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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

IS closes in on JN in hashtag battle, but attention is divided

The Islamic State made some progress in closing the legitimacy gap with Jabhat al Nusra, according to the latest analysis of hashtags used by a social network connected to global jihadist financiers, but the network's overall focus has declined considerably in recent weeks.

For the last post in this series, click here.

Overall, hashtags referencing both Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State by name declined notably. This appears to be related to declining interest from the financier community, rather than a decline in overall activity in the network, which remained about the same.

The chart below shows the distribution of hashtags used more than 200 times from the last period to this period; you can see that content was less viral overall, with fewer hashtags in the upper echelons and more in the lower. This shift may skew some of the numbers in the chart above toward IS, whose content tends to be more viral.

In terms of sentiment, references to the Islamic State by its proper name started to close the gap with al Nusra, increasing during a period that overall totals declined, while references to IS using the derogatory "Daash" declined significantly. This may suggest that IS is becoming a normalized part of the jihadi global community (an outcome suggested by Thomas Hegghammer some months ago), but it's probably wise to treat these numbers cautiously, since there have been similar fluctuations in the past (see the July 24 numbers, for instance).

Methodology: I looked at the most recent 200 tweets from approximately 7,600 Twitter accounts that were followed by 21 prominent jihadist fundraisers on Twitter (as well as the tweets of the fundraisers themselves), analyzing a total of somewhat less than 3 million tweets for each collection period, which included a substantial amount of overlap from one period to the next.

From those tweets, I extracted the most popular Arabic hashtags used by members of the network to refer to jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Two of the original seed accounts were suspended by Twitter over the course of the study, but there is so much overlap among the accounts that it made only a fraction of a percent of difference in the number of tweets examined. 

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Monday, October 20, 2014

Document: CENTCOM Response to Awlaki, AQAP

INTELWIRE has obtained a Powerpoint on responses to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, created by the U.S. Central Command about a month after President Obama authorized lethal force against Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Awlaki.

The heavily redacted SECRET document, declassified in part through the Freedom of Information Act, outlines what CENTCOM "must" and "cannot" do relative to AQAP, but both lists are redacted in full. The released portions of the document include a limited description of Awlaki and his role with AQAP as well as an interagency plan for dealing with AQAP.

Click here for full document (PDF)

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Threat Versus Impact

Given the robust discussion of the relevance/irrelevance of al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda affiliates, the Islamic State, the Khorasan Group (if it is in fact anything but just plain old AQC), it's worth pointing out a fundamental tenet of terrorism, which one could be forgiven for having forgotten, given how much energy we spend fighting terrorism on the big stage. 

Terrorism is asymmetrical. Recruit five guys and their last week's paychecks, and you can make headlines for months. Recruit 20 guys and their life's savings, and you can make headlines for years. All it takes is some creativity, psychology and street smarts about how you approach your attack. Fortunately for us, terrorist groups and individual terrorist actors don't usually tend to apply all three at the same time to accomplish a task effectively.

But the real point is: There will be terrorist plots and successful terrorist attacks in the future, whether from al Qaeda, its affiliates, the Islamic State, the Ku Klux Klan, the Shining Path, or any of hundreds of other groups of various sizes, strengths and degrees of political relevance. We are going to endure terrorist attacks against the United States for the indefinite future, mostly on a small scale, occasionally on a larger scale. Most will fail, some will succeed. This is reality.

The fact that plots are underway or that some of them come to fruition is not the sole determinant of a group or movement's relevance or importance.

The question is what kind of plots and attacks are underway, whether they are realistically constructed, whether plots move from conception to operation, whether attacks succeed consistently, whether consistently successful attacks emanate from a common source, and what effect such attacks have on both broad national security issues and domestic politics in the countries against which they are directed.

The Khorasan Group shows that al Qaeda still has operatives and those operatives would like to do something bad. It doesn't fundamentally transform our understanding of the group or the threat it presents (unless you thought al Qaeda had literally zero resources left, in which case yeah, OK, you need to rethink things).

But the Khorasan Group is ultimately a couple dozen guys trying to do literally exactly the same thing AQAP has been trying to do for years. That's not nothing (I refer you to the second paragraph), and although they have little to show for it so far, that will likely eventually change. But this is not a sea change in the threat environment, nor it does not lend itself to an apples-to-apples comparison to what the Islamic State is currently doing and is likely to do in the future.

Threats require responses, but they are only part of the picture. The Boston Marathon bombing was the most successful terrorist attack on American soil in recent memory, but it hasn't changed much in terms of our approach to terrorism policy. The fact of the threat in that case is clear, its impact on the broader context of the war on terrorism less so.

I would argue the Islamic State's hostage beheading campaign qualifies as a much more impactful terrorist action, even though the group has not yet carried out violent action in the U.S. homeland. And keep in mind, I'm saying that as someone who lives about two miles from where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was eventually captured.

Our assessments and conversations about the direction of the global jihadist movement, including its terrorist and insurgent components, are part of a much larger conversation, one that involves trends stretching over months and years, battlefields and civilian theaters, and most importantly, policy and politics. 

Opinions expressed herein are those of J.M. Berger. Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam and pre-order the forthcoming book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror




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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Resistible Force Meets Movable Object

The summer of "ZOMG ISIS TWITTER" has become the winter of analysts' discontent. Twitter's recent campaign to suspend at least several hundred Islamic State Twitter accounts leads inevitably to the grousing of analysts who say it accomplishes nothing (and just coincidentally makes their jobs harder).

The IS Twitter as unstoppable apocalyptic force meme has been in full bloom in several articles lately, but I'll confine myself to this, since it takes direct aim at my comments on the effect of Twitter's recent suspensions of Islamic State supporters on Twitter on IS's ability to game hashtags and disseminate content. Time is a precious commodity at the moment, so I’ll just hit the high notes, and there will be more to come later.

The suspensions, which are not necessarily the work of "the West" writ large as the authors imply, have shockingly not obliterated IS supporters from Twitter. No reasonable person has ever suggested they would, and I certainly have never suggested we can or should. IS Twitter is a movable object, and efforts to suspend accounts are a resistible force.

The authors believe that this resilience of IS's core activists on Twitter means that suspensions have no meaningful effect. But to mount this argument, they conveniently dismiss IS's external audience -- i.e., people who are not hardcore supporters -- as “lazy” and "least engaged" users who are "hardly worth considering.”

This flies in the face of the evidence and renders much of the rest of the analysis pointless. An extremely substantial portion of IS propaganda is explicitly aimed at external audiences, and its creative and resource-intensive methods of disseminating content (hashtag gaming, bots and purchased tweets) show just how much priority it puts on external messaging.

The authors' perplexing formulation of the irrelevant external audience also requires that IS supporters are magically born out of the ether, fully radicalized and fully networked, instead of migrating from the external audience to the internal.

The authors make much of the spread of content to multiple platforms, which has certainly occurred. And yet IS keeps coming back to Twitter and YouTube. Why is that? Because the biggest audiences are easiest to reach there. There is no scenario under which IS propaganda will become unavailable online. But there is no reason they shouldn't have to work harder, and there is no reason that giant corporate Internet service providers should allow them unfettered use of the biggest and best dissemination platforms.

I have several data-based pieces coming over the next several months to address these questions, so I'm not going to do it all in this space, but two charts from my IS monitoring lists provide some preliminary insight into the effect of the terminations.

UPDATE: The most immediate effect can be seen in the composition of my IS monitoring lists. When I set up my monitoring list, for various reasons, I break it up into three equal lists based on the number of followers each account has. Prior to the Twitter suspension campaign, those three equal parts broke down to accounts with less than 250 followers, accounts with less than 800 followers, and accounts with more than 800 followers. As of Oct. 3, to equally distribute all my accounts, I had to set the threshholds at less than 150, less than 500 and greater than 500. This shows that the IS user base is working with much smaller numbers than before. And keep in mind that it's easier to find accounts with many followers, so this breakdown tends to be top-heavy. Here's a chart showing the change:


The size of the lists change over time, partly due to new users but also due to my ongoing discovery of accounts, so these are based on per-user averages. The first shows how Twitter's most recent suspension of 400 accounts affects the "internal" network in samples taken on Sept. 28 and Oct. 1. 

This chart shows only interactions among members of the IS supporter base (in other words, the hardcore activists that the authors claim are unaffected by suspensions. The analysis is based on the most recent 200 tweets, rather than time-framed, which means the impact is probably larger, as my analysis technique (by design) results in lagging indicators.

Here's a look at the average number of retweets per tweet by an IS supporter, starting in July (prior to Twitter's most aggressive suspensions) through September, after all of IS's official accounts were permanently banned by Twitter, and the most recent data after the 400 suspensions, again with the caveat for lagging indicators. 


This includes both internal and external audiences. It also doesn't account for retweeting bots, a new crop of which was recently launched by IS. Subtract the impact of the hundreds of bots (which I don't have time to do right now) and the drop in October would be even greater. This is relevant as it pertains to human behavior, although the bots are currently a legitimate part of the ecosystem. Among other things, the bots drove links and retweets to the IS propaganda film "Flames of War."

There's also content quality. Anyone who follows any reasonable number of IS accounts has no doubt seen that rebuilding their networks now consumes a disproportionate amount of time. In other words, the quality of the interactions has been dramatically impacted, with thousands of tweets devoted to announcing and promoting newly reconstituted accounts and debunking fake ones that pop up while the originals are gone.

Time and energy spent recreating the network is, at this point, a significant portion of what IS does online (a minimum of 8 percent of tweets from September 29 to October 1, and likely higher), drawing focus and resources away from the business of sending ordinary Westerners pictures of severed heads when they're trying to get sports scores or live-tweet Cake Boss.

The suspensions have also caused IS users to think before they tweet; the heads and threats to execute hostages are in decline, though by no means absent, and when they start to pop up again, accounts go down. All of this is on Twitter, of course, it doesn't speak to "availability" of IS content. It speaks to dissemination and reach on one of the best platforms for driving traffic, as well as highlighting the fact that these online communities can be incentivized to change their behavior.

Many suspended accounts return, of course, but they have to rebuild every time, and the data suggests there is good reason to think they will lose ground over the long haul. We'll soon have enough data to talk about more definitively in the IS context. The early data is very encouraging and I will publish more of it when the book comes out.

Fundamentally, however this comes down to the inexplicable argument I've heard time and again, that in a world where we do practically anything to fight terrorists practically anywhere regardless of the costs or collateral damage, and with too little regard for whether what we do works, that kicking a very small number of terrorists off of Twitter for a small- to medium-gain is somehow a bridge too far, and ultimately useless because it doesn't instantly and magically end extremism.

I continue to be unmoved.

More to come, down the road a bit...

Opinions expressed herein are those of J.M. Berger. Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam and pre-order his new book with Jessica Stern, ISIS: The State of Terror




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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

ISIS: The State of Terror

Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the forthcoming book, "ISIS: The State of Terror," from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, which will debut in early 2015, will examine the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents.

Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy, and editor of

Pre-order information will be posted here when it is available.

Buy J.M. Berger's first book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jihadist Hostages and the Shape of Things to Come

Update appended, Tuesday, 9/2/2014, 8:50 a.m. 

The recent beheading execution of hostage American citizen and journalist James Foley by the breakaway "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria has set the stage for a preview of how IS's war with al Qaeda may play out.

Both IS and its chief rival, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, hold a number of Western hostages between them, with al Nusra capturing 45 United Nations peacekeepers just this week, and IS threatening to behead another American, Steve Sotloff, in the immediate future should the United States continue airstrikes on its positions in Iraq.

Back in February, Clint Watts presciently outlined the possible consequences of jihadi competition in the post-al-Qaeda era. The most dangerous scenario he outlined was that competing jihadi groups would seek to outdo each other in brutality and attacks on the West. This scenario is also known as outbidding, a form of costly signalling of a terrorist group's intent.

In the unfolding, or rather ongoing, hostage crisis, we may be getting a preview of whether AQ and IS intend to escalate into an outbidding competition or whether one side will flinch.

It's a pretty safe bet that IS won't be the one flinching. With its graphic execution of Foley widely released and promoted online, the so-called "caliphate" is signalling that it desires to be seen as the organization bringing pain and death to the West, and prospects for the next hostage they have threatened appear to be dire.

In contrast, a week after Foley's execution was announced, Jabhat al Nusra returned Peter Curtis, another American journalist, after a deal brokered by Qatar, the details of which are unknown.

Timing is everything. It's not clear exactly when the Curtis deal reached the point of no return, whether it was before the Foley execution was announced, or if the execution of Foley may have helped spur the negotiations along. Furthermore, given that the U.S. is now ambiguously considering airstrikes in Syria, al Nusra may have wished to lower its priority on any potential target list. Al Nusra has executed prisoners in the past, albeit more discriminatingly than IS, so it's highly unlikely the decision to release Curtis came from the goodness of its leaders' hearts.

With the Curtis release, al Nusra may or may not have been signalling that it wants to position itself as less extreme or less brutal than IS. We just don't know, there are too many variables.

The capture of the U.N. peacekeepers, however, may set the stage for a more conclusive message. The fate of these hostages and the speed with which a deal is reached or ruled out may provide insight into al Nusra's next moves. If al Nusra decided to try to outbid IS, it now has a powerful card to play.

If al Nusra quickly completes a deal, on the other hand, it may point to an outcome that has been hinted at elsewhere in their public activities and online circles -- the intention to position themselves as less extreme than IS. Of course, there is plenty of room to be very extreme, while still being less extreme than IS, but the outcome of an outbidding war between Nusra and IS would be horrific, and for many reasons, we should hope the conflict between Nusra and IS does not go in that direction.

UPDATE: On Twitter, Charles Lister of the Brookings Institute also raised a complicating factor in evaluating how this goes -- al Nusra needs money, and a hefty ransom payment, if offered, may shift the calculus here. IS has also released hostages in exchange for ransom, and it solicited ransom for Foley (although the amount they requested clearly indicated their preference for executing him). It should be interesting to see how this plays out now that the issue of ransoms has come to the forefront. END UPDATE

Another major question mark is whether al Nusra's next move will be reflective of the broad direction of the wider al Qaeda movement.  As reported previously, there is reason to think al Nusra is not getting guidance from al Qaeda Central these days. If that's true, al Nusra may make a strategic call (in either direction) that is not in keeping the wishes of AQC, further fracturing the al Qaeda global network.

Finally, AQC has its own card to play, and IS is arguably trying to force its hand. American hostage Warren Weinstein was kidnapped by al Qaeda in 2011. The terrorist organization has periodically released proof-of-life videos featuring Weinstein, the most recent being some months old. In addition to its other goals, IS may have been reproaching AQC for its handling of Weinstein.

Al Qaeda has indicated that Weinstein would not be released unless convicted al Qaeda supporter Aafia Siddiqui is released from imprisonment in the U.S. The Islamic State pointedly offered to exchange James Foley for Siddiqui (among other U.S. prisoners) before it executed him. This demand was likely aimed directly at al Qaeda's credibility and contains an implicit critique of AQC's handling of Weinstein. This is, in some ways, a lose-lose scenario for AQC. If it responds by executing Weinstein, it looks like it is chasing the Islamic State's tail. If it continues to hold him under threat without taking action, IS comes out looking like the group that is more likely to get things done.

All of the activity around these hostages is, to some greater or lesser extent, proxy for each organization's larger intentions. If we see an escalation of violence against Westerners in the matter of hostages, particularly from al Nusra or al Qaeda, it may point to the start of a similar dynamic in regards to terrorist attacks on Western interests abroad or at home. If we see de-escalation, it could mark the start of a different kind of ideological struggle to contain the Islamic State by its own horrible brethren, a conflict whose ultimate consequences are yet unclear.

TUESDAY UPDATE: In an extremely relevant development, Voice of America reported Monday that al Nusra had delivered a list of demands to Fiji, the country whose soldiers were captured while under the U.N. banner.

While Nusra did ask for some money, what is far more significant is that they asked to be removed from the United Nations designated terrorist group listings. This is an extremely powerful signal that al Nusra may not intend to outbid the Islamic State, but that it may intend to change direction and position itself as a less extreme alternative.

The implications of this are far-reaching. There is little precedent for an al Qaeda affiliate renouncing the title of "terrorist," and it is likely that the Western response will be confused at best. It's early to parse out the nuances, but it's possible this could be a watershed moment between al Nusra and al Qaeda, as well as between both groups and the Islamic State. Updates soon.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Saturday, August 30, 2014

10 Things You Need to Know About Reporting on Terrorists on Social Media

Some guidelines for journalists reporting from extremist content on social media:

  1. I'm calling it. "Terrorists are on social media" is officially not news. You should not be writing a story which features "terrorists are on social media" as its lead and/or nut graf.
  2. If you know more about social media than about terrorism and extremism, turn the story over to someone who knows more about terrorism and extremism. It's easier for them to understand how social media works than the other way around.
  3. Just because someone says they're with the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL), or al Qaeda, or anything else, doesn't mean it's true. If you don't know how to determine whether an account is actually associated with the group, don't report on its content.
  4. If your only context for understanding a Twitter account is the content of its tweets, you should not be reporting from it.
  5. Specifically, as to the above point, it is almost always incorrect to say "IS is saying" or "ISIS is doing" based on a Twitter account if you don't understand its context.
  6. Random people tweeting awful things is not news.
  7. Random people tweeting specific threats is not IS making specific threats against America.
  8. Amplifying IS talking points without context is not news. Consider whether you're reporting news or just helping IS scare Americans more effectively than it could ever do on its own.
  9. Nine times out of 10, it is not necessary to publicize extremist Twitter and Facebook account handles when reporting from their content.
  10. Most mainstream media reaches a far larger audience than any IS social media account. Consider whether you are taking a nobody and making him or her a somebody by guiding your much larger audience to his or her door. 
Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Saturday, August 23, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft Evil-O-Matic, ISIS Edition

As the self-styled Islamic State continues to make headlines with its atrocities, American pundits, Congressmen and Senior Officials are rapidly running out of ways to describe the terroristic so-called caliphate. As a public service, I am providing the H.P. Lovecraft Evil-O-Matic, which will automatically generate a useful description of IS for your New York Times thinkpiece, your Vice News voiceover or your impending congressional testimony.

To show you how it works, I've juiced up President Obama's statement from last week on the organization is still calling ISIL.
The eldritch nauseating cancer speaks for no religion. The endless mutating fungus's victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches hideous skulking weasels to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what the gelatinous revolting worms did yesterday, and for what they do every single day. The faceless dissolving plague has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is a veined nauseating tumor. The boneless decaying sludge may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is the shapeless gaping chimerae terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their ensorceled mewling scream, and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.
Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Monday, August 18, 2014

For Global Jihadist Supporters, Islamic State's Massacre Wipes Out Any Sympathy Over U.S. Strikes

The self-styled Islamic State dealt sparked a major backlash among global jihadists online who were incensed by its reported massacre of 700 tribe members, mostly civilians, in Deir Ezzor province in Syria. 

Negative hashtag references to the Islamic State, using the derogatory Arabic acronym Daash, soared from Aug. 8 to Aug. 18, increasing by 44 percent. When hashtags referring to Daash along with a reference to the massacre specifically were included in the count, the total soared by 85 percent. 

The surge in negative sentiment toward IS took place concurrently with airstrikes on the self-proclaimed caliphate by both the United States and the Assad regime and during the period during which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down, which IS has claimed as a victory. 

In other words, IS not only managed to completely erase all the goodwill it might have accrued from battling jihadists' hated enemies, but it added considerable negatives on top of that. 

Hashtags related to U.S. strikes on IS surfaced in the top 100 hashtags during the August 8 collection period, but they disappeared in the August 18 period.  

Methodology: I looked at the most recent 200 tweets from approximately 7,500 Twitter accounts that were followed by 22 prominent jihadist fundraisers on Twitter (as well as the tweets of the fundraisers themselves), analyzing a total of somewhat less than 3 million tweets for each collection period, which included a substantial amount of overlap from one period to the next. 

From those tweets, I extracted the most popular Arabic hashtags used by members of the network to refer to jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Two of the original seed accounts were suspended by Twitter, most recently Hajjaj al Ajmi, but there is so much overlap among the accounts that it made only a fraction of a percent of difference in the number of tweets examined. 



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Zawahiri Falls Off The Map, Is Rebuked By Top Al Nusra Figure

UPDATED: 11:17 a.m., see note below 

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has stopped responding to messages from the terror network's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, according to an extraordinary open letter published online yesterday by a top Nusra figure, Abu Maria al Qahtani.

According to Qahtani, Zawahiri went silent around the time that AQ splinter group, the Islamic State, declared a "caliphate" and demanded fealty from all other jihadi groups around the world. In a reproachful tone, Qahtani asked whether Zawahiri's intermediaries were delivering the messages, or whether Zawahiri knew about this grave emergency and just didn't care to help.

Qahtani writes, in an open letter addressed to Zawahiri, that al Nusra has been sending urgent messages to Zawahiri for two months, requesting that he speak out against the Islamic State's caliphate declaration, referring to IS as Kharijites (a derogatory reference to an early schism in Islamic history). Despite the letter's tone, Qahtani continues to refer to Zawahiri with respect, as an authority figure.

In the letter, al Qahtani says he is embarrassed to be making this public appeal, but he cannot be certain whether Zawahiri is aware of the situation and just doesn't want to help, or whether Nusra's messages to Zawahiri are being delivered by the designated intermediaries, whom Qahtani implies may not be trustworthy.

Last year, Ibrahim al Afghani, a figure with longstanding ties to al Qaeda and Zawahiri, published an similarly controversial open letter to Zawahiri in which he pleaded for the al Qaeda leader to intervene in a dispute within al Shabab, al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia. Afghani was killed soon thereafter by al Shabab's leadership, as was Omar Hammami, an American Shabab recruit who issued similar public pleas for al Qaeda intervention.

Al Qaeda made no response to either man while they were alive, but a leaked video this year from Adam Gadahn, an American al Qaeda member believed to be close to Zawahiri, condemned the killing of both men as Islamically unacceptable.

All of this together casts serious doubt on whether al Qaeda is in steady communication with any of its affiliates. Although individual instances of contact have certainly occurred, Zawahiri's response times have not been adequate to address the growing number of crises faced by AQ and its affiliates on the global stage. (I noted signs of this situation developing in a February article for Foreign Policy.)

The letter from Qahtani is an order of magnitude more significant than the earlier rebukes aimed at Zawahiri's silence, since those came from dissenters who were defying al Shabab's AQ-sanctioned leader, Ahmed Godane.

In contrast, Qahtani has been part of the leadership of one of al Qaeda's most important affiliates, currently under tremendous pressure from Islamic State advances in Syria, increasing disenchantment with Nusra among global jihadists community, and this weekend's arrest of Shafi al Ajmi, one of the organization's top fundraisers, in Kuwait. His letter is both a criticism of Zawahiri and a warning that the al Qaeda leader is in danger of losing control of one of its top two affiliates.

UPDATE: However, after several conversations about this post, it's important to note that Qahtani's status with al Nusra has changed recently, with more than one person describing his status as "rogue," although the consensus is that this is not a clean or total break. I initially omitted mention of this since the circumstances of Qahtani's problems with Nusra leadership are decidedly unclear, but it's an important point that I should have included in the first version of the story. I omitted it mainly because rumors about Qahtani's status have been a weekly occurrence for some time.

In some ways, this undercuts the significance of the rebuke, making it deniable for Jabhat al Nusra's emir, Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani. However Qahtani still represents a significant constituency in al Nusra, and it's possible that deniability is the reason why this letter was attributed to him.

Either way, it's indicative of problems, but slightly different ones. If Qahtani made this move without sanction from Jowlani, it may point to a potential splintering of al Nusra, which has been the subject of some speculation recently. If the letter's release was sanctioned, it allows al Nusra to make a strong expression of discontent with al Qaeda Central's leadership, while providing a face-saving opportunity to later deny or downplay the tone of the letter. END UPDATE

It's also worth noting that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the other half of the top two, has issued two statements in recent days which carefully hedge around the issue of the Islamic State, opting not to openly condemn its declaration of the caliphate and instead praising its military advances and supporting its engagement in battle with U.S. forces in carefully parsed terms. This could reflect a lack of direction from Zawahiri, but it may also be a pragmatic effort to walk a middle line, out of fear that AQAP could splinter if it openly condemns IS.

Humera Khan contributed to this article, but the views expressed are mine.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Book: Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (Reviews)

E-Book: Beatings and Bureaucracy: The Founding Memos of Al Qaeda

E-Book: Interview online jihadist Abu Suleiman Al Nasser (Abridged)



Jihad Joe by J.M. BergerJihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam, the new book by INTELWIRE's J.M. Berger, is now available in both Kindle and hardcover editions. Order today!

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