The New Battlefield: The Internet and Social Media
By: Maria A. Ressa
On November 6, 2011, a Filipino man with long hair uploaded a three-minute, twenty-second video on YouTube, the world's second largest search engine. It was a video of himself, wearing a camouflage jacket and a mask covering his face and head. He was speaking in Arabic and asking Muslims around the world to support and contribute to the jihad in the Philippines. Identified as Commander Abu Jihad Khalil al-Rahman al-Luzoni, the man in the video called on Muslims to unite and help their brethren, saying there was "no way to restore the Islamic Caliphate and the glory of the religion but through jihad."2
It was the first of its kind for the Philippines, triggering a wave of video clips, letters, and audio messages from Filipino jihadists, which were promoted on al Qaeda linked sites and jihadist websites like Shumukh al-Islam and Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum. They declared allegiance to al Qaeda online and on social networks.
Intelligence sources from at least three different countries told me that the man with the long hair—Abu Jihad Khalil al-Rahman al-Luzoni, who also went by the shorter pseudonym Abu Jihad—is 31-year old Khalil Pareja, a Christian convert to Islam who took over the leadership in 2005 of the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), also known as the Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement. RSM worked closely with the groups Abu Sayyaf, a violent Islamist insurgency in the southern Philippines, and Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda's arm in Southeast Asia. Their alliance carried out numerous attacks, including the Superferry bombing in 2004, one of the world's worst maritime terrorist attacks and the second most lethal in Southeast Asia since the 2002 Bali bombing; and the Valentine's Day bombings in 2005—two nearsimultaneous explosions in General Santos City and Davao City, followed an hour later by an explosion on a bus in Makati.
A Philippine intelligence report obtained and verified by Rappler said that Pareja not only posted jihadi materials on YouTube, he was also active on Facebook—a case study of how one man can connect jihadists and terrorists from multiple countries through social media.3
About a month before he posted his YouTube video, Pareja told authorities, he joined the Arabic Student Forum on Facebook. Several of the members asked him if he knew Abu Jihad, but he said he was cautious about security so he pretended to know nothing. Then he received a private message online from a man who introduced himself as Gerald.4 They became friends and started chatting through private messages regularly. Over time, Gerald told Pareja he was a member of al Shabaab, a group of Islamist militants that controls much of southern Somalia.5 The relationship between al Shabaab and al Qaeda dates back to the 1990s, when al Qaeda began providing funding and training to the Somali fighters. It seems Osama bin Laden's death in 2011 helped pave the way for closer ties between the two groups. In February 2012, al Shabaab's leadership pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced bin Laden as al Qaeda's new leader. This was announced on a video uploaded to the internet by al Qaeda's media arm. This agreement showed that despite bin Laden's death, al Qaeda continues to spread.6
Pareja told Gerald he was Abu Jihad. Gerald invited him to go to Yemen to join the jihad led by al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP. Counterterrorism officials and analysts characterize AQAP as the "most active and lethal Qaeda affiliate, intent on striking at both the U.S. homeland and regional targets."7 In mid-2012, authorities used a CIA sting operation to foil an AQAP plot to bomb U.S.-bound airplanes with explosives hidden in the bodies of terrorists. Experts said AQAP's master bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, had been working on body bombs, surgically implanted explosives in the stomach or rectal cavity. AQAP was also involved in other foiled plots against U.S. targets: the "underwear bomb" used in an attempt to take down Northwest flight 253 in 2009, and the "printer bombs" in the failed cargo bomb plot in 2010.8
One of AQAP's leaders, American Anwar al-Awlaki, was a "master in the use of the Internet,"9 and although he was killed by the United States in 2011, his messages continue to resonate and win recruits online. Awlaki was prolific on YouTube; among those he influenced were the London attackers who carried out simultaneous subway and bus bombings on July 7, 2005 (commonly referred to as 7/7, or "Britain's 9/11"). He had his own website (now taken down by authorities), which attracted extremists including the head of AQAP, bin Laden's secretary, Nasir al-Quhaishi. Al-Quhaishi consulted bin Laden and appointed Awlaki the head of AQAP's external operations, in charge of terrorist attacks outside Yemen and Saud Arabia; this was his position when he was killed by a drone strike while in Yemen. Awlaki became a cyberworld superstar because he was an eloquent speaker and understood how to use social media. His ideas were incorporated by AQAP, which continues his online recruitment efforts. Eleven years after 9/11, al Qaeda is degraded, but it has evolved into a social movement. It continues to spread its virulent ideology, now in the virtual world and on social media. This is the new battlefield.
Pareja said Gerald told him AQAP "had established an Islamic state in the province of Abian in Yemen,"10 and had already recruited "Filipinos studying from the Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan."11 Gerald asked Pareja to join the jihad in Yemen and help lead the Filipinos. He said they would stay in Yemen for ten years. After five years, they could choose to return to the Philippines, at which point AQAP "would provide them funds to continue jihad to establish an Islamic Caliphate."12 Gerald offered to pay Pareja's travel expenses to Yemen. Pareja accepted the offer and was scheduled to travel between April and June of 2012, but he never made it because Filipino authorities arrested him on March 1.
Pareja's story doesn't end with his arrest, however. When he uploaded his video exhorting support for jihad in the southern Philippines in 2011, it showed him speaking in front of a black flag. Other extremist websites, video messages, and social media accounts around the world, including in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, prominently display the black flag. In the Philippines, authorities are monitoring a website called "Islamic Emirate of the Philippines: The Black Flag Movement."13 One post, titled "The True Islamic Hero," shows a picture of Anwar al-Awlaki as well as other al Qaeda operatives, with Arabic titles and translations, including "The Martyr of Dawaah." It includes links to other extremist websites, including those run by al Qaeda and its proxies. Another entry says: "This is the Truth!" and asks the reader to "open your eyes and know the TRUTH that the commercial media hides." It includes news updates as well as photographs of a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front led by Ameril Umra Kato, who sheltered leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah. Other photos show Filipinos in the southern Philippines, where Abu Sayyaf operates, waving the black flag. While all public measuring systems show activity on the site isn't alarming, it provides a gateway for radicals: there is a "Contact us" link, an online poll, and a donation portal. Although it is unclear whether the site's operators have any real-world link to al Qaeda, it's clear they have been inspired by al Qaeda lore and its subculture.
The black flag taps into a secret motivation of al Qaeda: a "narrative that convinces them that they're part of a divine plan."14 Al Qaeda's mythology holds that its black banners herald the apocalypse that would bring about the triumph of Islam, based on what they believe is a hadith, or a saying of the prophet Muhammad: "If you see the black banners coming from Khurusan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them, and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags."15 Khurusan is a name for a historical region covering northeastern and eastern Iran and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan. This is where al Qaeda believes the Islamic version of Armaggedon will emerge. Osama bin Laden's 1996 declaration of war against the United States ends with the dateline, "Friday, August 23, 1996, in the Hindu Kush, Khurusan, Afghanistan."
In August, 2012, Philippines authorities recovered video explaining the black flag's symbolism on the laptop of a Malaysian jihadist, during an offensive targeting Southeast Asia's most wanted terrorists, Jemaah Islamiyah leaders Marwan and Muawiyah. These men also were the targets of the first U.S. smart bomb attack in the Philippines, February 2012 in Jolo, but both escaped and fled to central Mindanao.
The video found in the laptop verifies what CIA sources and former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who has closely studied al Qaeda's ideology, have said regarding the virtual links between jihadists. All this brings us back to Pareja. Before he was scheduled to leave the Philippines, Gerald asked him to do one more thing: "to establish the link between the group of Marwan and the AQAP."16 Although Pareja was arrested before he could do that, it seems someone else may have had the same intent. The Malaysian who owned the laptop with the black flag video arrived in the Philippines in April 2012, and found his way to the central Mindanao camp of Marwan and Muawiyah. Among the weapons and rocket launchers recovered by authorities when they attacked that camp in August, they also found a hardcover book written in English. Its title is "Islami Emirate Afghanistan." Below the title was the logo of the Islamic Emirate of the Philippines.
More recently, on September 20, 2012, authorities in the Philippines stormed an Abu Sayyaf training camp in Zamboanga City, freeing Chinese hostage Yuan-Kai Lin and seizing a black flag they found there. During the twenty-minute battle, police forces claimed they wounded Abu Sayyaf leader Khair Mundos, who carries a $500,000 reward from the U.S. Department of Justice. Mundos had been captured previously in 2004, and confessed he arranged funds for terrorist attacks in Mindanao. Working with his brothers, he funnelled money from Saudi Arabia to the Abu Sayyaf, which has had a historical link to al Qaeda. As early as 1988, al Qaeda's financial network in the Philippines was established by Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, and al Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, have trained members of the Abu Sayyaf. Mundos escaped from prison in 2007 and became head of the the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan. During the September 20 raid, intelligence sources said they discovered not only the black flag, but also training manuals from Jemaah Islamiyah, once al Qaeda's arm in Southeast Asia, inside the camp. Mundos escaped.
This black flag symbol has resurfaced in high-profile violence since September 11, 2012, the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On that day, a violent mob stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, raised the black flag and killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. U.S. officials blamed the violence on an al Qaeda-linked group, which they said took advantage of protests against clips from an anti-Islam film that had recently spread across the internet to launch an attack.
In a little more than a week, protests against the film spread to more than twenty countries, and more than thirty people were killed. Black flags were raised by angry mobs in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. Coincidentally or not, a day before the attack in Libya, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a forty-two minute video confirming the death of his deputy, Abu Yahyah al-Libi. From Yemen, AQAP said the attack in Libya was to avenge the June killing of al Qaeda's number two, and urged Muslims to kill U.S. diplomats in Muslim countries.
The centralized command structures of both al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah have collapsed in the years since 9/11, but remaining networks and cells continue to spread their virulent ideology, not just physically but in the virtual world through the internet and social media. Smaller, more ad hoc and less professional cells carry out attacks without central coordination. The challenge for authorities today is how to contain a social movement that simmers just beneath the surface.
New technology now allows jihadists to connect with other like-minded individuals from the safety of their homes, sitting at their computers. Individuals from Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States have become politically radicalized, learned operational details like how to make bombs and suicide vests, and connected with others who have acted as mentors in their radicalization, all online.17 The chat rooms and blogs act as echo chambers. They're harder for authorities to detect, and they mean that jihadists no longer have to physically meet. These individuals are free to read, participate, and ask questions in the privacy of their homes, lowering the risk of detection. Plus, never before has one platform connected so many: Facebook now links together more than a billion accounts. Gerald, allegedly recruiting for AQAP, didn't have to meet Pareja in person in order to get him to commit to AQAP's jihad.
Let me end with the Facebook page created by Pareja. Filipino authorities say one of his "friends" is a Facebook pseudonym used by Marwan, who even while on the run updates his page. Pareja has other "friends" from around the world, whose pages prominently and publicly display a picture of the black flag like a secret code. These are clear visual reminders of how the jihadi virus spread through the years, from bin Laden to Facebook.
About the Author(s): Maria A. Ressa is the CEO and executive editor of Rappler, a social news network that combines professional journalism with citizen journalism and crowdsourcing. Ms. Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 25 years, most of them as CNN's bureau chief in Manila (1987–1995), then Jakarta (1995–2005). She was CNN's lead investigative reporter focusing on terrorism in Southeast Asia, and wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda's Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia (Free Press, 2003). She is a graduate of Princeton University. Her upcoming book is 10 Days, 10 Years: From Bin Laden to Facebook (Powerbooks, Fall 2012).
1. This is a compilation of two articles originally written for the online social news network Rappler, and includes excerpts from the author's book, 10 Days, 10 Years: From Bin Laden to Facebook (forthcoming from Powerbooks, Fall 2012).
2. English translation of Arabic message from Abu Jihad Khalil al-Rahman al-Luzoni. The video was uploaded to YouTube on November 6, 2011.
3. Details are from a classified Philippine intelligence document, "Dinno-Amor Rosalejos Pareja @Abu Jihad/ Khalia/Ur Rahman/Muhammad/Rash/Ahmad/Arlan/ Al-Luzoni/Jake Fajardo," CTD-DRP-03052012-014, Philippine National Police, March 5, 2012.
4. Gerald may or may not be his real name. Terrorists use pseudonyms frequently, and the internet allows anonymity to reach new heights. What's clear is that the private messages between Pareja and Gerald continued to the point that Pareja was convinced of Gerald's identity and started to make plans based on his offers.
5. Al Shabaab's formal name is al Shabaab al-Mujahideen. It has waged an insurgency against Somalia's government and the government's Ethiopian supporters since 2006. In the 1990s, al Qaeda set up a base of operations in the Somali state similar to what it had in Afghanistan.
6. "Al-Shabaab joining al-Qaeda, monitor group says," CNN, February 9, 2012: http://articles.cnn. com/2012-02-09/africa/world_africa_somalia-shabaabqaeda_1_al-zawahiri-qaeda-somali-americans?_ s=PM:AFRICA; accessed on October 6, 2012.
7. Jonathan Masters, "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)," Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., May 24, 2012: http://www.cfr.org/yemen/al-qaeda-arabian-peninsula-AQAP/p9369; accessed on October 6, 2012.
8. Maria Ressa, "Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan: 1 year after bin Laden's death," Rappler, May 2, 2012: http://www.Rappler.com/world/4663-al-qaeda-afghanistan-1-yearafter-bin-laden-s-death; accessed on October 6, 2012.
9. Rohan Gunaratna, "Al-Qaeda after Awlaki," The National Interest, October 19, 2011: http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/al-qaeda-afterawlaki-6026; accessed on October 6, 2012.
10. "Dinno-Amor Rosalejos Pareja,"
12. 11 Ibid. 12 Ibid.
14. Ali H. Soufan, "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda," (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), loc 196 of 10851 on Kindle.
15. Ibid., loc. 148 of 10851. Soufan explains the meaning of the black flag and the narrative al Qaeda created connecting religion and jihad.
16. "Dinno-Amor Rosalejos Pareja," 12.
17. See Peter Forster's article in this issue, "Countering Individual Jihad: Perspectives on Nidal Hasan and Colleen LaRose," for more on this phenomenon.