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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Is Al Qaeda coming back to NY?

Al Qaeda’s Internet forums have not been having a good month. The two forums officially designated for distributing the terrorist group’s propaganda have been offline for days, leaving online jihad aficionados with a lot of free time on their hands.

One of those “jihobbyists” posted a picture of New York City with the phrase “Al Qaeda: Coming Soon Again in New York” to the Ansar Al-Mujahideen Arabic forum, which is where terrorist trolls have been hanging out while their elite forums are offline.

The image is apparently a stock photograph, which can be found on at least 45 Web sites, sans the text, according to a TinEye search. The NYPD is investigating, as reported with a certain amount of hyperventilation by the Daily News.

It’s not the first time that Al Qaeda’s online images have provoked alarm. Inspire Magazine, brainchild of the late American jihadist Anwar Awlaki, often featured pictures of U.S. landmarks, including the Capitol. Analysts pounced on the images as possible warnings of an imminent terrorist attack, but the threats were never fulfilled.

The online posting at Ansar, while understandably upsetting, has even less credibility as a threat than the Inspire images. Although a lone jihadist or Al Qaeda proper could certainly choose to advertise their intentions in this manner, it is unprecedented for the terrorist organization or any of its online adherents to make so specific a threat.

I recently asked a number of government intelligence analysts whether any of the hundreds of threats and wishful plots they had tracked on jihadist forums had ever been realized in an actual terrorist attack. The answer was stark. No plot begun on the forums had ever culminated in a successful attack, and only one person was willing to cite one plot that became operational (unsuccessfully).

In 2011, I interviewed one of the most prolific online provocateurs, known by his username Abu Suleiman Al Nasser. Abu Suleiman has been the subject of many alerts transmitted by various terror-watchers over the last couple of years because he’s a jihadist idea machine, constantly proposing tactics and attacks. None of them, thus far, have come to fruition.

“I am not a leader in Al Qaeda and do not speak for them,” he explained, “but I consider myself a member of Al Qaeda and the new generation of jihadists.” As part of his duties, Abu Suleiman posted countless ideas, warnings and calls for attacks, but he explained that this was part of a process of giving the West fair warning and not so much the substantial product of his criminal mastermind.

There’s a first time for everything, but volumes of venom are spewed on the forums every day. Most of them will never amount to anything. The challenge for counterterrorism professionals is figuring out where the needles lie in a very large haystack.

Update: More on the origins of the image here from Rusty Shackleford, and a pretty much similar comment to mine here from Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

Update 2: I and my friend Aaron Zelin, of the excellent Jihadology site, are quoted in this New York Times story on the image.

Also, if we're going to start worrying about the threats contained in jihadi artwork, may I suggest that Mujazilla should be our greatest concern.


Check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. BergerJessica 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

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