Virtual Jihad

Laura Mansfield has a terrific article about Virtual Jihad.

Virtual Reality: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
By Laura Mansfield

Sometimes fantasy turns into reality, especially in the world of cyber fantasy.

And the recent explosion in the global jihadist movement is fueled to a large extent by the virtual reality world of cyber-jihad.

That may sound a bit far-fetched, but if you take a look at a similar phenomenon of the past decade and a half, it becomes clear that a big part of the problem today is from individuals getting sucked into fantasy worlds on line, and then bringing that fantasy world back into the real world.

Do you remember back in the 1990’s as cyber-romances moved out of the venue of the computer enthusiast and into the mainstream? At the time, it seemed like everyone know someone who was having an online affair.

To listen to those involved, the cyber-affairs were forbidden but very exciting. Men and women described a sort of “rush” that overtook them when they would meet their “cyber mate” on line. Cyber romances tended to get very intense quickly, and many people became obsessed with their virtual significant others.

But then the cyber world began to collide with the real world. Online relationships that began as a sort of “let’s pretend” play-acting began to bleed over into reality, when one party or the other decided to take cyber sex to the next step – a real-life meeting.

The women’s and men’s magazines all featured articles titled something along the lines of “Is a cyber affair really cheating?”. The answer, as many found out when they ended up in divorce court, was often a resounding “Yes”.

If cyber romances were a phenomenon of the 1990’s, then it’s equivalent these days for many seems to be “cyberjihad”.

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, there were jihadist message boards on the internet, and terrorists were certainly using the internet to a degree.

But after 9/11, the “cyber jihad” really began to take off. Young men in growing numbers, and a smaller number of young women, began to search for like-minded individuals in jihadist chat room and on jihadist message boards.

Conversations and associations that would have been taboo in some cases and at the very least risked exposure in real life became the norm as these individuals began to form tightly-knit online communities on the web.

Quite often these forays into the jihadist world online began innocently enough, often initiated out of boredom or curiosity. But the world of cyber jihad can be just as seductive to many as the world of cyber romance, and the consequences can be deadly.

Jihadist message boards and chat rooms provide an unprecedented medium for recruitment and indoctrination. As the young men become more and more enmeshed in the jihadist ideology, they begin to lose touch with moderating influences offline in the real world.

It is not unusual to see many of these cyber jihadists signed on conversing in chat rooms and posting on message boards for upwards of twelve hours a day. Many are students or unemployed; others seem to be offline only for enough hours to conduct their offline activities – work, sleep, school, etc – but quickly come back online.

Before long, these new recruits are sucked completely into the world of cyber jihad. As they watch videos glorifying “martyrdom missions” – and there is certainly no shortage of those videos, with new attack video clips emerging daily – they begin to swear that they too will join the jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in west.

Much of the infrastructure of the cyber jihad we see today, along with many of its leaders, was mentored by Younis Tsouli, who used the online name “Irhabi 007”, or “Terrorist 007”.

Tsouli, a charismatic voice on message boards in the 2003-2005 timeframe, emerged at a critical point in the development of the cyber jihad, and he quickly developed a following both online and offline.

One of Irhabi 007’s key contributions was in the spread of jihadist propaganda and instructional videos on the internet. As he repeatedly posted videos from Zarqawi’s group in Iraq showing the torture and beheading of Americans, his followers soaked up the videos and demanded more. Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups in Iraq obliged by providing the videos; Irhabi 007 worked hard to ensure that proper distribution channels were developed so that anyone who wanted to download these videos would have easy access to them.

Tsouli’s played a major role in the radicalization of countless youth on the web; a look back at achive postings from the old Ansar forum shows how many of these youth first emerged on the boards asking questions and looking for videos, and over time began to voice a desire to join the jihad in Iraq, especially, and in the western countries as well.

It would be interested to see how many of these youth moved from initial curiosity into the virtual jihad online, and then took their online training and indoctrination back into the real world.

Although to my knowledge no longitudinal scientific study has tracked these trends, a cursory review of indictment and trial records of suspected terrorist shows a strong internet footprint for most.

Because of the ease of migration of jihadist activities from cyberspace into the real world, the virtual jihad must be considered an active front in the war on terror.

As long as the virtual jihad is allowed to grow unchallenged, the terrorist ideologies espoused on the internet will continue to spill over into real life terrorist attacks, and human lives will be lost.

It is critical that western governments come up with a clear and concise plan for dealing with the cyber jihad. In some ways, the cyber jihad world is even more dangerous than the terror training camps in Afghanistan, because they can reach people in the privacy of their own homes, and the entire cycle encompassing recruitment, indoctrination, training, and attack planning can be carried out online.

Only the operational stages remain for the “real world”: the actual creation of the explosives or other “weapons” to be used in the attack, and the attack itself. Even the celebrations afterwards happen online.

The internet may be a great place to play “let’s pretend”. But virtual reality doesn’t remain online. It spills over into the real world.

And that’s the big problem with the “Cyber Jihad”.

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