By Mark Habeeb
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
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