Fueled by public assessments from the intelligence community and arrests of European converts accused of plotting attacks, government officials, media organizations, and policymakers have paid increasing attention to the threat posed by al-Qaeda operatives of European descent.
These operatives, selected and groomed for their ability to infiltrate Western countries without arousing suspicion, would be much more difficult to track.
The prospect of al-Qaeda trainees from the West was revisited in April 2008 after CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed that al-Qaeda is regrouping along on the Afghan-Pakistan border, attempting to cultivate and train operatives who appear to be of European ancestry and can easily infiltrate the United States. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” at the end of March, Hayden stated that al-Qaeda is:
|“bringing operatives in to the region for training…[that] look Western…who would be able to come into this country without attracting the kind of attention that others might”|
Recent arrests of European converts suspected of planning terrorist attacks, such as the April 17, 2008 arrest in the United Kingdom of 19-year-old convert Andrew Ibrahim and the September 5, 2007 arrest of Fritz Gelowicz in Germany, indicate that al-Qaeda’s drive to recruit Westerners may be finding a willing audience.
Indeed, al-Qaeda has attempted to reach out and incorporate Western converts into the global jihad since its inception. One example is Adam Gadahn, a California native who converted to Islam and eventually joined al-Qaeda. However, in the past few years, with the explosion of the online jihadist movement, the leadership of al-Qaeda and the group’s affiliated organizations have expanded their efforts to recruit people of European ancestry, who do not fit the stereotypical jihadist profile of an individual from the Middle East of South Asia. As the same time, al-Qaeda also attempts to appeal to native Westerners of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent who may not even speak Arabic but who could, nevertheless, prove a valuable asset to the jihadist movement.
The infrastructure to distribute jihadist media to European audiences has been in place for almost a decade, spearheaded by the English-language al-Qaeda website Azzam.com and similar Western-based jihadist publishing houses. Along with news from the battlefields of jihad, these organizations promoted translations of the writings of militant Islamic scholars. Translations of texts that encourage Muslims to fight jihad as a central tenet of the faith allow non-Arabic speaking Muslims and converts access to extremist scholars and ideologues for their own indoctrination. The London-based Azzam.com, taken offline shortly after September 11, 2001, provided pro-jihad news and analysis for English speakers. The website’s administrators described their activities as akin to those of a news agency. In addition to English material, the website featured extensive links for readers seeking jihadist media, particularly from the jihad in Chechnya, in the following European languages: German, Spanish, Bosnian, Turkish, Albanian, Ukrainian, French, Swedish, Dutch, and Italian. These early websites issuing media directed at Europeans relied on translations from volunteers, who selected material and produced translations independently of media outlets sanctioned by specific jihadist groups. One popular venue to distribute jihadist videos intended for a Western audience is the YouTube video website, where the videos can reach the largest viewers who are not necessarily jihadist forum members.
With the 2004 formation of the Global Islamic Media Front, one of the oldest and most prominent jihadist virtual propaganda group that supports al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda affiliated forums began to disseminate polished translations of their own material. These translations are issued, sometimes within hours of the Arabic release, to forums and websites where the material will reach a sympathetic audience, such as French and German jihadist forums. Indeed, distributing propaganda to Western audiences appears to be so important to al-Qaeda and the GIMF, that Western operatives are often very prominent in the organization. Two such operatives, an Austrian GIMF leader using the nom de guerre “Gharib al-Diyar” and a French-Canadian member using the name “Achrafe”, were arrested in September 2007 for their jihadist activities. Though both were of Middle Eastern ancestry, their intimate knowledge of the West not only enabled them to craft better propaganda, but also to seek and identify potential targets for attacks.
The jihadist movement’s desire for Caucasian recruits was illustrated in a four part series of communiqués and commentary about the ideal al-Qaeda operative of the future, called Rakan bin Williams. This fictional individual represents the archetype of the ultimate Western member of al-Qaeda, able to blend seamlessly into Western society while at the same time posing the greatest threat to the West.
These four documents, issued from November 2005 through March 2006 by the GIMF presented the ultimate al-Qaeda fighter as Caucasian in appearance, Occidental in upbringing, and living a double life as a sleeper agent. The GIMF described Rakan bin Williams as a home-grown terrorist, impossible for Western intelligence services to monitor. In a document, titled “An al-Qaeda Soldier is Coming” released to jihadist forums on November 7, 2005, the GIMF wrote:
|“Rakan bin Williams is the coming al-Qaeda soldier!|
|You will not be able to watch him or limit his movements and you can not stop him. He will shake the land under your feet and the fall of you empire will be by his hands. Did you know, you crazy guy, who Rakan bin Williams is?|
|They are a group of your sons, born in Europe, from two European parents, they are even Christians, taught in your schools, they entered your places, they studied your feelings, they went to church, they observed Sunday mass.|
|They drank booze, they ate pigs, they hated Muslims. But al-Qaeda could embrace these people they converted to Islam in secret, they digested the al-Qaeda ideas and promised Allah to raise his flag and to reverse themselves from the bad people. They are there walking in European and American streets, planning, watching.”|
The GIMF envisioned the Western warriors as being Caucasian Europeans, born and raised into a Western lifestyle, and practicing as Christians until secretly converting to Islam. Following their conversion and indoctrination into jihadist thought the new jihadists would form a hidden fifth column within the West. The communiqué, attributed to “Rakan bin Williams, who is a leader of martyrdom operations in Europe” portrays the shifting ethnicity of the perpetrators of al-Qaeda’s attacks as part of the group’s disinformation and deception campaign.
According to “An al-Qaeda Soldier is Coming”, since September of 2001, al-Qaeda’s operatives have been selected such that each subsequent attack utilizes individuals from a different ethnic background, thereby reducing the efficacy of profiling efforts, so that:
|“They started watching the suspected nationalities and they concentrated on the sons of al-Haramain (Saudis), then Indonesian lions, then Egyptian lions, and Jordanian lions… Europe deployed all its intelligence to watch the Arabs in Europe when it was sure that al-Qaeda only uses Arabs in its attacks…”|
After outlining the evolution of al-Qaeda members, the communiqué triumphantly states that al-Qaeda’s new soldiers will be Europeans, indistinguishable from the rest of the population.
The second installment of the GIMF’s Rakan bin Williams saga, “A Warning to the Heads of Governments Involved in Iraq”, was distributed to jihadist forums on November 29, 2005. The communiqué is also signed by Rakan bin Williams, identified in the signature as “thirsty for the blood of the crusaders, [the] secret soldier of al-Qaeda”, and purportedly located at the Vatican in Italy. Although the message concentrates on former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, it directly addresses the leaders of Australia, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, threatening these leaders with assassination if they do not cease their crimes against Muslims. Rakan bin Williams instructs the leaders to:
|“…calculate how much is left from your lives; it is a few years, and for some of you regretfully just several months. Do not think that the fact that you have stayed alive so far is due to the competency of your guard. No… it is because al-Qaeda has not tried to hurt you as yet. Al-Qaeda still awaits the end of your term to give you a taste from the goblet from which it has given others a taste. You will not be able to protect yourself from it. Do not have many expectations from life and do not add to your cries, lest the lions of al-Qaeda begin with you”|
The third communiqué, “The Aftermath of Rakan bin Williams' Attack on the United States”, issued to jihadist forums on February 15, 2007, the only one not signed by “Rakan bin Williams”, was written by a GIMF author named Seif al-Din al-Kinani. Al-Kinani speculates that Western sleeper agents, again typified by a now American-accented Rakan bin Williams, will act as a catalyst for the complete political restructuring of the world.
The message outlines attacks destroying the United States from within. Al-Kinani theorizes that bin Williams, by virtue of his American birth, will be able to derive maximum benefit from porous American borders, especially those delineated by water:
|“The borders of the American land are very large, and its water borders are opened… [this] will enable the person of American origin to move into these borders with all that he has and all that he can get from South America and Canada in the north.”|
The communiqué further underscores Rakan bin Williams’ American origins and familiarity with the cultural norms by imagining that bin Williams reached an epiphany, to carry out an economically devastating attack against the infrastructure of the United States, while watching a movie in Los Angeles:
|“One day Williams was in a movie house in Los Angeles watching a movie about the collapse of the famous Brooklyn Bridge… Williams understands that this bridge is an artery to the economy as the main artery in a human body. If it bleeds, it means death.”|
Perhaps not coincidentally, al-Qaeda’s most prominent American member, Adam Gadahn, a convert who has been suggested as the potential inspiration for Rakan bin Williams, grew up in Orange County, California- a suburb of Los Angeles. Since 2004, Adam Gadahn has assumed an active role in issuing English-language video messages presenting al-Qaeda’s political and ideological goals to an American audience.
On March 10, 2006, the fourth and final communiqué attributed to bin Williams, titled “The Final Warning from Rakan bin Williams to the American People”, was distributed in both Arabic and English. This communiqué, signed “Rakan bin Williams, al-Qaeda undercover soldier, USA”, was the first installment to be distributed in English. Through the communiqué, bin Williams addresses the American people and taunts intelligence analysts over their inability to avoid his upcoming attack. He urges readers to abandon American media outlets in favor of mujahideen websites or al-Jazeera. Addressing Americans living “in States far away from Washington D.C.”, and asking them what relationship they have to conflicts in the Middle East that are halfway around the world, the document posits:
|“O’ you helpless Americans, especially those living in States far away from Washington, D.C.! Your country is comprised of many States that should not have anything to do with Muslims. Take the State of Arizona for example; what does this State have to do with killing Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq? What interest of theirs serving, helping, and siding with the Jews and Israel?|
|>... Resent the corrupted politicians in Washington, D.C. and demand justice, if they do not give in to your demands, you must declare autonomy so you may live in peace and security.”|
In jihadist forum discussions of Rakan bin Williams, the persona has become an iconic figure embodying the jihadists’ vision of the perfect operative. His communiqués are presented as expositions of a future strategy of total warfare in which jihadist attacks, carried out by sleeper agents indistinguishable from the general population, initiate a catastrophic decline in the United States’ economic and military power, making the United States even more vulnerable to attacks. A June 21, 2007 post to the Quds4 jihadist forum illustrates how the Rakan bin Williams myth inspires jihadists to hypothesize about and develop strategies for attacking the US. In this case, the poster speculated about ideal targets for a soldier modeled after Rakan bin Williams, proposing a huge attack, ideally with nuclear weapons, in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Florida and Texas.
By describing “Rakan bin Williams” as the archetype of al-Qaeda's idealized combatant, the Global Islamic Media Front underscores the importance of jihadists who are able to operate in the West without falling under scrutiny from security agencies. Participants in the global jihadist movement are very aware that Western operatives will greatly benefit them, not only in terms of carrying out attacks but also to help them understand their enemy better. To encourage the recruitment of Westerners, jihadist groups, especially al-Qaeda, continue to attempt to appeal to Western audiences. They have been issuing a constantly increasing amount of content in Western languages, even launching Western language forums and subforums, such as the subforums in English, Italian, and French on the prominent Arabic-language jihadist forum al-Ekhlaas. The attention jihadists devote to recruiting Western members demonstrates that the jihadist movement views itself as a global, transnational movement, not defined by nationality or ethnicity, but rather by allegiance to the movement itself.