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.
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.
In the beginning of your piece, you credit Al-Zarqawi with correctly anticipating the importance of the Internet as a vital weapon in the terrorist arsenal. You describe how the Internet has enabled terrorists to propagate harmful materials and network with each other, among other things. But has the Internet replaced all need for face-to-face contact? Can all terrorist operations now be conducted (or at least managed) from the privacy of one’s own home—or from an Internet Café?
In the final planning stages before an attack, does Zarqawi feel the need to meet his suicide bombers in person? I don’t know the answer to that, for sure. In the case of Mirsad Bektasevic [a Bosnian Swede who went to Sarajevo allegedly to commit a suicide attack] there isn’t a great deal of evidence yet that he ever went to Iraq. According to the charges, he appears to have hatched his plan of attack largely over the Net. So the question is: how far can things go online? I think things can go very far—if nothing else, the Internet provides a vital platform. People will say online, ‘Here’s my private email address. Let’s continue this conversation.’ I imagine at a particular point in time, there’s a moment at which face-to-face communication is probably desired. But not having been on the inside … you know, I just don’t know.
You also touch on a controversial debate among experts and analysts—namely, Is there a right way to regulate the Web in the face of online jihad? Some people seem to believe in getting these sites shut down, while others place value on keeping them up. Where do you fall on the spectrum?
Even Aaron Weisburd [director of the online jihad watchdog organization Internet Haganah] emphasizes quite pointedly that he doesn’t believe in shutting down these sites himself. At times, he encourages servers to shut down sites that he believes are problematic. But that’s only one part of his strategy. I think that monitoring these sites has proven to have intelligence value—or at least seems to have proven so. But it’s hard to imagine that one single strategy of shutting down the sites could ever work, given the changing nature of the Internet. You’re always going to find someone who can put up a site in a different country where it’s harder to monitor. So, generally speaking, I think monitoring is a decent approach, but it needs to be complemented with other strategies.
Speaking of these various monitors, your article also addresses a common theme seen in the news since 9/11: the incompetence of U.S. intelligence-gathering entities. How heavily do government agencies rely on these private groups to help them track down terrorists like Irhabi? Should we expect a bigger, more official role from them in the future?
My sense from the analysts—to the degree that they could tell of course—is that law enforcement wasn’t necessarily paying very close attention to the Internet in the early years of the online jihad. Of course, this is mere speculation. Who knows what kind of things the CIA is doing that we don’t know about? But in more recent years, they have begun to truly understand the critical importance of the Internet in this context, and have begun to devote resources to monitoring it. That might suggest that the role of private analysts would lessen overtime. However, these people have developed valuable expertise in this field. Many of them employ Arabic staff members, or they themselves speak Arabic, which in and of itself is a scarce resource. So I think the more eyes the better—and I would suspect that many government agencies, though not all, are definitely willing to listen to these analysts and to use the information they have, perhaps as a complement to the information they themselves have already gathered. And in the case of Irhabi007, I know that many of the analysts have been approached by law enforcement and have shared their information and knowledge with the authorities. That would suggest, if nothing else, that these private entities have information that the authorities not only lack, but also need.
Is it a fair assumption that all these analysts are willing to help the government?
Definitely. They are extremely willing. In Weisburd’s case, I think helping the government track down these guys is in many ways his main goal. He takes a very aggressive approach because he feels that these forums and the people on them pose a threat—or could pose a threat—and is very interested, and often involved, in talking to law enforcement. I think that’s true of all the credible analysts. Weisburd is certainly much more eager to talk to law enforcement than to the media, for example. And my impression is that he knew about Irhabi007’s alleged arrest long before it was made public. He and his associates were trying to be as helpful as possible to the law enforcement on the case.
Speaking of which, how sure are we that Younis Tsouli, arrested in Britain last fall, is Irhabi007? Can we be certain that there was just one person behind the screen name?
Very few people in the community seem to doubt that Younis Tsouli was at least one of the identities of Irhabi007. However, I think the level of our certainty must be contingent on the degree to which the British authorities are correct about this connection. After all, the information we have is coming from law enforcement and the analysts—not from Younis Tsouli himself. So if the authorities got it wrong, the analysts may have it wrong, and perhaps Irabi007 isn’t Younis Tsouli. Still, everything we know indicates that Tsouli was behind—or was at least one of the people behind—that online character.
Let’s say the allegations are true and Younis Tsouli is Irhabi007. How important is this arrest in the grand scheme of things?
If the allegations are true, the arrests suggest that authorities may have nabbed people who are arguably even more dangerous than people originally assumed Irhabi007 to be. When I was talking to the analysts, many people thought that Irhabi007 was involved at the operational level, but not necessarily at the practical level—meaning, many didn’t believe he was involved in actually engaging in or carrying out suicide attacks. Now, if Younis Tsouli is indeed 007, his arrest may suggest that he transitioned at some point from the operational to the practical realm. Again, it’s too early to know for sure.
In addition to the London arrests, you also write about a number of arrests made in Sarajevo and allude to a presumed connection between the two. Can you speak any more to that?
We certainly don’t know the exact nature of the connection. What we do know is that the arrests in Sarajevo involving Mirsad Bektasevic sparked the arrests in London and then in Denmark, where a number of teenagers were also arrested. And after the arrests in Sarajevo, the London police very quickly arrested Younis Tsouli and two others. It seems they were working off a tip from Sarajevo authorities. The exact nature of the tip—and whether or not the tip was completely credible—again, it’s just too early to know.
What was your research process like?
The first part of my process really involved talking to the analysts as much as possible and gathering as much data as I could on Irhabi007. I focused on reading everything he had posted online to try to get a sense of what his interests were and how they may have developed over time. After Younis Tsouli was arrested, I went to London and visited his apartment in my own effort to discern whether he was indeed Irhabi007. I also went to Denmark and then to Sarajevo to talk to the police and defense attorneys there about the evidence they had in those cases. Essentially, I first tried to figure out what was happening online, and then tried to figure out the very murky world of these various terror investigations and all the related allegations. Was this or was this not a real terror cell?
What were the most difficult moments?
Getting my head wrapped around the technological details of cyber-terrorism was definitely difficult because I’m not necessarily “technically comfortable.” It was like trying to learn a new language. But I would say the most difficult aspect of the story was dealing with the fact that no one wants to talk about terrorism cases and, moreover, British law basically forbids people from talking about them. It was frustrating to want so badly to get at the deeper story while knowing that people were prohibited from helping me—either by law or because they felt uncomfortable speculating about cases that were in such preliminary stages.
What would you have loved to find out if such restrictions weren’t an issue?
The exact nature of the tip. The indictment in Sarajevo claimed that Mirsad Bektasevic was using mobile phone numbers "owned" by Younis Tsouli and another London suspect. What exactly does that mean? And what was the nature of the alleged ties between the Sarajevo suspect and the London suspects? I believe these details will become clearer in the coming months.
Another thing I would have liked to spend more time looking into is the nature of these types of communities created online and the ways in which they are governed. The idea that many of these chat rooms don’t allow people of different genders—or at least people with different gendered names—to interact or engage in conversation is very interesting to me. I would have liked to look more closely at the sociological aspects of the chat rooms—these little worlds online, which are very separate and distinct from the societies like London, Sweden, or Denmark where many of these members ostensibly live. The notion that these communities impose gender segregation and other restrictions online is fascinating to me.
What does the sequel to Jihad 2.0 look like?
There’s a lot more to the story. The sequel is the story of all these upcoming trials. The trial of Mirsad Bektasevic is scheduled for this summer. There is a hearing scheduled for sometime in July to decide whether or not the case of Younis Tsouli will even go forward. After that, or potentially at the same time, the case in Denmark will come to trial—though last I checked, the indictments hadn’t even come down for the teenagers arrested there. Additionally, there were arrests made in the U.S. that some people say are linked to these cases. So there’s a lot more still to come.
(To complicate matters further, the U.S. suspects are accused of traveling to Canada to meet with some of the men recently arrested in that country on charges of planning terror attacks. The Canadian authorities appear to have intercepted the alleged cell by monitoring online jihadi chat rooms.)