The man authorities believe posted a chilling, movie poster-style warning of a new attack on New York by Al Qaeda is a committed jihadist whose graphic artistry may be part of a new strategy aimed at recruiting homegrown terrorists, according to experts.
The image, which showed the New York skyline under a burnt orange sky and warned, “Al Qaeda Coming soon in New York,” appeared on Ansar Al-Mujahideen, an Internet forum associated with Al Qaeda, on Monday, posted by a user whose Arabic name translates to “Certified Lover 2." It quickly prompted grim posts from hundreds of viewers, mostly in Arabic.
“I ask Allah the greater to enable our Mujahidin with an earth shattering operation to destroy New York's fortresses," one poster wrote in Arabic.
Another approving viewer was identified as "ashiq al shahada," or "the lover of martyrdom."
NYPD and FBI officials stress that there is no specific credible threat associated with the graphic, but they are trying to determine its origin. Paul Browne, spokesman for the NYPD, which is investigating the post along with the FBI, said NYPD analysts tracking the nationality of the person behind the graphic “were leaning toward Egyptian; not carved in stone.”
In online forums where posters can easily disguise their identity or take on multiple personas, pinpointing the suspect is difficult at best. FoxNews.com found an online profile for a Cairo college student who appears to be the same person who posted the Al Qaeda graphic. Other posts on Jordanian forums also match the jihadist graphic artist and claim to be the work of a 24-year-old extremist. Still other posts apparently connected to the same As-Ansar user claim to be a 27-year-old Saudi man.
Walid Phares, author of “Terrorist Strategies against America,” and a Fox News terrorism analyst, said such slick graphics are increasingly common in terror propaganda campaigns and seem aimed at a younger audience.
“The main point is a message that, ‘We need a qualitative powerful operation in New York,’" said Phares. “His latest postings on al Ansar aren't ideologically different from previous postings on that site or different from the general tone of the Jihadists against the U.S. But in these postings he is inciting for strikes against New York and using imagery.”
The web forum has long been a digital gathering place for extremists. It’s been used to distribute terrorist propaganda, including messages and videos from Usama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki and remains an online hub for like-minded extremists around the globe.
“It is a top tier Arabic language jihadi forum," one terror source said.
The jihadist behind the graphic threatening New York has left thousands of comments, including technical photoshopping instructions, lessons on using anonymizing software and Tor to stay anonymous on the web. He’s posted photoshopped promotional material for the site itself, glossy renderings of jihadist poems, links to YouTube videos highlighting bombing attacks on Israel, destruction wrought by terrorists on U.S. soil and abroad, among others. He seems to have carved out a role as the forum’s in-house graphic artist and Photoshop IT support person.
The forum user has repeatedly supported attacks on New York City in comments posted over the course of several years.He is also present on a variety of other jihadist forums.
Phares believes the slick graphics are part of a new approach targeted toward the recruitment of homegrown terrorists.
“I have been monitoring another approach in jihadi strategies,” he said. “That is, calls to ask those jihadists who are preparing for operations, particularly the homegrown, to hasten their preparations and strike.
“Al Qaeda's strategies have mutated,” Phares added. “These homegrown jihadists look at calls like these postings to justify and or to legitimize their actions. The incitements could play the role of a trigger to what is already underway. And now with such posters, the level of incitements may grow higher."
Not everyone is impressed with the technical skills of the extremist behind the New York graphic. One former senior intelligence officer and cyber terror expert said:
"A lot of the graphics I've seen look like a cross between graphics and font from '80s San Fernando Valley porn, and PowerPoint clip art. I'd expect even the pacifist ones are trying to up their media game. Otherwise jihadi violence doesn't attract any more attention and thus participation and money than Grand Theft Auto III."