Michael Moynihan: My Week in the Jihad Online Terror Underworld

Recruits training with an Islamist militant group, Northwest frontier province, Pakistan. Veronique de Viguerie/Getty

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, early evidence gathered by investigators suggested that the two suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were rabid lone wolves who learned both their bomb-building craft and their murderous philosophy on the Internet. Suddenly, pundits and experts across the political spectrum could be heard holding forth about the problem of "self-radicalization"—the process by which those unconnected to organized jihad are lured toward extremism via the Web.

But how exactly does this process work? How does one become so imbued with hatred online as to be willing to pack a pressure cooker with ball bearings and detonate it at the feet of an 8-year-old boy? What Internet "community" could motivate a floppy-haired teenager to send hot shrapnel into the body of a Chinese exchange student?

I decided to try an experiment: I would spend seven days creeping through the Internet using disposable IP addresses, inhabiting the milieu of radical sites and Facebook pages. In Manhattan coffee shops, on subway platforms, between tasks at work, I would take up residence in the darkest corners of the Web—and see what I could learn about the fetid swamps where self-made jihadists are allegedly born.

In this image taken from a video recording on June 2, 2011, a senior leader of Pakistan's Taliban announces plans to attack American targets abroad to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden. Reuters

Violent radicalism is very much a minority phenomenon in Islam, of course. According to a poll recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, "in most countries where the question was asked, roughly three quarters or more Muslims reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians." It was the jihadist minority—not Islam as a whole, nor the countless Muslim sites that abjure violence—whose online world I wanted to observe.

In the years immediately after September 11—as Americans attempted to understand the difference between Sunni and Shia, Iran and Iraq, Zarqawi and Zawahiri—there was regular news chatter about online forums where violent radicals congregated and traded videos documenting, and celebrating, the executions of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl or American contractor Nicholas Berg. These kinds of forums still exist; most provide tedious recapitulations of this week in violent jihad, though frequently stuffed with instructional literature for the freelance terrorist, too. Less than an hour after I abandoned my atheism for Salafism, I found myself studying the "Lone Mujahid Pocketbook" (retrievable from the Internet Archive, a popular nonprofit Web library based in California), which promised a "step-by-step guide on how to become a successful lone mujahid." The document—a sort of greatest-hits compilation of items from Inspire, al Qaeda's slick online magazine—was inauspiciously decorated with an image of Times Square.

Such curiosities are easily located, but the real action is to be found in a region of the Web that barely existed in the aftermath of 9/11: social media. Facebook, usually a place to marvel at the physical disintegration of long-lost friends, is a viper's nest of freelance, professional, affiliated, and unaffiliated extremists. If one wants to gorge on the latest videos from the front lines of global jihad, this is the place to do it.

And infiltrating jihadist circles on Facebook is an alarmingly simple process: create a menacing pseudonym, which I did; explore the list of users who "like" pages dedicated to the memory of, say, "martyred" American Salafist Anwar al-Awlaki; target those users whose profile pictures convey religious extremism; and start sending friend requests. From there, randomly add the "friends" of those whom you have successfully "friended." When one accepts your "friendship," an overlap of "mutual friends" is created, establishing a small level of trust. After a few days in this loop, the process flips and the laptop warriors will begin navigating toward you.

A fighter from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra runs with his weapon in Raqqa province, eastern Syria. Reuters

My first few days as an e-mujahid were prosaic and predictable. On the innocuous-sounding Facebook group "Islam for Teenagers," a moderator complained about the baleful influence of Hollywood on Muslim children because "Cinderella comes home at midnight," "Dumbo gets drunk and hallucinates," and "Snow White lives with seven guys." If this was meant as a joke, the commenters missed the humor. Elsewhere, one of my new pals precipitated a discussion on the Prophet's supernatural intervention into the produce department: the Arabic word "Allah" had been discovered in a bisected piece of fruit.

Much of this sounded like standard Christian conservative moralizing and revelation (though the mocking of photos of George W. Bush reading a book upside down reminded me more of a left-wing blog circa 2006). Some of it, however, was considerably uglier. Scrolling across my newsfeed was an image of the World Trade Center towers with the caption: "Twins: I'd Hit It ... With a 747." This was followed by a marked-up photo of a $20 bill that, it was claimed, revealed the letters J-E-W-S. It was unclear if this was an attempt at humor.

Some users warned us neophytes off certain online conduct, not for fear that CIA spooks were watching but because some "brothers" were inadvertently promoting haram behavior ("forbidden" according to Islam): "Be conscious of what you 'like' on Facebook. I see my fellow believers liking pictures of the kuffar"—nonbelievers. Living in a kuffar country, using this kuffar technology—invented by the ultimate kuffar, Mark Zuckerberg—some were apparently being lured by the West's debased popular culture.

The boat where Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev was hiding is seen illuminated by police just before he was captured. Eric Thayer/New York Times/Redux

After three days, I was only mildly disturbed—and very much underwhelmed. But as the week went on and I acquired more friends, the online world I was in became more disquieting. A flurry of new connections with ever more extreme Islamists overwhelmed my timeline with pornographic violence. Everywhere I clicked I found religious snuff films masquerading as "battlefield updates" and snippets of footage from Syria, accompanied by the droning chants of Allahu akbar every time a weapon was discharged. Gruesome images of the recently "martyred"—in Syria, Burma, Afghanistan, Iraq—were swapped and shared like baseball cards.

The constant on my feed—the thing that made me long for the Facebook where high-school friends squabbled about the efficacy of gun control legislation—was ceaseless images of dead children, mostly killed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Everywhere I clicked, there were piles of murdered children; their limbs twisted and bloodless faces staring past the camera. With every login, there were dozens more, blurring into one easily recalled composite dead child. I took to squinting at my laptop, deliberately blurring my vision; when the fuzzy contours of a child appeared, I jerked my head away from the screen and kept scrolling. But when my eyes returned, another lifeless kid was always waiting for me.

The images were clearly intended to be horrifying. And insofar as they provided a record of the brutality inflicted upon ordinary Syrians by the Assad regime, they were. But there was also something about the presentation and context—the fetishization of violence against innocents, followed by the celebration of violence against innocents—that blunted their emotional effectiveness.

Female members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades attend a news conference in Gaza. Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Indeed, when not photographed in death, toddlers were frequently enlisted for the jihad. One user advised his friends to be "careful" in sharing a photo of three kids, probably between 3 or 4 years old, mugging for the camera in Syria. One had his arms wrapped around a Kalashnikov rifle a few inches taller than himself, while two others (one of whom was also clutching a rifle) displayed the mujahedin flag. The image, this person warned, could be "misuse[d] by Shia, secular and kuffar," and it should be noted that the children "did this because [of] their own wish to support Jabhat al-Nusrah," the al Qaeda brigades fighting in Syria.

As my network grew, I became desensitized to all the images of wanton cruelty and ultraviolence. In a crowded coffee shop in SoHo, I flipped open my laptop, activating my Salafist doppelgänger. Without considering my surroundings, I reflexively clicked on the first video item in my newsfeed. Yet another snuff film. Masked men executing five hog-tied members of Iraq's police force. Commenters incanted about the greatness of God because the victims were Shia, a sect that Salafists believe is indistinguishable from Judaism. A woman sitting to my right, flipping through a copy of The New Yorker, watched me watching a savage quintuple homicide. She left an unfinished coffee on the table and disappeared onto the street.

Perhaps she was leaving anyway, but it was day six and I was already assuming that everyone—jihadist recruiters, members of the FBI and MI6, Internet service providers—were monitoring my every click. Opening my Facebook profile made my palms sweat, as I hoped not to find an inquisitive message from a suspicious "friend." I was lost in a surreal world.

Most of my newfound comrades were shielded by absurd tough-guy pseudonyms, raising the possibility that I spent a week interacting with dozens of intelligence agents in a drab Berlin office building. And most avoided posting photos of themselves, instead selecting from an all-star team of lunatics like Anwar al-Awlaki, Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Saddam Hussein.

Yet others seemed to care little about shielding their identities. It was jarring to see one friend's series of photos of Osama bin Laden marked by Facebook's automatic location tagging: one was uploaded "near Bay Ridge" Brooklyn—not six miles from where his hero extinguished almost 3,000 lives. Flipping through his more quotidian images, I saw a smiling child, friends and family, Yankees baseball caps, and pictures of an unmistakably Brooklyn backyard.

Indeed, it can be shocking how unconcerned extremists are with exposing their fanatical views. A Norwegian newspaper has written about the Facebook page of an Oslo-domiciled Salafist, well known to local authorities, proclaiming "to hell with Boston and may Allah destroy America" (he didn't accept my friend request). Chiheb Esseghaier, arrested last month by Canadian authorities on terrorism charges, advertised his bioengineering skills on the social-networking site LinkedIn—though a well-informed employer might have noticed that his profile photo was an al Qaeda flag.

A Palestinian's suicide explosive belt is displayed on an Israeli military base at Bet El in the West Bank. Olivier Fitoussi/EPA

After my week among the online jihadists, it seemed unlikely to me that their corner of the Internet could immediately capture an undamaged soul. There were no appeals to reason here, and the content seemed intended for the already converted.

Which is to say: it seemed implausible that the Web had somehow made Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into jihadists. But it did strike me that the world of online jihad could have had another effect on the Boston bombers: it might well have inured them to violence. The further I crawled down the extremist rabbit hole and the more caved-in skulls and headless corpses I saw, the more I found that my natural revulsion, usually an uncontrollable instinct, was easier to suppress.

And it wasn't just my revulsion to violence that seemed to dull: the casual Jew hatred, homophobia (yes, there were references to the "sick" revelation that NBA player Jason Collins is gay), and sexism ("The beauty of a woman lies in her SILENCE rather than her SPEECH") were so eye-glazingly common that after a week of uninterrupted consumption, I found myself scrolling past it without a second thought.

Americans were jarred by a gruesome—and now iconic—photo of Boston Marathon spectator Jeff Bauman being rushed toward an ambulance, one of his legs blown off below the knee. In the universe of electronic jihad, such images are banal. To be a social-media jihadi for a week is to be reminded of French essayist Alain Finkielkraut's admonition: "Barbarism is not the inheritance of our pre-history. It is the companion that dogs our every step."

Michael Moynihan: My Week in the Jihad Online Terror Underworld | World