In a little over a month, we will mark the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. There are ongoing debates about the current strength of al Qaeda, and last week media reported that the organization's up and coming leader, Osama bin Laden's son Hamza, had gotten his wish for martyrdom. This will surely hurt the organization. Still, al Qaeda continues to fester all over the world, with a strong presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, and many other places, as its leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri remains at large, releasing videos every few months — most recently on July 10.
Al Qaeda's rival ISIS enjoys far more media attention, far more support from the younger generation of jihadis, and far more foreign fighters joining its ranks. While its official caliphate has crumbled, it remains strong in the cyber caliphate and on social media and continues to successfully spread its brand and ideology worldwide.
It gears its propaganda towards young jihadis who are uninspired by the previous jihadi generation's al Qaeda and a septuagenarian Zawahiri hiding in a cave but are inspired instead by ISIS's HD videos — and by its sharable graphic images known as "posters" aimed at inciting violence and attacks. These graphics visually depict attacks on widely recognizable U.S. and Western locations or landmarks, paired with text intended to incite lone-wolf terrorism.
Not only are these graphics incredibly easy to produce and disseminate on social media, they effectively exacerbate the radicalization of individuals, communicating to them where and how to attack. That’s why official jihadi media outlets and many unofficial ones are posting these images daily.
Posting and sharing these graphic posters has become so widespread that jihadis themselves are beginning to complain. On Aug. 4, an ISIS supporter posted a diatribe on a jihadi Telegram account accusing other supporters of cowardice for preferring to share posters rather than "answer[ing] the call" and "kill[ing] unbelievers" like Paris attacker Amedyh Coulibaly, Charlie Hebdo killers the Kouachi brothers, Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock/Abu Abdul Barr Al-Amriki, and Belgium Jewish museum shooter Mehdi Nemmouche. Instead of "grab[bing] a big knife and stab[bing] crusaders in the heart," he wrote, they are "treating crusaders to posters every day."
The graphics are also inciting viewers to hit specific states and cities. An unofficial count by MEMRI researchers of U.S. targets depicted in the graphics finds that over the past 12 months New York is in the lead, with 16 inciting to attacks there. Next are the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia (13), and after them California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, and Ohio (15 total).
The past two weeks alone saw many of these graphics released online by pro-ISIS media groups, including the Al-'Adalyat Media Foundation, the pro-ISIS Ash-Shaff Media Foundation, and the pro-ISIS Telegram channel GreenB1rds. The images in them included a drone being aimed at New York City with the text "Soon in your skies"; the U.S. Capitol in flames; the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge with the text "The revenge attacks in your city"; President Trump with a bullet wound in his forehead surrounded by flames with the text "O America, may Allah Destroy All of You," and a depiction of the White House exploding and the American flag burning, with the text "It won't be easy but it'll be worth it."
This year, alleged ISIS supporters have been arrested for attempting to attack some of these very locations — the White House and New York City specifically, but also at populated public venues near Washington.
In October 2018 an alleged member of the Khattab Media Foundation, Ashraf Al Safoo of Chicago, an Iraqi-born naturalized U.S. citizen, was charged with conspiracy to provide material support and resources to ISIS. The Khattab Media Foundation, according to the Department of Justice, is “an internet-based organization that has sworn an oath of allegiance to ISIS and created and disseminated ISIS propaganda online.” Al Safoo, the DOJ charged, “created and shared pro-ISIS videos, articles, essays and infographics across multiple social media platforms, at the direction and in coordination with ISIS.”
The graphics being disseminated by jihadi groups clearly show that these groups want attacks on targets in the U.S. and other Western countries and that they are inciting their keyboard warriors to move from consuming their propaganda to carrying out attacks.
Additionally, the vast amount of content aimed at inciting an attack within the U.S. is a reminder that 18 years after 9/11, the war on terrorism is ongoing, as is the threat to the homeland. In a statement last October before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned: "We remain concerned that groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda have the intent to carry out large-scale attacks in the U.S. … Despite significant losses of territory, ISIS remains relentless and ruthless in its campaign of violence against the West and has aggressively promoted its hateful message, attracting like-minded extremists."
Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute and the author of "American Traitor: The Rise And Fall Of Al-Qaeda's U.S.-Born Leader Adam Gadahn."