October 2nd, 2011
Killed alongside Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Aulaqi in Yemen by an American missile last week: Samir Khan, Aulaqui’s chief online communicator:
Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism expert and government consultant who analyzed Khan’s writings, described Khan as a “partner in crime” to Aulaqi who was clearly “soaking in as much knowledge as possible” from the older man.
Working together, the two had become effective as propagandists and recruiters, with Khan’s articles complementing Aulaqi’s Internet sermons and essays. For al-Qaeda, the loss of both men at once is a serious blow, he said.
“If it’s true that both were killed, then al-Qaeda’s English-language outreach program is dead,” Brachman said.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that an online communicator would be a central figure in the most active chapter of a worldwide terrorist organization — this IS 2011, after all. And despite the irony of a group with a medieval mindset depending so much on technology, the internet is a natural tool for a group like Al-Qaeda. Here’s why: though they’d love to spark a mass movement in the Muslim world, their immediate need is to find the small number of people in the West who might be willing to kill themselves and others for their cause (they need Europeans or Americans because they can move freely in the target countries). And as activist groups of all political stripes have found, the internet excels at niche targeting — if you post it, the people who might be interested can find it, regardless of where they live.
Reading an online article is a long way from running to Yemen for terrorist training, but it’s the first step in what probably looks a lot like the “ladder of engagement” we talk about in the activist community. Political campaigns and advocacy groups typically recruit people through a relatively low-commitment action (signing a petition, for instance) and move them up the ladder to higher levels of involvement by offering them opportunities to donate time, money and energy in greater and greater amounts. Are suicide bombers the ultimate “super-activists?” Not exactly a comparison that political organizers would welcome, but an interesting idea nonetheless — and the tools don’t care who uses them.
We see this kind of interest-driven niche targeting all the time in the political world. Think Ron Paul: his supporters are a relatively small percentage of the Republican electorate (so far at least), and they’re scattered across the country rather than being concentrated in a particular state or region. In 2008, his campaign and its supporters used the internet brilliantly to self-organize and to raise money, and I’m sure we’ll see the same dynamic in 2012. On the Democratic side, one of the advantages MyBarackObama.com brought to the campaign was the ability to put people to work in areas where Obama wasn’t planning to compete — volunteers in even the reddest precinct of the reddest state could make phone calls, write blog posts, give money and persuade friends and family across the country to support their guy.
Samir Khan and his Al-Qaeda no doubt turned to the internet for plenty of reasons, including its relative anonymity (servers can live anywhere) and the fact that it’s rapidly becoming ubiquitous around the world. But its ability to deliver a targeted message to exactly the right eyes — all they need is Google or its equivalents — made it the perfect way to find the most dangerous kind of supporters they could have. Though I don’t think many of us will mourn the closing of this particular recruiting office.