Made in the USA: The American roots of virtual jihadism
It has become widely accepted by counterterrorism analysts and experts that in the face of battlefield defeat in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State (ISIS) would most likely turn to “virtual jihadism” — using the internet and social media to inspire, recruit for and carry out terrorist acts throughout the world.
What is not so widely known is that the template for virtual jihadism was created by a US-based extremist movement known as Revolution Muslim (RM). The New America Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, released a study that documents the influence Revolution Muslim had over ISIS and like-minded groups.
“From Revolution Muslim to Islamic State: An Inside Look at the American Roots of ISIS’s Virtual Caliphate” was researched and written by Mitchell Silber, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department, and Jesse Morton, who co-founded RM in 2007 when he was a graduate student at New York’s Columbia University.
Morton served time in US prison before undergoing a de-radicalisation process, which included treatment for bipolar illness, and publicly (and courageously) speaks out on how RM operated prior to being disbanded in 2011.
At the New America Foundation on June 4, Morton offered insights into RM’s methods and accomplishments, the greatest of which, he said, was realising that the internet “could be a means of creating a globalised network… a virtual caliphate.” He said: “The online echo-chamber we created was not just about the ideology… it was about putting the ideas that we were disseminating into practice.”
RM advocated recreating a caliphate well before ISIS existed. “We would radicalise you online before we encouraged you to act in the field,” Morton said. Silber and Morton concluded that 15 jihadist attacks around the world were perpetrated by people with links to RM.
Another important innovation by RM was using social media 2.0. That is, going beyond web pages to develop a presence on sites such as YouTube (RM had its own YouTube channel), Google Groups and Blip.tv. Morton claimed RM was “the first jihadist group in the English language and the West to access all the social media sites” as well as the first such group to publish an English-language magazine.
Silber and Morton warned in their study: “As ISIS loses territory, the threat from ISIS will increasingly resemble that posed by RM.” They concluded that success against ISIS on the battlefield “must not lead to complacency” and that the urgency to “attack the ideas, the networks and the methodology” of extremist groups remains high.
Morton also warned about the dangers of Islamophobia. “Far-right extremists were our greatest amplifier,” he said, because they fed into the message that the West was at war with Islam. RM posted material from Islamophobic sites to inspire and activate RM’s followers.
Morton recounted that his inspiration for establishing RM came, in part, from former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York in September 2007. The Iranian president, who was there to speak at the UN General Assembly, also gave a speech at Columbia University. Following the speech, Morton joined fellow pro-Ahmadinejad protesters outside and held a sign calling for the “nuking” of Israel.
RM benefited from the permissive free speech environment in the United States, under which radical messengers of any ilk are generally allowed to voice their views. However, when RM posted messages that appeared to be threatening the lives of the creators of the animated and irreverent American television show “South Park,” which had portrayed the Prophet Mohammad in a bear costume, they crossed a line: Even US standards of free speech do not allow threatening lives.
RM was disbanded and Morton sentenced to prison. He noted that his first step towards personal change was “disengagement” from jihadism but pointed out that there is a difference between that and his full de-radicalisation, which followed. Disengagement, in other words, could be only a temporary state — an important insight for countries dealing with returning ISIS fighters.
RM provided the template for virtual jihadism that ISIS used to such devastating effect and likely will continue to employ and expand upon.
Silber, a major player in New York City’s counterterrorism operations after the September 11, 2001, attacks, stressed the importance of using human intelligence to counter virtual jihadism: “Digital undercover officers and informants who can navigate the dark web and private communication channels of WhatsApp and Telegram, will be vital, particularly if a virtual ISIS relies more heavily upon encrypted operational instructions.”
Silber and Morton concluded their study with a warning: “The template that Revolution Muslim pioneered remains viable for other terrorist groups to adopt, use and weaponise” and ISIS, in particular, “could morph into an almost completely virtual entity, with little need for a geographic footprint.”