadist groups have not joined with al-Qa'ida, and even if they have, tensions and divisions occur that present the United States and its allies with opportunities for weakening the bond.
The role of affiliates is perhaps the most important uncertainty when assessing whether or not the United States and its allies are "winning" the struggle against al-Qa'ida. If affiliates are really part of the al-Qa'ida core, then the overall movement Zawahiri champions is robust and growing. But if the affiliates are al-Qa'ida in little more than name, then Zawahiri's organization, the core of which has been hit hard in recent years, may be close to defeat.
The Rewards and Risks of Affiliation
Al-Qa'ida has always been both a group with its own agenda and a facilitator of other terrorist groups. This meant that it not only carried out its own attacks, but it also helped other jihadist groups with funding, training, and additional logistical essentials. Toward the end of the 1990s, al-Qa'ida incorporated Egyptian Islamic Jihad into its structure. After September 11, 2001, this process of deepening its relationship with outside groups took off, and today a number of regional groups bear the label "al-Qa'ida" in their name, along with a more local designation. Some of the most prominent affiliates include al-Qa'ida of Iraq (AQI), al-Qa'ida of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa'ida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Shebaab in Somalia.
Groups have joined with the core after losing recruits and popular support and otherwise seeing their original goals frustrated. For much of its history, al-Qa'ida was flush with cash, which made it an attractive partner for other terrorist groups. Al-Qa'ida ran training camps, operated safe houses, and otherwise established a large infrastructure in support of terror that offered local groups a safe haven and created personal networks among those who trained and sheltered there. At times, groups sought to replace their more local brand with that of al-Qa'ida, believing the latter is more compelling. Because groups share havens, training facilities, and so on with al-Qa'ida, when these locations are targeted by U.S. or local government forces, the individuals from these join al-Qa'ida in fighting back.
Having a diverse array of affiliates helps al-Qa'ida extend its reach, gain access to hardened fighters, and fulfill its self-image as the leader of the jihadist community. Today, amid the U.S. drone campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the group, the actions of al-Qa'ida's affiliates can serve as proof of the group's continued strength.
Despite the benefits to joining with al-Qa'ida, not all Salafi-jihadist groups choose to affiliate with it, including Egypt's Gamaat al-Islamiyya and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and fighters in Chechnya, Gaza, and Pakistan, though some individual terrorists from these groups did join up.
Doctrinal disputes divide the jihadist community, and some groups go so far as to declare others to be unbelievers, which has tremendous consequences for how a group chooses its targets, and on a group's popularity. In addition, an ideological divide over issues like targeting civilians has caused a rift among jihadists. Local versus global outlooks have also played a role in keeping some groups from linking up with al-Qa'ida. Even if a group shares al-Qa'ida's goals and ideology, going global brings a host of downsides, particularly the wrath of the United States and other strong powers.
Strains in the Relationship
Different aims and divergent strategies may strain the al-Qa'ida-affiliate relationship. Because al-Qa'ida's affiliates started out with local goals, linking with the al-Qa'ida core and expanding attacks to global targets can make it harder for a group to achieve its original aims. On the flip side, the core's anti-Western brand can become hijacked or contaminated by local struggles. Often, local groups have markedly different convictions from al-Qa'ida, particularly when it comes to nationalism and democracy. Expansion also creates tensions inside and outside the core. As the number of affiliates increases, the overall security of the al-Qa'ida network decreases. In cases where al-Qa'ida sends its own operatives and other non-locals to join an affiliate, these foreign fighters may alienate locals through their personal behavior or attempts to alter local traditions.
These issues, and others, may not only create tension between the core and its affiliates, they may be cause for like-minded groups or prominent jihadists to publicly condemn al-Qa'ida-something that costs al-Qa'ida heavily in terms of prestige, and possibly recruitment.
How to Fight Affiliates Better
Often only a small portion of an affiliate's organization focuses on Western targets and an even smaller portion focuses on operations against Western targets outside the local theater of operations. By lumping an unaffiliated group with al-Qa'ida, the United States can drive it into Zawahiri's arms. It is also important to consider how some Sunni groups like Hamas that act against U.S. interests can still serve to weaken al-Qa'ida.
An information operations campaign can try to widen these gaps within the broader movement, highlighting differences and thus encouraging them. In addition, the foreign nature of al-Qa'ida should be emphasized and local nationalisms used to discredit the jihadis. The United States and its allies should also call attention to al-Qa'ida's unpopular stand against democracy and contrast it with statements by peaceful Salafi leaders, including some former jihadists, in support of elections.
Intelligence services can monitor radicals within diaspora communities and work with law enforcement officials to curtail fundraising for affiliate groups. If the core's money diminishes, the core will be less likely to be able to attract new affiliates to its banner. Moreover, depriving affiliate groups of revenue often leads them to undertake illicit activities to make up the funding shortfall. These actions paint the group as more criminal than heroic.
Washington must also understand how actions its takes in the region may influence the al-Qa'ida-affiliate dynamic. In deciding whether to intervene abroad, for instance, U.S. policymakers should consider, along with other more obvious costs and benefits, how doing so may impact al-Qa'ida affiliation.
Ultimately, there are no simple choices when confronting al-Qa'ida affiliates. On the one hand, ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving U.S. intelligence and security officials in a defensive and reactive mode and vulnerable to a surprise attack. On the other hand, too aggressive an approach can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al-Qa'ida and other jihadist groups by validating the al-Qa'ida narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement. So, as with most difficult counterterrorism issues, judgment and prudence are essential
Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, and the Research Director at the Saban Center at Brookings.
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In late January, Osama bin Laden released an audiotape praising the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009. "The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes of [September] 11th," he said.
While the tape was proof that Al Qaeda's leader was still alive, it also raised the question of whether he's now only an irrelevant militant seeking to associate himself with even failed attacks originated by groups he doesn't control. After all, the organization behind the botched bombing was Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in Yemen, thousands of miles from bin Laden's presumed base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Bin Laden's irrelevance seemed further confirmed in June, when CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC News that Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is now "relatively small...I think at most we're looking at maybe 50 to 100."
For some, these small numbers suggest that bin Laden's organization is fading away, and that the war against it is largely won. But the fact is that Al Qaeda has always been a small organization. According to the FBI, there were only 200 sworn members at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and the group has always seen itself primarily as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups.
To read the rest of this article, visit Newsweek, where this was originally published.
Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and at New York University's Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader. He is a national security analyst for CNN.
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