Nelly Lahoud’s much-awaited new book, the Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction, is out. Lahoud, who recently joined West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center as an associate professor, is one of the finest scholars of jihadi ideology around. Her book is a brilliant dissection of contemporary jihadi discourse with an original twist, namely an in-depth comparison of modern jihadism with early Kharijism. She argues convincingly that the takfiri reflexes of contemporary militants will lead to their internal fragmentation and political marginalisation, just as it did with the Kharijites. A very impressive work.
I highly recommend Mark Stout’s latest analysis of a new jihadi strategic study entitled “The Vision of the Jihaadi Movement”.
I grew up in the far north of Norway, hundreds of kilometers above the Arctic Circle. As you might expect, my research interests and arctic origin do not intersect very often. Last time was back in 2004 when a plane on the way from my home town Narvik to Bodø was nearly brought down by an axe-swinging Algerian Islamist.
Last Saturday, however, the local newspaper in the nearby city of Tromsø – where I have spent many a drunken night in my youth – broke a remarkable story (hat tip: Tore Bjørgo). It was about Andrew Ibrahim Wenham, a British-Australian convert to Islam who has been living in Tromsø since 2002. The 46-year old Wenham is a respected leader in the local Muslim community and the founding director of the local Alnor mosque. He is married to a Norwegian convert from Tromsø and leads a quiet existence. However, as the newspaper Nordlys uncovered, Wenham has a somewhat murky past.
In the late 1990s, Andrew Wenham – aka Abu Ismail – was part of a network of Jemaah Islamiyah supporters in Australia. In 1999 he attended a JI training camp in Mindanao and even spent two days alone with JI leader Hambali in Kuala Lumpur. Wenham was friends with Jack Roche, who was arrested in Australia in 2002 for plotting terrorist attacks on behalf of al-Qaida. In April 2000, when Roche returned to Perth after training in al-Qaida camps and meeting Osama bin Ladin in Afghanistan, Wenham greeted Roche at the airport and drove him home. Wenham’s name appeared several times in the trial against Roche. However, by the time of the 2004 trial, nobody knew what had become of Wenham. In mid-2001 he had left for Yemen, where his trail went cold. Australian terrorism expert Sally Neighbour tells Nordlys that she tried in vain to locate Wenham while researching her book In the Shadow of Swords. Little did she know that Abu Ismail had retreated to the Arctic.
Confronted with the evidence gathered by Nordlys, Wenham confirmed all the details of this story. In an open-hearted newspaper interview, he insists he did not know that his friends in Perth had terrorist connections. He says he went to the Mindanao camp for the adventure and that he did not know who Hambali was. At their Kuala Lumpur meeting, Wenham had the sense that Hambali was assessing him, but the two did not stay in touch. In the spring of 2000, Wenham learned from John Bennett (another convert and member of the Perth network) that Jack Roche was planning to bomb an embassy and assassinate a Jewish leader in Australia. Wenham says he was shocked and told the local imam about the plans, whereupon the imam became furious and called a meeting to dissuade the young men. At this point Wenham decided to break with his friends. In mid-2001 he and his wife Sandra left Australia for Yemen, where they spent 10 months before moving to Tromsø, Sandra’s home town.
Wenham is not a terrorist or an al-Qaida sleeper agent. If he had al-Qaida sympathies, he would have acted on them by now, or at least left a trail of suspicious behaviour or political statements. Wenham’s past activities must be viewed in proper context. His radical dealings occurred before 9/11, before Jemaah Islamiya had carried out any major international terrorist attacks, and before Hambali had risen to fame as a leading al-Qaida associate. Wenham’s departure to Yemen also occurred before the War on Terror, which suggests it was not an attempt to hide an al-Qaida connection. His subsequent silence about his past is obviously somewhat foolish, but perfectly understandable. In the witch-hunt that followed 9/11, many Muslims in the West had their lives ruined for less serious sins than Wenham’s. Andrew Wenham was lucky; had he stayed in Australia he would probably have been sucked into the Roche investigation, and had he gone to America instead of Norway in 2001, he might well have been in prison today.
Wenham’s story is a classic case of socially driven radicalization – what Marc Sageman calls the “bunch-of-guys” phenomenon. Wenham’s arrived in Perth in 1997 shortly after converting to Islam. As a new immigrant and fresh convert, he was on the lookout for new friends. He met fellow convert John Bennett, who introduced him to, well, a bunch of guys in the local Muslim community. The fifteen men socialized extensively; they played paintball together and took religious lessons. A couple of people in the group, the so-called “Ayub brothers”, had connections with Jemaah Islamiyah. After a while, the Ayub brothers suggested to their paintball buddies that they attend a real military training camp in Mindanao. Wenham accepted; “it was like a kind of adventure”, he now says.
As with other youth drawn into radicalism through friends, Wenham’s ideological commitment probably did not run very deep. If he was ideologically committed to anything, it was most likely to a form of “classical jihadism”, i.e. conventional warfare in confined theatres of war where Muslims fight non-Muslim occupying armies. In any case, Wenham broke with his jihadi friends in 2001 and has not done or said anything since to suggest he has radical leanings.
In the interview, Wenham now says he is scared that the latest revelations might cause trouble for his family and damage the reputation of his Tromsø mosque. Unfortunately, his concerns are partly justified. The story has broken at a time when local politicians are debating whether to allow the building a large mosque in Tromsø, to be paid for with a USD 3,3 million gift from a Saudi businessman. The Saudi connection has already made the project controversial, and the Wenham story is not going to help. Let us at least hope Wenham does not suffer too much personally for mistakes made in his youth. Wenham has been an examplary citizen during his time in Tromsø. I wish I could say the same about myself.
The second issue of the English-language jihadi magazine Inspire is out. Dina Temple-Raston, Jarret Brachman and Memri have already made some initial observations, but I’ll throw in my own for what they’re worth.
For a start, the second issue confirms that the magazine is produced out of Yemen by Samir Khan, the online propagandist who was based in the United States until October 2009. As with the first issue, the magazine contains a mix of original material and reprints of older texts by Bin Ladin, Abu Dujana al-Khurasani, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and others. Most of the new stuff is ostensibly written by Samir Khan himself, but there are a couple of new pieces by al-Awlaki as well. There are also numerous quotes from Western media, including several about the first issue of Inspire.
Three things in the magazine struck me as noteworthy. First is the account by Samir Khan himself about the reasons and details of his move to Yemen (pp. 45-49). The piece is interesting because we don’t have that many autobiographical texts by this notorious jihadi media mogul. By his own account he is in hiding in Yemen. He must have some kind of communication link with the AQAP organization, because the magazine includes pictures from the field and interviews with AQAP members. At the same time, Inspire contains less original material than AQAP’s Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim, which suggests he is further removed from the organization than his colleagues over at Sada al-Malahim.
Second is the article by Anwar al-Awlaki criticizing “the Mardin Declaration”, a statement issued in April 2010 by a group of moderate clerics who had gathered in the city of Mardin to reinterpret a famous fatwa on jihad by Ibn Taymiyya (pp. 33-40). The fact that al-Awlaki chooses to engage in this particular debate is very interesting because it suggests he and others in al-Qaida are concerned about these types of theological initiatives.
Third and most interesting is the set of articles that give specific operational advice to prospective activists based in the West (p. 51ff). There are suggestions for low-cost operations in the US soil, such as shooting sprees in restaurants catering for government workers (such as in Washington DC), and using trucks to mow down pedestrians on crowded streets. The latter tactic can be further refined, Khan suggests, by welding sharp blades to the front of the truck so as to create “the ultimate mowing machine.”
Perhaps most interesting are the advice on how to avoid detection:
- Do not travel abroad for jihad – act on US soil instead.
- Do not use mobile phones and the Internet for any jihad-related communication – if you have to, use coded language and encryption tools.
- If you are clean stay clean – do not interact with other activists.
- Do not access jihadi websites – get your jihadi propaganda fix from anti-jihadi monitoring sites such as MEMRI and SITE.
Obviously, someone who follows these guidelines is going to be extremely difficult to catch. The question is how many people are ready to act in this way. Khan’s strategy presupposes that individuals can aquire the motivation to die for the cause almost in a vacuum. However, in most historical cases, individuals only acquired this motivation after interacting with other radicals, going abroad for jihad, or accessing jihadi propaganda – all of which are activities discouraged by Samir Khan. Of course there have been exceptions, such as the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan, but even he was not completely “clean”, as evidenced by his email correspondence with Anwar al-Awlaki. Decentralized jihad is indeed a scary concept, but it does not necessarily work.
The Quilliam Foundation, a London based think tank, has released a very interesting new report by Muhammad Ali Musawi titled Cheering for Osama: How Jihadis Use Discussion Forums. It is one of the best introductions to the world of online jihadism that I have seen. It also points out some recent forum trends that should interest more seasoned observers.
Apologies to our readers for the recent two-month hiatus. I had an extremely hectic summer which included an intercontinental house move and lots of other complications. Jihadica is now back in business, although posting will probably be somewhat irregular.
Why would al-Qaida attack Norway? Here are some thoughts by Dominic Tierney and yours truly.
I also have other, somewhat less obvious thoughts on the matter, but I will wait to share them until we know more about the facts in the case.
International media have been in a frenzy recently over the publication of an English-language jihadi magazine entitled Inspire. The magazine – available here (beware of possible virus) – appears to be the work of the Yemen-based group al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The magazine features the logo of the “al-Malahim foundation”, AQAP’s media arm, and contains articles by and about AQAP members such as Anwar al-Awlaqi and Nasir al-Wahayshi. Unfortunately, only 3 of the 67 pages are legible, as the PDF seems to be corrupt. The coverage has been followed by extensive blogospheric speculation about the document’s significance.
Rarely have I seen so much fuss over such an insignificant event. The hulabaloo says a lot more about Western media than about al-Qaida. Specifically it reveals a level of ignorance about the world of jihadi propaganda that I find very disappointing nine years after 9/11.
For one, Inspire is not – I repeat: not – the first English-language jihadi magazine. It is not as if non-Arabic speaking Muslims have been isolated from the world of jihadi propaganda until now. There have been several online magazines in English in the past, and most have been of higher quality than Inspire. Has everyone forgotten last year’s Jihad Recollections? Besides, there were several English-language paper magazines in the 1990s. London-based GIA supporters had a newsletter in the early 90s, Abu Hamza al-Masri’s “Supporters of Sharia” group had another in the late 90s, and Australian Islamists published the magazine Nida ul Islam from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
Second, online jihadi propaganda of other types – such as websites and videos – have been widely available in English for over a decade. (Remember Azzam Publications?). Al-Sahab, the entity that disseminates statements from al-Qaida Central, has been subtitling videos and translating transcripts on a regular basis since at least 2005.
Third, the market for English-language propaganda is not quite as large as people think. Many Muslims living in the West speak the language of their country of origin, so they don’t need English-language material. In fact, many aspiring activists prefer ideological material in Arabic because they consider it more authentic. Those who don’t speak it themselves can rely on friends to convey the content for them, use translation software, or simply watch videos.
Fourth, the question of authenticity is neither soluble nor particularly important. Most commentators address the issue of authenticity in binary terms, as if documents are either fabricated by the CIA or manufactured by the inner core of al-Qaida. This is not how propaganda production works. Virtually no propaganda today is produced by the inner core of militant organizations. Propaganda production is usually outsourced to cells and individuals with varying degrees of contact with senior operatives. In fact, a considerable amount of jihadi media is produced by self-started entrepreneurs with no direct ties to militants whatsoever. Authenticity is therefore most often a matter of degrees, not a question of either-or. Inspire may well be the work of genuine religious activists, but not necessarily of the inner core of AQAP. Without signals intelligence it is extremely difficult to determine the precise nature of the link between the editors and the AQAP leadership.
Judging from the amount of recycled material in Inspire, I would be surprised if the AQAP connection is very strong. Remember that AQAP’s Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim (published since 2008) usually contains much more original material, suggestive of much closer links between editors and operatives. Even if Inspire was produced by AQAP cadres, I am not sure it would tell us anything we didn’t already know. We already know that the group is alive and well, that it has ambitions to recruit in, and strike at, the West, and that it has a very active media apparatus.
Fifth, there is nothing particularly new or uniquely worrying about the content of Inspire, at least judging by the table of contents. The exact same types of articles have appeared in other magazines for years. The article on “make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” is hardly a game changer in the world of terrorism. Tactical instruction manuals abound online and have done so for a decade.
The bottom line is that Inspire is a drop in an ocean of jihadi propaganda. The recent media coverage suggests that otherwise educated observers don’t seem to realise 1) how large and 2) how old that ocean is. I find this both disappointing and disconcerting. For a decade, militants have been pumping out sophisticated propaganda and genuinely dangerous training manuals to a vast Arabic speaking audience. In comes a sloppy magazine in English, and suddenly people speak of a new al-Qaida media offensive. This ignorance and linguistic myopia is inexcusable, since blogs and translation services have made information about jihadi propaganda more available than ever.
In my view, the only interesting thing about the release of Inspire is the fact that the PDF file is corrupt and rumoured to carry a Trojan virus. This is somewhat unusual. However, before we can say what it means, we need to know for sure whether the file was simply corrupt or whether it actually contained a virus. Basically we need more input from people who know the technological side of things (Aaron, have you looked at this?) Personally I don’t see why either jihadis or intelligence services would deliberately disseminate viruses, given that a virus would hurt both friends and enemies. In any case, whoever created Inspire wanted attention, and they certainly got that – in spades.
Two of the world’s foremost experts on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb have published new reports on the group. Al-Hayat journalist Camille Tawil has written a report for Jamestown, and Sciences-Po professor (and Jihadica alumnus) Jean-Pierre Filiu has written another report for Carnegie. Needless to say they are both excellent and worth anyone’s time.