Do you believe that during World War II, Americans would have tolerated a Nazi radio station broadcasting from the middle of the US?
“We need to wage war against extremist websites,” comes a call from Abdul Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the Saudi director-general of Al-Arabiya TV, and former editor-in-chief of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. "After years of violent war,” continues Al-Rashed, “the image has become clear to everybody today; that Al Qaeda is more of an ideological problem than an organizational one. While there is a lot to do on the ground to eradicate this malignant disease, the first priority should be to confront extremist ideology, its theorists, and its scholars before its students and its soldiers. They are the secret to the organization and the reason for its continuation and its ability to recruit people and raise money, despite the great losses it has suffered all over the world.”
It is hard not to share such a view. In fact, after the attempted attack on Northwest Flight 253, by young Nigerian terrorist Umar Farooq Abdulmutallab, attention turned towards the American born Sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki, presently hiding in Yemen, and the same Sheikh who instructed Major Nidal Hasan, to commit the Fort Hood killings.
On November 9, Al-Awlaki published an article on his website, Anwar-alawlaki.com, in which he called Hasan a "hero" and "a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people." Al-Awlaki hit the headlines again last week, when authorities announced that he had influenced Abdulmutallab, who had repeatedly visited Anwar Al-Awlaki's website for inspiration, as it was indicated by his computer records that showed a high traffic to that site. A connection has also been shown between Al-Awlaki's online presence and the five Fort Dix would-be bombers, as well as the 7 July 2005 London bombings, when a series of coordinated suicide attacks on London’s public transport system killed 56 people including the bombers, and injured around 700 people.
But it is not just Al-Awlaki. The jihadi magazine Talae' Khorasan ("Pioneers of Khorasan"), which deals with jihad and the mujahideen in Afghanistan, published a few days ago an interview with "Abu Dajana Al-Khorsani" - who last week carried out the bombing of the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. In the interview, Al-Khorsani praised those who write on the jihad forums to wage jihad for Allah, and to fight the tyrannical rulers who harm Islam. Al-Khorsani praised the Al-Hesbah forum in poarticular, calling it his spiritual home and "the school that trained the writers to be experts." He added that the forum writers who influenced him include Louis Attiya Allah and Muhhib Al-Rasoul.
Examples could continue endlessly. The point, however, is that Islamic forums on the Internet have become an essential tool for global jihadists. Through the web, not only do they make threats, but also exchange information, impart orders and delineate strategies. Last September, the Emir of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir Al-Wahishi, wrote about bombing U.S. airplanes, suggesting the use of small quantities of explosives than can pass through checkpoints: "It requires no great effort on your part, nor large sums, to manufacture 10 grams, more or less, of explosives. Do not search long for the materials, since they are in your mother's kitchen and are ready at hand, in whatever city you are.” Exactly what Abdulmutallab did on Northwest flight 253.
Most of these forums are hosted in the US. American authorities close down jihadist sites only when there is a proven link with some terrorist attack, but otherwise they tolerate such forums even when they are calling people to jihad, expressing support for martyrdom attacks, and encouraging the killing of American soldiers. This is utter nonsense.
The war on terrorism is a global war, involving each of us wherever we are, not just confined to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The enemy can hit us anywhere, whether we are at work, or in a subway or on an airplane. We are under attack.
So why then don’t we shut down their means of communication? Because, in so doing, we would probably imperil somebody’s right to free expression.
We are facing a global movement wholly uninterested in anything resembling dialogue, and that will use any means necessary to kill as many of us as possible. Still it seems as though our main preoccupation is to preserve its rights.
Voltaire said, “I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is clearly one of the founding values of our civilization -- but what should one do when extending this right to people who are trying to destroy us means transforming freedom of expression into a suicide pact?