Internet fuels emergence of violent Islamist groups in the United States
The violent Islamist terrorist threat has evolved and expanded since al Qaeda planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and radicalization of disaffected Muslims and recent converts to Islam is increasingly occurring here in the United States. Yet the federal government has "no cohesive and comprehensive outreach and communications strategy in place to confront this threat." Those are among the findings of a new report by the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The report, "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat," is the first in a series of reports to be issued jointly by the majority and minority staff and is notable for its bipartisan conclusions.
The report points out that both Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and FBI Director Robert Mueller testified about the growing threat of "homegrown" extremists in February before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. According to McConnell, evidence suggested the radical and violent segment of the Muslim population in the West was growing, although the cells detected thus far in the United States have been less sophisticated than those in Europe or elsewhere overseas. Through Internet connections, however, these groups were bound to become more sophisticated and capable without having to travel overseas for training, he said.
The study examines al Qaeda's online media operation and identifies four highly sophisticated production centers that use cutting-edge technology to produce a range of products, including online magazines, official statements, news updates, white papers and even poetry.
Once content is created by one of the production centers, it is funneled to a clearinghouse before it is posted on the Internet. "One of the most active Internet clearinghouses today is the al-Fajr Media Center, which was established in January 2006. Like the production centers, al-Fajr is almost entirely virtual. The approval process for dissemination is unclear, but once approved, content is moved from al-Fajr to preapproved Web sites. On a daily basis, al-Fajr issues a host of material, including statements from violent Islamist groups taking credit for attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria and elsewhere," the report stated.
The clearinghouses perform two key functions: They ensure the authenticity of the message, which is essential to maintaining the movement's strict interpretation of Islam and its long-term goal to destroy the West; and they facilitate the near-instantaneous dissemination of new propaganda, according to the report.
"The propaganda regularly produced by this process finds its way to literally thousands of violent Islamist Web sites across the Internet, many of which are either 'mirrored' versions of one another, or 'simply bulletin boards' that disseminate the same material created by the production houses," the report said.
Charles Allen, chief intelligence officer and undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Homeland Security Department, said in a May 6 speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that al Qaeda "has ratcheted up the speed and accuracy of translated statements openly marketed to U.S. and English-speaking audiences." Al Qaeda's objective, Allen said, "is to gain wide Muslim support, empathy, financing and future recruits."
The growing sophistication of al Qaeda's Internet campaign poses a serious threat and has the potential to erode the United States' cultural and community characteristics (especially the integration of Muslims into American society) that have thus far discouraged violent radicalization. Left unchallenged, al Qaeda's message espoused over the Internet will drive more individuals in the United States through the radicalization process and encourage them to conduct actual attacks, the Senate committee report noted.
Nonetheless, testimony the committee received showed that, "no federal agency has been tasked with developing or implementing a domestic communications strategy."
Perhaps the most significant outreach effort has come from Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which meets regularly with religious and ethnic community leaders in five major cities and tries to address the concerns of participants. Yet the effort is not part of a governmentwide outreach effort, nor does the office coordinate with the FBI, which has substantial contact with communities throughout the country via its 56 field offices. Neither the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties office's program nor the FBI's own outreach program is designed to counter violent Islamist ideology.
"Efforts that rely on relatively uncoordinated outreach to American-Muslim communities and fragmented communications strategies must be improved. Indeed, the most credible voices in isolating and rejecting violent Islamist ideology are those of Muslim community leaders, religious leaders and other nongovernmental actors who must play a more visible and vocal role in discrediting and providing alternatives to violent Islamist ideology," the committee concluded.
(C) 2007 BY NATIONAL JOURNAL GROUP, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.