Inchoate Conceptualization of Jihadi Online Media

For the past few months I have been pondering some ideas regarding how to conceptualize jihadi media and how it has evolved over time. In light of a vigorous debate a month or so ago (this post got delayed) on Twitter and Will McCants’ post at Jihadica about the efficacy of jihadi organizations using platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, I thought I would finally test the waters with a rough sketch, which can hopefully be fleshed out further and/or begin a healthy debate.

Jihadi Media Since Maktab al-Khidmat

Although I am only interested in jihadi media online, there has been four different phases of how jihadi media has been predominantly disseminated since 1984. The latter ones are not necessarily mutually exclusive to the former ones. The dates correspond to adoption of medium:

Phase 1 – 1984: Khutbas, Essays/Pamphlets, Printed Magazines/Newsletters, and Video-taped lectures and/or battle scenes.

Examples: ‘Abdullah Azzam’s tours in Europe and the US at a variety of Mosques, publication of Join the Caravan and al-Jihad Magazine, and a variety of old school VHS-type videos that came out of Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.

Phase 2 – Mid-1990s: Top-down websites

Examples: al-Neda and Azzam Publications

Phase 3 – Mid-“aughts”: Forums

Examples: al-Hesbah, al-‘Ikhlas, al-Fallujah, Ansar, and Shamukh.

Phase 4 – Mid to late “aughts”: Social Media Platforms

Examples: Blogs, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter

Defining the Different Types of Online Media

Top-down Websites.

This is a completely centralized endeavor where the individual owning a Web domain (who is connected with jihadi organizations) holds complete monopoly over what content is important and highlighted. Top-down websites have total control over the content.

Forums.

Administrators of the forums help facilitate and disseminate content on behalf of jihadi organizations. Additionally, they post important news items and have the power to delete threads and ban users. Therefore, they help steer the online community in a certain direction by not allowing users be exposed to certain content or dissent. At the same time, the users now have a role in posting a variety of materials, including their own views on events, and the ability to converse with like-minded individuals spread across a dispersed geographic area.

Social Media Platforms.

The individual is in control of the content. One can post news articles on Twitter and Facebook, create videos on YouTube, or write articles and/or essays on one’s blog. The individual, not the organization, decides what is important and what they believe should be given the most attention.

Take Away

Over the past 15 years there has been an enormous shift in the ownership of production and consumption of jihadi media. During the mid-90s through 2003/2004 jihadi groups had a monopoly on who produced and disseminated jihadi materials online, which allowed al-Qaeda and other organizations to continue to be more elitist in nature. The parallel onset of the forums with the rise of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi somewhat evened the playing field. The forums allowed administrators (who were connected with jihadi organizations) to still have somewhat of a monopoly over what was posted on the forums by deleting threads or banning members, but individuals online who were not connected in a first degree manner to al-Qaeda or other jihadi organizations could now not only consume what was posted by administrators, but comment in those threads as well as post their own content that they came across or originally produced as well. The most recent Web 2.0 innovations and creation of social media platforms has completely upended the old monopolized control over the production of online jihadi media. As a result, the ideology of global jihadism is no longer an elitist clique, but has been appropriated at a social movement level, albeit at the fringe. Social media platforms have created global jihadi entrepreneurs of news items, originals articles and essays, tribute videos and anashid, etc. Therefore, over time, due to newer technologies being adopted the bar became lowered for being able to participate and be a part of the global jihadi movement.

The convergence of the invasion of the Iraq war with emerging technologies that encourages online communities were large factors, which gave more opportunity to the individual. The individual jihad became individualized for those off the battlefield. Before, one could only really fight or give money. This gave a new power to a whole new group of individuals. By doing so empowering a whole generation and metamorphisizing global jihad into a social movement versus more of an elitist clique. On the web one can talk about it all day even if one is geographically dispersed. One couldn’t do that in the 90s or in early “aughts.” That’s what makes it unique. The biggest thing that it has done and I hate to use the phrase, but the flat worldization and boot-strapization of global jihad. There can be an “American dream” of jihad if one does it correctly: Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani, Samir Khan, etc.

This is why it does not matter if al-Qaeda is officially on social media platforms. They already have a whole army of online media entrepreneurs that spread its gospel to the furthest ends of the Internet. The forums are the hub where the organization meets the grassroots, which is why although social media platforms are the nodes that bring the global jihadi message to non-global jihadists the forums will not become obsolete. It is a place where the global jihad is headquartered online. The social media platforms are where the product or ideas are sold. It has opened up a whole new recruiting ground that exposes the global jihadi message to anyone, whereas before, one had to knowingly want to be exposed to the global jihadi movement by going to the forums. These individual online entrepreneurs can replicate their message multiple times over. We may be in a golden age of online da’wah to the global jihadi social movement.

This raises the question of whether this will lead to more individuals joining the global jihadi terrorist movement or whether the social movement will dilute the global jihadi message and/or moderate it by normalizing the idea that it is okay to cheerlead at home instead of fighting, especially individuals in the West. As the past has shown, some individuals will be zealous no matter what, therefore, even if a portion of the global jihad is confined to ones computer, the message is still spreading and there will be some that go out and attempt an attack. As a result, it is crucial to understand how online jihadi activists promote their ideas to non-global jihadis in popular social media platforms.

I will come back to this subject more in-depth in the medium term.

The Global Jihad Internet Forum Launches New Sub-forum Dedicated to Anwar al-‘Awlaqi: A Sign of His Growing Influence?

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The Global Jihad (al-Jihad al-‘Alami) jihadi-takfiri Internet forum has launched a new sub-forum/section (qism) dedicated to the lectures of Anwar al-‘Awlaqi (Awlaki, Aulaqi), the militant American Muslim preacher currently in Yemen and believed to be a member of or affiliated with Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The Arabic announcement reads: “Glad tidings, the inauguration/opening of a sub-forum/section for the lectures of Shaykh Anwar al-‘Awlaqi, may God protect him.”

The inauguration (or “opening [for the first time],” to use a more direct translation of the Arabic announcement) of a new sub-forum on one of the most prominent Arabic-language jihadi-takfiri Internet forums is significant in that it provides further evidence of al-‘Awlaqi’s growing appeal outside of his original English-language audience base. The last three major videos or audio messages he’s been featured in or recorded have all been in Arabic. Two videos, an “interview” produced by AQAP’s Al-Malahem (Malahim; Epics, Epic Battles) Media Foundation that was released in May 2010 and an independently-released (it seems) November 2010 video message were both released first in Arabic and only later in an English translation.

Various lectures and writings of his have been translated into a growing number of languages used by jihadi-takfiris including Urdu, Russian, Somali, Arabic, Indonesian, French, German, and Bosnian.  Al-‘Awlaqi has also slowly but steadily become a more popular figure in graphic artwork produced by cyber jihadi-takfiris and posted to Arabic Internet forums.

Despite the growing evidence suggesting that his influence is increasing over a broader spectrum of the jihadi-takfiri community (or communities), his exact role, if any, in AQAP remains unknown and debated.  Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen has pointed out that al-‘Awlaqi’s role in AQAP is frequently exaggerated in North American and European media because he is more well known to its journalists and speaks English.  Johnsen has also argued that the militant preacher’s role, however, is likely not as key to AQAP as the roles of its senior leadership, which includes amir Nasir al-Wihayshi, deputy amir Sa’id al-Shihri, senior military commander Qasim al-Raymi, and chief ideologue ‘Adel al-‘Abab.  In a critique of Johnsen’s argument, Thomas Hegghammer argued in a November 2010 Foreign Policy magazine online article that al-‘Awlaqi is likely AQAP’s head of foreign operations and thus should be a primary target of intelligence agencies.  Anonymous U.S. government sources claim that evidence was uncovered in Usama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout that the Al-Qa’ida Central founder dismissed a change in AQAP’s leadership from al-Wihayshi to al-‘Awlaqi, though the evidence of this claim remains unavailable for critical examination.

Whether or not al-‘Awlaqi is a member of AQAP, he is part of an informal group of charismatic scholar (or preacher)-ideologues who provide AQC, AQAP, and their sister movements with a unique mix of, however contested, an element of juridical authority, personal charisma, and rhetorical and oratorical skills.  Together with figures such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, ‘Atiyyatullah bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Libi, and Khalid al-Husaynan, al-‘Awlaqi serves as part of the vanguard of the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend’s charismatic “missionaries of jihad,” an argument I develop further in a forthcoming article.

Fitnah on the Forums

Three days ago, the Tahadi Islamic Forum released a statement titled “Declaration of Independence.” They are cutting off correspondence with other forums including the premiere al-Qaeda forum Shamukh al-Islam. This is because they believe they have been strangling open debate. By gaining such independence, Tahadi explains that they will have more legitimacy now and that it will better conform to Islamic principles. Tahadi hopes their forum lives up to its reputation as a place of free-flowing conversation. More interesting than the statement itself is how the grassroots online jihadis have reacted. Two major schools of thought have played out: 1. excitement and 2. confusion. Here are some examples:

Abu Muhammad al-Qurayshi: We ask God for the facilitation of a unified jihadi media.

Abu Muhtasib: God knows how happy this decision is, which came … to correct the path of the media jihad and maintain the existence of integrity and independence.

al-Mustashar al-Khas: We are tired of the life of humiliation and they treat us like slaves.

Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sayf: Blessings upon God to you, but I did not understand the reason [for the declaration].

Abu Qa’qa’ al-Najdi: Did Shamukh get struck/infected like al-Fallujah (previous top AQ forum), please clarify if possible.

Abu Hafs al-Sunni al-Sunni: My brothers did not understand the meaning of this independence, God bless you. Is it possible any of you can guide me and explain to me this decision? May God reward you.

Dhakwan: You did well to end this problem/widespread phenomenon in the jihadi forums.

Hindkushi: God expected that [Tahadi] will be [given] the courage to speak the word of truth found in the current jihadi forums, then praise God who showed me after I lost hope for a long period of time.

Asad al-Islam: We do not understand what is intended [by this independence].

Abu Dhar al-Maqdisi: A courageous and successful step, God willing.

Khadim al-Jihad: Perhaps a good initiative to restore the good old days for us.

Although many forum participants were relieved, unsure how to react, and wanted more information for guidance, one forum member named Hamam Harith believed it was a bad idea by asking what benefit the jihadi media and forums will get from this “independence.” Also, some forum goers did not understand if it was a clean break from affiliating with other forums or whether it included media outlets too such as al-Fajr Media Center or the Global Islamic Media Front. If Tahadi were smart one would suspect that they would provide a follow up statement with more details. Unfortunately, I do not have access to Shamukh al-Islam Forum, since it is privatized, and they no longer accept new registrants. As such, I will rely on Aaron at Internet Haganah for some more details as well as to provide more historical context since there have been forum fights in the past including al-Hesbah and Tajdeed.

Asad al-Jihad2 posts a Referendum Poll at the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum: Results

On May 4, Asad al-Jihad2, a popular “Internet Shaykh” posted what was described as a referendum poll with five questions. One should be reminded that this is not a scientific poll and there is a possibility that peer pressure led some to answer certain questions a certain way since it was an open and not closed poll. Therefore, it may not be completely representative of what all grassroots online jihadi activists believe. With that caveat, it still provides some insight, which would be worthwhile to share. As such, below I translated into English the questions and the results as of May 6, 2011 (once the al-Qaeda statement was released the referendum was closed).

1. Do you think it is correct that the power of al-Qaeda will decline with the “martyrdom” of Usamah bin Laden?

Yes: 0; No: 48

2. If the news is true of the martyrdom of the Father Shaykh Usamah bin Laden; Do you expect attacks to stop inside or outside the United States or increase?

Yes, increase: 47; No: 1

3. Do you believe that the Pakistani government was involved in the operation?

Yes: 43; No: 5

4. Do you think the United States will take this event as a moral victory back to its people and the world to withdraw from Afghanistan, instead of declaring defeat at the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which grows in strength?

Yes: 38; No: 10

5. Do you wish for your children to be like Usamah bin Laden?

Yes: 48; No 0

_____

Source: http://www.as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?t=38100

From the above results one can surmise the following conclusions about how online jihadi grassroots activists felt prior to al-Qaeda confirming the death of Bin Laden:

  • al-Qaeda will continue to be a strong organization that will be able to conduct increasingly more attacks against the United States.
  • The Pakistani government was involved with the operation to kill Bin Laden
  • The United States will use the death of Bin Laden as an excuse to claim victory and withdraw from Afghanistan even though the Taliban and al-Qaeda have defeated United States.
  • They all hope that their children grow up to be like Usamah bin Laden

Some of the individuals expanded upon their answers with more detail. Currently, I am too busy to delve deeply into it, but I hope to use it in an expanded article that systematically looks at the grassroots’, Internet Shaykhs’, and jihadi organizations’ responses to the death of Bin Laden pre and post-AQ’s statement.

Who bombed Marrakesh?

Since last Thursday, when a powerful remotely-detonated bomb tore through the popular Argana café in Marrakesh’s Djemaa al-Fna, analysts and Moroccan and French government officials have been trying to figure out who was responsible for the attack, a surprising one given Morocco’s relatively quiet security situation since the 2003 Casablanca bombings, which saw coordinated attacks against Jewish and other targets in the city killing 45 people, including 12 suicide bombers.

The bombing, which tore through the café and left a gaping hole in its façade, bears many hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-style attack; the Djemaa al-Fna is one of the most popular tourist sites in Morocco, and the Argana is situated at the heart of the square, commanding views over the activity below. The tourist draw of the restaurant is reflected in the high toll foreigners paid in the attack; of the 16 people killed, the victims included eight French citizens (including a 10-year old girl), a Briton, and two Swiss residents. Two Dutch tourists identified have reportedly provided a sketch of the suspected bomb-placer to Moroccan authorities.

Moroccan government officials, including government spokesman Khalid Naciri and interior minister Taeb Cherkaoui, have both also said that the attack could be the work of al-Qaeda, pointing not only to the kind of bombing but also the professional construction of the device and the explosives used, which included the volatile compounds TATP and PETN. Either or both explosives have been used in multiple serious attacks and plots, including Richard Reid’s attempt to bring down a transatlantic flight with a shoe bomb in 2002, the 7/7 London transportation bombings, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to down Northwest Flight 253 with an underwear bomb, and Najibullah Zazi’s plot to attack the NY Subway system.The construction of such an explosive is a complicated process, one that likely required some manner of resources and personnel support, as well as a skilled bomb-maker.

However, this evidence is insufficient to assume an al-Qaeda attack (at least without further information), and I think it highly unlikely that this is the work of the group’s North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). French interior minister Claude Guéant prevaricated on this point when asked by a French journalist, saying that he would wait until a formal claim is made to say whether or not AQIM, which is currently holding four Frenchmen hostage and has consistently threatened to attack France and French targets in the Maghreb, is responsible. While active in Algeria and several Sahelian countries, AQIM has never shown any particular interest in Morocco. While the group has recruited some Moroccans, it has generally failed to integrate members of the defunct Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) and has only referenced Morocco a handful of times over the course of its existence (the last Morocco-focused AQIM statement I know of was released in June 2008, though a January 2011 statement from AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadud said, “By Allah…we haven’t forgotten about our prisoners in Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria and others”). Additionally, the AFP reports today that a crudely-edited video posted on YouTube last Monday purporting to be from “The Moroccans of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” threatening attacks against the Moroccan government was in reality taken from a 2007 AQIM tape, and was posted straight to YouTube, rather than being posted to jihadist forums, the group’s standard practice.

I believe it is more likely that the attack was carried out by unaffiliated or loosely-affiliated Moroccan jihadis, who may have received training abroad, whether in Iraq or along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Moroccans unaffiliated with al-Qaeda have participated in several major attacks over the years (the 2003 Casablanca bombings, the 2004 Madrid bombings, and aborted attacks in Casablanca in 2007). While it is entirely possible that the use of PETN and TATP indicate al-Qaeda influence, they are not the only group to make use of these materials, and non-al-Qaeda jihadis could have picked up their bomb-making skills and experience in camps without actually being members of or taking direction from al-Qaeda.

It is also worth noting that this attack comes at a particularly bad time for Moroccan jihadis. Morocco’s King Mohammed two weeks ago released a number of Moroccan salafi-jihadis from prison, including one-time pro-jihadi imam Mohammed Fazizi. This attack will almost certainly lead to a crackdown on both violent and non-violent salafis, and the group Salafiyya Jihadiyya was quick to issue a denial of its involvement in the attack. Interestingly, participants on both Arabophone and Francophone jihadi forums have been nearly unanimous in their suspicion of the attacks, with nearly all commenters accusing the Moroccan government of committing the attacks in order to have an excuse to arrest jihadis and warning each other not to take trips to Morocco in order to avoid being swept up by the country’s police.

Given both the poor timing and al-Qaeda’s longtime non-interest in Morocco, it seems likely that the attack was carried out by an independent jihadist group operating on the fringes of the jihadist scene in Morocco. We will not know for sure until someone claims responsibility for the attack, but even that will not necessarily settle things — after all, a group like AQIM may claim responsibility opportunistically, and unless an eventual claim comes with direct evidence of involvement (say, for instance, video of the bomb being constructed or footage of the bombing as it happened) I will remain skeptical. Needless to say, the circumstances surrounding the bombing are murky, and will likely remain so for some time.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 410 other followers