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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Forgeries On The Forums

Updated 1:40 p.m. ET

The system for distributing propaganda on jihadist Web forums has been remarkably robust for a long time now, but in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, some cracks are beginning to show.

On June 9, a user on one of the more prominent forums posted a video purporting to be from Al Qaeda's As-Sahab media company announcing that Osama bin Laden's son, Hamza, had been selected to take over as emir of Al Qaeda.

The post was not formatted in manner customarily used by As-Sahab, and it included a banner graphic that did not match the usual format. The video itself was fairly unconvincing. It consisted of Arabic title cards and some previously released video of Hamza as a child, opening with a not-quite-right As-Sahab title sequence. In short, it was a pretty obvious fake.

I noted all of this, but didn't pay it much mind. The offending thread was deleted by forum administrators almost immediately, and that, it seemed, was that.

Except it wasn't. The thread kept popping up. On different forums, posted by different users. Each time, it was deleted by forum administrators, but still it kept coming back. A different video was posted on YouTube claiming that Hamza had been named emir.

All of this created confusion and paranoia on the forums, exacerbated by the fact that user accounts were apparently being hijacked to post the videos. Users from Shamikh, the top Al Qaeda-linked forum, would surface on Ansar, the No. 2 forum, complaining that they had been kicked off of Shamikh for posting unauthorized videos that they had no memory of posting.

The fun continued for some time, but finally tapered off toward the beginning of this week.

Then last night, a new apparent forgery appeared. This one was a purported video from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula titled "People of the Victorious Sect." This time, the post had a much more authentic look, formatted in the way official releases are usually formatted.

Users on the Hanein forum began complaining that the video file contained a virus. Once again, administrators rushed to delete the thread, which was cross-posted to several of the most visited forums as of this morning.

The video, obtained by Jihadology, looks to be a fake. Graphics for AQAP's Al-Malahem Media Foundation appear at the start of the video in AQAP's customary widescreen aspect ratio but letterboxed into a 4:3 file. The rest of the video is entirely in 4:3, unlike most of Al-Malahem's releases. Most, if not all, of the footage in the seven-minute clip is recycled from old As-Sahab videos.

The quality of the forgery generally resembles the quality of the Hamza forgery (i.e. sloppy), but this one is slightly improved. I'm showing the player in the screencaps below so you can see the issue with the aspect ratio.

Within minutes of my posting an earlier version of this story, a message appeared on the Al Jahad forum purporting to be from the Al Qaeda-linked distributor Al Fajr Media Center, which is responsible for posting Al Qaeda communiques to the forums. The message mentions both of the above examples and warns users of viruses and other potential threats from following the forgeries.

Of course, the Al Fajr message itself may very well be forged. It only appeared on Jahad and not on any of the other related forums to which I have access. That is, in itself unusual, and there were other irregular features to the post. If that message is also a forgery, this whole thing is approaching conspiracy-paranoia genius.

The one thing that is very clear from all this is that someone is targeting the forums. I don't know if it's an intelligence service or private hackers, and I don't know if the same party is responsible for both of the forgeries, although I have my suspicions on all of these counts.

What I do know is that jihadist forum users are receiving a couple of very clear messages, which they haven't heard before -- "You are not safe here" and "you can't trust your online friends."

There have been a handful of fakes and forgeries in the past, but the scale of this is very interesting and it's targeting a very vulnerable spot in the online jihadist architecture. It'll be very interesting to see how this plays out.

For more about the forums, check out buy J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, out now!

A couple of quick notes:

  • If you haven't taken the "What is Al Qaeda?" survey, I urge you to check it out. You may find it a bit complicated. That's OK. The point is to figure out exactly what we mean when we're talking about al Qaeda, and I think that's an important issue. We need more responses.

  • I had an article at Foreign Policy this week on how the ascension of Ayman Al-Zawahiri to Al Qaeda's throne affects his American lap-dog, Adam Gadahn. Check it out, along with the other really excellent contributions to FP's Zawahiri Era roundtable.

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