Revolution Muslim, a U.S.-based radical Islamic jihadist organization, has become the Kevin Bacon of Islamic fundamentalism. Whenever jihadist groups threaten free speech in America or Europe, you can bet an associate of Revolution Muslim is somehow involved.
During an 18-month period, eight of the 27 reported cases of homegrown terrorism saw U.S. terror suspects frequenting, blogging on, or directly linked to Revolution Muslim or a related group. The group's website was originally at RevolutionMuslim.com. When their service provider shut them down on November 5, 2010, they reconstituted at IslamPolicy.com. To date, the threats that have emanated from the Revolution Muslim websites have never been adequately legally addressed by the U.S.
Revolution Muslim's influence is most visible in three recent incidents where Islamic extremists threatened the free speech of artists, politicians, and even private citizens:
The "South Park" Incident
On April 15, 2010, Comedy Central aired the first of a two-part South Park episode featuring a character in a bear suit identified as the Islamic Prophet Mohammed. Zachary Chesser of Virginia, a member of Revolution Muslim, posted on the group's website that South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had "outright insulted" Islam's religious leader. He continued:
We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.
He also called for his supporters to "pay [Parker and Stone] a visit" and posted the addresses of Comedy Central's New York office, Parker and Stone's California production office, and a link to an article detailing Parker and Stone's home in Colorado.
In the following days, Chesser posted numerous additional comments and uploaded several videos and recordings, including one by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamist cleric currently hiding in Yemen, which further justified the murder of Parker and Stone. Panicking, Comedy Central censored part two of the episode by bleeping out language, including its criticism of censorship, a speech against intimidation, and every use of the name "Mohammed."
Nevertheless, this rather obvious threat was not prosecuted by state or local law enforcement officials. NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said authorities didn't think it "rises to a crime right now."
Months later, on July 21, 2010, Chesser was arrested on independent charges for trying to board a plane to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, a brutal terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda. It was only months after that, on the eve of a plea agreement, that he was finally charged for making internet threats against Parker and Stone in violation of 18 U.S.C. 875(c). On October 20, 2010, Chesser pleaded guilty to a three-count criminal indictment.
The Molly Norris Incident
On April 20, 2010, partly in response to Comedy Central's self-censorship, Seattle Weekly cartoonist Molly Norris proposed an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day (EDMD)." Her point? Freedom implies the right to criticize and caricature, and this freedom was now in jeopardy because a minority of Muslims believe the majority of non-Muslims can be easily intimidated.
Her idea caught on and pretty soon there was a Facebook page devoted to EDMD which over a hundred thousand people joined. That is when Anwar al-Awlaki issued a fatwa calling for Norris to be murdered. This fatwa prompted Zachary Chesser to gather personal information on at least eleven Facebook friends of EDMD and to post it on Revolution Muslim's website in a comment thread that also contained videos and discussion justifying punishing anyone who insults Mohammed.
Chesser characterized the information he provided as "just a place to start." According to federal prosecutors, the lives of the private citizens and Facebook users Chesser identified as EDMD supporters "will remain at risk for many years to come." Frightened by the threats, Molly Norris recanted and disavowed EDMD, but it was too late. On September 15, 2010, the Seattle Weekly informed its readers:
You may have noticed that Molly Norris' comic is not in the paper this week. That's because there is no more Molly. The gifted artist is alive and well, thankfully. But on the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is, as they put it, "going ghost": moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity….
The Choudhry Incident
On May 14, 2010, Roshonara Choudhry, a British prize-winning student at King's College, London, stabbed former British MP Stephen Timms in London because he supported the Iraq war.
In interviews immediately following her arrest, Choudhry told police she resolved to strike Timms after viewing over 100 hours of video sermons given by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, which she had found posted on Revolution Muslim and other websites. She began listening to the sermons in November 2009, and completed them just days before she carried out her attack.
After her attack, members of Revolution Muslim published praise of Ms. Choudhry as a "heroine" and expressed the hope "for her action to inspire Muslims to raise the knife of jihad against those who voted for the countless rapes, murders, pillages and torture of Muslim civilians as a direct consequence of their vote." The organization also posted a list of 383 British lawmakers who voted for the Iraqi war, accompanied by instructions on how to track these lawmakers' movements, as well as a link for buying a kitchen knife.
The British government demanded the website be taken down and on November 5, 2010, Revolution Muslim's website closed. Shortly thereafter the website resurfaced as IslamPolicy.com.
To defend free speech rights from intimidation by the likes of Revolution Muslim, the Legal Project has proposed the Defend Expression from Islamists (DEFI) Act. This legislation would make it a federal crime to threaten or use force against individuals exercising free speech rights.
A federal statute is both necessary and proper. Islamic radicalism is a national concern. Frequently, when Islamists threaten Americans they do so over the internet and from another state or country. At the same time, existing state laws are inadequate. The heightened standard of proof deters local prosecutors from investing scarce resources, explicit grounds for a civil suit do not always exist, and damages can be difficult to quantify.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of DEFI — which is lacking in criminal statues like 18 U.S.C. 875(c) — is that it empowers victims of Islamist threats to sue for damages. This provision transforms them from passive victims into private attorneys general to defend their rights in a setting with a lower burden of proof and preset damages.
One law, by itself, won't entirely halt groups like Revolution Muslim from threatening free speech. But it is about time we did something tangible to punish them for their threats. When Comedy Central was intimidated into censoring itself on American television, the federal government did nothing. When Molly Norris was forced to go ghost, the federal government did not pick up the tab. And when the Revolution Muslim jihadists inspired a British Muslim to attempt to assassinate a member of the British Parliament, and then threatened the lives of other British legislators, the federal government's sole response was allegedly pressuring Google to shutter the site.
Revolution Muslim simply changed its website name and migrated to another server, without any legal consequences for the true threats it made. This kind of appeasement should end, now.
The author is a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee for national security issues and is currently staff counsel for The Legal Project of the Middle East Forum.