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Friday, September 26, 2008 

On the jihad in Iraq and online.

By almost all accounts, the extreme-Salafist takfiri jihad in Iraq is not going well. Down mainly to the Awakening movement, which started when the Sunni tribes tired of the sectarian bloodshed, indiscriminate murder and imposition of the most harsh and ridiculous interpretation of Sharia law rose against the Islamic State of Iraq (formerly al-Qaida in Iraq and the Mujahideen Shura Council) and its allies, over time attracting other former insurgents, and to on a much lesser level, the US troop surge, the few remaining sanctuaries are Mosul in the north and Diyala province in the centre of the country. Along with the continuing ceasefire by the Mahdi army (and its eventual dissolution), which for a time had been the main cause of casualties to US troops in and around Baghdad, combined with the effective ghettoisation of the capital into sectarian enclaves, the drop in violence has resulted in the number of troop deaths falling to its lowest since the start of the war, with just 13 killed in July. Civilian deaths are still though rarely below three figures a week, even if the suicide bombings which were once a daily occurrence in the capital have fallen significantly.

Away from the real war, the online propaganda war is also, if you listen to some of the hyperbolic jihad watchers, in trouble. The most prominent jihadi forum, al-ehklass.net, has been down for almost two weeks, and its front page currently resolves to a domain bought place holder. Also down, or at least were, were three of the main four forum sites, with only the most exclusive, al-Hesbah, remaining up, but even that at the moment appears to be down. Why they are down, or rather, who is responsible is equally unclear; those who have formerly and continue to involve themselves in removing jihadi material from the web have refused to comment or denied it. The main point of taking down the forums was to deny as-Sahab, al-Qaida's media arm, from being able to distribute their yearly video marking September the 11th. Not only was this successful, but when the video was eventually posted for distribution and mirrored across the net, the password to the archive was wrong, further delaying and disillusioning those waiting for it.

The Islamic State of Iraq would still presumably prefer to be in as-Sahab's position. As it becomes apparent even to the most deluded and dedicated of its supporters that it faces a battle for its very survival, even if still clinging on in Diyala and Mosul, its media releases are increasingly being derided. Their "Two Years with an Islamic State" video claimed that they had chemical warheads capable of reaching Israel, something which not even the most die-hard supporter of the group or most swivel-eyed jihad watcher could possibly believe.

For as ISI declines, a group that had existed in Iraq long before al-Zarqawi's organisation pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden continues to punch well above its apparent weight. Ansar al-Islam, first formed in 2001 and active in the autonomous Kurdish north, and which may well have sheltered Zarqawi before he moved south and established the forerunners of the ISI, continues to impress (if that's the right word) both those in the "online jihadi community" and observers of it. While sharing almost exactly the same ideology as the ISI, the same brand of extreme Salafi Islam which led it to carry out one of the most notorious atrocities of the insurgency, the execution of 12 Nepalese hostages, it has never allied with the group, even if they have often carried out operations together. More recently the group, previously known as Ansar al-Sunnah, reverted to its original name, and with it established a media arm based on both As-Sahab and al-Furqan, al-Ansar. Their latest video, The Earth Rain, is even by the high production standards of those two "media organisations" especially ambitious: featuring a host, translated, apparently non-Googlish English subtitles and credits at the end, it attempts to document last year's American "Arrowhead Ripper" operation in Diyala province. Whether Ansar al-Islam with this new approach intends to become a rival to al-Qaida in general remains to be seen, but the aspiration appears to be there.

The bringing down of the jihadi forums though, however satisfying for those in the short-term who seem to imagine that doing so is striking a blow against the movement in its entirety, is by no means necessarily a good thing. Putting matters of censorship aside, it not only makes things more difficult for those on them, but also for those with the equally important task of monitoring the forums. Whilst doubtless the intelligence agencies have moles on the inside and at probably the very highest levels of the administration on them, not every activity on them can be monitored by the security services, which is why civilian organisations that do so have sprung up. While these tend to be rabid and completely overstate the level of threat from takfirist jihadists, their role is still a noble one. It isn't just the monitoring of them for potential threats though which is important, they're also a goldmine for the also vital research into who exactly it is that is most likely to become a jihadi sympathiser. As the leaked document from MI5 showed, this is an area in which the stereotypes generally don't apply. Only through delving into more backgrounds and the lives of those on these forums might we improve our ways of targeting and stopping radicalisation before it takes place. Just knocking the suppliers down while not targeting the source itself will do nothing to help in that.

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