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Chasing Web Jihadists

21/01/2011

This post needs to be prefaced with a note that it is based on court documents rather than any convictions. Unless specified, those mentioned are innocent until proven guilty. But this caveat also serves the purpose of providing a useful intro into this post that explores the complexities of pursuing individuals’ active supporting terrorism online.

The phenomenon of online jihadists is probably the most curious innovation to exist in the world of terrorism studies. The idea that individuals with no physical connection to their chosen group can be an integral part of a terrorist organization is something that seems anathema to a politico-terrorist movement. Traditionally terrorist networks were made up of individuals who knew each other and fought alongside each other. In the current conflict we can see people convicted at the same time for being in the same network with no clear evidence that they ever actually met in person (Younis Tsouli, aka Irhabi007, and pals for example).

But what actually is it that these individuals do online which is in support of terrorism? For Tsouli and his cell the evidence they faced overwhelmed them, and they pled guilty to inciting terrorism. In activities it seemed largely as though they helped Al Qaeda in Iraq upload videos onto the Internet and committed fraud to obtain the funds to manage to continue this activity. Tsouli may also have played a role in a cell in Bosnia and another group spanning from Bradford to Toronto, though how this worked operationally is unclear. A series of recent cases, however, seem to be pushing a bit beyond this in attempting to interdict individuals who were remotely linked to networks sending fighters and funds to battlefields in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq.

Back in August last year, Spanish Guardia Civil forces in sunny Alicante raided the home of Faical Errai, a 26 year-old Moroccan resident in Spain who was allegedly one of the administrator’s and the creator of the Ansar al Mujahedeen website (www.ansaraljihad.net). Documents released at the time of his arrest highlighted Spanish police’s belief that Errai was one of the key players in the website and had helped raise funds, provide ideological sustenance and direct fighters to camps in (at least) Chechnya and Waziristan. He was recorded as having boasted on the site to other forum organizers that he had personally helped at least six Libyans get to Waziristan.

Then earlier this week, Canadian forces arrested on an American warrant, Faruq Khalil Muhammad ‘Isa, a 38 year-old Iraqi-Canadian who was allegedly involved in a network sending fighters and equipment to Iraq. According to the complaintreleased by the US Department of Justice, ‘Isa was in contact electronically with a network which sent at least four fighters from Tunisia to Iraq and which was trying to send a second team of four when it was disrupted by security forces from April 2009 onwards. Having watched these networks get closed down from Canada, it seems as though ‘Isa decided that he too wanted to join in the fighting and by early 2010 was asking to talk to the “boss” and vouching for his “not just 100% but 1,000,000%” commitment to the cause. The final paragraph in the complaint against ‘Isa highlights him telling his sister in Iraq on May 28, 2010 “go learn about weapons and go attack the police and Americans. Let it be that you die.”

Both cases are examples of individuals using the Internet to supposedly direct and conduct operations or the flow of fighters on the other side of the globe. To what degree they were the key players is unclear, but certainly in the case of Errai it seemed as though an important online player was taken out of action. Monitors noticed a substantial up-tick in online threats directed at Spain and calling for the “reconqista” in the wake of his arrest – something that was further read as evidence of his importance. For ‘Isa on the other hand, he claimed surprise at the charges at his first hearing. His role in the network is unclear from the complaint beyond having played some sort of a role in supporting ideologically, and maybe practically, a team get from Tunisia to Iraq – a team which was responsible for two separate suicide bombings, one of which killed five US service people on April 10, 2009 in Mosul. There was no immediate evidence of massive retaliation in the wake of ‘Isa’s arrest.

The cases against both men seem to focus on their capacity through the Internet to play a critical role in networks that were helping fighters get to the battlefield along with funds to support the groups hosting them. There is no suggestion that either man actually went to fight and while some of ‘Isa’s intercepts seem to hint that he may be thinking in that direction, he had not yet acted on this impulse at time of arrest.

This fact is likely to result in difficulties for prosecutors. For Errai, I believe he is still in jail in Spain waiting trial, while the U.S. and Canadian governments are settling in for a long-term extradition tangle. ‘Isa’s case could end up something like Babar Ahmad’s, the British-Pakistani sitting in prison in UK unconvicted as he fights extradition to the US on charges for the most part linked with his role in thewww.azzam.com family of websites and helping send support to fighters in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The key difference being that the US wants ‘Isa in specific connection to an attack in Iraq that killed five Americans, giving them a clear set of victims to show a court of law.

Herein lies the nub of the problem: how is it possible to link in a legally satisfying way individuals who are supporting extremists and networks online without actually doing anything which contravenes the law in the way that a terrorist attack does. Using a computer can seem a very detached way of supporting a terrorist act for a jury. Laws can be adapted, as has happened in the UK, to adopt charges of “incitement” to terrorism, but this remains very hard to pursue in a court of law. So the question remains how can one actively and successfully chase and convict people online who are playing a seemingly important role in fostering networks on the other side of the globe. It remains to be seen how this game will play out.