Interviews July/August 2006

Web of Terror

Nadya Labi discusses the murky world of online jihad

On May 11, 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi carried out the most successful online terrorist public relations campaign in history. Downloaded half a million times within the first twenty-four hours of its debut, the now-infamous video of Nicholas Berg’s beheading introduced the world—in the grimmest terms—to a new front in the war on terror: the Internet.

Zarqawi was not working alone. Among those fighting in his online jihad was someone by the screen name of “Irhabi007.” Presumably a man (irhabi means “terrorist” in Arabic and refers to a single male), Irhabi quickly established himself as a skilled translator, hacker, and adviser on all things terrorist. He was a fast learner and eager student and within months was brazenly distributing highly sensitive materials, such as CIA manuals on making explosives and Navy SEAL guides on sniper training, along with tips for avoiding detection online. Soon Irhabi had a motley readership: fellow jihadists eager to emulate him and intelligence analysts hungry to take him down.

In the fall of 2005, Irhabi also succeeded in attracting the attention of journalist Nadya Labi, a former editor at Legal Affairs and writer for Time magazine. A passionate student of Arabic, Labi discovered that most of the information on the online global jihad—a network of jihadist sites that, Labi explains in her July/August Atlantic story, “Jihad 2.0,” “constitute a sophisticated media machine”—was incomplete, partly as a result of the language barrier most analysts faced when monitoring the sites. Who, Labi wondered, was this elusive Irhabi007 everyone seemed to be following? And why were so many people interested in him?

Labi immersed herself in the murky world of online jihad and saw for herself the extent to which it had evolved in recent years. “In the early days,” Labi writes, “before the Iraq War, the ‘online global jihad’ amounted to a collection of chat rooms where angry members could let off steam and experiment with threatening graphics. The sites welcomed visitors, offering a painless process of registration; today they present tougher barriers to entry and place a greater emphasis on remaining anonymous and secure. There are now scores of sites, and the competition among them to become the one to watch is fierce.”

Then, later that fall, something unexpected happened. In October 2005, three young men were arrested on charges of planning a suicide attack in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Shortly thereafter—presumably working off a tip from Bosnian authorities—British authorities in West London arrested Younis Tsouli and two other young men for “commission[ing], prepar[ing] or instigat[ing] an act of terrorism.” (Among the pieces of evidence cited in the indictment were photos of Washington, D.C., and video slides on how to make car bombs.) Suddenly, Irhabi disappeared from his online haunts without a trace. All over the United States, private analysts breathed sighs of relief: it appeared the notorious Irhabi007 had been apprehended at last.

But the saga is far from over. “The arrest of Younis Tsouli, unfortunately, represents not the end of the story but only its beginning,” Labi writes. “What Irhabi helped create—a template for his own replication online—has opened a door to a struggle that is likely to be with us for a long time.”

We spoke by phone on May 24, 2006.

—Abigail Cutler

Tell me how and when you became interested in the concept of an online global jihad.

A friend of mine at a different magazine introduced me to the topic. I had just finished an immersion summer studying Arabic and he knew I was very interested in the language and had been studying it for a long time, and he noticed that the very few pieces out there about cyber-terrorism didn’t address all that went on in the online forums because journalists simply couldn’t read the material. He basically said to me, “Hey, this seems like an interesting topic, maybe you should poke around a little bit.” So I started looking into it and, through the process, spoke with people at the Terrorism Research Center and had them send me a bunch of their reports on the subject. That’s when I first came upon Irhabi007. It was clear from an early TRC report—from the fall of 2005—that the private analysts were very intrigued by this person. Everyone seemed to be hunting Irhabi, and that struck me as a good narrative line for a story.

When was this? Sometime last year?

I first started looking into the subject in October of 2005, not too long after Irhabi007 had received some press for his success in hacking into the Transportation Department of Arkansas. After that, he attracted quite a lot of attention from the private intelligence community.

But then in the fall—around the time I started looking into him—he suddenly disappeared online. So that was also of great interest to me—the idea that there was this guy who everyone was really interested in, and whom everyone felt should be tracked, and then all of a sudden, he’s gone. Mind you, this was before the person we believe to be Irhabi007 was arrested. From that moment on, I was pretty suspicious. It intrigued me that something had probably happened to him. I wanted to figure it out.

One of the most interesting things about Irhabi007 is his elusiveness. Do we know anything about his background? His family? His education? His particular grievances? Anything at all that might shed some light on what led him to join the online jihad?

We know very, very little unfortunately, and that is because there are very strict laws in Britain about covering cases before a jury reaches a verdict. The press is actually forbidden from writing about it or publishing anything that doesn’t reflect exactly what transpires in the courtroom. Since this is pre-trial stage, we don’t really know a lot about him. We know that one of the other people arrested in this case, Tariq al-Daour, had been arrested a year earlier for allegedly assaulting some Orthodox Jews in the area as well as being involved—again, allegedly—in a series of attacks with some other youths. But those others youths were never identified and the case against him was ultimately dismissed. So do we know if it’s true? No. But regardless, what we do know about Younis Tsouli at this early stage is very little.

From the posts, it’s hard to discern whether Irhabi had a particular agenda. Do you have a sense of his ultimate goal? Was it merely—as some have implied—to stir up trouble, or do you think there was a larger philosophical or political aim in play?

Before any of the analysts even learned who Irhabi likely is, there was a sense that the man behind the screen name was a young, immature hothead who participated online and got involved in these chat rooms—similar to the way a lot of teenagers might be attracted to fringe groups for various reasons. He seemed like a rebel who was interested in talking a lot of smack and stirring up trouble. And my sense—and the sense, I think, of a lot of the analysts who followed Irhabi—was that he was particularly good at some of the things he was doing, definitely enthusiastic, and therefore was able to transform from this loudmouth online to someone who could play a much deeper role. I did not get the impression from reading his posts or from talking to any of the analysts that this was necessarily his intention from the beginning. The ultimate role he played seems to have resulted from a chain of events that occurred as he matured.

What do you think accounts for this evolution? You intimate in the piece that certain praise from Abu Maysara—widely considered to be Al-Zarqawi’s mouthpiece—encouraged Irhabi to become more serious in his online mission and presence. Does Abu Maysara’s encouragement alone account for Irhabi’s transformation?

Well, I don’t think it was just Abu Maysara’s praise. As Irhabi got more and more involved—first just posting news articles with Arabic headlines, then posting actual open source intelligence and other sensitive information—he received more and more praise from members of the forums (who refer to themselves as “brothers”). That positive reinforcement, I’m sure, encouraged him to do more and more. Who doesn’t like to be adored and adulated and applauded? So I think that the sentiment on the part of the all the brothers really reinforced and encouraged the kind of behavior he increasingly engaged in.

Were there others like him? How unique is Irhabi as a role model and pioneer for early online jihadists?

My sense—certainly when I first started looking at Irhabi—was that when he first caught the attention of the analysts and became well known, he was quite unique. He seemed to have technical skills beyond many of the other jihadists then online. In these early days, there weren’t a lot of experts or people dedicating their time to learning more about the Internet. Those who were watching back then—especially those who are technically savvy—were quite impressed with Irhabi’s expertise, not to mention the expertise he gained over time. And many of them, particularly Evan Kohlmann, said to me that in the beginning, Irhabi really was in a class of his own.

Of course, today, to say he is unique would be a much different thing. The online global jihad has developed so much and these forums have matured and become much more sophisticated. And of course, thanks to people like Irhabi, there are now many, many more individuals online who have his kind of expertise.

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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