Late last night, a Muslim convert from Leadville, Colorado, named Jamie Paulin-Ramirez was released from Irish police custody after being tied to an online jihadist attempt to murder a Swedish cartoonist. A self-styled “Jihad Jane” from suburban Philadelphia, Colleen LaRose, was recently indicted in the same plot. A week ago, a New Jersey resident named Sharif Mobley, who previously worked in multiple nuclear-power facilities, was arrested in Yemen in conjunction with a terrorist group.
What’s going on? How is it that more than eight years after the 9/11 attacks, terrorists are increasingly able to recruit converts inside the U.S.?
The answer is the Internet.
“Oh Mujahid brother, alone, in your home, you too can begin to execute the training program.”
In 1998, there were 12 documented terrorist-related Web sites. One decade later, there were over 6,900 Web sites and online forums devoted to cyber-jihad.
Web sites are supplanting mosques, madrassas and cafes as the incubators of Islamist radicalism. They provide anonymous transnational meeting places for propaganda, fundraising, recruitment, planning attacks and online training.
Virtual terrorist cells are promoted with the zeal of an online shopping guru—“Oh Mujahid brother, in order to join the great training camps you don't have to travel to other lands… Alone, in your home or with a group of your brothers, you too can begin to execute the training program,” announced al Qaeda site Muaskar al-Battar, or Camp of the Sword, in its 2004 debut.
The most notorious online recruiter of Americans is Anwar Al-Awlaki, born in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Known as “the Osama bin Laden of the Internet,” the Yemen-based Al-Awlaki has been linked to the accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, the Nigerian underwear bomber who failed in his Christmas Day attempt to take down a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit, and Sharif Mobley.
Alabama-born Omar Hammami has been featured in online training and recruitment clips from his terrorist camp in Somalia. Oregon-born and California-raised Adam Gadahn serves as a senior online communications commander for al Qaeda, the voice and face of its official Internet missives to the West.
• See John Avlon at The Strand in NYC Monday night While the Taliban banned everything from televisions to toothbrushes as decadent symbols of modern life, al Qaeda embraced technology early on. In a post 9/11 interview with his biographer Hamid Mir, editor of the Pakistani Daily Ausaf, bin Laden said he had the allegiance of Muslim scientists who would “use their knowledge in chemistry, biology… computers [and electronics] against the infidels.” After the fall of Afghanistan in November 2001, Mir reported seeing “every second al Qaeda member carrying a laptop along with a Kalashnikov” as they evacuated into exile.
During the al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) insurgency cyberjihad communications efforts exploded onto international consciousness. It can be pinpointed to May 11, 2004—when video of the beheading of U.S. contractor Nicholas Berg was posted on the al-Ansar Web-forum and soon proliferated around the world. This launched not only a wave of copycat online beheadings but a new era of AQI online communications. By mid-summer 2005, at the height of the insurgency, Zarqawi’s “information wing” was releasing an average of 9 official online statements every day, more than a typical U.S. government agency.
These included digital snuff films of attacks on U.S. troops designed to “inspire” new mujahideen—monitored and aggregated for Western eyes by organizations such as the SITE Intelligence Group. Soon videogames like Quest for Bush—modeled on Doom and Grand Theft Auto, with game levels titled Jihad Growing Up, Americans' Hell, and Bush Hunted Like a Rat—began circulating. These postings and other related sites promoted the mythology of jihad to a new generation of Muslim youth, far from Iraq and Afghanistan, deep in the heart of the Western world.
In recent years, online recruitment efforts proliferated in the West via chatrooms that attempted to increase sympathy for terrorists, with appeal to the alienated and unhinged, beyond the Muslim community. In one posting that has come to light, LaRose wrote that she was “desperate to do something somehow to help” Muslims she felt were suffering unduly at the hands of U.S. military actions abroad. She developed the online tag name “Jihad Jane” and helped recruit an international group of online plotters committed to killing a Swedish cartoonist named Lars Vilks, who had drawn pictures of Mohammed’s head on a dog’s body.
Paulin-Ramirez reportedly took an online course on Islam and converted, wearing the hajib and posting on Facebook forums with headings like “STOP caLLing MUSLIMS TERRORISTS!” She married an Algerian man she met online and disappeared from her home in Colorado six months ago with her 6-year-old son, surfacing when arrested by the Irish authorities last week as part of the plot to murder Vilks, before being released Saturday night.
She was just the last of 30 American citizens who have been arrested for plots to carry out attacks or joining jihadist groups during the last year alone. These recent American converts to al Qaeda have been mostly unsuccessful in their domestic terrorist attempts to date—with the stark exception of the Fort Hood massacre that left 13 servicemen and women dead. No country can continuously expect to bat a thousand against the evil of terrorism. What is clear is that the Internet is increasingly the route to recruitment, radicalization, and attack planning. It is an emerging front in an existing war, transnational and almost anonymous, trying to use the tools of an open society for its destruction.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.