One of the most intriguing questions about the jihadi internet is how it came into being. The early history of jihadi websites remains very poorly understood. Most of us started studying them too late, and we are too busy keeping track of present developments to examine the past.
My curiosity was therefore piqued by a recent article by ‘Mihdar’ on Midad al-Suyuf, who provides what he calls a ‘complete historical analysis’ of the jihadi forums on the web. Considering Mihdar’s record as a somewhat controversial figure – for other controversies involving Madad al-Suyuf, see here or here, the study should be taken with a grain of salt. And indeed, Mihdar is more interested in politics than in facts. He devotes a considerable part of his ‘analysis’ to lashing out at other jihadi forums, in particular criticising the policy of closing forums to registered members only. This, he argues, both restricts the flow of information (since password-protecting a forum means that you cannot enter it from public search engines, like Google), and facilitates the formation of cliques and factions among the members.
Anyway, the article does also provide a brief overview of the early history of Arab and jihadi web pages, as seen from an ’insider’. The article starts out by talking about Arabic and Islamic forums in general. He claims the first Arabic forums started around ten years ago, but they were general forums and not jihadi forums as such. Examples include al-Sahat, Ana Muslim (which he claims was “bought by Saudi intelligence” early on) and Sahab (not to be confused with al-Qaida’s media company al-Sahab). Around 2000 the page Islamway appeared, which was dominated by Egyptians. After 11 September, Islamway was shut down but other forums took its place such as al-Tajdid, al-Qala‘a, al-Islah and al-Tawhid. Of these, the only jihadi page was al-Tawhid, where Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza were believed to be writing. With regards to the others, they were political forums, but not strictly speaking jihadi.
Then, at the end of 2003, the forum al-Ansar appeared, and it was the only true jihadi forum at the time. It was preceded by a page named jehad.net, but this was shut down after its owner was arrested. Al-Ansar carried news about the Iraqi jihad in particular, distributed by a man named Abu Maysara al-Iraqi. Al-Iraqi started posting on the page in early 2004, and was the official source of information from the Iraqi jihad. In the beginning, al-Ansar was open for everyone to watch. However, in May 2004 the forum was shut down, after it had posted a video of the beheading of the American hostage Nicholas Berg. It later reappeared, but started requiring members to register. [As some of you might be aware, al-Ansar disappeared for good in 2004 or in 2005]. During the “last days of al-Ansar”, the forum al-Ikhlas was also established, founded by a young man named Muhibb al-Shaykhayn al-Tunisi.
Thus the historical overview seems to end, as the article goes on to discuss other and more internal matters, which will not be detailed here. The writer does also mention the newer and more well-known discussion forums such as al-Hisba, al-Buraq, al-Firdaws etc., but does not provide details on their history. Interestingly, he argues that none of these forums are run by intelligence agencies (contesting a common rumour, in particular with regards to al-Hisba) but that they have been corrupted by the members themselves, making free and open discussion impossible.
It is hard to judge the historical accuracy of this account, and it is apparently not complete. At FFI we only began to follow the forums closely in early 2002, so we missed the crucial formative period from 1999 to 2001. Perhaps Reuven at E-Prism or Aaron at Haganah have some insights?
Document (Arabic): 01-04-09-madad-al-suyuf-the-jihadi-forums