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
Thanks for pointing this out. Midhar’s view is from a limited vantage point, but his insider’s perspective is valuable (the typical online life-span of guys like him is 2-3 years). There were, for example, other sites of interest before and during the al-Ansar period. I have very little time for this right now, but I’ll see what I can do.
Does anyone out there know whatever became of Jazirra Net? They were the folks who were operating most of the significant jihadi and AQ sites up to the point of the Nick Berg murder – at which point they appeared to lose most of their assets and just sort of vanished, to be replaced by Irhabi007 & Co.
Thanks Anne; interesting stuff. The claim that the Ana al-Muslim forum (www.muslm.net) was “bought by Saudi intelligence” caught my eye, as a similar statement was made by “Asad al-Jihad2” (=Hakayma?) last month in the second round of his online Q&A on behalf of AQC, in which he writes that Saudi Interior Minister Nayif bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and his son “took control” of Ana al-Muslim and used it to promote factionalism and anti-ISI sentiment among the Sunni Iraqi resistance groups. He says the Hanin forum was similarly compromised. He then goes on to write, regarding the forums generally:
“Here, I would like to point out that this demonstrates the importance of forums in the war and in the jihadist march. We have our forums that were approved by the Al-Fajr Media Center, as well as other reliable forums. The proponents of jihad should put all their energies into these forums to support the religion, for the great role they play in the war between the people of Islam and the people of infidelity and hypocrisy.” (OSC trans.; originals of both parts of the Q&A can be found at various sites, e.g. http://jaber-m-b.maktoobblog.com/1617816/.
If this is the same Midhar who was a webmaster for Abu Jihad al Masri’s website althabeton.co.nr and the linked forum alansar.hopto.org (which appears to be the case) I am curious as to why he made no mention of alm2sda.net and that network of sites tracing back into alerhap and before that erhap etc. I remember a posting on alansar from him circa 05/06 where he launched quite an attack against a few key figures from alm2sda. They had quite the spat. If anyone is interested I probably have that posting somewhere in my archives.
I don’t recall much about the period before 2003.
During the period right after the Nick Berg video, there were a few other beheading videos, one in Saudi Arabia and a couple in Iraq. I would say the period until summer 2004. Were these not on Al-Ansar?
Regarding beheading videos and where they were, they were never “on” al-Anser, they were announced/released via al-Ansar. The problem in the case of Nick Berg was twofold. First, the video was announced/released on al-Ansar, making the site subject to reprisals, and second, the Berg video was actually hosted at first on a “file sharing” site that was an AQ front, and was on the same server in Malaysia as the al-Ansar forum. The latter created a single point of failure, which AQ webmasters have attempted to avoid since.
As for alm2sda.net, that’s a story to save until after the war…