Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Has Al-Qaida Chosen its Candidate? An Examination of the "Al-Hesbah-McCain" Controversy by Evan Kohlmann

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article examining recent "chatter" on Al-Qaida Internet forums which appears to endorse Arizona Senator John McCain as Al-Qaida's "preferred" candidate in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The Post cites a message posted on the notorious Al-Qaida web forum known as "Al-Hesbah" from a frequent discussant, "Mohammad Haafid", in which the latter individual suggests, "Al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election" because McCain's anticipated counter-terrorism policies "will succeed in exhausting America." In the wake of the article, the McCain campaign quickly responded with a conference call featuring key advisers Randy Scheunemann and Jim Woolsey. Both men correctly pointed out that the original message on Al-Hesbah was not posted on behalf of any terrorist organization, but was simply the work of an "individual blogger." However, Scheuenmann and Woolsey went even farther, reportedly dismissing the discussions of Al-Hesbah users as meaningless "musings and bravado" broadcast over a single "terrorist Islamist blog."

I sympathize with Scheuenmann and Woolsey when they point out the relevant contrasts between an official communique issued by a terrorist faction versus the independent bloviations of self-appointed Al-Qaida advocates. However, with all due respect, it is extremely disturbing that a former director of the CIA would categorize "Al-Hesbah" as just another "terrorist Islamist blog." One certainly does not need access to classified intelligence data to know what Al-Hesbah is, and who subscribes to their forum. On April 3, 2006, Al-Qaida's Organization in Saudi Arabia issued an official communique regarding their relationship with Al-Hesbah: "We can only say good things about our brothers from the Al-Hesbah network... The brothers from Al-Hesbah have provided a superb service to the jihad and the mujahideen and everyone credits them for this." Last spring, when Al-Qaida's deputy commander Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri made himself available for a public question-and-answer session, Al-Hesbah was one of three forums specifically identified by Al-Qaida as accepting queries directly on behalf of al-Zawahiri. Over the past four years, Al-Hesbah forum users have quietly disappeared on an almost weekly basis in order to embark upon real-life jihadi missions. A variety of seemingly "ordinary" Al-Hesbah users have been reported "martyred" in jihadi conflicts that include Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and North Africa. Meanwhile, with its fellow online web partners Al-Ekhlaas, Al-Firdaws, and Al-Boraq currently knocked offline, Al-Hesbah is Al-Qaida's last fortified redoubt left on the Internet. Casually dismissing Al-Hesbah as "just another terrorist Islamist blog" is like referring to Internet giant Google as "just another e-commerce website."

There is, of course, a degree of well-deserved irony in John McCain having to defend himself against charges of being a "terrorist enabler". The McCain campaign has been unforgivably slow to condemn the vocal minority of their supporters at recent campaign rallies who have shouted out "Terrorist!" and "Kill him!" in response to hearing the name of Senator Barack Obama. The fact is, Al-Qaida's real interest in the current American election cycle has nothing to do with choosing one candidate over the other -- clearly, Al-Qaida doesn't like either candidate. Rather, what Al-Qaida is hoping to witness this political season are internal recriminations, name-calling, racism, xenophobia, disunity, and America tearing at its own social fabric. The motivation is obviously not in crowning the victor, but in prolonging the game. Those foolish individuals who have shown up at political rallies carrying tasteless signs and threatening violence against their own fellow Americans are Al-Qaida's real allies in this race. They are the ones who are responsible for providing a limitless bounty of propaganda fodder for our global adversaries -- and there should be no tolerance in either campaign for such despicable behavior.

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