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From December 5, 2012 to January 29, 2013, al-Qaeda’s top-tier forum Shamukh al-Islam was down (with a brief return for a few days after December 17). The suppression of the forum is likely the work of an intelligence agency, but no claim of responsibility has been announced. It has also accelerated an already growing trend: the migration of jihadi propaganda from web forums to social media.

In response to the blackout, many jihadi groups, media outlets, and individuals created new accounts on Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook). Others have likely migrated to popular second-tier forums like Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (AMAF), which occurred the last time the al-Qaeda approved forums went down in late March/early April 2012. During that period, I was in the middle of collecting and analyzing data (from February 1, 2012 to April 31, 2012) on a number of jihadi forums spanning multiple languages and Twitter accounts for a New American Foundation paper, which showed empirically for the first time that lower-tier forums did indeed fill the vacuum created by the main forum’s absence.

Both of these forum takedowns — in March and April, as well as in December and January — exposed the limits of al-Qaeda’s official online media procedures, which are headed by its distribution network al-Fajr Media. Al-Fajr is responsible for coordinating between al-Qaeda Central (AQC), its affiliates’ media outlets (As-Sahab Media for AQC, al-Malahim for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Furqan for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Andalus for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)), and the forum administrators. In both takedown cases, al-Fajr could not deliver content from the al-Qaeda affiliates, at least in an official capacity, to the online masses.

Media outlets, groups, and ideologues that, while not expressly affiliated, are inspired by al-Qaeda’s worldview have not been hindered by this process, and therefore have not evolved mechanisms for releasing their content. Previously, popular online jihadi essayists like Abu Sa’d al-Amili wrote articles when the forums when down, encouraging readers to be patient and to understand that the forums would persist and would not be defeated. On December 23, 2012, however, Abdullah Muhammad Mahmud, a writer for the jihadi news agency Dawa al-Haqq Foundation for Studies and Research, which is disseminated via a WordPress blog, provided guidance to online jihadi activists. Mahmud told his comrades that going forward, it was legitimate to use Twitter and Facebook as sources of information for jihadi-related issues. This advice was in a sense revolutionary, as jihadis had previously emphazized the importance of the forums as a method for authenticating materials, to prevent forgeries of official group content. At the same time, though, many grassroots activists had already been active on online social media platforms for a few years on an individual basis.

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Ever since the first issue of Inspire magazine, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language publication, released in late June 2010, Samir Khan became a household name in the counterterrorism community. His work in the jihadi community, though, started a decade earlier in the streets of New York City.

Khan, who was reportedly killed in an airstrike in Yemen on Friday, Sept. 30, alongside his mentor, Anwar al-Awlaki, was not a religious authority. But he helped create the media architecture of the American online jihadi community, an Internet incubator for radicalization.

Read the rest here.

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.

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.

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.

Seit der amerikanische Präsident Barack Obama die Tötung Usama Bin Ladins bekanntgegeben hat, wird in den globalen Dschihadisten-Foren darüber debattiert, ob Bin Ladin tatsächlich tot ist. Viele Sympathisanten äußern sich skeptisch. Dies entspricht der Reaktion, die von der Gruppe “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan”(TTP) und den afghanischen Taliban zu hören war. Andererseits wird in vielen Foren Bin Ladin gepriesen und sein Tod akzeptiert. Diejenigen, die nicht an seinen Tod glauben, drohen für den Fall, dass er tot ist, Racheaktionen an.

Am Montag war auf BBC-Arabic zunächst eine Videobotschaft von Wali Al-Rehman verbreitet worden, dem Kommandeur der Taliban in Südwasiristan, der zufolge Bin Ladin nicht tot sei. Später wurde indirekt eingeräumt, er lebe womöglich doch nicht mehr. Nun seien der pakistanische Präsident Zardari und die Armee das wichtigste Ziel, Amerika das zweitwichtigste Ziel, sagte der TTP-Sprecher Ihsanullah Ihsan. Bei den afghanischen Taliban heißt es noch anders. Ihr Sprecher Zabihullah Mujahid sagte, es gebe noch keinen Beweis von Bin Ladins Tod.

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NOTE: The below piece was based on early reactions from the forums between the announcement and ~9AM Central Time in the US. I have continued to cull some newer quotes here. As the day has gone on, there is a lot more skepticism within the grassroots of the online jihādī movement and whether Bin Lāden is actually dead since the US has yet to release any hard proof as well as the fact that they allegedly put his body in the sea quickly. Therefore, many are still holding out to hear from the mujāhidīn instead of “kuffār” sources.

Following President Barack Obama’s announcement yesterday of the operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the latter’s online grassroots supporters in forums and blogs began quickly to respond. These pronouncements provide key insights into how these activists view Bin Laden as well as their continued commitment to the movement, showing a range of emotions but also the durability of the ideas that bin Laden worked so hard to propagate through propaganda and massive anti-civilian violence.

Below is a taste of the reactions from members of some of the major pro-jihadi forums, including the Ansar Arabic Forum, the English Islamic Awakening Forum, al-Jahad al-‘Alami Arabic Forum, and the Jamia Hafsa Urdu Forum (also in English). Many expressed shock at the news and did not want to believe that he had really been killed. A member of the Ansar Forum wrote, “How sound is the news of the martyrdom of Sheikh Osama bin Laden?” While another responded “O Allah, make this news not true.” Another quipped in a different post “God willing, [this] news is not true. Catastrophic if it is authentic.”

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