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In a clear sign that al Qaeda is losing the ideological battle with ISIS, online forums once aligned with al Qaeda — including Osama bin Laden’s favorite chat room — have switched allegiance to the more violent Islamic State, experts say.
The trend is one of several "metrics" indicating al Qaeda has been stung by losses in leadership and prestige and is losing the internal war for loyalty among the most radical Islamists, say both terrorism experts and U.S. government officials, who've seen al Qaeda operatives shift loyalties, as well.
Evan Kohlmann of Flashpoint Intelligence, an NBC terrorism analyst, said there are 10 or fewer terrorist forums where the most battle-hardened jihadis gather, and the chat rooms have rigorous controls on who can post. Only one of these terrorist forums, according to Kohlmann, remains loyal to al Qaeda and its affiliates.
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Kohlmann explained that the forums have secure areas where only "online couriers" from terror groups post official statements and tutorials and provide connections to like-minded individuals. All of those couriers were once loyal to al Qaeda.
That started changing about four years ago, and the trend has accelerated in the last year.
"Around that time, forums started to take sides, and by 2012, you saw some break off and become ISIS forums," said Kohlmann, explaining that al Qaeda's decline after bin Laden's killing in 2011 and the Islamic State’s mounting successes were the big factors.
In addition, bin Laden’s successor as al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, lacked bin Laden’s charisma and popularity, further contributing to the terror group’s online decline.
Then, after ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate, the switch accelerated.
"Long-time forums loyal to al Qaeda, slowly, one-by-one, defected to ISIS," Kohlmann explained.
Specifically, Kohlmann pointed to the example of Shamukh, known as the "gold standard, top-of-the-line" jihadi forum. Shamukh had long supported al Qaeda, bin Laden, and Zawahiri. Zawahiri would often point followers to Shamukh for the latest ideological discussions.
Then, said Kohlmann, in 2014 Shamukh's administrators "defected to ISIS," which he called a "milestone" in both the decline of al Qaeda and the rise of ISIS.
This was a far cry from Shamukh's initial reaction to the infighting between ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria and elsewhere in 2013. At the time, the forum promised to stay neutral, even threatening to ban members who showed overt signs of siding one way or the either.
Now, Shamukh, once the favorite of bin Laden himself, has risen to become the most important ISIS forum, acting as its official mouthpiece.