Are the Jihadi Forums Flagging? An Ideologue’s Lament

Last month prominent jihadi ideologue Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili published a critical essay on the state of online global jihad. Released by Fursan al-Balagh Media (@fursanalbalaagh) on February 17, the eight-page essay stirringly lamented a general decline in participation in jihadi online forums (websites such as Shumukh al-Islam and Shabakat al-Fida’ al-Islamiyya) and pleaded with users to reinvigorate the forums as the proper centers of jihadi discussion and intellectual production online. (For the history of these forums and their important role in jihadi activity, including their ties to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, see here.)

While it is certainly a stretch to say that the forums are falling into desuetude, al-‘Amili’s lament ought to be taken seriously, if only on account of the author’s status in jihadi circles. The pseudonymous shaykh is a prolific jihadi presence online, with numerous essays and fatwas and even a collection of poetry to his name. Who al-‘Amili actually is remains a mystery. He has previously justified guarding his true identity—and any and all details of his background—out of security concerns, citing Qur‘an 74:31: “And none knows the soldiers of your Lord except He.”

His essay in question, “On the Languishing of the Jihadi Forums: Causes and Solutions,” is a passionate appeal to his fellow jihadi netizens. Al-‘Amili describes the forums as a “factory” whose workers ought to be participating in production but who apparently are not working very hard. He admonishes forum members for not honoring the “responsibilities” that forum membership entails, including guarding the forums’ “reputation,” “credibility,” and “preeminence” in the field of jihadi media.

The rest of the essay consists of two parts, the first enumerating the reasons behind the decline of the forums and the second providing suggestions for turning this situation around.

Why the forums are flagging

The first reason for the forums’ “languishing,” according to al-‘Amili, is the periodic disruptions to which they are subjected by “our enemies,” meaning Western governments. In spring of last year, for example, most of the major jihadi forums were shut down for a number of days or weeks. The result of such shutdowns, says the author, is that some forum members seek out temporary online alternatives, though most simply abandon their previous activity out of either fear or negligence.

The second reason is increasing fear of monitoring and tracking by state governments, which has resulted from these routine forum outages.

The third is the “departure into battle” (al-nafir) of forum members heading to theaters of jihad such as Syria. Al-‘Amili proudly notes that “the jihadi forums are universities graduating bands of ansar al-jihad” (supporters of jihad). These “departers” are not to be considered a loss to the forums, though their departure does result in decreased activity. (For a study that confirms the phenomenon of forum members moving to jihad fronts, see here.)

The fourth reason for the forums’ decline, and the one which al-‘Amili focuses on the most, is jihadis’ migration to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Such movement was born out of necessity during the periods when the forums were shut down, he says. This bore fruit temporarily, but in the long run relying on social media is an error that will derogate from the centrality of the forums—“our protected strongholds.” The movement of “major [jihadi] writers and analysts” (kibar al-kuttab wa-l-muhallilin) to social networking sites is also part of this problem, as ordinary forum members have migrated with them in order to follow their writings.

The fifth and final reason for decline is a vicious circle problem following from the withdrawal of both major writers and ordinary members. When the former’s writings have received little attention on the forums from the latter, the major writers have been further discouraged from contributing directly to the forums. Thus the withdrawal of the one reinforces the withdrawal of the other.

How to reinvigorate the forums

The first of al-‘Amili’s “suggested solutions” to reversing the forums’ purported state of disrepair is reaffirming the importance of the forums “as a defensive, lethal weapon for confronting the enemies of the Islamic community.” As much as soldiering on the battlefield, actively participating on the forums ought to be considered jihad in the fullest sense of the word.

Second is for members to have more confidence in the forums’ security and in their own security as users. The forum administrators, he says, are more concerned with the general membership’s safety than with their own; they are utterly devoted to forum security and would never forsake “their soldiers.” It is simply unjustified, he says, to turn away from the forums out of fear that they have been compromised. Nor is it justified to turn away out of fear that participating will lead to being monitored. Members need only use the “identity-disguising programs” (baramij al-takhaffi) designed by “your technician brothers” on the forums to protect their online anonymity.

Third is for major jihadi writers to use the forums as the main outlet for their writings, thus drawing ordinary members back to the forums in tow. Here he directs a plea to “the major [jihadi] writers and shaykhs and analysts” to return to the forums. These latter ought to be “the main theater of your jihad and the principal point of departure for your guidance and your analysis.”

Fourth is to recognize the inadequacy of social media as an alternative to the forums, a point on which al-‘Amili is adamant. On social media, he says, we are only “guests,” for these sites are run by “our enemies.” Inevitably there will come a day when “they shut their doors in our faces.” What is more, relying on social media poses an inherent danger to jihadis as “the enemies” can use these sites against us at any time. If we preference social media we will be “duped” into diminishing and spoiling our efforts. The forums ought to be jihadis’ “base and foundation” online.

Fifth is to attract new technical experts, graphics designers, and translators to “jihadi media organizations”—which publicize on the forums—to improve the effectiveness of the media and messages posted there.

An effective prescription?

If al-‘Amili’s five stated reasons for decline are accurate, is it possible, following the author’s prescription, to reinvigorate the forums? The short answer seems to be no: periodic forum outages have been damaging and the attraction of social media is on the rise. But one must also consider that al-‘Amili is exaggerating the extent of whatever “languishing” is actually taking place. For one thing, jihadi participation in social media has not necessarily undermined the position of the forums.

Recently, Shumukh members posted long lists of jihadi Facebook and Twitter accounts suggested for following. Among the Twitter accounts listed was one belonging to a certain Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili (@al3aamili)—yes, the very author of this essay warning readers of the dangers of social media. Al-‘Amili, in fact, has tweeted quite often since December 2012.

Indeed, social media has probably benefited the state of online global jihad by exposing the jihadi message to more potential sympathizers and recruits. This has had the effect of decentralizing the online jihadi environment, leading to relatively less participation on the forums in the form of discussion and analysis. But the forums are hardly in a state of disrepair; comments and analyses are constantly being posted, often in a parallel effort with Facebook and Twitter jihadi accounts. This is very much the case with the “major writers” whom al-‘Amili mentions—and among whom al-‘Amili may be counted. Their writings tend to originate with independent jihadi media outlets that post to Twitter and Facebook, as well as to the forums.

Rather than languishing, the forums have succeeded in retaining their special position as an unusually private setting for exclusive discussion, which sometimes leads to collaborative efforts. Furthermore, as the main conduits for conveying official al-Qaeda media to the online jihadi community, they continue to enjoy a vaunted status as semi-official websites for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. They may be suffering somewhat, but the jihadi forums are hardly on the down and out.

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Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel, the editor of Jihadica, is a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of "Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement."

3 Responses

  1. While many of the sites maintain a veneer of “privacy” the fact is that so many have now come under the domain of intelligence agencies with either a resident FBI analyst on board, or even run by the same webmaster but with the domain now under the tight control of a cadre of intelligence analysts. The change in intellectual footprints can be readily noted by members who recognize Western minds attempting to appear “Islamic”. Islam is signal, symbol and code, the Qur’an has seven layers and few of us are Qutb in disguise. We out ourselves inadvertently. The “other guys” are aware of the new landlords and merely continue to play the game. So some of the more stalwart players now move underground and communicate apart from forum sites. I have seen the devolution of such sites with regard to real time intelligence value. They do remain as valuable clearinghouses of Islamist sentiment.

    Tammy Swofford

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