Homegrown terrorism has become a topic of discussion in both Canada and the United States. A study by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service found that violent extremists in Canada are more often citizens than immigrants, and described an “idiosyncratic, individual process” of radicalization.
Adding further complexity to the picture, the study found that lack of integration into Canadian society was not a factor in any of the terrorism cases it examined. And in the U.S., a report from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security concluded that incidents of terrorism from the U.S. Muslim community had declined for the third straight year. Against this backdrop, what are we to make of threats projected over jihadist social media that might seem threatening?
The most recent example to get some attention is an ominous-sounding message that appeared on the online jihadist forum known as the Ansar al-Mujahedin network in late January. Written by a forum participant who called himself Islami al-Jinsiyah, the message promised new al-Qaeda attacks that would be “strong, serious, alarming, earth-shattering, shocking, and terrifying.” It said the attacks would occur “in the heart of the land of non-belief, America,” as well as in France, Denmark, and all other countries assisting France’s military intervention in Mali. The message even specified the method that would be used: “group and lone-wolf operations, in addition to the use of booby-trapped vehicles.”
Western media picked up on this threat. Bill Gertz of the Washington Timeswrote a long piece describing it and providing a couple of data points contextualizing how seriously the message should be taken. Mr. Gertz noted that the Ansar al-Mujahedin network “is a well-known jihadist forum that in the past has published reliably accurate propaganda messages from al-Qaeda and its affiliates.” He also spoke to a U.S. official who told him that “the threat is being taken seriously by the U.S. government,” but also added that the message was “not particularly unusual” compared to other online threats regularly made by extremists.
Denmark’s National Broadcasting Corporation also carried a report about the threat. It interviewed Magnus Ranstorp, a scholar who focuses on terrorism, who likewise described the Ansar al-Mujahedin network as “credible.”
In the social media age, threats will continue to be made on jihadi forums. A cottage industry of forum-watchers will pick up on the threats as they are made, providing a ready channel to media outlets. So it important to understand when threats should be taken seriously, and when they are nothing more than bluster.
The bottom line: This Ansar al-Mujahedin network post has absolutely zero indicia of reliability. While U.S. security officials are right to take the message seriously (doing so is, after all, part of their job), it need not frighten us. Here are the reasons why:
First,who is making the threat?
Both the Washington Times and Mr. Ranstorp note that the Ansar al-Mujahedin network is regarded as credible. What this means is that it has, in the past, published authentic official releases from jihadist groups. But this threat is not contained in an official release: it came from an anonymous user who has provided no reason for us to think that he has an inside line on the thinking of either al-Qaeda’s senior leadership or its affiliates. Thus, though the forum might be seen as credible, the user who wrote the post cannot be.
Second, is the post written with an awareness of monitoring by security services?
This post certainly was, which is an indication of unreliability. One passage that did not make its way into media reports is significant:
“Where will the next strike by al-Qaeda be? This is a somewhat random question often posed by some of those who are assumed to belong to al-Qaeda, and it is exploited by the spies who would rush to those pages that are filled with dry and barren responses in the hope that they would go back to their tyrants with news, so they would in turn mobilize their police dogs to sniff at any bearded or suspected man. That would be followed by random arrests of innocent people who do not even know the meaning of jihad.”
In other words, this post acknowledges that the security services of targeted states will be reading and parsing the message in the hope of making arrests to disrupt any perceived threat. Mr. Ranstorp told the Danish National Broadcasting Corporation that “it is hard to determine what is psychological warfare and what is serious.” While this is true, references to security services tip the scales toward a message being in the psychological warfare category, with an awareness of how threats are able to drive up costs for the jihadists’ enemies.
For example, a post on the al-Fallujah Islamic Forums in December, 2009, mockingly addresses the security services monitoring the forum, and says they should “protect every federal building and skyscraper, such as: Library Tower (California), Sears Tower (Chicago), Plaza Bank (Washington State), the Empire State Building (New York), suspension bridges in New York, and the financial district in New York.” The warnings don’t stop there, encompassing also nightclubs in Southeast Asia, oil companies, and tankers. The message concludes by stating, “hand in hand, we will be with you until you are bankrupt and your economy collapses.” Clearly it is not a message to be taken seriously: instead it is poking fun at how security spending is actually undermining the enemy’s position.
Third, does the post provide operational details?
This is an important question, particularly because of the aforementioned awareness of security services monitoring jihadist forums. The post in question here does divulge such details. It does not do so with great specificity, but it provides a few pieces of information about the plots that are allegedly in progress: they will be conducted by individuals and small groups, and they will involve car bombs. A good rule of thumb is that the more specific the details of any plot, the less likely it is to be genuine.
In October, 2006, the U.S. media was briefly gripped by what I have dubbed the last great phantom threat. A warning was posted to the Internet message board 4chan that “America’s Hiroshima” was imminent. The message stated: “On Sunday, October 22nd, 2006, there will be seven ‘dirty’ explosive devices detonated in seven different U.S. cities; Miami, New York City, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, Oakland and Cleveland. The death toll will approach 100,000 from the initial blasts and countless other fatalities will later occur as a result from radioactive fallout.”
The threat was cleary a hoax and the reason was simple: al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups have only infrequently been able to organize major plots against Western countries and when they do, those plots are prone to disruption or other kinds of failure. So if al-Qaeda were really prepared to set off dirty bombs simultaneously in seven different cities – as large-scale a plot as one could imagine – would some chump who might brag about the operation on 4chan really be given advance notice? Jihadi groups capable of organizing a major plot would almost certainly try to maintain operational security rather than alerting people who have a chance of leaking the details.
Of course, the hoax wasn’t even the work of a jihadi or wanna-be jihadi, but rather was posted by Wisconsin resident Jake Brahm, who at the time lived with his parents and worked part-time at a grocery store. Basically, he was bored and wanted to see if he could cause a stir by making juvenile online threats. He ultimately pled guilty to willfully conveying false information, and was sentenced to six months in federal prison for that hoax.
Unlike Mr. Brahm’s juvenile threat, the Ansar al-Mujahedin network message is likely the work of a jihadist or jihadist sympathizer. But there is similarly no reason to view it as something other than psychological warfare.
Similarly, a more sophisticated understanding of factors that might indicate whether a threat should be taken seriously can help us to be savvier media consumers in an age where homegrown terrorism, and hence inevitable future online threats, are part of the public discussion.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He is the author or volume editor of eleven books and monographs, most recentlyBin Laden’s Legacy(Wiley, 2011), and is a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America.