Many people today use social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook to preen and pose for others, find friends and lovers, and share interests with like-minded individuals. But there's a darker side to social networking sites, even outside the well known cases of pedophilia, bullying, and underage sex. According to terrorism expert Evan F. Kohlman, Islamic radicals have harnessed the power of social networking as another device to produce more jihadists.
[O]nline support forums such as Muntada al-Ansar and al-Ekhlaas now operate as black holes in cyberspace, drawing in and indoctrinating sympathetic recruits, teaching them basic military skills and providing a web of social contacts that bridges directly into the ranks of al-Qa`ida. Rather than simply using the web as a weapon to destroy the infrastructure of their enemies, al-Qa`ida is using it instead as a logistical tool to revolutionize the process of terrorist enlistment and training.
The online forum Muntada al-Ansar (The Supporters Forum) was the product of a 21-year old Londoner named Younis Tsouli, a.k.a. "Terrorist 007." Younis' entrepreneurial skills made Ansar "a virtual matchmaking service for budding Islamic militants searching for a path to jihad, and particularly for the emerging mujahidin frontline in Iraq."
By analyzing the forum's messages, Kohlman's article tracks users as they made inroads into the jihadist community and ended up waging jihad in Iraq. One forum user, a young Sudanese national named Hassan Abdel Rahman, authored 178 messages before disappearing from the site. About five months later, his name popped back up on the forum when another Sudanese user reported that Rahman had "executed a martyrdom operation in Ba' quba."
London police shut down the Ansar forum when it raided the Moroccan immigrant's flat in October 2005. Younis is now serving a prison term of 16 years for inciting acts of terrorism on the Internet. But Ansar's demise simply allowed the al-Ekhlaas forum, created around the same time as Younis', to fill the void.
The Ekhlaas forum has grown so sophisticated, according to Kohlman, that it now "posts slick, animated advertisements for upcoming recordings of Usama Bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri. As such, it serves as one of al-Qa `ida's most important public mouthpieces."