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
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.
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.
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.