(Erin McCann/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — In the days following the deadly suicide attack on Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan last month, CIA officials scrambled to figure out who the bomber was and how they could have been deceived.

At the same time, al-Qaida media specialists were making the bomber’s online sermons available for Kindle and the iPhone.

"Al-Qaida has transformed from a terrorist organization that uses media to a media organization that uses terrorism," said Jarret Brachman, former director of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. "We think we’ve got it, and so we go to kill and capture these guys. But that’s not their only fight."

Brachman and other counterterrorism scholars say Islamic extremists are fighting — and winning — a propaganda war online, a battle almost completely separate from the fighting in Afghanistan.

But that virtual battlefield is just as important, according to those experts and a growing number of lawmakers looking at the future of the U.S. fight against terrorism.

"The broader battle that is more troubling right now than the operational battle is the long-term message, the battle of ideas," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Terrorism and Unconventional Threats subcommittee, at a hearing on the issues last month.

"We are fighting an ideology. When we’re looking at how to stop people from becoming radicalized it is a message war, and right now we are considerably behind in fighting that battle."

Defense officials have already linked two recent domestic terror attacks — the Fort Hood shooting in November and the attempted plane bombing in Detroit on Christmas — to cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born extremist now living in Yemen.

Law enforcement officials say that in recent years, as the cleric has become more radicalized and more closely aligned with al-Qaida, he’s also become more Internet savvy. Digital copies of his sermons are easily found online. Days after the Fort Hood attack he posted justifications for the violence on his blog.

Christopher Boucek, a new media specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said al-Awlaki isn’t the only one actively building his online profile. In the last five years, researchers have seen a tremendous boost in English-speaking and U.S.-based Web sites espousing extremist Islamic views.

While a small number of those sites are run by legitimate al-Qaida operatives, most are put together by what Brachman calls "jihobbyists" — fans of al-Qaiada who repeat and editorialize on the virtues of radical teachings. While they might not be directly involved in terrorist attacks, they help spread the potentially dangerous ideology to a broader audience.

"The Internet is not a system of radical training camps ... but it spreads participation," Boucek said.

He points to the case of five northern Virgina men arrested in Pakistan last month after trying to contact insurgent groups there. Investigators said the men often researched radical Islamic teachings online and used Facebook to contact a Taliban recruiter in Pakistan.

The problem, experts say, is that no real counter effort exists to combat this easy spread of extremism.

The U.S. military and State Department have formal programs to combat misinformation about battlefield casualties or factual inaccuracies by enemy fighters, but aren’t positioned to counter pseudo-scholarly writings on the merits of al-Qaida’s interpretation of the Quran.

Defense officials say they’ll correct widespread factual inaccuracies and respond directly to charges by key terrorist operatives, but they’re loathe to respond to bloggers or fans simply repeating propoganda, for fear of elevating a malcontent to some higher prestige. But, they said they are watching those conversations online.

Meanwhile, Brachman and Boucek said since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, researchers and think tanks have slowly shifted their focus more toward military intervention topics than general study of extremism and its cause.

"It’s shocking to me that nine years into this protracted conflict there is not an organized way to study this," Boucek said. "If you look back during the Cold War, there was a whole study of communism and Russian and Chinese studies, Maoism. We don’t have that for today."

Brachman, who authored the book "Global Jihadism" and teaches at North Dakota State University, runs his own blog where he collects and refutes common themes from extremist Web sites. He said he knows of only a handful of other Islamic experts in the U.S. doing similar work, although Saudi Arabia and other Middle East nations have similar state-sponsored programs.

"This is an intellectual fight," he said. "Where we can have the most impact — directly engaging them — is where we’ve put the least emphasis and funding."

At a Carnegie Endowment event in Washington this month, Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, said as prolific and media savvy as radical Islamists have become in recent years, many of their core arguments of violence and hatred are still easily dismissed by true Islamic scholars.

Experts say finding ways to elevate those voices — anything from providing formal funding to simply encouraging like-minded scholars to work together — would be a boon to U.S. efforts. Defense and State Department officials have done that in the past, although those efforts are usually prompted by and limited to individual regional commanders or overseas embassies, and not a global strategy.

"There has been a lot of work to identify [anti-extremist] individuals, books, pamphlets that are not getting promoted," Boucek said. "I think finding ways to get that online would be a good place to start.

"You’re not trying to reach people who have already made up their minds. What you want to do is reach people out there looking for answers, and don’t know how to find them."

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