A Guide to Jihad on the Web

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 7

The role of the internet in providing a communications medium for the statements of high profile mujahideen figures such as Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi is well known. Many will be aware of the existence of jihadi chat forums as well — Terrorism Focus itself makes ample use of this medium for gathering primary source material — but the sheer wealth of materials now made available on the web may perhaps not be generally appreciated. For in addition to the publication of ‘official’ jihadi statements, or the ad hoc ruminations on the discussion forums, the internet now holds a constantly expanding library of military and technical monographs along with ideological treatises underpinning the culture of jihad. Most of this literature, in terms of quantity, detail and spectrum, is in the Arabic language and therefore remains unknown to the western media.

The literature can be distributed in several ways. For instance, via sites belonging to specific jihadist groups or at non-specific jihadist-oriented websites. These may be sites belonging to individual radical ideologues and sheikhs or doctrinally focused sites carrying literature and opinion concerned with internal ideological conflict — anti-Shia or anti-Wahhabist sites in the main. Some of the most productive of locations, both from the point of view of the delivery to publication of jihadist works, or originating material, are the jihadist-oriented websites, news magazines and chat forums. Broadly speaking the jihadist web literature falls into three categories: military and technical training (periodical publications; individual essays; manuals and encyclopedias); operational communications (single declarations and notices; news updates) and propaganda and morale (periodical publications; individual treatises and essays).

A ‘Virtual Afghanistan’

While the literature of jihad, as such, has been flying around the web almost as long as the web has been a mass communication medium, the post-9/11 period saw its conversion into a major distribution system for jihad-related material to a mass readership. In a sense, it has compensated for the loss of Afghanistan as a major training arena in both the ideological and tactical senses.

The best illustration of this is perhaps the Peninsular Arab productions from the Sawt al-Jihad (The Voice of Jihad) stable, primarily the Sawt al-Jihad magazine itself, which deals primarily with doctrinal matters and the Mu’askar al-Battar (Al-Battar Training Camp), a publication specializing in the more practical aspects of the jihad. Though both web magazines ceased publication since late 2004, they remain the model, in terms of both production quality and format, for subsequent publications. Their complementary doctrinal-military role, for instance, has been imitated in Iraq with the new publications Majallat al-Fath (Conquest Magazine) and Dhurwat al-Sanam (The Pinnacle).

The Mu’askar featured heavily the work of Shaykh Yusuf al-Ayyiri (killed in June 2003) on physical training, the former Egyptian military officer Sayf al-Adel on security and communications, and the one-time head of the Peninsular Al-Qaeda organization, Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin (killed in June 2004) on military tactics and guerrilla warfare. Over its 22-volume history it has published a full sample of military and ideological preparation, much of which must have formed part of the curriculum in Afghanistan. Issues of tactical application covered by the magazine include: the planning of special and covert operations, maneuvering skills in towns and urban warfare, communications security and the use of codes, surveillance and covert reconnaissance techniques, intelligence gathering, camouflage and concealment techniques, the use of safe houses, the tactical employment of propaganda and counter-propaganda. Issue 6 of the Mu’askar is particularly of interest, in that it contains a detailed description of how to form a secure operational cell, with separate teams designated for command and control, reconnaissance, preparation and execution.

The Military Arts

Much of the material in these publications was drawn not only from published works in print, but also from monographs still circulated on the net. These range from monographs on tactical training, often translated from western originals, such as the Al-Baqaa fi al-Zuruf al-Sa’ba (Survival in Difficult Circumstances), a translation of an U.S. army manual, to more original productions, such as Abu Miqdad al-Falastini’s Harb al-Ightiyalat, specializing in war through assassination and dedicated to Bin Laden and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Chapters of this work cover all methods of assassination — letter bombs, point blank range and the use of poisons and also include topical materials on assassination through explosives-laden cars, detonated either through suicide drivers or through remote control.

The technical side of military training is understandably more amply catered for. Individual monographs, along with extracted chapters from longer works, are circulated on the internet forums in subjects ranging from detailed instructions on artillery and range-finding, to the manufacture and use of poisons, suicide explosive belts, anti-amour shells, rockets and chem-bio weaponry. The breadth of military technology finds its reflection in the provision of reference works for the mujahideen in the field. In May 2000 the discovery of an extensive manual, the ‘Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants,’ at the home of an al-Qaeda suspect in the United Kingdom caused a stir, not least for the details given on recipes for the manufacture of poisons. But the publications now available on the net dwarf that work. The contents list of Mawsu’at al-Aqsa al-Jihadiyya (The Al-Aqsa Jihad Encyclopedia) contains a detailed library of instructions for the preparation of explosives. A more comprehensive manual still, indeed one phenomenal for its exhaustiveness, is the Mawsu’at al-I’dad, (Encyclopedia of Preparation). This is unique in its form, since the contents list on weaponry, guerrilla warfare, training and tactics — which is itself extensive — is a construction of myriad URLs leading to further pages — with further URLs leading the researcher to ever more precise information. Constantly updated, it is now available, according to a recent posting on the Al-Ma’sada jihadi forum, as a CD.

Propaganda and Operational Morale

In the Sawt al-Jihad productions, attention was paid to maintaining the morale of the mujahideen via post-operation debriefings, the justification for activities and excuses for failures. The ‘culture of jihad’ was also maintained by interviews with mujahideen famous for successful operations, eulogies of martyred mujahideen and the correction or denial of news reports from the regional and international media. This function was particularly put to the test in Saudi Arabia where for the first time the issue of Muslim victims in the violence came to dominate media discussion. This caused the Peninsular mujahideen much vexation. The online web magazines countered the negative propaganda as far as they could, but the Sawt al-Jihad publishers eventually felt the need to put out two treatises to extinguish the flames of dissent; a first bullish response entitled “Myths and Idle Talk”, followed by a more considered 82-page treatise, entitled “Doubts and Questions Concerning the Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula”.

The above documents marshaled a hefty complement of Islamic law citations to make the case. But the mujahideen have long been serviced by radical shaykhs to help negotiate the doctrinal terrain, all of which are available to the web surfer at times of need. The case of Shaykh Hamid bin al-Fahd and his treatise in defense of employing weapons of mass destruction against the infidel is famous. But the ideological underpinning is responsive at the detailed level, and impacts on the operational procedures of Islamist militants. A good example of this is Shaykh Ayyiri’s Hidayat al-Hayara fi Jawaz Qatl al-Asara (The Gift for the Perplexed on the Permissibility of Killing Prisoners), where the practical considerations of the militant captors are embedded in doctrinal precedents to assuage potential doubts.

Up to now the information war has been waged by the mujahideen in a largely inward focusing way — countering what it holds to be tainted media coverage, and interpreting events through the lenses of jihad ideology. But the formation early in March of the new Katibat al-Jihad al-I’lami (Information Jihad Brigade) in Iraq has taken the militants’ propaganda war onto the offensive. Here, interestingly, the value of the jihadi forums as an active vehicle of the new warfare, enlisting the participation of a diaspora of armchair mujahideen across the globe in a collective effort to translate, design and distribute the material, is well illustrated.

The Jihadi Internet Forums

But it is perhaps the web forums themselves that encapsulate this new warfare best. In a typical jihadist forum, the sections divide themselves equally between elements of information, and pro-active reader communication and contribution. The list of information sub-sections include da’wa (Islamic preaching), news from the front lines, official declarations from jihadist groups, audio-visual productions and photo essays on jihad, and a general text distribution section. All forums include general discussion sub-categories where highly detailed experiences mingle with material often of a banal nature. But the most interesting categories are the ‘Jihadi cells’ and ‘electronic jihad’ sections. In the first of these are found the detailed exchanges of participants requesting or providing specific information on military technology, requests for supplies or funding, or enquiries on how to join a cell on the front line. The ‘electronic jihad’ section hosts the cyber war and gives up to the minute instructions or warnings of website penetration, suggestions for targets or timing of attacks, with detailed advice on method.

But aside from the ‘virtual warfare’ which both the counter-propaganda unit and the electronic jihad units illustrate, no less vital an ingredient is the ‘virtual culture’ of education and doctrine which the internet manages to sustain among the mujahideen. Taken as a whole, this element fully complements the military resources and, as reflected in its heavy representation online, forms a fundamental part of the jihad warfare.