The Web of Jihad: Strategic Utility and Tactical Weakness

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
11 MINS READJun 14, 2006 | 04:59 GMT

With the death last week of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the world has been focused on the future of his al Qaeda in Iraq organization. And while that is an important question, particularly as it relates to the security situation in Iraq, it is fitting also to reflect on the history and impact of al-Zarqawi's violent movement.

The group has been, of course, well-known for conducting frequent suicide bombings in Iraq and the simultaneous suicide strikes at three hotels in Jordan last fall, but its brutality is not necessarily what made al-Zarqawi a household name. That came about largely because of al Qaeda in Iraq's skillful use of the Internet. It has embraced technology in a way heretofore unprecedented for any jihadist group.

In addition to posting shocking videos of decapitations to the Web, the "information wing" of al-Zarqawi's group routinely posted statements (often several in a single day), videos of suicide operations and ambushes and eulogies praising and glorifying suicide operatives. It even published a monthly Web magazine. The information wing of al Qaeda in Iraq has been able to put a slick, professional face on the cause of the larger al Qaeda organization — while also documenting achievements on the battlefield, inculcating readers with the theology of jihadism and enticing new recruits to join the jihadist struggle.

This use of technology has played into the evolution of the jihadist movement and may now be helping to foster new incarnations of al Qaeda. But just as significantly, use of the Internet has certain drawbacks. There is only so much that can be done in cyberspace. Tactical realities and operational security concerns mandate that some activities must be conducted in the physical world — and it is at this juncture, in making the transition from virtual to actual reality, that newer actors well could be at their most vulnerable.

The Internet and Jihadists

In his use of the Internet, al-Zarqawi stood out even from other top al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who still rely on more standard Arabic-language media outlets (notably Al Jazeera TV) to distribute important messages. The information wing of al-Zarqawi's group posted his statements directly to professional-looking Web sites of their own creation — and, proportionally, did so in far greater quantities than the core al Qaeda group.

Granted, location and amenities were in all probability a key factor; al-Zarqawi's node in Iraq has been operating in an urban environment, while bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are believed to be hiding in the rugged hinterlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Nevertheless, the younger group's embrace of technology seems to transcend that geographical difference to reflect a philosophical and perhaps even generational difference. Within this vein, al Qaeda in Iraq has used the Internet in two very significant ways: to disseminate propaganda in real time, and to shape public perceptions and debate in both the Islamic and Western spheres.

In other words, the Web has been a timely, efficient and effective tool for conducting information warfare, which is key for breaking the will of the enemy and in motivating one's own forces. That said, the use of the Web by jihadist groups far predates al Qaeda in Iraq. With the launch in 1996 of the Web site — so named in honor of bin Laden's mentor — jihadists had a professional-looking "store front" that allowed them to provide inspiration, news and instruction to adherents and potential recruits, and which became a channel for others to initiate contact with jihadist groups.

This use of technology has played into the evolution of the jihadist movement and may now be helping to foster new incarnations of al Qaeda. became an important mechanism through which funds for jihadist groups could be raised and willing volunteers could find ways to link up with jihadist groups in places like Chechnya and Bosnia. It also provided tips on steps to take in order to attend militant training camps run by organizations like al Qaeda. Following the 9/11 attacks, there was a virtual explosion of jihadist activity on the Web — ranging from chat rooms and blogs that became popular with "jihadist cheerleaders" to sites run by actual members of militant groups.

Many of these jihadist "cyberwarriors" are in their late teens or early twenties, and many of them have been educated in the West. Some of the cyberwarriors — like Younis Tsouli, the British citizen using the handle "Irhabi007" — discover jihadism online and then move on to join the cause in the real world. Often, they join or form grassroots cells and become what we have labeled "al Qaeda Version 3.0 or 4.0" operatives.

As we have discussed, the Internet has been a great enabler for grassroots cells to spread their ideology and recruit new acolytes — and indeed, it also seems to have given them the ability to network across oceans and borders. However, the Internet often has proven to be an Achilles' heel for clandestine groups as well. This is an area that warrants some study.

Risks and Limitations

From a tactical perspective, there are some things that simply cannot be done over the Internet — either for practical reasons or in light of operational security considerations. For example, recruiting a new member into a cell can be a very risky activity under any circumstances — and even more dangerous in the "virtual world." At any point, a jihadist or organized crime group might find it has opened itself up to someone who can't keep a secret, whose loyalties are suspect or who can be bought for the right price.

These risks go up considerably in cyberspace. People on the Internet are not always who they portray themselves to be (Just ask anyone who's had a bad online dating experience.) For the jihadist recruiter, then, it can be extremely difficult to determine if the person at the other end of the keyboard is indeed a real jihadist, or a potential infiltrator attempting to penetrate the group. And because online communications can be monitored, planning and coordinating attacks over the Internet or in chat rooms would be incredibly foolish behavior.

It is little wonder, then, that despite their enthusiastic embrace of the Internet, al Qaeda in Iraq took that embrace only so far. They carried out these more clandestine functions the old-fashioned way: in person. Even in the 9/11 plot, when team leader Mohammed Atta needed to discuss complex and sensitive operational issues, he incurred the risks of traveling to Germany and Spain to meet with Ramzi bin al-Shibh in person rather than discuss the sensitive details on the phone or through e-mails.

There is a universe of tactical skills in which "book learning" is an important first step but will never be a viable substitute for actual practice on the street. This applies to things like weapons training and building bombs. The guidance that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has published in the online Maskaar Al-Battar magazine for using an SVD sniper rifle or a rocket-propelled grenade launcher might get someone out of the starting blocks, but there is no way to become proficient in using a weapon without actually handling one.

Similarly, it is quite difficult to simply follow a recipe or written instructions and build a perfectly functioning improvised explosive device from scratch; as with any scientific endeavor, trial and error and testing in the real world usually is required. Bomb-making is a skill best learned from an experienced teacher (and many potential teachers have blown themselves up in the process of becoming experts).

Even acquiring the necessary materials can be difficult for would-be jihadists without proper, real-world connections. The alleged cell recently arrested in Toronto — now dubbed the "Canada 17" — were rounded up after they allegedly tried to buy 3 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Purchases of such "precursor substances" now tend to raise red flags with authorities in the Western world — a fact that highlights the difficulties of making the transition from terrorism in theory to terrorism in practice. Unless one is content with "cyber attacks" and hacker crimes, though, it is a necessary transition.

History has shown repeatedly that, even when pre-operational planning and other activities have begun in cyberspace, jihadists conduct surveillance of their targets in the physical world as a matter of routine. From the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to the 9/11 attacks to the London bombings last July, it has been apparent that jihadists conduct not only surveillance, but also dry runs of their operations when possible. They recognize, as do law enforcement agents, that however detailed a picture of a target might appear on a Web site, it is a snapshot of reality — and a partial one at that — that has been frozen in time.

Successful attacks depend on knowledge of large swathes of terrain, security routines and other details that cannot be obtained from videos or photographs. Eyes-on surveillance is priceless.

The Critical Moment

Given these realities, there comes a critical moment when jihadists must abandon the cyber-world for the real world. It is at this point that many militant cells living and operating in the West have been discovered and their plots thwarted. One reason for this is that despite the rapid and near-total embrace of technology by some jihadists, the U.S. government and its allies have been developing their signals and communications intelligence systems for a very long time now — think Bletchley Park in the 1930s and 1940s — and have a great deal of expertise and computing power at their disposal.

The investigative and surveillance apparatus is not particularly nimble, but it is very effective once it has a target on which to focus. Such targets can be provided by unwary jihadist sympathizers who visit radical Web sites, or by tips that come through foreign government liaisons. For example, in the Canada 17 case, the suspects allegedly had connections to separate cells in Britain and the United States.

By working together, the British, Canadian and U.S. governments were able to mass their resources and leverage or share information. As has often been the case with investigations of organized crime groups, authorities in different jurisdictions had different pieces of the puzzle; alone, the information meant little, but when cooperating services sat down together to discuss and share information, a bigger picture emerged.

Ultimately, the dot-com terrorists might learn the same lessons as the dot-com entrepreneurs of the 1990s: There is no 'new paradigm' in their industry.

Another reason that the transition phase is so dangerous for aspiring militants has to do with the legal system in the United States and elsewhere. For example, in the United States, Britain and Canada, freedom of speech holds sway as long as suspects don't actually go so far as to encourage or order others to carry out attacks, or threaten to conduct such attacks themselves. The same thing goes for conspiracy cases (at least in the United States.) A group can conspire to carry out a violent attack as much as it wants; until an overt act is made in furtherance of that conspiracy, the suspects cannot be charged with a crime.

The point at which militants leave the cyber-world and begin to take action in the real world is where they begin to make overt acts in furtherance of their conspiracy, and it is then that law enforcement agencies have the legal elements they need to make arrests, conduct searches and bring criminal charges. In the Canada 17 case, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has said publicly that it moved against the suspects at just such a critical moment: The alleged cell attempted to buy materials that could be used to manufacture explosives. To paraphrase an RCMP spokesman, the threat the suspects were believed to pose to the public, at that point, no longer was acceptable.

It is not yet clear what the future will hold for al-Zarqawi's organization in Iraq, but for the evolving generation of jihadists as a whole, past could be prologue. Ultimately, the dot-com terrorists might learn the same lessons as the dot-com entrepreneurs of the 1990s: There is no "new paradigm" in their industry. The most successful militants have recognized all along that certain basic rules — and operational practices — still apply. And for those who fail to grasp that reality, there will be a painful winnowing.

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