The rising threat from 'jihobbyists' in the U.S.
By Tod Robberson
The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON — Around the United States, young Muslims increasingly are blogging and posting YouTube videos in support of al-Qaeda and violent radicalism. As long as their advocacy is limited to words and not deeds, law enforcement is limited from intervening.
Jarret Brachman, a former West Point terrorism expert and author of the book Global Jihadism, talks with us about the implications of this trend.
You've coined the term "jihobbyist" to describe the people following this Internet advocacy trend. Who are these guys?
These are fans in the same way other people might follow football teams. But their sport is al-Qaeda.
They know the stats of their favorite players and know their backgrounds. They know the teams, and they cheerlead. These guys most often will never do anything and tend to fall out of this when they actually get real responsibilities, real lives. ... For the jihobbyists, [Maj. Nidal] Hasan was an overnight hero.
You should have seen how the blogs went wild after the Fort Hood shootings.
You seem to suggest they can outgrow this.
The Saudis have studied very seriously what it is that keeps guys on the right path. And they've launched what is probably the world's leading de-radicalization and reintegration program.
What they've found is that you need to give these guys something to do, because idle hands are the devil's playground. They try to find them relationships, jobs and hobbies, and try to invest them into society.
It really is the case, at least for the American guys who are open [to advocating jihad] that most of them really have nothing to do themselves. If they have a job, you can't tell because they're posting so often.
Would you describe people like Nidal Hasan and Hosam Smadi, the Dallas bomb-plot suspect, as being jihobbyists?
To me, jihobbyism stops when you cross over that line from thought to action.
That's not to say they're passive, because these guys are very active in the consumption and production of ideology online and in their daily lives. But it's when they start stepping toward making something violent happen - including when you knowingly fund a terrorist organization - that crosses the line from jihobbyism to material support for terrorism.
How does al-Qaeda's central command react to all of this freelancing and co-opting of their movement?
At first, there was a lot of tight command and control by al-Qaeda, but they've started to loosen that. ... In the past four to five years, al-Qaeda has transformed from a terrorist organization that uses the media into a media organization that uses terrorism.
... Everyone knows al-Qaeda is the big boy on the block, but now you've got to build your base, and that's only done through videos and spreading the ideology. Media serves as a force multiplier because, now, it's not just 300 guys living in the caves of Afghanistan. You can convince potentially thousands of people all around the world.
Could it backfire on al-Qaeda?
Al-Qaeda has a long history of killing the wrong people. By that I mean other Muslims.
What they've started to find is that, when they kill other Muslims, they lose support among the very constituency that they're trying to recruit from.
... The problem is, when you've inspired a global movement, they don't necessarily follow your instructions. When you decentralize an organization, you lose command and control.
We saw this in Algeria and in Jordan with the hotel bombing in Amman. Iraq is a case study in how al-Qaeda can come into a situation and alienate a population to the point where they have to now write Iraq off.
How can the West exploit this?
I call it "jihadi judo" - the ability to use your opponent's force against them.
Al-Qaeda is deliberately trying to provoke an overreaction by the West so they can point to American bombings as the reason we should be viewed as the enemy. They're going to try to spin anything we do. But al-Qaeda provoked that same reaction in Iraq, and they're doing the same thing in parts of Pakistan now.
I say, when your adversary is busy shooting himself in the foot, don't get in the way. Al-Qaeda on a daily basis is shooting itself in the face.
So if these jihobbyists are present in the United States, how can we prevent them from turning violent?
My thinking is, this never happens out of the blue. We saw clues from Nidal Hasan, among others. There were a lot of red flags. The responsibility has to lie within the community, at the local level. That's the importance of law enforcement - local guys on the beat.
Also, there's the Muslim community in the United States.
There's a civil war happening within Islam. We can try to influence from the outside, but Islam has to deal with this from the inside. So we have to find as many ways as possible to empower Muslims to deal with us and recognize people within their own ranks who are going off course.
These would be people who are secure enough to share that with law enforcement, because that's often the problem: Muslims may see this [radical tendency], and it's not that they support it, but they don't want to get put on a watch list. So they don't want to engage the police.
There's an apparent mistrust of law enforcement and intelligence, in large part because, when you look at Middle Eastern regimes, you get disappeared in the middle of the night if you come on someone's radar or get on somebody's bad side. So they're coming from a cultural perspective where police aren't to be trusted.
When we over-respond [by treating all Muslims as suspects], we can create more harm than good. We can alienate people and play directly into the hands of the adversary.