21 Jan 2010
Countering the Internet Jihad
As Saudis react to jihadists using the internet to recruit and coordinate, the West is at a standstill on the information superhighway, Peter A Buxbaum writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Peter A Buxbaum in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch
Radical Islamic groups are increasingly recruiting operatives over the internet, as illustrated by several recent examples.
US Army Major Nidal Hasan - the accused in the November shootings in Fort Hood, Texas - used email to coordinate with the radical Yemen-based American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Five young American Muslims arrested in Pakistan last month and accused of seeking to join a local terrorist organization used Facebook and YouTube to connect with extremist groups in Pakistan.
Jihadist groups post a constant stream of material on social networking websites. Al-Qaida maintains a number of websites, such as Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), an intermittently produced online magazine.
"This cyber-prodding is an important aspect of jihadist internet usage," Jarrett Brachman, a professor of security studies at North Dakota State University, told ISN Security Watch.
"Al-Qaida and its affiliated groups understand the power of a strongly crafted message and see the internet as much as battle space as the streets of Kandahar," said Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, DC at a recent US congressional hearing. "Indeed, we’ve seen them shift resources from planning attacks to shaping global media perception instead. We must meet them on this battle space in a more comprehensive and effective way."
Religiously inspired tranquility
Some experts tout the accomplishments of the Sakinah Campaign, a Saudi-based online effort to combat internet radicalization. Sakinah, which is Arabic for 'religiously inspired tranquility,' originated as an independent, volunteer organization, but has since been subsumed by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
Sakinah claims to have turned hundreds of extremists and potential extremists away from "deviant views." Sakinah is focused on stemming the tide of extremism in Saudi Arabia and averting terrorist attacks in that country, specifically by combating the radical Islamist concept of takfir. Takfir refers to a pronouncement that a Muslim or a group of Muslims have become apostates, thus providing a rationalization for killing them.
By all accounts, a western online response to jihadist cyber-radicalization is absent.
The Sakinah Campaign studies online material on takfir and uses Islamic scholars to interact online with individuals looking for religious knowledge, with the aim of steering them away from extremist sources.
There are approximately 45 people working with the Sakinah Campaign, including a separate women’s section comprised of 10 volunteer workers, according to Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has studied the group.
"The Sakinah workers who dialogue online are religious scholars proficient with modern computer technology, all with highly developed understandings of extremist ideologies, including the religious interpretations used to justify violence and terrorism," he told ISN Security Watch.
The Saudi daily al-Watan published a transcript of an online conversation between a Sakinah representative and an extremist who believed in takfir. The man, who called himself Zaman al-Dajajila, expressed reservations about his extremist views toward the end of the conversation. The conversation was translated on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute.
Sakinah: Please don't keep returning to the events in Manhattan and Afghanistan. Let's talk about the central topic of our discussion - the bombings that have taken place in the kingdom.
Al-Dajajila: They are all connected to each other and similar to each other. The issue is clear: There is a camp of belief versus a camp of unbelief.
Sakinah: They are all connected and similar?! Was the bombing in Manhattan like the bombing in Riyadh?
Al-Dajajila: It was also like the bombings in Casablanca and Bali. It involves infidels. They are arresting and persecuting the sheikhs and jihad fighters because Mother America has demanded it.
Sakinah: These people have weapons, bombs, and various types of explosives. Do you expect the government to applaud them?
Al-Dajajila: The weapons are intended for self-defense. Death is more honorable than the imprisonment in the cells of Guantanamo.
Sakinah: Why do they need to protect themselves?
Al-Dajajila: Because they are the group that was promised victory and success, and because they are the ones who remained loyal to the truth of the Koran. Also because they refused to sell out their religion for a Mercedes and a Lexus.
Sakinah: A group that is promised victory but kills Muslims? According to what school of thought do they kill Muslims...?
Key to convincing al-Dajajila of the error of his ways, it must be noted, was that the Sakinah representative focused on the issue of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, and refused to discuss issues of terrorism outside the country.
Fatwas posted on the Sakinah website address the issue of perpetrating violence against non-Muslims. "Assassination and acts of sabotage are forbidden because they make the Muslims face evil, killing, and displacement," stated one fatwa. "The legal thing, which should be done with the non-Muslims, is to perform jihad and meet them in the battlefield. This could happen provided that the Muslims can equip their armies to conquer and fight the disbelievers [...]". Another fatwa stated that Muslims should not attack non-Muslims with whom they are not at war.
Alternatives to extremism
The importance of the internet, both for radicalization and counter-radicalization, will likely increase in the future, according to Boucek.
"Any strategy to combat the spread of extremism must also offer viable options for the religiously observant," he said. "In addition to taking away a negative, there must also be ways for the individuals to positively exercise their faith. Engaging with that segment of the population and offering alternatives to violent extremism is a critical necessity in the war of ideas."
But Sakinah doesn't offer much of a model for a western answer to the jihadist message, especially as envisioned by Congressman Smith, who proposed "to offer a moderate counter-narrative that shapes a positive message about the United States."
Brachman suggested the US "borrow a page out of the jihadist playbook" and establish an internet vehicle in which scholars and experts could "openly communicate with one another about both al-Qaida’s ideology and media [and] also the historical social and cultural contexts in which it exists.
"It is in such a forum where new ideas can germinate, where new voices can emerge and where the inconsistencies of the enemy’s message can be identified," he said, "exactly like what the global al-Qaida movement has been doing to us."
Peter Buxbaum, a New York- and Washington-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for nearly 20 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Jane’s Defense Weekly, Military Information Technology, Homeland Security, and Computerworld. His website is www.buxbaum1.com.
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