Colleen LaRose, known more infamously as JihadJane, appeared before federal court in Philadelphia Thursday and pleaded not guilty to charges that she allegedly plotted to kill a Swedish cartoonist and recruited supporters online using social networking sites.
According to documents unsealed by the Department of Justice last week, the suburban Philadelphia woman is alleged to have posted jihadist video messages on YouTube. Folks at grassroots counterterrorism Web sites like The Jawa Report say that LaRose had dozens of accounts suspended on the site and would open new accounts to repost video content. The case raises important questions about al-Qaida’s online media strategy and its move to more public social networking sites for recruitment.
Dr. Jarret Brachman, a professor at the North Dakota State University, tracks terrorism efforts online as an academic and as a senior consultant to federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, offering advice about al-Qaida’s media strategies. Brachman pens a blog about the work he does and issues around terrorism and counterterrorism.
We spoke to Brachman about al-Qaida’s increasing presence on more public social networking sites, after the jump.
How has al-Qaida’s online media strategy changed that it has been able to attract Americans like Colleen LaRose?
There’s a coalescing of American jihadists, or what I’ve been calling jihobbists or e-hadists. I think we’ve seen an evolution over the past few years from people who have been more passive receivers of this ideology to now becoming active producers of it. They’re not satisfied reading about it. They want to get involved.
Terrorists have typically worked online in less public venues. Why are they moving to social networking sites?
This is the first time we’ve seen al-Qaida granting their grassroots movement more autonomy. Since the Internet became an integral part of the al-Qaida ideology, they’ve launched a dedicated campaign to flood social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.
Media often tends to blow terrorism issues out of proportion. Internet issues, too. How serious is this?
Jihadist subculture on YouTube is really problematic. There’s a large teeming mass of internet jihadists to pass al-Qaida videos and radicalize and fan the flames of jihadism on youtube. al-Qaida has been doing this in the forums, but now we’re seeing it step over to these social network sites. You get dumber people who are getting more empowered, who are more likely to get caught by law enforcement.
What are federal authorities doing to track these communications?
I’m an ongoing adviser for law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies on Al Qaeda media usage. I work really closely with a lot of these guys. The authorities are well aware of this and are monitoring that behavior. I do think think the United States needs a national strategy and it needs to integrate the various agencies efforts. There’s a lot of agencies doing a lot of different things, but the coordination between them could be a lot better.
What difficulties are they facing in tracking these communications?
Most of what these people say online is protected by freedom of speech. You may have 100 really angry people and only one of them may become operational. The problem is, how do you figure out who that one is? [JihadJane] is an example of a situation that law enforcement got right.
Why is Al Qaeda pushing on this now?
Al Qaeda has kind of accomplished its goal of consolidating its ideology and uploading it online, now it’s just about expanding its recruitment base. Al Qaeda central command may say ‘go out and change the world,’ or ‘Internet jihad is important.’ That translates to specific policies on lower levels. The online stuff is where you get initial recruiting. The more you can list people out of the ordinary, like JihadJane, it’s an indicator that they’re finding success.
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