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Accessing American Muslim Extremists: An Overview of Online Trends in 2010

Posted: January 25, 2011

A significant number of American Muslim extremists involved in terror-related activity over the past several years have been influenced by an abundance of terrorist propaganda and recruitment techniques online.


A closer look at the arrests of domestic extremists motivated by radical interpretations of Islam in 2010 reveals the continuing significance of these evolving online efforts in the radicalization process.  In addition to utilizing a wide range of online platforms to access and share terrorist propaganda, including Web sites, forums, blogs, social networking sites and video hosting sites, domestic Muslim extremists are increasingly being targeted by English-language terrorist materials with colloquial Western references designed specifically for them.


The media wing of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has deliberately designed a portion of its propaganda and recruitment efforts to appeal to and engage sympathizers in the U.S. Since July 2010, AQAP has released via the Internet four issues of its English-language magazine Inspire, which is filled with accessible Western references and practical advice.


The magazine's use of colorful graphics, media excerpts and its overall modern style makes it more appealing to Americans when they are reading about bomb making instructions and tips on how to destroy buildings and inflict mass casualties. The content of Inspire is clearly also geared toward American audiences, featuring numerous calls for attacks on American soil, including those "that involve less players and less time to launch" in order to "circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect." The magazine also instructs readers to "fight jihad on U.S. soil instead of traveling overseas to join the mujahidin in an overt matter."


The Winter 2010 issue goes so far as to encourage participation in the production of the magazine, asking readers to contribute articles, quotes and images. Actively participating in the creation of propaganda materials can further radicalize an individual, who may view himself as part of a larger terrorist movement as a result. For example, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was arrested in November 2010 for attempting to blow up a Christmas Tree lighting with a car bomb in Portland, told an undercover FBI operative the he wrote and submitted an article to Inspire, as well as to a similar online magazine called Jihad Recollections. An article Mohamud wrote for the third issue of Jihad Recollections in August 2009 ascribes the success of Al Sahab, Al Qaeda's media wing, to the widespread attention its materials get from both Muslim followers and the mainstream media.


The style and emphasis of Inspire is likely the result of Samir Khan, the apparent principal author of the magazine, and Anwar al-Awlaki, a regular contributor. Prior to traveling to Yemen and aligning himself with AQAP, Khan lived in North Carolina and was known for distributing terrorist propaganda material to American audiences through a series of blogs. Al-Awlaki, who is on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, has catered to English speaking audiences for several years.  He has encouraged American Muslims to attack non-Muslims and Western interests through his literature, sermons and other materials. 


One indication of al-Awlaki's widespread influence online is the number of American Muslim extremists that have been arrested who were found in possession of his materials. The list includes many of those arrested in 2010, among them Antonio Martinez, a Maryland man arrested for attempting to detonate what he believed to be a car bomb at a Maryland Army recruiting center in December; Ahmed Farooque, a Virginia man who was arrested in October for allegedly plotting attacks against Metro stations in the Washington Metropolitan Area; Shaker Masri, a Chicago man arrested for attempting to travel to Somalia and train with Al Shabaab in August; and Paul Rockwood Jr., an Alaska man who pleaded guilty in July to planning revenge attacks against those he believed "desecrated Islam."


Many others arrested prior to 2010 have been influenced by al-Awlaki as well, most notably Nidal Malik Hasan, who allegedly killed 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base after exchanging emails with al-Awlaki.


Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan are among a growing chorus of Americans located abroad who use their online pulpits to reach and influence audiences in the U.S. by repackaging ideologies of extreme intolerance and violence into digestible sound bites. Another is twenty-five-year-old Omar Hammami, a Muslim convert from Alabama, who was charged with providing material support to terrorists in an indictment unsealed in August 2010.


Hammami has appeared in a number of online videos since 2007, recruiting young Americans "to come and live the life of a mujaheed [Muslim warrior]" in Somalia and join Al Shabaab. Since Hammami first appeared in these Al Shabaab videos, at least 30 Americans have joined, or attempted to join, Al Shabaab. Among them are Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, who were charged in June 2010 for attempting to travel to Somalia and train with Al Shabaab. Prior to their arrest, Alessa and Almonte extensively used the Internet to view various documents and recordings that promoted "violent jihad," according to the affidavit filed in their case. They also allegedly watched videos of Al Shabaab fighters in Somalia and other videos depicting attacks on uniformed personnel in Iraq.


In some cases, American Muslim extremists have been able to communicate directly with terrorists or propagandists abroad. For example, Texas resident Barry Walter Bujol, Jr. communicated online with al-Awlaki before he attempted to deliver money and other equipment to AQAP. During their e-mail communications, Bujol received a document from al-Awlaki outlining ways that he could support the international terrorist movement, which included giving money to the "mujahideen [Muslim warriors]."


The types of materials distributed by al-Awlaki and others, and the manner in which they are disseminated, have served as a blueprint for other Americans seeking to emulate their methods. For example, Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, who was arrested in Hawaii after he allegedly made false statements about his efforts to join the Taliban and fight against American troops, created several Web sites that "advocated violent jihad against the West," according to court documents.  He also admitted that one of his Web sites was designed to "mirror and reformat" the teachings of al-Awlaki.


Similarly, Zachary Chesser, a Virginia man who was arrested in July 2010 for attempting to join Al Shabaab in Somalia, sought to mimic much of the terrorist materials on the Internet that he saw targeting Americans. Chesser not only distributed terrorist propaganda through a variety of Web sites, blogs and social networking sites, but he also created and distributed original materials, including a 25-page document that detailed ways to teach Western children the "values of Jihad." Chesser argued in several of his pieces that the only way to ensure the longevity of a global terrorist movement is by using the Internet. "The jihad movement has moved from the mountains and caves to the bedrooms of every major city around the world," he wrote.


While the influence of Chesser's extensive online messages and materials remains unclear, his April 2010 posts threatening the creators of South Park received significant attention on various extremist forums, as well as catching the eye of mainstream media and law enforcement.


Law enforcement officials were able to detect and foil a number of plots in 2010, in part because of online activity. For example, federal authorities arrested Antonio Martinez, a Baltimore man, for attempting to detonate what he believed to be a car bomb at an army recruiting center in Catonsville, Maryland. The FBI reportedly first learned of Martinez's radical ideology from his posts on his Facebook profile, which he created around the same time that he converted to Islam. "When are these crusaders gonna realize they cant win? How many more lives are they willing to sacrafice. ALLAHUAKBAR [sic]," he wrote as the first post to his Facebook profile in August 2010. Communicating with an undercover informant on Facebook, Martinez expressed his desire to go to Pakistan or Afghanistan and said it was his "dream to be among the ranks of the mujahideen and that he hoped Allah would open a door for him because all he thinks about is jihad," according to the affidavit.


The following day, Awais Younis was arrested for allegedly issuing threats on Facebook to detonate explosives in high-traffic areas of Washington, DCThe FBI initiated an investigation into Younis' online activity in late November 2010, after the Facebook user with whom he had been communicating shared information about their correspondence.


The impact of the Internet on an individual’s radicalization process varies; not everyone exposed to terrorist propaganda will necessarily be susceptible to it, and even fewer will actually engage in terror-related criminal activity. However, it is clear that terrorist groups will continue to try to influence sympathizers in the U.S. by adopting new technologies and styles to distribute their materials.

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