How Islamic Terrorists Are Being Radicalized Online

The new documentary ‘American Jihad’ premiering Saturday on Showtime, delves into how many of ISIS and al Qaeda’s terrorists are being manipulated into killing online.

Brian E. Chilson

The world was again shaken by terrorism on Wednesday when 52-year-old ex-convict Khalid Masood drove his car through pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge (killing three, injuring 40), crashed the vehicle, and then stabbed a 48-year-old police officer to death while apparently trying to access parliament. Fatally shot by responding officers, the suspect was a native Englishman, having been born in 1964 in Kent. While his life had been marked by convictions for various crimes, The Guardian reported, “Police said Masood had been inspired by Islamic State. But he hid his extremism from his neighbours, coming across as a keen gardener and family man.” ISIS, naturally, was quick to take credit, with its propagandist Amaq News Agency describing Masood as a soldier of the Islamic State.

The inevitable question arising from this calamity – “Why would someone commit such an atrocity against his or her homeland, on behalf of radical Islam?” – has become a common one in recent years, thanks to a rash of attacks that, here in the U.S., include the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, the 2015 San Bernardino attack, and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, among others. In all of those instances, the people responsible claimed allegiance to the cause of al Qaeda and/or ISIS, even though they had few direct ties to those organizations. Rather than foreign-born nationals or refugees infiltrating the country to carry out their dastardly plans – the situation targeted by President Donald Trump’s proposed (and still-under-fire) immigration ban – such incidents were born, and executed, by our very own citizens. And done so, to a large extent, courtesy of the internet.

Premiering this Saturday, Showtime’s new documentary American Jihad seeks to investigate this phenomenon, and the evolution of Islamic terrorism over the past few decades. Narrated by Liev Schreiber, executive produced by Alex Gibney and Peter Berg, and directed by Alison Ellwood – who was reportedly inspired to make the film by Berg’s Patriots Day – it’s a fascinating investigation into the burgeoning threat our (and all Western) nations face from radical Islamic belief. Because as it argues, our true enemies aren’t just the messengers of hate – it’s their message itself.

American Jihad’s primary focus is Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born man whose career as an American Imam took a turn after he was exposed to extreme Muslim ideologies in London. He then brought those philosophies back to the U.S. – and, more importantly, online. Before long, al-Awlaki was uploading sermons in which he equated jihadism with terrorism, and endorsed catastrophically violent action against Western oppressors as the only true course of action for a real Muslim. While he also aided and abetted various terrorists in their plans, al-Awlaki’s real impact was via his viral videos, which spread his radical-Islamic message far and wide. At the height of his power (in Yemen, where he’d been forced to take refuge), he was the veritable English-language mouthpiece for al Qaeda, as well as the co-creator of its official Inspire magazine – which, among other crimes, published an article about how to make a homemade bomb that was followed, years later, by Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Al-Awlaki was the first U.S. citizen to be targeted, and killed, by a drone strike, when President Obama ordered that operation in 2011. Yet as American Jihad convincingly maintains, his legacy lives on, via the radical sermons that continue to be virtually disseminated around the globe (ISIS still uses his videos). Whereas European terrorists are often cultivated via face-to-face meetings, Americans can be seduced and conscripted without a single conversation taking place; all they have to do is seek out al-Awlaki’s posts, immerse themselves in a related online community, and then act in accordance with their principles.

American Jihad insists this was the case in Boston, and Orlando, and to some extent also in Fort Hood, Texas, where Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan carried out his fatal 2009 attack (after having attended al-Awlaki’s Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, and emailing with him afterwards). While other incidents have definitely involved Westerners traveling overseas to receive training and/or take up arms, many new-era domestic strikes are committed by angry people who can find justification – and spiritual, if not practical, support – for their lethal impulses on the web. It’s radicalization via a simple Google search.

In today’s America, where hate crimes have been on the rise since President Trump’s election, the notion that exposure to violently intolerant rhetoric begets violently intolerant behavior comes as little surprise. Of course, one can’t directly correlate the commander-in-chief’s anti-immigrant comments with, for example, the recent murder of a Sikh man in Kansas by a white man exclaiming, “Get out of my country,” nor can one point the finger at Trump’s cozy relationship with white supremacists as an explanation for, say, the recent murder of a homeless NYC black man by an out-of-town racist who apparently sought to start a race war. However, it’s inarguable that espousing hate results in corrosive, and deadly, consequences. American Jihad underlines that fact, through one example after another of young men turning homicidal after drenching their minds in fanatical media.

Amidst its raft of informed talking heads (authors, intelligence officials, American Imams, and family members coping with their sons’ crimes), the film’s most fascinating subject winds up being Jesse Morton, who spent years advocating jihad (using the name Younus) by founding the Revolution Muslim website and Inspire magazine with al-Awlaki. His hateful work reportedly helped encourage numerous would-be attacks, including one against South Park creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone for their Muhammad cartoon-spoofing episode. That brouhaha forced Morton to flee to Morocco, where he was later arrested and sent back to the U.S. And there, in jail, he began his own personal process of de-radicalization.

Following a stint as an undercover agent, Morton is now a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, researching the ways in which online radical Islam preys upon those looking for a drastic way to act upon their (real or perceived) grievances against the world. That’s a problem American Jihad contends isn’t easily solved, especially since, as NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence & Counter-Terrorism John Miller says, if a terrorist conspiracy like Boston’s is only hatched between two siblings – and doesn’t involve the traditional web of interactions that prior attacks necessitated, and were traceable – then learning about the plot, much less doing something about it, becomes an immensely onerous task.

That challenge isn’t effectively addressed by President Trump’s immigration ban. And it wasn’t sufficiently met in London, where it appears yet another homegrown jihadist has killed and maimed in the name of a destructive ideology. But for the ongoing safety of our country, and the world, accomplishing it may be the only successful way forward in the war on terrorism.