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Monday, August 29, 2011
An Interview with Online Jihadist Abu Suleiman Al Nasser
Terrorist use of the Internet is a hot topic these days, but it's often discussed in very broad terms, as if the Internet itself is the story, rather than the people who use it.
Abu Suleiman Al Nasser is the alias used by one of the self-professed cyber-jihadists who frequent online message boards used by Islamist terrorists and Al Qaeda sympathizers.
Al Nasser has a knack for making headlines. He first came to the attention of journalists and terrorism analysts after the December 2010 suicide bombing in Stockholm. Al Nasser posted information about the identity of the bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, before it became widely available in the media.
Since then, Al Nasser has maintained a prolific presence online, posting a seemingly unending series of threats against European countries and other Western targets on the most important online forums used by Al Qaeda supporters and sympathizers. He has also posted what appear to be mostly aspirational ideas for terrorist attacks and tactics.
Last month, Al Nasser returned to the headlines when he prematurely claimed the car bombing of government buildings in downtown Oslo on behalf of the "Supporters of the Global Jihad" – a claim he had to walk back just a few hours later, when it became clear that the bomber was a right-wing, anti-Muslim Norwegian citizen.
Al Nasser recently approached me casually through a social media service online. I proposed an e-mail interview and he agreed to answer questions and to verify his identity through the forum he most often frequents.
Aside from his identity as the forum participant in question, no aspect of his story could be independently verified. This is simply the story he chooses to tell about himself and why he does what he does. I believe his story is a useful tool for understanding part of the online jihadist movement, but the account should be read with a cautious and skeptical eye.
I have taken liberties to clean up Al Nasser's English for publication, reviewing specific sections with him to insure accuracy. Those interested in his original, unedited language can click here to learn more.
"I am from a simple Muslim family," Al Nasser writes, "and I can say that my life changed beginning with Al Qaeda." Citing the need to protect his identity, he did not provide specific details about his early life.
Al Nasser grew up closely following news about Palestinian Muslims as they were "killed by Jews," in his words. These stories made him angry, he writes, but he was not moved to action until the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. From a distance, he admired figures like Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri.
"Around that time, I got to know many jihadist leaders, like Abu Musab Al Suri," Al Nasser writes. Al Suri is an Al Qaeda theorist who developed ideas for "individual jihad," the concept that the future of terrorism lies with diffuse networks and lone-wolf attackers rather than with a strongly centralized organization.
Al Nasser says he met Al Suri just once. "And I decided after that to be part of the jihad." Al Nasser says that he was in a hurry to join the fight, traveling to an unspecified "jihad country" where he was quickly arrested by American forces. He says he eventually left U.S. custody, but did not specify whether he was released or escaped.
"I was lucky to get free from them," Al Nasser says. "That made me settle down for a time and start to study at the subject of jihad" including both religious aspects and the strengths and weaknesses of various jihadist movements.
Al Nasser believes the ideology of Al Qaeda is indistinguishable from Islam, and he brushes aside the hundreds of millions of Muslims who strongly disagree. He strenuously justifies jihadist violence based on Western military actions against Muslim countries, claiming again and again that Western military provocations are the reason that terrorists target civilians without remorse.
"Attacks on civilians are limited and [subject to] hard rules," he writes. "If we do it against some country that could be because of our right to treat the enemy the same way he treats us. If he kills our children, we kill his children, and if he kills our women, we kill his women. And as long as the invaders are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, we keep our right to attack the civilians."
But it does not take much probing to expand this circle of violence.
"The term jihad is known for every Muslim, but some Muslims think it is defensive only and just to free our countries, and that is not true," he writes. "Most of the jihad nowadays is defensive, because many Muslim countries have been invaded…. So up until now, it looks defensive, but is that what we want? Do we stop then [if the need for defense is over]? The answer is no."
According to Al Nasser, violent jihad is also required to establish the rule of Islamic law in Muslim lands, to ensure that Muslims around the world are free to proselytize to non-Muslims, and to avenge insults to the prophets of Islam.
"Non-Muslims can insult us or any other Muslims by words, and we could not fight for that," Nasser writes. "We will use peace in dealing with this, or just respond to them by words to defend our religion. But there are red lines in Islam that we cannot accept anyone crossing, like insulting our prophet or any of the other prophets."
Despite this, Al Nasser believes "attacks" through "media or laws" can be justifiably met by violence, such as the Danish cartoons insulting the Prophet Mohammed or the French law banning Muslim women from wearing burkas. These issues are "easy" to resolve "if there are people within governments who believe in peace and who give the people their freedom," Al Nasser says.
"We are not bloodthirsty, and we don't search for wars, but we fight in response to what happens. […] What we want is not how much we kill, but we want to reach our goals," he writes.
After hearing his extensive justifications for violence against civilians for even simple verbal insults, I asked Al Nasser to go further and tell me how he felt about the violence. Did he regret it or celebrate it? What did he feel when he watched the violent jihadist videos that circulate through the online forums?
"It makes me proud to see what the enemy of Islam gets by the hands of mujahideen," Al Nasser says. "And to be honest and more exact about my feelings, when I see video of operations done by mujahideen, I can say it is an exciting feeling and I feel encouraged to do the same."
"I do not regret to see those enemies die," he continues. "They deserve that because of not listening to what we say. No jihadist groups make operations without warnings first. And you can say warnings first and second and third, because we keep every day telling them why we fight and who we will fight. But if the enemy does not listen and keeps on his way, what we can do then?"
Al Nasser says his spree of online threats and claims of responsibility are part of this warning process. In the case of the Stockholm bombing, he says he knew the bomber, Taimour al-Abdaly, through an online connection but never met him face-to-face.
In the wake of the bombing, he posted additional threats against NATO member countries in an audio communiqué. The threats, he says, were not intended to represent any specific organization but the Al Qaeda movement. In July, he posted a claim of responsibility on behalf of jihadists soon after the bombing in downtown Oslo, which was later revealed to be the work of Anders Breivik, an anti-Muslim activist.
"I had no connection to the Norway attack, but I did write a post [on the Shamukh message board], because I thought it was al Qaeda who did it, because he used same [tactics] as al Qaeda does in operations, meaning the car bomb," Al Nasser writes.
"So I thought at that time, let me write a post as initial hint of why that happened, because I do not want people think we fight just to kill for no reason," he says. "I wanted to say to them why Norway was a target for al Qaeda, and I gave the reasons, the same reasons that al Qaeda would say if they had done it."
After news reports picked up his claim and subsequent reports indicated that Al Qaeda was not likely behind the attacks, Al Nasser adapted his postings to continue drumming his point home. In his mind, such messaging is a critical part of the work of jihadism. However, he says, the threats he posted were not meant to be understood as emanating from a specific organization.
Al Nasser considers himself a "member" of Al Qaeda by virtue of their shared ideology, but he does not claim to be part of the organization.
"I am not a leader in Al Qaeda or talking for them, but I consider myself a member of Al Qaeda and the new generation of jihadists," he writes. Following the guidance of Abu Musab Al Suri, he says that he heads a small group called Supporters of the Global Jihad.
"My organization, the Supporters of the Global Jihad, is for everyone. Everyone can be a supporter to the global jihad. By spreading our thoughts and the Islamic view of our jihad, we can get more Muslims in the work," he writes.
"We mostly call for lone-wolf operation, or operations by small groups of jihadists. That is because we know well that the number of members in the group affects the organization's security, and that can cause the failure of months or even years of work," Al Nasser says.
The organization's work is mainly encouraging such operations and providing financial or propaganda support to fighters in other theaters. This has led some European media outlets and terrorism analysts such as Jarret Brachman to dismiss Al Nasser as a "hoaxer" or a "nutter" who lacks credibility.
But while Al Nasser says he does not mean to imply a personal role in the attacks he "claims," he does hope his postings will lead to real-world consequences and says he sometimes takes concrete steps to make that happen (his claim could not be verified).
"That work requires some simple, indirect connections to the mujahideen in Afghanistan or Somalia or other countries, to give them hints from time to time," he says. "For example, that was what I was doing when I called for attacks against Swedish and Finnish troops in Afghanistan [after the Stockholm attacks]. I did contact at that time some brothers connected to the Taliban, and after that some operations started in Mazar-e-Sharif , which it is one of the hardest places to work for the jihadists."
For more about online jihadists, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.
Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.
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ISIS: THE STATE
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, its potential fall, 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 Intelwire.com.