Islamists on the internet: brotherhood of belief

This title should have read “Islamist militants on the Internet”.

Published in Magill, May 2005.

In Britain the speed with which the Muslim diaspora embraced the internet was demonstrated by the British Muslim Parliament’s order to all mosques and Muslim schools to install web access as early as 1996. With so many young Muslims in Europe and America using the web to maintain contact with family and friends, it has become a key arena for Islamist propagandists. The internet gives security services and curious browsers the opportunity to explore the extremes of political Islam.

But one must exercise some caution. Life on the internet can be brutish and short. In early 2005, an Egyptian Coptic family living in New Jersey were bound hand and foot by intruders. Their throats and wrists were slit. This butchery was apparently a punishment for Hassan Armanious’ activities on internet message system ‘PalTalk’. He had criticised historical Muslim persecutions of Orthodox Christians. According to the British press, PalTalk is the same online system used by Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, leader of al-Muhajiroun, to broadcast nightly sermons calling for support of bin Laden from central London. Following the murder of the Armanious family in New Jersey, the killers were applauded on a separate website that had been monitoring Christians using PalTalk.

Islamist militancy has come to the fore in a new age of technological communication. In his 1964 text Milestones, Sayyid Qutb, a key figure in political Islam, wrote that “there should be a vanguard … to start the task of reviving Islam, and march through the vast ocean of Jahiliyyah [disbelief]”. Events have passed Qutb by: the vanguard which seized the world’s attention in 2001 has been superseded by a broader mass movement across the Muslim world.

After operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ and the invasion of Afghanistan, the al Qaeda franchise has become increasingly nebulous. The central leadership of Al Qaeda were dispersed, and whatever centralised structure there may previously have been was disrupted. Since then the movement appears to have dissolved into a ‘community of belief’. In this new context, the writings of important Islamist thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, Hasan al-Banna, Abdul al Maududi, and Ayman al-Zawahiri represent a small kernel within an increasingly decentralised and scattered political and ideological spectrum. However, one can turn to the internet for a broader perspective, tapping into Islamist discourse in Europe and America, and elsewhere across the diaspora.

Former CIA psychiatrist Professor Jerrold Post developed the community of belief concept to describe far-right extremists such as Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh was not formally associated with any particular militant group. Nonetheless, he bombed the Alfred E. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma on the anniversary of the federal assault on the Branch Davidian complex at Waco. The design of McVeigh’s ammonium nitrate fertilizer bomb and his choice of target appear to have been inspired by The Turner Diaries, a novel by far-right activist William Pierce which is widely read among American extremist right groups. As McVeigh’s example proves, unaffiliated individuals can conduct operations in accordance with the ideology and program of extremist groups.

Professor Post appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee in November 2001 to warn that, “the role of the internet in propagating the ideology of right wing extremist hatred is of concern, for an isolated individual consumed by hatred can find common cause in the right-wing web sites, feel he is not alone, and be moved along the pathway from thought to action, responding to the extremist ideology of his virtual community”.

This brotherhood of belief concept also applies to Islamists. In 2004, The Netherlands’ Intelligence Service (AIVD) reported that Islamic radicalism was spreading through the internet: “most of these groups are not organised in a structured hierarchy, but rather in diffuse networks, the coherence of which is based on a shared ideological range of ideas. The increasing importance of the ‘network strategy’ is especially apparent in the growing use of the internet by radical-Islamic groups”.

The report goes on to say elsewhere that, “the importance of an intensive exchange of radical-Islamic doctrines via the electronic highway is growing. The participants in the chat sessions progressively infect themselves and one another with the radical-Islamic ideology. This creates an ‘autonomous’ radicalisation process.”

Sympathisers communicate across the ummah and among the diaspora on the internet, using chat rooms, blogs, websites, and forums. The difficulties of living in an alien and lonely environment can make diaspora identification particularly attractive for the educated Muslim elite who travel abroad to western countries to study and work. This, according to former CIA field agent and clinical psychologist, Dr Marc Sageman, was at the heart of the Hamburg Cell’s formation.

Not only does the global reach of the internet have the capacity to mobilise Muslims across the ummah, but its relative anonymity provides sympathisers and militants with a safe area for discourse that might be frowned upon or criminalised in open society. The tenor of some web discussion groups is illustrated by the initial message which appears alongside a portrait of Osama bin Laden holding an AK 47 on one discussion group’s initial page.

“Oh Muslims! This is a call to all of you! Oh Muslims across the world, in the East and the West, fight the enemy in person and with your wealth! Fight the enemy with your supplications to Allah Most High that he may bestow victory upon your brothers who are oppressed!”
In chat rooms and discussion forums on the internet, individuals can seek advice on issues as benign as whether they can make exception on the strictures of halal meats and contraception while living in western society. Other topics for discussion can include debating the morality of beheading hostages in Iraq, and the necessity of executing collaborators.

There are innumerable sites on the net that fall under the broad heading of Islamist. Perhaps the two best known active websites are Supporters of Shareeah, the website of former Finsbury Park Mosque Sheikh Abu Hamza and his supporters, and Hizb-ut-tahrir’s website, which hosts publications such as ‘America’s campaign to suppress Islam’. To take a more unusual example, the following declaration was posted on a discussion group called Tanzeem Qaedat Ansar al-Quran, which was recently removed from Yahoo! Groups and is now no longer available.

“We in Tanzeem Qaedat Ansar al-Quran hereby inform that we are decide to join as suborganization and supportive source to al-Qaeda. We in Tanzeem Qaedat Ansar al-Quran will not let our main Organization down. Soon very soon if Allah (SWT) will all Muslims hear good and Holy news in Scandinavia and Baltic Regions. … Dear Brothers Usama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi!!. We have hear [sic.] your messages, read your statements and our answers will come as soon as possible… Our ‘arcticmujahedeens’/ ‘nordicjihadettes’ will soon do same what all mujahedeens do soon.”

This particular discussion group had few members, used rather grandiose and breathless language, and coined the improbable term ‘articmujahadeen’ for its warriors. Yet the files hosted on the same discussion group included a collection of detailed training manuals, including Arabic language manuals for M4 American, G3 German and AK 47 variant automatic rifles. Also among this discussion group’s online files were an English language poisoning manual dating from 1996, dedicated to “to the Mujahideen of Afghanistan – who lit the flame of jihad in the hearts of every sincere Muslim throughout the world”. This example is reasonably typical of the problems one faces when trying to determine the credibility of Islamist sources on the internet. Irrespective of their level of commitment to the Islamist campaigns associated with al Qaeda, the members of discussion groups such as this provide some insight into the sentiment of Islamist sympathisers.

On another site, an article entitled “nineteen lions” describes the 9-11 operation in heroic style, casting America as a vulnerable and legitimate target. “The US and her allies are little more than a house of cards. Impressive at a distance, feeble upon closer inspection. Their hearts are trembling, the ground beneath them is shaking; they can sense it: There is a rumble of rage in the ummah. With the Help of Allah this tempest will soon not only topple the House of Cards, but obliterate any remnants of its existence”. Writing a year after 9-11, another writer, Shaykh N?sir ibn Hamad al-Fahd, described the attack in the context of a world revolution.

“The battle [9-11] formed a great turning point in history, it reshaped many ideas and studies. Nineteen Mujaahids came to it, from a youthful age, and from a party who is being fought in all nations of the world. … [They] converted what [American] ideologues thought was to be the “end of history”, into beginning of the end of them, by Allaah’s Power and Strength! And for the first time in modern history, the Muslims were proactive makers of great events, not reactive and effected by events! [This] returned Islaam back into confrontation and in war with the Kuffaar [and] brought out the christain [sic.] crusading enmity from the hidden to the open. … It ended the era of America striking whoever it wishes from the Muslims without being punished, forever Allaah Willing”.

As might be expected, the call to battle forms a major theme of Islamist internet discourse. One posting on an Islamist blog site chastised Muslims who refused to join the jihad.

“We prefer to languish from one Friday to the next, finding all sorts of excuses as to why we shouldn’t protect this ummah… when Muslims are attacked, we look the other way. Instead of going to the Jihad lands to assist, most Muslims prefer going to every other place to undertake activities of cowardice and frivolity. How many Muslims travel around the world, yet how many travel to lands of Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir, etc? After the death of the Holy Prophet, Abu Dujana fought until he was Shaheed [martyred]. To us, his life is a legacy of sacrifice and lessons of bravery and fierceness against Kufr. May He guide our Muslims towards the example he left behind”.

Another similar posting on a different forum carried the title “Advice to those who abstain from fighting”, and begins: “Know! Oh abstainer from that which has been obligated of Jihad! Deviator from the ways of success and correctness, that you have been exposed to expulsion and relegation…” Another posting on the same theme reads:

“It is necessary that Muslims be aware of the Jihad in this country [Saudi Arabia] to establish the Shari’ah and expel the occupying crusaders and apostates. This is incumbent upon every legal aged adult including the scholars and public, the righteous and the immoral, the rich and poor, men and women; for it is absolutely necessary that people understand that this obligation isn’t restricted to the wanted 19 or 26 [on the Saudi most wanted list]. Even if the Saudi regime is determined to secure [the idea that the Jihadi resistance is not more widespread], we must not be deceived, for those brothers – God fortify the Faith through them – were none other than the vanguard for the Muslim community and I consider them to have played a great and historic role in inciting mankind and informing [mankind] of the truth and of their just cause.”

There is a wealth of English language resources on the internet that can help academics, security services, and the media better understand the Islamist phenomenon. Yet it remains remarkably under exploited. On the FBI’s website, terrorism is listed as a separate issue to ‘cyber issues’, which it confines to child pornography. Surely, it is time to wake up to the central role of the internet in the Islamist community of belief.