Tumult over al-Qaeda's State of the Union

Jihadists were surprised to discover on September 10, 2008 that they were unable to access al-Ekhlaas, a password-protected forum central to jihadist activity on the internet and a primary distribution point for al-Qaeda material into the public domain. Their frustration mounted when other al-Qaeda-affiliated forums, al-Firdaws and al-Hesbah, were also inaccessible. In the days prior, al-Ekhlaas carried an advertisement on its pages for al-Qaeda’s video commemorating the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, creating anticipation and excitement amongst jihadists for the video’s expected release on September 11. Some web addresses to al-Hesbah remained active, however, and there jihadists flooded the forum with questions about al-Ekhlaas and vituperations at what they saw as an attack on jihadist media. The closure of al-Ekhlaas, and what transpired afterwards with the release of the anniversary video to a salivating public unable to open it, highlights the importance of the jihadist forum community and media, as well as its resilience in the face of attack.

The 9/11 anniversary videos, as one jihadist comments, are akin to “State of the Union” addresses by the President of the United States, allowing for al-Qaeda to rally its supporters and provide updates on the current condition of the global jihad. Clips from the as-Sahab- produced, “Results of 7 Years of the Crusades”, appeared on al-Jazeera on September 8, the same day the advertisement appeared on al-Ekhlaas. These clips featured new footage of al-Qaeda leaders Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, in addition to al-Qaeda ideologue Attiya Allah, who has never appeared in a prior video. The advertisement on al-Ekhlaas, an animated graphic counting down to the day of release and showing some stills from the video, showed the silhouette of an unidentified individual. The graphic along with al-Jazeera’s broadcast set off much discussion about the video on al-Ekhlaas and other forums, with some members speculating as to the identity of the mystery individual. Prior 9/11 anniversary videos featured unreleased wills of the hijackers, thus creating the expectation that the individual in question was one of those men.

Discussion on al-Hesbah and secondary jihadi forums such as al-Fluja and Shamikh al-Islam, turned from anticipation to wonder as nearly all links to access al-Ekhlaas and al-Firdaws bore a page regarding domain registration. Jihadists urged patience, having experienced temporary closures of forums on several occasions in the past few years. Some jihadists uttered prayers for the return of these forums: “We ask Allah to preserve al-Ekhlaas and all jihadist forums and those who support them from the shackles of the enemy.” Others directed prayers tinged with anger: “O you who targeted jihadist media or contributed to its destruction…. O Allah, blind their eyes, silence their tongues, and bind their hands and legs.”

Patience, however, succumbed to frustration as September 11 passed without the expected release of the 9/11 anniversary video. Prominent jihadist “Rih al-Ghabar,” who leads an internet group to infiltrate and indoctrinate members of moderate Islamic forums, remarked that the closure of the forums was intended to delay the release of the video, for the enemy was hit with “terror and panic at the danger of the film.” This sentiment was echoed by others, who found that the danger in the video lies in its raising the morale of jihadists and inciting for physical action. One forum participant, “Rayat al-‘Iqaab,” writes: “In my humble evaluation, the production of as-Sahab we are talking about is akin to the State of the Union address in the United States in which the American President discusses before his people the political, social, and economic situation of the states he leads. Our American enemies know after they had looked at the production that the inklings and signs of the ‘State of the Islamic Emirate’ address had begun to appear through this publication…”

Some members of al-Hesbah launched a petition to al-Fajr Center, the online distribution network for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, to release the video ahead of restoring al-Ekhlaas and its other two closed forums, al-Boraq and al-Firdaws. Indeed, releases from al-Fajr of material from the Islamic State of Iraq and other groups continued unabated on al-Hesbah, and it seemed possible to jihadists that the video’s release would be imminent. “Asad al-Jihad 2,” another prominent forum participant, commented that the delay in the video’s release was intentional, and meant to increase people’s anticipation, even attracting those individuals usually inattentive to such matters.

Hesbah Forum Profile

As-Sahab, through al-Fajr, ultimately released the video on al-Hesbah on September 17, 2008. The video, in Arabic-only and English-subtitled versions, and respective transcripts, were made available on a total of 761 links. Amongst the deluge of members writing “Allah is Great” and other expressions of happiness, others discovered an error. Al-Fajr releases al-Qaeda videos in encrypted archive files, and provides users with a password to open the archive and extract the video. The password provided for this release, a 25 character string of letters, numbers, and symbols, was incorrect. One jihadist wrote that due to the script used in uploading the password, some characters in the password did not appear, thus al-Fajr would have to amend the post.

In the hours following release, the correct password was not divulged, and some member’s frustration grew, one commenting: “this is so painful, may Allaah [sic] break this pause amen [sic]. The day after, some forum participants provided links to download software to crack RAR archive passwords, but the idea was ridiculed due to the extreme length of time it takes such software to brute-force the complex al-Fajr-generated passwords. On September 19, the video was re-released, without a password, on 218 links. Only the English-subtitled release was provided. That same day, al-Fajr Center released an audio speech by Ayman al-Zawahiri on the Doweiqa tragedy in Egypt, providing that production in encrypted and unencrypted archive files, indicating al-Fajr’s desire for an unhindered release.

Al-Ekhlaas spelled out in bullets

Although the 9/11 anniversary video was released, al-Ekhlaas remains inaccessible, raising alarm amongst jihadists for a scenario in which other jihadist forums close. As in cases in the past, and the current example, the closure of al-Ekhlaas, as well as al-Boraq and al-Firdaws, jihadists find ways to continue to communicate amongst each other, congregating at an already established forum, or launching a new site. Postings on al-Fluja saw a rise in membership and activity in the wake of these incidents, and recently expanded to include an English sub-forum. Another jihadist forum, al-Shourra, also reappeared from closure and other forums sprung up to fill the gap, though none nearing the membership level or activity of al-Ekhlaas.

Jihadists have discussed the possibility of all jihadist forums simultaneously closing, and suggested various means to release jihadi media and communication. “Rih al-Ghabar,” for example, assured that in such an event, e-mail groups can be launched and moderate Islamic sites be taken over. The enemy’s desire to fight jihadi media and take down websites only temporarily hinders jihadists, he observes. He then captures the resilience of jihadists, stating: “By striking jihadist sites, [the enemies] incur punishment unto themselves. Allah will betray them that [their] potential energies in this blessed area move to [other] parts of the world, so that the justice we have will reach these mountains on the internet. In this time, the brothers will arrange their cards and reopen their jihadist forums one more time, and then we return to them.”