Inchoate Conceptualization of Jihadi Online Media

For the past few months I have been pondering some ideas regarding how to conceptualize jihadi media and how it has evolved over time. In light of a vigorous debate a month or so ago (this post got delayed) on Twitter and Will McCants’ post at Jihadica about the efficacy of jihadi organizations using platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, I thought I would finally test the waters with a rough sketch, which can hopefully be fleshed out further and/or begin a healthy debate.

Jihadi Media Since Maktab al-Khidmat

Although I am only interested in jihadi media online, there has been four different phases of how jihadi media has been predominantly disseminated since 1984. The latter ones are not necessarily mutually exclusive to the former ones. The dates correspond to adoption of medium:

Phase 1 – 1984: Khutbas, Essays/Pamphlets, Printed Magazines/Newsletters, and Video-taped lectures and/or battle scenes.

Examples: ‘Abdullah Azzam’s tours in Europe and the US at a variety of Mosques, publication of Join the Caravan and al-Jihad Magazine, and a variety of old school VHS-type videos that came out of Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.

Phase 2 – Mid-1990s: Top-down websites

Examples: al-Neda and Azzam Publications

Phase 3 – Mid-“aughts”: Forums

Examples: al-Hesbah, al-‘Ikhlas, al-Fallujah, Ansar, and Shamukh.

Phase 4 – Mid to late “aughts”: Social Media Platforms

Examples: Blogs, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter

Defining the Different Types of Online Media

Top-down Websites.

This is a completely centralized endeavor where the individual owning a Web domain (who is connected with jihadi organizations) holds complete monopoly over what content is important and highlighted. Top-down websites have total control over the content.


Administrators of the forums help facilitate and disseminate content on behalf of jihadi organizations. Additionally, they post important news items and have the power to delete threads and ban users. Therefore, they help steer the online community in a certain direction by not allowing users be exposed to certain content or dissent. At the same time, the users now have a role in posting a variety of materials, including their own views on events, and the ability to converse with like-minded individuals spread across a dispersed geographic area.

Social Media Platforms.

The individual is in control of the content. One can post news articles on Twitter and Facebook, create videos on YouTube, or write articles and/or essays on one’s blog. The individual, not the organization, decides what is important and what they believe should be given the most attention.

Take Away

Over the past 15 years there has been an enormous shift in the ownership of production and consumption of jihadi media. During the mid-90s through 2003/2004 jihadi groups had a monopoly on who produced and disseminated jihadi materials online, which allowed al-Qaeda and other organizations to continue to be more elitist in nature. The parallel onset of the forums with the rise of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi somewhat evened the playing field. The forums allowed administrators (who were connected with jihadi organizations) to still have somewhat of a monopoly over what was posted on the forums by deleting threads or banning members, but individuals online who were not connected in a first degree manner to al-Qaeda or other jihadi organizations could now not only consume what was posted by administrators, but comment in those threads as well as post their own content that they came across or originally produced as well. The most recent Web 2.0 innovations and creation of social media platforms has completely upended the old monopolized control over the production of online jihadi media. As a result, the ideology of global jihadism is no longer an elitist clique, but has been appropriated at a social movement level, albeit at the fringe. Social media platforms have created global jihadi entrepreneurs of news items, originals articles and essays, tribute videos and anashid, etc. Therefore, over time, due to newer technologies being adopted the bar became lowered for being able to participate and be a part of the global jihadi movement.

The convergence of the invasion of the Iraq war with emerging technologies that encourages online communities were large factors, which gave more opportunity to the individual. The individual jihad became individualized for those off the battlefield. Before, one could only really fight or give money. This gave a new power to a whole new group of individuals. By doing so empowering a whole generation and metamorphisizing global jihad into a social movement versus more of an elitist clique. On the web one can talk about it all day even if one is geographically dispersed. One couldn’t do that in the 90s or in early “aughts.” That’s what makes it unique. The biggest thing that it has done and I hate to use the phrase, but the flat worldization and boot-strapization of global jihad. There can be an “American dream” of jihad if one does it correctly: Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani, Samir Khan, etc.

This is why it does not matter if al-Qaeda is officially on social media platforms. They already have a whole army of online media entrepreneurs that spread its gospel to the furthest ends of the Internet. The forums are the hub where the organization meets the grassroots, which is why although social media platforms are the nodes that bring the global jihadi message to non-global jihadists the forums will not become obsolete. It is a place where the global jihad is headquartered online. The social media platforms are where the product or ideas are sold. It has opened up a whole new recruiting ground that exposes the global jihadi message to anyone, whereas before, one had to knowingly want to be exposed to the global jihadi movement by going to the forums. These individual online entrepreneurs can replicate their message multiple times over. We may be in a golden age of online da’wah to the global jihadi social movement.

This raises the question of whether this will lead to more individuals joining the global jihadi terrorist movement or whether the social movement will dilute the global jihadi message and/or moderate it by normalizing the idea that it is okay to cheerlead at home instead of fighting, especially individuals in the West. As the past has shown, some individuals will be zealous no matter what, therefore, even if a portion of the global jihad is confined to ones computer, the message is still spreading and there will be some that go out and attempt an attack. As a result, it is crucial to understand how online jihadi activists promote their ideas to non-global jihadis in popular social media platforms.

I will come back to this subject more in-depth in the medium term.


The Global Jihad Internet Forum Launches New Sub-forum Dedicated to Anwar al-‘Awlaqi: A Sign of His Growing Influence?

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The Global Jihad (al-Jihad al-‘Alami) jihadi-takfiri Internet forum has launched a new sub-forum/section (qism) dedicated to the lectures of Anwar al-‘Awlaqi (Awlaki, Aulaqi), the militant American Muslim preacher currently in Yemen and believed to be a member of or affiliated with Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The Arabic announcement reads: “Glad tidings, the inauguration/opening of a sub-forum/section for the lectures of Shaykh Anwar al-‘Awlaqi, may God protect him.”

The inauguration (or “opening [for the first time],” to use a more direct translation of the Arabic announcement) of a new sub-forum on one of the most prominent Arabic-language jihadi-takfiri Internet forums is significant in that it provides further evidence of al-‘Awlaqi’s growing appeal outside of his original English-language audience base. The last three major videos or audio messages he’s been featured in or recorded have all been in Arabic. Two videos, an “interview” produced by AQAP’s Al-Malahem (Malahim; Epics, Epic Battles) Media Foundation that was released in May 2010 and an independently-released (it seems) November 2010 video message were both released first in Arabic and only later in an English translation.

Various lectures and writings of his have been translated into a growing number of languages used by jihadi-takfiris including Urdu, Russian, Somali, Arabic, Indonesian, French, German, and Bosnian.  Al-‘Awlaqi has also slowly but steadily become a more popular figure in graphic artwork produced by cyber jihadi-takfiris and posted to Arabic Internet forums.

Despite the growing evidence suggesting that his influence is increasing over a broader spectrum of the jihadi-takfiri community (or communities), his exact role, if any, in AQAP remains unknown and debated.  Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen has pointed out that al-‘Awlaqi’s role in AQAP is frequently exaggerated in North American and European media because he is more well known to its journalists and speaks English.  Johnsen has also argued that the militant preacher’s role, however, is likely not as key to AQAP as the roles of its senior leadership, which includes amir Nasir al-Wihayshi, deputy amir Sa’id al-Shihri, senior military commander Qasim al-Raymi, and chief ideologue ‘Adel al-‘Abab.  In a critique of Johnsen’s argument, Thomas Hegghammer argued in a November 2010 Foreign Policy magazine online article that al-‘Awlaqi is likely AQAP’s head of foreign operations and thus should be a primary target of intelligence agencies.  Anonymous U.S. government sources claim that evidence was uncovered in Usama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout that the Al-Qa’ida Central founder dismissed a change in AQAP’s leadership from al-Wihayshi to al-‘Awlaqi, though the evidence of this claim remains unavailable for critical examination.

Whether or not al-‘Awlaqi is a member of AQAP, he is part of an informal group of charismatic scholar (or preacher)-ideologues who provide AQC, AQAP, and their sister movements with a unique mix of, however contested, an element of juridical authority, personal charisma, and rhetorical and oratorical skills.  Together with figures such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, ‘Atiyyatullah bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Libi, and Khalid al-Husaynan, al-‘Awlaqi serves as part of the vanguard of the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend’s charismatic “missionaries of jihad,” an argument I develop further in a forthcoming article.

Fitnah on the Forums

Three days ago, the Tahadi Islamic Forum released a statement titled “Declaration of Independence.” They are cutting off correspondence with other forums including the premiere al-Qaeda forum Shamukh al-Islam. This is because they believe they have been strangling open debate. By gaining such independence, Tahadi explains that they will have more legitimacy now and that it will better conform to Islamic principles. Tahadi hopes their forum lives up to its reputation as a place of free-flowing conversation. More interesting than the statement itself is how the grassroots online jihadis have reacted. Two major schools of thought have played out: 1. excitement and 2. confusion. Here are some examples:

Abu Muhammad al-Qurayshi: We ask God for the facilitation of a unified jihadi media.

Abu Muhtasib: God knows how happy this decision is, which came … to correct the path of the media jihad and maintain the existence of integrity and independence.

al-Mustashar al-Khas: We are tired of the life of humiliation and they treat us like slaves.

Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sayf: Blessings upon God to you, but I did not understand the reason [for the declaration].

Abu Qa’qa’ al-Najdi: Did Shamukh get struck/infected like al-Fallujah (previous top AQ forum), please clarify if possible.

Abu Hafs al-Sunni al-Sunni: My brothers did not understand the meaning of this independence, God bless you. Is it possible any of you can guide me and explain to me this decision? May God reward you.

Dhakwan: You did well to end this problem/widespread phenomenon in the jihadi forums.

Hindkushi: God expected that [Tahadi] will be [given] the courage to speak the word of truth found in the current jihadi forums, then praise God who showed me after I lost hope for a long period of time.

Asad al-Islam: We do not understand what is intended [by this independence].

Abu Dhar al-Maqdisi: A courageous and successful step, God willing.

Khadim al-Jihad: Perhaps a good initiative to restore the good old days for us.

Although many forum participants were relieved, unsure how to react, and wanted more information for guidance, one forum member named Hamam Harith believed it was a bad idea by asking what benefit the jihadi media and forums will get from this “independence.” Also, some forum goers did not understand if it was a clean break from affiliating with other forums or whether it included media outlets too such as al-Fajr Media Center or the Global Islamic Media Front. If Tahadi were smart one would suspect that they would provide a follow up statement with more details. Unfortunately, I do not have access to Shamukh al-Islam Forum, since it is privatized, and they no longer accept new registrants. As such, I will rely on Aaron at Internet Haganah for some more details as well as to provide more historical context since there have been forum fights in the past including al-Hesbah and Tajdeed.

Asad al-Jihad2 posts a Referendum Poll at the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum: Results

On May 4, Asad al-Jihad2, a popular “Internet Shaykh” posted what was described as a referendum poll with five questions. One should be reminded that this is not a scientific poll and there is a possibility that peer pressure led some to answer certain questions a certain way since it was an open and not closed poll. Therefore, it may not be completely representative of what all grassroots online jihadi activists believe. With that caveat, it still provides some insight, which would be worthwhile to share. As such, below I translated into English the questions and the results as of May 6, 2011 (once the al-Qaeda statement was released the referendum was closed).

1. Do you think it is correct that the power of al-Qaeda will decline with the “martyrdom” of Usamah bin Laden?

Yes: 0; No: 48

2. If the news is true of the martyrdom of the Father Shaykh Usamah bin Laden; Do you expect attacks to stop inside or outside the United States or increase?

Yes, increase: 47; No: 1

3. Do you believe that the Pakistani government was involved in the operation?

Yes: 43; No: 5

4. Do you think the United States will take this event as a moral victory back to its people and the world to withdraw from Afghanistan, instead of declaring defeat at the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which grows in strength?

Yes: 38; No: 10

5. Do you wish for your children to be like Usamah bin Laden?

Yes: 48; No 0



From the above results one can surmise the following conclusions about how online jihadi grassroots activists felt prior to al-Qaeda confirming the death of Bin Laden:

  • al-Qaeda will continue to be a strong organization that will be able to conduct increasingly more attacks against the United States.
  • The Pakistani government was involved with the operation to kill Bin Laden
  • The United States will use the death of Bin Laden as an excuse to claim victory and withdraw from Afghanistan even though the Taliban and al-Qaeda have defeated United States.
  • They all hope that their children grow up to be like Usamah bin Laden

Some of the individuals expanded upon their answers with more detail. Currently, I am too busy to delve deeply into it, but I hope to use it in an expanded article that systematically looks at the grassroots’, Internet Shaykhs’, and jihadi organizations’ responses to the death of Bin Laden pre and post-AQ’s statement.

Who bombed Marrakesh?

Since last Thursday, when a powerful remotely-detonated bomb tore through the popular Argana café in Marrakesh’s Djemaa al-Fna, analysts and Moroccan and French government officials have been trying to figure out who was responsible for the attack, a surprising one given Morocco’s relatively quiet security situation since the 2003 Casablanca bombings, which saw coordinated attacks against Jewish and other targets in the city killing 45 people, including 12 suicide bombers.

The bombing, which tore through the café and left a gaping hole in its façade, bears many hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-style attack; the Djemaa al-Fna is one of the most popular tourist sites in Morocco, and the Argana is situated at the heart of the square, commanding views over the activity below. The tourist draw of the restaurant is reflected in the high toll foreigners paid in the attack; of the 16 people killed, the victims included eight French citizens (including a 10-year old girl), a Briton, and two Swiss residents. Two Dutch tourists identified have reportedly provided a sketch of the suspected bomb-placer to Moroccan authorities.

Moroccan government officials, including government spokesman Khalid Naciri and interior minister Taeb Cherkaoui, have both also said that the attack could be the work of al-Qaeda, pointing not only to the kind of bombing but also the professional construction of the device and the explosives used, which included the volatile compounds TATP and PETN. Either or both explosives have been used in multiple serious attacks and plots, including Richard Reid’s attempt to bring down a transatlantic flight with a shoe bomb in 2002, the 7/7 London transportation bombings, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to down Northwest Flight 253 with an underwear bomb, and Najibullah Zazi’s plot to attack the NY Subway system.The construction of such an explosive is a complicated process, one that likely required some manner of resources and personnel support, as well as a skilled bomb-maker.

However, this evidence is insufficient to assume an al-Qaeda attack (at least without further information), and I think it highly unlikely that this is the work of the group’s North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). French interior minister Claude Guéant prevaricated on this point when asked by a French journalist, saying that he would wait until a formal claim is made to say whether or not AQIM, which is currently holding four Frenchmen hostage and has consistently threatened to attack France and French targets in the Maghreb, is responsible. While active in Algeria and several Sahelian countries, AQIM has never shown any particular interest in Morocco. While the group has recruited some Moroccans, it has generally failed to integrate members of the defunct Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) and has only referenced Morocco a handful of times over the course of its existence (the last Morocco-focused AQIM statement I know of was released in June 2008, though a January 2011 statement from AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadud said, “By Allah…we haven’t forgotten about our prisoners in Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria and others”). Additionally, the AFP reports today that a crudely-edited video posted on YouTube last Monday purporting to be from “The Moroccans of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” threatening attacks against the Moroccan government was in reality taken from a 2007 AQIM tape, and was posted straight to YouTube, rather than being posted to jihadist forums, the group’s standard practice.

I believe it is more likely that the attack was carried out by unaffiliated or loosely-affiliated Moroccan jihadis, who may have received training abroad, whether in Iraq or along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Moroccans unaffiliated with al-Qaeda have participated in several major attacks over the years (the 2003 Casablanca bombings, the 2004 Madrid bombings, and aborted attacks in Casablanca in 2007). While it is entirely possible that the use of PETN and TATP indicate al-Qaeda influence, they are not the only group to make use of these materials, and non-al-Qaeda jihadis could have picked up their bomb-making skills and experience in camps without actually being members of or taking direction from al-Qaeda.

It is also worth noting that this attack comes at a particularly bad time for Moroccan jihadis. Morocco’s King Mohammed two weeks ago released a number of Moroccan salafi-jihadis from prison, including one-time pro-jihadi imam Mohammed Fazizi. This attack will almost certainly lead to a crackdown on both violent and non-violent salafis, and the group Salafiyya Jihadiyya was quick to issue a denial of its involvement in the attack. Interestingly, participants on both Arabophone and Francophone jihadi forums have been nearly unanimous in their suspicion of the attacks, with nearly all commenters accusing the Moroccan government of committing the attacks in order to have an excuse to arrest jihadis and warning each other not to take trips to Morocco in order to avoid being swept up by the country’s police.

Given both the poor timing and al-Qaeda’s longtime non-interest in Morocco, it seems likely that the attack was carried out by an independent jihadist group operating on the fringes of the jihadist scene in Morocco. We will not know for sure until someone claims responsibility for the attack, but even that will not necessarily settle things — after all, a group like AQIM may claim responsibility opportunistically, and unless an eventual claim comes with direct evidence of involvement (say, for instance, video of the bomb being constructed or footage of the bombing as it happened) I will remain skeptical. Needless to say, the circumstances surrounding the bombing are murky, and will likely remain so for some time.

Jihad on Twitter: Transnational Jihadi-Takfiri Media Outlet Sets-up Twitter Account

UPDATED (April 28 @ 4:51 P.M.)

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

Jihadi Media Elite (Nukhba al-‘Ilam al-Jihadi; JME), a shadowy transnational jihadi-takfiri media outlet, has started a web site and a Twitter account, which they have recently begun to advertise in threads of its materials posted to militant Internet discussion forums.  The JME specializes in producing Arabic transcripts of media releases from Al-Qa’ida Central (AQC), Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and other affiliated and allied organizations.  It also occasionally publishes its own material.  The JME joins the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Afghan Taliban) in setting up a Twitter account as well as a number of other independent “fans” and supporters of the jihadi-takfiri trend.

The JME’s Twitter account, “Al_nukhba,” was initiated on March 31 with the following message:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم … وبه نستعين … وعلى بركة الله نبدأ المسير

(Approximately: “In the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful:  May He guide us to the correct path and with God’s blessing we begin…”)

As of this writing, the account has 17 Tweets, all of them either links to JME-produced translations and transcripts or original material together with a few short messages.  Material that is linked-to includes a translation of an article about a “mujahid’s widow” in the inaugural issue of Al-Shamikha (The Majestic Woman) Internet magazine, an interview with a member of the Islamic State of Iraq’s shura council, a transcript of a recent religious lecture by AQC preacher Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan, and advertising the JME’s new web site,  The last two Tweets, both on April 22, advertise an affiliated JME web site,  It currently has eleven  followers (one appears to be a spam account).  As of April 28, when this post was updated, the account is now private and viewing its feed requires approval of a request.

One of the messages Tweeted urges readers that, “together we can build our [Muslim] nation’s glory, cut the constraints, break the silence, and achieve glory!”

معًا نبني مجد أمتنا…الهمة مهمة…لا تقف متفرجًا…اقطع صمتًا…اكسر قيدًا…كن قويًّا…واصنع مجدًا

The main JME web site,, remains at the time of this writing fairly bare bones but includes flashy graphic artwork from JME publications and a large version of the media outlet’s logo (see below).

The Afghan Taliban’s Twitter account, alemarahweb, has at the time of this writing 672 Tweets and shows that the movement has been quite active on a variety of new media platforms.  Its web sites and new media capabilities are extensive and it makes excellent use of them for propaganda and militant da’wa purposes.

The Ribat Media Center, a seemingly independent Urdu-language jihadi-takfiri media outlet also maintains a Twitter (and Facebook) account, ribatmedia2, as well as a web site.  It produces translations into Urdu of jihadi-takfiri texts from other languages and archives major Urdu-language jihadi-takfiri publications such as the Internet magazines Hittin, Nawa-i Afghan Jihad, and Al-Furqaan.  It also archives English-language publications such as Inspire and Jihad Recollections.  The center’s Twitter account currently lists an old, now-defunct URL for its web site.

Twitter has been credited (with a good deal of exaggeration) of being the “driving force” behind the popular uprisings in the Arab world and Iran since 2009.  The new media platform is now used by commercial companies, major corporations, politicians, celebrities, journalists, mainstream and fringe media outlets, and millions of private individuals to exchange news, spread views, and engage in a variety of virtual interactions.  The jihadi-takfiri trend has now also begun to make use of the communicative benefits that Twitter offers.  While these current accounts will likely be shut down, the trend’s media outlets and groups will surely keep trying to tap into the new opportunities that Twitter offers them for keeping in touch with their core audience as well as potential new followers.  This trend, while it should not be exaggerated, is worrying to say the least.


Scholar Nico Prucha, an expert in the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend, has written an excellent two-part post on jihadi use of Blue Tooth at the academic Jihadica blog.

Introduction to a series on Ibn Taymiyyah

Although much of my current research focuses on the contemporary trends in jihadi intellectual thought, Western jihadi networks, and online jihadi activities; my passion on the side is understanding classical and medieval Islamic intellectual thought as a means to better understand the jihadi phenomenon in the context of the broad sweep of Islamic intellectual history. Therefore, I have taken a keen interest in understanding the life and work of Taqi ad-Din Ibn Taymiyyah since he is viewed by many Western terrorism analysts as well as jihadis as the foundation for jihadi ideology.

While writing my master’s thesis more than year ago, I discovered through the guidance of my graduate advisor as well as reading some of the academic literature that the basis for understanding Ibn Taymiyyah has been skewed as a consequence of much of his thought being filtered through Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” and the state religion of Saudi Arabia. This suggested that it was crucial to further investigate his thought unfiltered.


A group of ‘ulama convened a conference on March 27-28, 2010 in the city of Mardin, Turkey that revisited Ibn Taymiyyah’s famous fatwa on the status of the city of Mardin and whether it was in Balad al-Silm (land of peace) or Balad al-Harb (land of war). This fatwa was also previously examined (along with three other fatawa) in Yahya Michot’s excellent book Muslims under non-Muslim Rule: Ibn Taymiyya, which I reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the academic journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Therefore, I will not get into the substance of it here.

What makes this all important in terms of bridging the gap between the classical and medieval to the contemporary is that as a result of the conclusions made at the Mardin Conference, it irked some jihadis. I am only aware of Dr. Akram Hijazi, Adam Gadahn, and Anwar al-Awlaki’s rebuttal of the conference. If anyone is aware of others please pass the primary literature along.

As such, I believed I could try and fill a gap in the literature by examining the responses of contemporary jihadis to the conference in light of the primary and secondary literature on the actual fatwa. It is the hope of this author that it will help shed more light on the interaction between the historicity of the fatwa and what one could describe as an “imagined history.”

Thus, this author proposes to first blog about it as a way to expound his preliminary thoughts and receive open source peer review prior to submitting it to an actual peer reviewed journal. Not only will this be an innovative way of leveraging Web 2.0 technology with academic pursuits, but it will also hopefully foster a greater discourse and allow more access to this type of information.


Prior to delving into that discussion, I felt it was necessary to read more on Ibn Taymiyyah’s life and thought. During my research I came across a recently published edited volume titled Ibn Taymiyyah and His Times. While reading it I felt it would be worthwhile to share some of its insights on Ibn Taymiyyah.

As a prologue to an examination of jihadi responses to the challenge of the Mardin Conference, I will highlight in forthcoming posts valuable information from the edited volume that may help illuminate the complexities in Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought in a more sophisticated manner than much of the naïve proclamations about him in popular Western and jihadi accounts.

AQIM and Libya’s missing weapons

It is a frightening thought; an al-Qaeda franchise in the heart of Africa which has sworn to target European and American interests in the region, not to mention local governments, equipped with a growing arsenal of heavy weapons and even surface-to-air missiles. Two reports have recently suggested rather strongly that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had acquired truckloads of weapons from abandoned army stocks in Eastern Libya, including SA-7 missiles. This news has caused concern among commentators and officials, especially in the wake of NATO supreme allied commander Adm. James Stavridis’ testimony last week that U.S. intelligence had detected “flickers” of al-Qaeda among Libya’s anti-Qaddafi rebels, news that several Islamist former militants and a former employee of Osama bin Laden in Libya are playing key roles in Libya’s rebellion, and as writers dig back into the “Sinjar Records” documents from al-Qaeda in Iraq that showed an unusually high percentage of foreign fighters came from Eastern Libyan cities like Benghazi and Darnah, epicenters of the current rebellion. Yet before things get out of hand and people draw the worst conclusions about the admittedly real threat from AQIM to the region, these latest reports of weapons acquisition require a careful look, to determine not only what the impact of AQIM acquiring these weapons might be, but also if these reports can be trusted at all.

First, to the Reuters report citing an unnamed Algerian security official that eight truckloads of weapons from Eastern Libya had traveled through Chad and Niger before ending up in Northern Mali, including SA-7 “Strela” missiles (the same missiles used to target an Israeli airplane in Kenya in 2002), as well as “RPG-7s, FMPK (Kalashnikov heavy machine guns), Kalashnikovs, explosives and ammunition.” The official continued, saying, “we know that this is not the first convoy and that it is still ongoing.” An interview nearly two weeks ago with Chad’s president Idriss Déby similarly asserted that AQIM had acquired SAMs in Libya and brought them back to northern Niger, and was becoming “a real army, the best-equipped in the region.”

If true (and I’m really not sure about this) the news is interesting and worrisome, but not for the reason many people think. While the specter of an al-Qaeda affiliate getting their hands on SAMs brings to mind the failed 2002 attack, the scenario described in the two stories imply instead that AQIM is hoarding the missiles in isolated strongholds in the Sahel (the Ténéré region in Niger and likely the Timétrine in Northern Mali) far from any high-profile airline targets. And while it’s not impossible that these weapons would be redeployed or re-sold, the effort that would have gone into transporting these weapons across several countries and thousands of miles of difficult terrain just to send them elsewhere.

Instead, as I told journalist Paul Cruickshank last week, it is far more likely that AQIM would hold onto the weapons to defend against raids from helicopter-borne special forces troops, from France or elsewhere, which have been known to operate in Niger and Northern Mali and have staged at least two operations against AQIM forces, in July 2010 and in January 2011, where French forces rapidly deployed and attacked fleeing AQIM forces in Mali in a failed attempt to rescue two hostages seized 12 hours earlier in Niger’s capital of Niamey. This possibility also makes some sense alongside an interesting piece of information from North Africa analyst Geoff Porter, who wrote in an article for the CTC Sentinel in February that AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had bought a .50 cal. DSHK (or “dushka”) anti-aircraft weapon. AQIM has become militarily more aggressive in the Sahel in recent years, and heavy weapons would indicate an increased desire to expand its operations, especially as its forces becomes increasingly isolated in northern Algeria.

What is also interesting about the possibility of AQIM purchasing weapons taken out of Libya by smugglers (as the Reuters piece implies) is that it shows that despite releasing several audio tapes in support of the Libyan revolt (and despite reports of a limited AQIM presence in Libya), AQIM is using the chaos not to fight against the Qaddafi regime, but to build up their supplies and further reinforce their safe havens far from the Libyan jihad.

That is, of course, if these reports are even true. Despite the widespread attention this news has received, the claims about AQIM seizing weapons come in large part from two sources, Idriss Déby and an anonymous Algerian intel officer. While Déby’s concern about AQIM may well be genuine, he has also developed a very close relationship with Qaddafi in recent years, to the point where, in the same interview with Jeune Afrique where he said AQIM had seized the SAMs, he also said he has been speaking with Qaddafi every day.

As for the other source, it is silly to think that a senior Algerian official would speak about such a sensitive issue, and in such detail, without official sanction. And Algeria has taken a strong stance against foreign intervention in Libya, likely out of a calculation that more revolutions in North Africa are bad revolutions, as well as Algeria’s traditional opposition to foreign military involvement in conflicts in they’re back yard. Indeed, after telling the Reuters journalist about AQIM’s newfound weapons, the Algerian concluded that, “If the Gadhafi regime goes, it is the whole of Libya — in terms of a country which has watertight borders and security and customs services which used to control these borders — which will disappear, at least for a good time, long enough for AQIM to re-deploy as far as the Libyan Mediterranean.” The official concludes then that to prevent this eventuality, Qaddafi’s regime must be preserved, with or without Qaddafi.

It is quite a reach to assume that AQIM is in any real way involved in the fighting, let alone that AQIM would be able to use the vacuum left by Qaddafi’s fall to take over a large swath of North Africa, especially given the fact that no estimate that I have seen puts AQIM’s numbers in the Sahel at more than several hundred, hardly enough to control swaths of territory that are far more populated than AQIM’s area of operations in the Sahel, all with hostile NATO forces watching closely and rebels who may not take too kindly to al-Qaeda stepping onto their turf for any other reason than to fight Qaddafi. Instead, that final quote casts some suspicion on the earlier missile claims, raising the possibility that the Algerian government is inflating or at least heavily advertising an AQIM involvement in Libya in order to discredit efforts in the West to overthrow Qaddafi or support the rebels.

Additionally, this new information follows on what appears to be a rather crude attempt to forge an AQIM statement claiming that AQIM fighters were killed in a NATO air raid last Friday, analyzed quite thoroughly by al-Wasat co-editor Aaron. As Aaron points out, not only do the details of the statement appear to be inconsistent with standard AQIM statements, but it was released directly to the Algerian news outlet Tout Sur l’Algérie, and has not appeared on any jihadist forums or been confirmed by news reports. All told, this is more than enough to be suspicious of claims of AQIM of involvement, especially given the organization’s near-total radio silence on Libya over the past two weeks; no images of AQIM fighters alongside Libyan rebels, no testimony from Libyan AQIM fighters, no biographies of “martyrs” killed in combat, and thus far no video of seized weaponry.For an organization that generally produces astute media products, the failure to capitalize on clear openings to generate more credibility and support is a glaring failure.

None of this is to say that the disparate reports of AQIM’s growing arsenal are false or staged. Such eventualities are entirely possible, and AQIM would certainly love to get their hands on more weapons. And AQIM’s recent silence could be an attempt to lie low in the face of Western pressure, for fear of being snuffed out or hunted before securing either a better role in the insurgency or a victory against Qaddafi. But the context surrounding the limited evidence of AQIM involvement in the Libyan rebellion or benefiting from its chaos is enough to make me seriously question these stories, as we wait for more concrete evidence.

AQIM Statement Hoax?

Last night, Tout sur l’Algérie published an article titled “Aqmi affirme que ses éléments ont été tués dans ce raid” (“AQIM confirms that its members were killed in raid”). The article stated that they received through anonymous sources a new statement from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that said that some of AQIM’s fighters were killed in an accidental NATO airstrike on rebels this past Friday. Although it is quite possible that this occurred, there is reason to be skeptical. First, the statement has still not been released to the forums (at least sixteen hours have passed as of 1:25PM US Central Time). I also do not recall a time when AQIM released a statement to anonymous sources in the past. Second, the article provided a screen shot of the top of the statement and it did not conform to the normal style, color, and font of previous AQIM statements.

Screen shot of Tout sur l'Algérie's screen shot of AQIM's statement

The top part with the black text (the basmallah) and the golden text (AQIM’s name in Arabic) are normal. The green text below it, though, is where the authenticity of the statement comes into question. In the past, AQIM has never used that font or green color for its statement titles. Rather, they have used red. Here are some examples of previous officially released AQIM statements:

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Based on the above examples and when one compares it to the one posted by Tout sur l’Algérie one can see a clear difference. Further, the green text appears to be photoshopped on top of the alleged AQIM statement.

There are other indications that it is not real. The first line of green text states the basmallah again, which does not make much sense since it is already articulated above, which suggests the individual who created it and tried to pass it off as real did a poor job trying to copy previous AQIM statements. The second line is the alleged name of the statement and translates to “Obituary of the Mujahidin in the Battle of “Bariqah.” Using the word obituary appears off and does not sound similar to jihadi lingo. One would think they would use the word shuhadaʾ (martyrs) instead.

This raises the question then, who and why would one want to perpetuate such a poorly executed hoax? Three countries came to mind: Algeria, Libya, and France. I asked al-Wasat’s co-editor Andrew Lebovich, a specialist on France and the Maghreb who works for Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation, in a private conversion what his thoughts were and who might be behind it. Lebovich does not believe the French passed the information along since they would have no reason to do so. With regard to Algeria, Lebovich stated that the Algerians are not too happy about the intervention because an unstable state next door is not good. He continued: “I think they are in a tough bind; their lives would be better with Qaddafi gone, but for the sake of their own internal security I think they would like to avoid more revolutions.” That said, he is still skeptical that they would forward such information because “if anyone should know what these [AQIM] documents look like, it’s the Algerians.” Lastly, Lebovich suggested that the Libyans may be behind it since “they’re smart, and know the Algerian press would take a statement like this.”

Since there is no clear evidence of who is behind this alleged statement and it has not appeared on the forums nor has AQIM released a statement refuting the information in the Tout sur l’Algérie article, at this point it would be unwise to point fingers. That said, based on what we know about AQIM there is strong evidence that the statement being trotted out was not actually from AQIM.

Harakat al-Shabab Continues to Court Somalia’s Clans as Hasan Dahir Aweys Assumes a More Public Role

Hasan Dahir Aweys (in hat at microphone) speaking at a meeting between Harakat al-Shabab leaders and Mudulood/Hawiye clan elders in northern Mogadishu

By Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior-Youth; Al-Shabaab), as I have written previously, maintains a complex relationship with Somalia’s important clans, a relationship about which little is known.  In early March the movement announced that clan leaders had rallied in support of its defensive fight against a new offensive, launched in mid February,  by the African Union Mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) military forces along with Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) soldiers and militiamen from the Sufi armed faction Ahlul Sunna Wal Jamaacah (Jama’ah) that is aligned with AMISOM and the TFG.

Harakat al-Shabab announced two days ago that some of its senior leaders in the district of Banaadir, in which the embattled capital city of Mogadishu is located, had met with clan elders from the Mudulood, a large sub-clan of the Hawiye clan confederation in Mogadishu.  A brief report about this meeting was issued by the movement as a press release and was reported by some Somali news web sites, some of them sympathetic or aligned with Harakat al-Shabab.  The movement also released photographs from the meeting, something that it often does when reporting important events.

The meeting was chaired by veteran Somali Islamist leader Hasan Dahir Aweys and Husayn ‘Ali Fidow (Xuseen Cali Fiidow), a senior Harakat al-Shabab leader in Banaadir, and took place in the northern suburbs of Mogadishu.  The movement’s press release claims that Mudulood clan elders (shown throughout this post) pledged their support in fighting against the foreign forces of AMISOM.  Fidow is a representative of Harakat al-Shabab’s Office of Politics & Districts (Maktab al-Siyyasah wa al-Wilayaat).  A longtime insurgent leader, he was featured in the June 2010 Harakat al-Shabab video “The African Crusaders” and has been present at a number of the movement’s recent events in Banaadir.

Husayn ‘Ali Fidow (speaking into microphone)

Aweys, the former leader of Somalia’s other prominent Islamist insurgent movement, Hizbul Islam (Islamic Party; Hizbul Islami), has been taking a more prominent public role over the past one to two months.  Following the “merger” of Harakat al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam, more accurately seen as an incorporation of the latter by the former, in late December 2010 it seemed that Aweys had been marginalized, though he was still trotted out because of his value as a symbol.  A veteran of Somalia’s two decade-long civil war, he is widely respected by many Somali Islamists.  Although the exact nature of his role within Harakat al-Shabab remains unknown, Aweys has been increasingly active, if the movement’s own media is accurate, in its public events.

He has been present at a number of high profile press gatherings alongside ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), Harakat al-Shabab’s senior spokesman, including one where a Burundian AMISOM prisoner was paraded before cameras.  Aweys has recently been referred to as “a leader” within the insurgent movement in its press releases, though this general title does not shed much light on what precise role he is playing.

This meeting between Harakat al-Shabab officials and Mudulood clan elders comes at a time when the insurgent movement is facing pressures on the battlefield.  AMISOM, TFG, and Ahlul Sunna forces, reportedly aided by the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments, have captured territories in Banaadir and Gedo.  The timing of the meeting suggests that Harakat al-Shabab is using clan ties during its most serious time of crisis in quite some time.  However, the movement has in the past maintained relations with clan leaders, despite its criticism of “clannism,” and has even mediated disputes in the past between rival clans.

Insurgent primary sources must be used with care.  They must be analyzed while keeping in mind that they contain strategic framing, in short an attempt to portray the movement and its inner workings in a manner that is flattering.  This does not mean, however, that these primary sources are necessarily completely or even mostly false.  In the absence of the ability to conduct on-the-ground fieldwork and other sources, insurgent primary sources provide valuable insights on the movement and, to a degree, events on the ground in territories it controls.