I spent an hour on the phone the other day with an American jihadist in Brooklyn who believes "Osama bin Laden is not a bad man at all, he is a freedom fighter," and what struck me about this outrageous claim was that, in this man's voice, in his all-American English, his tone sounded so reasonable. In his view, America is a bully, and "bullies don't stop until you hit them back"—which is what Osama bin Laden has done, he said.
That rationalization is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But the message is less significant than the medium: a simple, direct, easily comprehensible vernacular that can connect with lonely young men whose inchoate anger needs focus. And the Brooklyn jihadist, known as Younus Abdullah Muhammad, ought to know. Now 30 years old, he said he was born "a Caucasian American kid" whose parents in Pennsylvania were "part of the counterculture movement." He says he spent much of his adolescence "picking up books and smoking weed in the backyard," then traveled around with the Grateful Dead for a while. "I always was something of a drifter," he said, until he embraced Islam in 2000. About two and half years ago, he cofounded a Web site, Revolution Muslim, to spread the message of jihad.
The operation is watched closely by law enforcement, and it tries to walk the fine line between free speech and criminal incitement to terrorism. "We don't necessarily call for buildings to be blown up here, but if that happens we ask why," says the former Deadhead. (My italics.) Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation visit him frequently but have taken no action. "The FBI really have respect for the Constitution," he said. And, in fact, not that many people are tuning in. Abdullah Muhammad says that in global rankings of Web site popularity, Revolution Muslim is around 600,000th.
But the Feds and other law enforcement organizations are worried, nonetheless, and there is growing suspicion that English-language sites may be related, both indirectly and directly, to the recent increase in attempts to carry out attacks inside the United States. The handful of plots exposed over the last year have raised questions—which wind up sounding like certainties after a few hours in the news cycle—about whether American Muslim communities are growing more alienated, radicalized, and dangerous. That is not the case. But the few Americans who actually are so angry, confused, and frustrated that they want to turn violent are now finding more ways to connect with jihadists who push them to action.
Polls cited by U.S. intelligence chiefs show support for violent extremism is waning in the broader Arab and Muslim world. But Al Qaeda and its admirers are nothing if not resourceful. As Arabic-speaking recruits get harder to come by, jihadists are reaching out on the Web to the wide universe of people who speak European languages—French, German, Spanish, and especially English. The extremists are particularly intent on recruiting in the United States, where even a handful of highly Westernized or native-born Americans could defeat conventional counterterror tactics. They are harder to spot and to track than operatives sent from abroad, and if they are "clean skins"—without criminal records or known terrorist associations—they may be invisible to the system.
The first English-language jihadist sites began to appear in the 1990s. But they really proliferated after the Iraq War, and have grown dramatically more sophisticated, original, and idiomatic over the last year or so. The most popular among them count more than a thousand active members and tens of thousands of posts. Videos are seen by a still wider audience. ("Perhaps the most effective platform available for conveying the message of Islam is YouTube," says the Revolution Muslim site.) And the torrents of English-language jihadist propaganda are growing.
Like the Arabic-language Web sites that preceded them, these offer radical religious teaching and rabble-rousing music and video, as well as chat rooms and bulletin boards extolling the glories of violent jihad. One of the most intriguing was an online magazine, Jihad Recollections, that appeared last year. The first of its kind to be originally written in English, its polished appeal caused a sensation among intelligence analysts. (The first issue offered a blend of articles ranging from "The Political Implications of the CIA's Scandal in Algeria" to "The Science Behind Night Vision Technology" and "The Principles of Guerrilla Warfare.")
The increasing sophistication makes a difference. Young men anxious to prove themselves in what they imagine is a noble cause look to such sites for a sense of community and, indeed, of destiny. "The Internet is important for generating fantasies," says Marc Sageman, author of Leaderless Jihad. "Before, you had to speak some Arabic [in order to participate], but now people just log on in their own language." In Web forums, having a critical mass of users fundamentally changes the experience. "Members of these forums egg each other on, reinforce one another's radicalism," says a U.S. counterterrorism official who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely. "All of this can be intoxicating to a young man who is frustrated in life and is looking for a group to belong to."
Along with the emergence of these sites has come a new generation of truly Anglophone heirs to Osama bin Laden who inspire the same kind of murderous zeal among Muslim converts and residents of the West that Al Qaeda evoked among disaffected sons of the Middle East and South Asia. Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American preacher linked to both the Christmas Day underpants bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Ft. Hood shooter, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, has drawn a wide following online for his sermons and exhortations to jihad. Alabama-born Omar Hammami, known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, has appeared in several videos of combat in Somalia, some of them set to rap music. Oregon-born Adam Pearlman, now known as Adam Yahiye Gadahn, is the 31-year-old in-house American spokesman for core Al Qaeda operations run out of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While little known until recently among the general populace, "these guys are pop stars on the Internet," says anthropologist Scott Atran, author of the forthcoming Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)making of Terrorists. Abdullah el-Faisal (born Trevor William Forest), a 46-year-old Jamaican convert, has inspired radicals from Botswana to Brooklyn. He spent four years in a British prison for preaching race hate. Since his release in 2007 he has gone on tour in Anglophone Africa, and last month a riot broke out in Kenya when authorities tried to deport him and failed. No airlines would fly him and no neighboring countries would allow him to transit their territory by land. "This man is so dangerous no country wants to touch him," said a Kenyan government spokesman. (Finally he was spirited onto a secret flight that dumped him in Kingston two days later.)
El-Faisal has close ties to the New York-based operations of Muslim Revolution, and frequently appears in audio and video segments on its site. "We think he is the ideal imam for Muslims living in the West who speak English as their primary language," former Deadhead Abdullah Muhammad told me.
Al-Awlaki in particular stands out because his religious learning gives him real credibility as a spiritual guide. Testifying before Congress in December, Jarret Brachman, a former CIA fellow and author of Global Jihadism, noted that English-speaking "supporters of Al Qaeda have now reached a point where they are virtually indistinguishable from their Arabic-speaking counterparts in their knowledge of key authors, texts, arguments, and leadership." Figures like al-Awlaki are engaged not just in raw communication but delicate persuasion, of the kind that's called for when a loner in his little apartment is thinking about checking into paradise and has no one to reach out to but a voice on the Web. Such was al-Awlaki's moral authority in the disturbed mind of Maj. Hasan—who sent him around 20 e-mails before he went on his shooting rampage in Texas.
If the English-language sites are more appealing to Western radicals, though, they're also more easily subverted. Ironically the best recommendations probably come from a jihadist himself (although in Arabic). In September 2009, Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi made a video in which he mocked the U.S. government for all the steps it should have been taking to counter the Qaeda message, but wasn't. Authorities ought to publicize the cases of ex-jihadists or "backtrackers," he said; they should use Internet imams who disagree with Al Qaeda to issue religious rulings that refute extremist ideology; they should promote mainstream Islamist groups even when some of their positions seem radical to American eyes, and should play up the infighting among the many different Qaeda factions. All sound advice, and while U.S. authorities are reluctant to discuss details, Western intelligence and law enforcement organizations do monitor these sites closely and often go undercover online to engage members as if they were wannabe jihadists themselves. After all, the best way to defeat such radicals is to speak their language.