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?