Death Of A Online-Jihadi – From Cyberspace To Battlefield

by Florian Flade

Cyber Jihadi Abu Kandahar az-Zarqawi

„Remember the name Abu Kandahar al-Zarqawi. You´ll be hearing that name again“, Evan Kohlmann, American Terrorism Consultant and founder of „Flashpoint Partners“ told the New York Magazine early December, „He´s lining up to be the next Humam al-Balawi (Jordanian suicide bomber that attacked CIA Khost base).“

Once again, Kohlmann, the leading expert on Jihadi online activities, was right. Last weekend the name „Abu Kandahar az-Zarqawi“ appeared again, in the online forums when the al-Qaida sympathizers and cyberspace mujahideen applauded the martyrdom death of one their own. Known by his kunya or nome de-guerre Abu Kandahar from Zarqa (Jordanian town), the person behind that name was a Jordanian al-Qaida supporter dedicated to jihad on the internet and willing to die on the real battlefields. His civilian name was Haitham Bin Muhammad al-Khayat.

For years, al-Khayat used the pseudonym „Abu Kandahar“ to spread jihadi propaganda messages in the most influential Arabic-speaking online forums. He acted as a administrator and moderator in the now closed Al-Ekhlaas and Al-Fallujah forums, and gathered a quiet significant fan base of al-Qaida sympathizers. „Distinguished Pen“, the Al-Ekhlaas forum named al-Hayat and gave him authority to write as a main contributor to the jihadi online network.

On August 24th 2008, „Abu Kandahar az-Zarqawi“ posted a message on Al-Ekhlaas informing the members of the death of one forum member called „Abu Hurayrah 2“, who was killed fighting alongside al-Qaeda militants in northern Iraq. Abu Kandahar told the other forum members that he had received a letter from Iraq informing him about the death of fellow online jihadi „Abu Hurayrah 2“. This was one of the first signals that this jihadi supporter sitting in front of his computer was in fact in touch with those actively fighting Jihad. Abu Kandahar´s contacts with real terrorists not only the cyberspace wannebees became more obvious in the years to come.

Probably the most famous online Jihadi turned into an actual terrorist – Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi known in the cyberspace world as „Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani“ – carried out a devastating suicide bombing in Khost, East Afghanistan, on December 30th 2009. Al-Balawi´s victims were CIA operatives, a team of al-Qaeda experts and terrorist-hunters stationed near the border to Pakistan, gathering information on al-Qaeda terrorists and giving target information to the CIA´s deadly drone project. The Jordanian al-Balawi rose to the highest levels of online Jihadi importance, standing out of the mass because of his poetic messages urging Muslims to fight Jihad. Jordan´s intelligence agency became aware of the increasingly celebrated online Jihadi „Abu Dujanah“ and recruited him to infiltrate al-Qaeda.

Humam al-Balawi was turned into a spy and sent to North Waziristan, Pakistan, to join al-Qaeda. Without realizing their mistake, the Jordanians fulfilled al-Balawi´s dream of a lifetime and made him a real Mujahed on the battlefield. Contrary to what the Jordanian intelligence agents thought, al-Balawi never sold his loyalty but told al-Qaeda about who and why they had sent him to Waziristan. In cooperation with the Pakistani Tehrik e-Taliban, al-Balawi planned an attack on the counter-terrorism team. He succeeded in convincing the Jordanians to bring him to the CIA team stationed in Afghanistan. When he arrived at that base, the whole crew showed up excited about the new information al-Balawi would reveal. Instead, the Jordanian double-agent detonated an explosive device and killed seven CIA agents and an Jordanian intelligence official.

Eleven days after al-Balawi had carried out the suicide attack in Khost, his online propagandist colleague and fellow Jordanian „Abu Kandahar az-Zarqawi“ posted the martyrdom message the suicide bomber.“Beware, beware that you are satisfied with writing on the forums without going to the battlefield in the cause of Allah“, Abu Kandahar quoted al-Balawi, „Running away from hell-fire and gaining paradise is a personal matter that concerns only you. I see no path to this except for death in the cause of Allah.“

Abu Kandahar, it became clearer from the postings that followed, admired the CIA attacker al-Balawi. While most of those Islamist active in the Jihadi forums are only supporting Jihadi with their writings and spreading of propaganda and the message of fighting as a duty ordered by Allah, al-Balawi alias „Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani“ had acted. „Writers can create something big, but under one condition: They die so that their thoughts can live“, Abu Kandahar wrote, „Do not forget his (al-Balawi´s) will and go on his path.“

Certainly Abu Kandahar did not forget al-Balawi´s plea. After years of acting as the cyberspace ambassador for global Jihad, he wanted to fight and experience the battlefield first-hand. Sitting in front of the computer screen was no longer satisfying as the wish for the martyr´s death – even before al-Balawi carried out the attack on the CIA base – grew. In September 2009, the CIA-bomber posted a message saying „brother Abu Kandahar“ arrived in Waziristan. Some months later, in April 2010, Abu Kandahar was interviewed by „Global Islamic Media Front“ (GIMF) and urged Muslims of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan to start a guerilla war with sniper attacks, assassinations and IED attacks.

Last Sunday, a online jihadi named „Raheeg“ posted a message stating Abu Kandahar az-Zarqawi had become a martyr in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region without naming details or circumstances of his death. Soon the online Jihadi community rushed to congratulate the Jordanian to his martyrdom and celebrate the death of one of their own, a fellow writer and propagandist.

With Abu Kandahar, a close associate of CIA suicide bomber al-Balawi turned the latter´s message of „die so that your thoughts can live“ into reality. The case shows the path from cyberspace to real battlefield is not an impossible journey but rather worrying reality as numerous other internet activists will highlight Abu Kandahar´s story as an example to follow.

Online forums remain a window into the world of actual terrorism even if most of the members of the various forums will never turn their words of hatred into reality. Some are writing their way into martyrdom, creating a new practice where the Jihadi writer needs to sacrifice himself to his own message otherwise words will always remain words.

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