Osama bin Laden's supporters around the world posted comments to jihadi websites and social media Monday that ran the gamut from disbelief and dismay to rage and vows of revenge – to hailing Al Qaeda's fallen leader as a martyr with quick assurances the fight would go on.
Minutes after President Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed, online commentary began sprouting on a dozen or so jihadist websites or “forums” worldwide that constitute the main public relations arm of Al Qaeda on the Internet.
“There are three kinds of reaction so far – some deploring the death and writing about the martyrdom of bin Laden,” says Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Israel. “Others are talking about revenge for his death. Still others – including two Taliban spokesmen – have threatened retaliation.... It's a huge response, but for the moment we're seeing reaction mainly in the Western world.”
Gauging Al Qaeda's support is important since bin Laden's death could profoundly influence its ability to raise funds and recruits and ultimately, experts say, the staying power of the organization's global affiliates. So analysts were reading the tea leaves for early signs of whether jihad supporters would fold and go home – or rally electronically behind the group's new leader.
“What I am looking for are signs of low morale among the rank-and-file,” says Aaron Weisburd, field instructor for the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point and director of the Society for Internet Research in an e-mail interview.
Some supporters in shock
“It may take a little time before the buzz of OBL's martyrdom wears off and they sober up and face the fact that none of them are safe and that God may not be on their side.”
“Some of his supporters appear to be in shock and just don't want to believe the news,” concurs Aaron Zelin, a researcher at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who overnight translated some Arabic statements into English and posted them to his own website, Jihadology, so researchers could study them.
“Others want to hold off until they've heard from their own sources rather than infidel news services. Some are happy to see bin Laden is now a martyr – others are making threatening statements and saying the tornadoes were advance retribution.”
Over the past five years or so the forum websites have grown in value and significance to Al Qaeda as the terrorist organization’s primary public relations or propaganda tool, analysts say. While such forums apparently are not used by Al Qaeda for recruiting foot soldiers directly, they are important for enlisting support more broadly around the world, getting messages out, and maintaining the morale of existing supporters, analysts say.
Such websites post links to videos of beheadings and killings of US troops along with statements praising Al Qaeda and bin Laden and intended to spread the ideology. Key forums include: Islamic Awakening English Forum, Ansar Arabic Forum, al-Jahad al-'Alami Arabic Forum, JHUF English/Urdu Forum, and Ansar al-Haqq French Forum, Mr. Zelin says.
Although Al Qaeda has so far stayed with website forums as its reliable propaganda tool, supporters have expanded to other social media tools.
“You have jihad supporters individually using Facebook and now Twitter to spread propaganda, but we're not seeing many jihadi organizations using either one,” William McCants, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington-area think tank. “But most of his supporters are still engaging in one of those mainstream [web] forums.... There are a few exceptions, but Al Qaeda leaders figure they've already got a good distribution mechanism. Why fix it if it ain't broken.”
Official wings of Al Qaeda had not spoken at press time and were expected to wait days or even weeks before commenting on such a delicate matter. But a quick read of sentiment among the peanut gallery of the group's worldwide supporters revealed confused, sad and often angry comments, among them this one, translated by Zelin: “Cheer all you want [infidels], you only have a limited amount of time ... in which to do it.”
While bluster and bravado appeared to dominate, Dr. McCants says the long-term impact on Al Qaeda is likely to be seriously negative. Because the organization is so diffuse globally, its supporters have to date relied heavily on bin Laden's charisma.
“There's nobody that has his cachet, that embodies the jihadi ethos,” McCants says. “I don't see how it could not have a disheartening effect.”
But at least one on-line jihadi commenter on one forum took a different view:
“Why can’t people admit he was killed?” he wrote. “He [bin Laden] is a human being, not a prophet. Another man will replace his shoes, it’s easy.”