Al Awlaki threat masks a deeper danger
by John Harrison and Kathryn Floyd
05:55 AM Aug 11, 2010
The public's sudden fascination with new jihadi celebrity Anwar Al Awlaki over the last several months has masked a longer term and more dangerous threat: The growing presence of credible, English-speaking jihadis.
There has been a concerted effort for several years by Al Qaeda and its supporters to attract individuals in non-Muslim majority countries, due to the fact that many potential supporters do not speak Urdu, Turkic or Bahasa, let alone Arabic. Given that many of the potential recruits spoke English, and the main language of the Internet is English, it was logical to develop a cyberspace presence that relied on this language.
Even so, prior to the Fort Hood shooting, Al Awlaki's name rarely appeared in the South-east Asian jihadist websites or forum. But after the massacre by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, Al Awlaki's name spread like wildfire through the Arabic chatrooms and then the rest of the world's online community.
His rapid rise to prominence was the result of his ubiquitous presence in English on the Web and Facebook. With his carefully selected passages from the Quran, Al Awlaki's soundbites resonate with Arab, North American and South-east Asian Muslims alike.
This raises two troubling questions: First, does this mean that the only recently understood Arabic Web is being superseded by a largely unknown English extremist Internet? And second, is Al Awlaki a harbinger of a problem or the problem itself?
The first question depends on the information being provided. When one is looking for justification for a terrorist attack or an echo chamber to reverberate radical ideas, it would make sense to go straight to the source or global authority: Arabic Internet sites.
As more disgruntled individuals from Indonesia to New Jersey look to justify their actions, they will attempt to access the touchtone provided by the Arabic Web, but they will need easy access to the information. In this, the English voices are merely a convenient medium for radical ideas espoused by Middle Eastern extremists.
However, it is only a matter of time before original interpretations and ideas are offered by the English sites. Thus, a comprehensive strategy to deal with this emerging threat needs to be developed forthwith.
The answer to the second question is more clear. Al Awlaki is viewed as a credible source and mentor, as he translates existing ideas. But what may be rapidly emerging is Al Awlaki using his celebrity status to offer his own interpretations of ideas that will resonate with a non-Arabic audience.
South-east Asian extremist websites are already taking this course of offering their own interpretations, making it more difficult to challenge the jihadi narrative, as there is no longer one story, but a series of localised narratives that are easily understood, digested and transmitted by the Internet. Thus, as dangerous as Al Awlaki is, he is potentially only the visible tip of a much deeper problem.
Although Al Awlaki has skyrocketed onto the front pages of international newspapers, he commands a far less loyal and capable core following than the Al Qaeda leadership enjoys. However, if there is a void in the upper echelons and young chatroom participants are looking for a new icon, Al Awlaki will maintain his relevance as a reference source and sympathetic ear.
Thus, Al Awlaki's true threat is his ability to recruit isolated individuals, encourage and sanction operations, and offer easy-to-understand radical ideas to the masses. And given his rapid rise to prominence, he offers a path for others who want to assist the global struggle but may not want to actually fight.
The new picture of a jihadi is an English-speaking, celebrity ideologue, reaching out to a vulnerable mass audience. That said, it remains to be seen precisely how many vulnerable individuals have been mentored by Al Awlaki, received his electronic blessing for their devious and deadly actions, and are waiting to act.
In recent weeks, it has surfaced that two young men in different parts of the United States exchanged emails with Al Awlaki and underwent various stages of radicalisation, only to be intercepted by law enforcement personnel.
Aside from the lack of secure communication, one fatal weakness in Al Awlaki's influence is that it is so very public, and therefore capable of being monitored. Security officials may be able to guard against terrorism simply by listening and watching, then arresting, while learning how to pre-empt future apprentices of Al Awlaki's.
Al Awlaki may be able to control portions of cyberspace, but his homegrown quarters are quickly being limited.
John Harrison is an Assistant Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Head of Terrorism Research at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. Kathryn Floyd is a PhD candidate at RSIS and covers the Middle East for ICPVTR.