Jihadi Online Media

I recently had an article published in the German publication Internationale Politik  for their September/October issue. The piece was titled “Debating the Global Jihad in Cyberspace.” I figured since it was published in German I would post the English version here. It should be noted, though, that parts of the article were edited in German following my final version of it written in English so there are some differences between the two copies. Also, this final English draft was completed August 8 so some of my own analysis of potential debates regarding 9/11 were future prognostications rather than content based on knowledge from the past week since 9/11. Additionally, for those wondering why I didn’t have anything about the debates on HAMAS and Hizbullah, I felt that they had already been treated fairly well in the literature and decided to leave them out of the piece due to the word limit.

Since 9/11 and increasingly over the past several years, online jihad has become just as important to the global jihadi movement at the grassroots level as its military operations. There have been vigorous debates in the past decade amongst jihadis in forums and via official communiqués released online from popular ideologues as well as leaders.  However, there have been instances where such debate was purposely shut down by administrators at forums to keep a sense of ideological cohesion. As a result, because of a lack of mainstream coverage the global jihadi movement is viewed in monolithic terms even though there are indeed cleavages that arise every so often, although they do not create big enough rifts to endanger the movement.

It would not be surprising to see global jihadis writing ten-year retrospectives on the 9/11 attacks that turn into vile debates. This could certainly be a replay of global jihadi debates that immediately followed the 9/11 attacks about whether it made sense strategically to attack the United States versus focusing on the so-called near enemy. In light of the recent Arab uprisings and the potential opportunity to gain power, one might very well see the debates over the far and near enemy to re-emerge. Although there has been a so-called hybriditization of these strategic outlooks, as Thomas Hegghammer has argued, one could see a decoupling, with a return to the local battle since, in the current context, it may bear more fruit.

In a related fashion, the most recent of these debates has dealt with how global jihadis in Arab countries should react and/or participate in the continuing uprisings against unpopular regimes. Many online jihadi ideologues have been cautious because the peaceful demonstrations are a rebuke of the global jihadis’ strategy of using violence as the most effective way of bringing about change in those societies. For instance, in late July 2011, a joint statement was released by top-tier global jihadi forums (al-Fida al-Islam, Shmukh al-Islam, and Ansar al-Mujahidin) and online jihadi media apparatuses, calling for its followers on the ground in Syria not to carry out military operations.  Moreover, many global jihadi activists on the ground have been curious about the legitimacy of joining the protest movements going back to January 2011, when the Arab uprisings were in their genesis. For example, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s Shari’ah Council regularly fields questions and publishes fatwa’s (legal rulings) in response. Questions from activists on the ground ranged from the legitimacy of self-immolation alá the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, who helped spark their revolution, or the efficacy of joining the street demonstrations in countries from Morocco to Egypt to Iraq to Saudi Arabia, and others. They also consider whether it is legitimate to join al-Nahdah, a Tunisian Islamist organization, or to participate in the Egyptian referendum and elections, or whether it is permissible to establish a political party. Another important question that has been raised is whether the demonstrations discredit the “mujahidin.” Also, many organizations, as well as other ideologues, caution the jihadis on the ground not to let deceitful protesters steal any progress in the jihad or establishing the shari’ah.

As far as participation goes, this debate echoes earlier debates, though in a different context – at the onset of the United States’ war in Iraq. ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, the deceased former leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – which at the time (2002-2006) was located in Saudi Arabia and a different entity than AQAP currently in Yemen – debated the legitimacy of having Saudi Arabians joining the jihad in Iraq. Muqrin believed that the jihad in Saudi Arabia and Iraq could be symbiotic, where they complemented and reinforced one another, instead of just focusing on one area of operation. This differed from the view of one of the key Saudi leaders in the Chechen theater (among others) who released an audio message online, arguing that fighting the Saudi royal family was a waste of time because it fed into the machinations of the United States; instead, he advocated that it was worthwhile to focus on the United States’ presence in Iraq. Following Muqrin’s death in 2004, much of the support for jihad in Saudi Arabia dissipated due to set backs and the success and notoriety Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq organization garnered by that time – in large part due to Zarqawi’s innovative and sophisticated online apparatus.

As with the above argument, many of the noteworthy debates that inspired discussion in the mid-2000s surrounded al-Qaeda in Iraq and its subsequent entity, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). A year prior to al-Zarqawi’s death in 2005, one of his former mentors, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who has been described as the most influential living global jihadi theorist and who runs the website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, launched an attack against al-Zarqawi because of his excessive use of takfir (the practice of one Muslim declaring another Muslim an unbeliever or an apostate) and violence, as well as his lack of knowledge of Islam (along with his followers). Following the death of al-Zarqawi (in 2006), his supporters online (who have been described as neo-Zarqawists), especially individuals at the Midad al-Suyuf Forum – through 2010 – described al-Maqdisi as a sellout to the Jordanian regime – and one who went soft on jihad. Though, based on research from Joas Wagemakers and Nelly Lahoud, two leading authorities in the field of jihadi studies, al-Maqdisi’s writings have been consistent over the years. Also, the attacks against al-Maqdisi did not tarnish his reputation and is still considered by most grassroots online global jihadi activists as a popular and legitimate voice.

Additionally, after the death of al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq decided to change its name to the ISI as a way of rebranding itself because many Iraqis were repulsed by its overuse of violence, as well as the perception that it was simply a group of foreigners. This is the reason they also announced Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi as their new leader to show it was a local movement – it has been disputed whether he was actually a real person. Though this became a cause célèbre for grassroot online global jihadi forum activists who started placing a banner at the top of the major forums stating how many days it had been since the announcement of the Islamic state, not everyone agreed with its decision. Popular and credible online shaykhs Hamid bin ‘Ali, a Kuwaiti cleric, and Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Syrian cleric who is based in London, were the most vocal critics of creating an Islamic state. In January 2007, the ISI wrote a booklet “Informing the People About the Birth of the Islamic State of Iraq,” defending the state. ‘Ali and al-Tartusi, both in April 2007, wrote statements on their websites questioning the theological, strategic, and practical reasons for establishing the state. Further, the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), one of the other insurgent groups aligned with al-Qaeda prior to the declaration of the state, in late 2006 criticized this project and rebuked the ISI in an online statement in April 2007, which led major global jihadi forums, such as al-Boraq and al-Mohajeroon, to discontinue publishing the IAI’s media releases. The online fight got so intense that the al-Boraq Forum ended up splitting into two different forums each supporting its respective group.

This topic was later revisited and dodged by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who at the time was the deputy of al-Qaeda Central (AQC) and who is now the current emir. In December 2007 al-Zawahiri invited grassroot online global jihadi activists at the al-Ekhlass and al-Hesbah forums to ask him questions via the forums to which he would respond. Many of the forum activists were concerned by questions over the legitimacy of declaring an Islamic state in light of ‘Ali and al-Tartusi’s criticisms as well as the excessive violence in Iraq. A study by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center, which analyzed all 1,888 questions, concluded that al-Zawahiri did not substantively answer any of these specific concerns. Though the ISI is still an entity, its project has been a failure since many local Iraqis were uninterested in following strict Islamic law and believed that the ISI was sowing fitna (discord), which led many local tribes and individuals to side with the United States, effectively downgrading the ISI to a nuisance versus an existential problem.

Another war of words that played out over the Internet dealt with a split in the self-styled Caucasus Emirate, which is largely fighting an insurgency against Russia, but sympathizes with al-Qaeda’s global jihadi worldview. The Caucasus Emirate’s ideological fissuring, though far from unprecedented, played out in the near-total transparency of the Caucasus Emirate website the Kavkaz Center. Dokku Umarov first proclaimed the Caucasus Emirate in 2007, but in late July 2010 his leadership came into question. Umarov announced in a video that Aslambek Vadalov, the commander of the Eastern Front of the Armed Forces of the Caucasus Emirate, would succeed him immediately. Umarov said he strongly believed in the importance of clear lines of succession should he suddenly die. He urged his followers to pledge bay’at (a formal declaration of allegiance) to Vadalov. A week later, though, Umarov followed up his earlier message with a stunning announcement: he was recanting his resignation, the announcement of which he claimed had been “fabricated.” In a separate message released online that same week, Vadalov announced that he was stepping down from the position of deputy Emir. This feud went back and forth online through October 2010, when Umarov and the new opposition leveled charges against one another and they each attempted to shore up their positions. Umarov felt betrayed after conceding some of his failures in a high-level commanders meeting and offering to step down, but when the video that announced Vadalov as his successor contained an added statement from Vadalov, alongside two other senior leaders: Khusayn Gakayev and an Arab, known only as Mukhannad, who was reportedly al-Qaeda’s liason in the North Caucasus and died in April 2011. In early October, two videos that had been originally recorded in August surfaced, detailing a growing rift between those loyal to Umarov and a breakaway contingent that had joined with Vadalov. In the first video, Vadalov, Gakayev, and a commander named Tarkhan Gaziyev rescinded their bay’at to Umarov. They said their main grievance was that Umarov had suspended the Majlis al-Shura, the Emirate’s consultative council, and had formed the Caucasus Emirate without first consulting with other senior leaders. They declared that Gakayev was now the Emir of Chechnya and that they no longer recognized Umarov, asserting that the fighters in Chechnya supported their decision. In a second video, the three men reiterated their loyalty to Gakayev, this time alongside other commanders, suggesting that Gakayev’s faction wanted to refocus the Caucasus Emirate on Chechen nationalist concerns rather than Umarov’s pan-Caucasus global jihadi vision. Umarov responded not long after with a published decree eliminating the South-Western and Eastern Fronts, ordering all commanders to renew their bay’atto him, demanding Gakayev to hand over the money and supplies he’d been given, and giving Mukhannad one month to report to the emir’s “court” over charges he had fomented fitnah. Umarov also released a video denouncing all who rescinded their bay’at, saying they had lost their will for jihad. Complicating matters, online jihadi shayks al-Tartusi and al-Maqdisi issued fatwas stating that Umarov was the true Emir. The whole fight that reverberated over the Internet was for naught, though. After not hearing about the feud since October 2010, in late July 2011 the Kavkaz Center announced that the two groups had reconciled their differences through a Shari’ah court and Vadalov and Gakayev, as well as other commanders that previously rescinded their bay’at, renewed it.

In many cases, these debates resolve themselves either through reconciliation, such as in the case of the Caucasus Emirate, or there is an evolution in thought whereby a particular position wins out and is accepted. Therefore, although there are many vigorous debates in the global jihadi community that take place online, in the long run one view prevails with the grassroots activists, while the other position is discredited and fizzles out.

Zehn Jahre sind seit den Anschlägen auf das World Trade Center in New York und das Pentagon in Washington vergangen. In diesem Jahrzehnt hat der globale Cyber-Dschihadismus unter Aktivisten mindestens die Bedeutung erlangt, die militärische Aktionen haben. Entgegen der landläufigen Meinung aber verhält man sich in den Foren „Cyber-Dschihadistans“ keineswegs stromlinienförmig. Die Diskussionen unter Aktivisten selbst oder über wichtige Botschaften geistlicher und politischer Autoritäten verliefen im Gegenteil zuweilen so harsch, dass die Foren vorübergehend geschlossen wurden. Man wollte nicht den Eindruck aufkommen lassen, der ideologische Zusammenhalt der Cyber-Dschihadisten stünde auf dem Spiel. Für eine ernsthafte Fragmentierung der Bewegung aber sind die Differenzen nicht groß genug, zumal sich nach einer Weile meist wieder eine generelle Linie herausbildet.

Es wäre nicht weiter verwunderlich, wenn zehn Jahre nach 9/11 wieder so heftige Diskussionen geführt würden wie unmittelbar nach den Attentaten. Damals stritten sich die Dschihadisten, ob es strategisch richtig war, die USA anzugreifen – oder ob man sich nicht lieber auf den unmittelbaren Feind hätte konzentrieren sollen: auf „abtrünnige“, nichtislamistische Regierungen im Nahen Osten. Mit dem arabischen Frühling stellt sich in den Online-Foren wieder die Frage, ob man den Kampf jetzt hauptsächlich auf das unmittelbare Umfeld lenken und globale Aktivitäten zurückstellen solle. Immerhin ergäbe sich ja jetzt auch die Möglichkeit, an die Macht zu kommen. Derzeit geht die Tendenz dahin, sich auf die nahöstliche Region zu konzentrieren, da dies mehr Erfolg verspreche.

Dabei hatten sich die Cyber-Dschihadisten zu Beginn der Aufstände noch zurückhaltend gezeigt. Die friedlichen Proteste auf den Straßen Tunesiens und Ägyptens waren schließlich eine klare Absage an die grundsätzliche Überzeugung der Cyber-Dschihadisten, dass nur mit Gewalt Änderungen zu erreichen wären. Als aber die Demonstrationen in Kairo an Schwung gewannen, Ägyptens Hosni Mubarak gestürzt und in Libyen eine Revolte ausgebrochen war, kam auch Bewegung in die Online-Foren.
Auf allen wichtigen Plattformen wurde im Januar dieses Jahres immer wieder von „lokalen Kräften“ nachgefragt, ob es legitim sei, sich den Aufständischen oder den Protesten in Marokko, Jordanien oder anderen Ländern anzuschließen; ob man dem Beispiel der Selbstanzündung des Tunesiers Mohammed Bouazizi folgen dürfte, die ja die Revolutionen erst ins Rollen gebracht hatte; ob man sich al-Nahdah, einer tunesischen islamistischen Organisation, anschließen dürfe, am Referendum zur Verfassung und an den Wahlen in Ägypten teilnehmen oder eine politische Partei gründen solle.

Zu diesen Fragen veröffentlicht der unter Cyber-Dschihadisten renommierte „Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad Scharia-Rat“ regelmäßig religiöse Urteile. In manchen Foren aber wird auch die Frage gestellt, ob die Demonstrationen in der arabischen Welt nicht sogar die „Mudschaheddin“, die Kämpfer für einen Gottesstaat, diskreditierten. Das palästinensische Forum „Mas’adt al-Mudschaheddin“ und einige andere nehmen dazu ganz eindeutig Stellung. Unter keinen Umständen dürften Dschihadisten dulden, dass die „trügerischen Demonstranten“ ihnen den Erfolg oder die Einführung der Scharia „wegnähmen“. Auch warnen geistliche Autoritäten davor, den „abtrünnigen Regimen“ einen Vorwand zu geben, gegen die Dschihadisten vorzugehen. So wurde Ende Juli dieses Jahres eine gemeinsame Erklärung der weltweit wichtigsten Dschihad-Foren (Al-Fida al-Islam, Smukh al-Islam und Ansar al-Mukahihin) veröffentlicht, in der dazu aufgerufen wurde, von jeglichen „militärischen Aktionen“ in Syrien abzusehen.

Lokal oder global – das war der Kern der zwei wichtigsten Debatten in Cyber-Dschihadistan während der vergangenen Dekade. Knapp zwei Jahre nach 9/11 entzündete sie sich erneut am Einmarsch der USA im Irak. Abdelasis al-Muktin, damals Anführer der Al-Kaida Saudi-Arabiens, warf 2003 die Frage auf, ob auch saudische Aktivisten einen „heiligen Krieg“ wie im Irak führen sollten. Da ein Dschihad im Irak und in Saudi-Arabien sich gegenseitig verstärken könnten, dürfe man sich nicht auf ein „Einsatzgebiet“ beschränken. Damit erntete er sofort den Widerspruch anderer wichtiger Ideologen, die darauf bestanden, dass man keine Mühe auf die Bekämpfung des saudischen Königshauses verschwenden solle. Dies spiele ja nur den USA in die Hände. Sehr viel wichtiger sei es, alle Kraft auf den Kampf gegen die Amerikaner im Irak selbst zu verwenden.

Nach Muktins Tod 2004 verlor das Thema „Dschihad in Saudi-Arabien“ an Aktualität – nicht zuletzt, weil Al-Kaida Irak unter Führung des Jordaniers Abu Musab al-Zarkawi bei den globalen Online-Dschihadisten alle Unterstützung genoss – und das auch wegen ihrer äußerst professionellen Onlinepräsenz. Ein Jahr vor seinem Tod im Juni 2006 musste al-Zarkawi allerdings heftige Kritik einstecken – ausgerechnet von seinem ehemaligen Mentor. Abu Muhammad al-Makdisi, der mit der Website „Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad“ eines der wichtigsten Portale betreibt und als der einflussreichste Kopf Cyber-Dschihadistans gilt, warf al-Zarkawi und dessen irakischer Al-Kaida vor, Gewalt viel zu exzessiv anzuwenden. Auch deren Praxis, andere Muslime maßlos als „Takfir“, also als Abtrünnige und Ungläubige zu brandmarken und sie damit zu Feinden zu erklären, sei inakzeptabel. Zudem verfüge Zarkawi ebenso wie viele seiner Anhänger nur über lückenhafte Kenntnisse des Islam. Zwar wurde dann auch al-Makdisi von Anhängern Zarkawis als Büttel des jordanischen Regimes bezeichnet. Seinem Ruf aber hat das nicht geschadet. Er gilt bis heute als beliebte und angesehene Autorität unter Cyber-Dschihadisten.

Nach dem Tod Musab al-Zarkawis setzte sich der Streit auf anderer Ebene fort: Weil Al-Kaida Irak wegen ihrer zahllosen Attentate und der Tausenden zivilen Opfer unter den Irakern immer schärfer in die Kritik geraten war und weil man deren Aktivisten immer stärker als „Fremdlinge“ betrachtete, die sich ungebeten in irakische Angelegenheiten einmischten, entschlossen sie sich zu einem Namens- und Imagewechsel: Man bezeichnete sich nicht mehr als „Al-Kaida Irak“, sondern schloss sich mit anderen Dschihadisten zur „Dachorganisation“ des „Islamischen Staates Irak“ (ISI) zusammen, der in den einschlägigen Foren durch einen gewissen „Omar al-Bagdadi“ ausgerufen wurde. Die Zweifel, ob es sich bei „Al-Bagdadi“ nicht etwa um eine Erfindung handele, um eine Verbundenheit zum Irak zu simulieren, verstummten nie. Dennoch entspann sich eine heftige Debatte in Cyber-Dschihadistan über den Sinn des ISI. Der Streit zwischen verschiedenen Autoritäten verschärfte sich schließlich so sehr, dass es zu einer Spaltung der Plattform „Al-Borak“, einem der wesentlichen Foren der Cyber-Dschihadisten, in zwei gegensätzliche Lager kam.

Al-Kaidas jetziger Führer Aiman al-Zawahiri hielt diesen Streit offensichtlich für so wichtig, dass er ihn im Dezember 2007 – damals noch als Stellvertreter Osama Bin Ladens – wieder aufgriff. In den Foren „Al-Ekhlass“ und „Al-Hesbah“ lud er ein, ihm Fragen zur Legitimation des ISI zu stellen. Doch eine erschöpfende Antwort auf die fast 2000 Fragen, die Cyber-Dschihadisten posteten – und die auch in einer Studie des West Point Combatting Terrorism Center analysiert wurden – gab er nicht.

Nach Jahren der Debatte lässt sich auch klar feststellen, dass der im Grunde nur noch im virtuellen Raum existente „Islamische Staat Irak“ gescheitert ist. Selbst viele Online-Dschihadisten bezweifelten dessen Legitimität. Der ISI, so die Auffassung vieler, führe nur zu einer „Fitna“, zu Uneinigkeit und Zwist in der Gemeinschaft der Rechtgläubigen. Vom virtuellen Raum der Foren-Debatten abgesehen hatten viele Iraker kein Interesse daran, die strengen Gesetzesauslegungen, die der ISI propagierte, zu respektieren. Sie fühlten sich vom exzessiven Blutvergießen meist ausländischer Islamisten im Irak abgestoßen – was dazu führte, dass sich viele Clans eher den Amerikanern zuwandten, als sich von den Kämpfern gegen die Besatzungsmacht vereinnahmen zu lassen. ISI, der vor einigen Jahren noch eine existenzielle Gefahr war, kann man heute getrost in die weit weniger bedrohliche Kategorie „Ärgernis“ einordnen.

Um die Ausrufung eines islamistischen Staates drehte sich auch die zweite wichtige Debatte, die unter Cyber-Dschihadisten geführt, aber im Westen kaum wahrgenommen wurde: Ende Oktober 2007 erklärte sich Doku Umarow, „Präsident“ der Untergrundregierung der tschetschenischen Separatisten, zum Führer des so genannten Kaukasus-Emirats. Damit schien eine gewisse Symbiose des globalen und lokalen Dschihadismus erreicht: Umarow sieht sich zwar als einen der bedeutendsten Kämpfer gegen Russland, steht aber auch der globalen Dschihad-Strategie der Al-Kaida nahe.

Ende 2010 aber entbrannte ein in den Foren offen geführter und bizarrer Streit um den von Umarow selbst ernannten „Stellvertreter“ an der Spitze des Kaukasus-Emirats. Hatte Umarow erst per Videobotschaft dazu aufgerufen, Aslambeck Vadalow einen Treueeid („Bay’at“) als seinem Stellvertreter zu schwören, so widerrief er dessen Ernennung nur eine Woche später – schließlich zeige Vadalow, der mittlerweile von einem arabischen Kommandeur in Tschetschenien namens Hussein Gakajew unterstützt wurde, kaum mehr Interesse an einem global geführten Dschihad und wolle sich ausschließlich auf den Kampf gegen Russland konzentrieren. Zwischen dem Lager der Umarow-Anhänger auf der einen und den Anhängern Vadalows und Gakajews auf der anderen Seite wogte der Streit in den Foren und mittels Videobotschaften über einen Monat hin und her. Die Angelegenheit erreichte noch größere Dimensionen, als sich zwei Großautoritäten in den Streit einschalteten: der bereits genannte Abu-Muhammad al-Makdisi und der in London lebende Syrer Abu Baschir al-Tartusi. Sie erließen eine Fatwa, in der Umarow zum wahren Emir erklärt wird. Inzwischen, so heißt es, hätten die beiden Gruppierungen ihre Differenzen vor einem Scharia-Gericht geklärt und die Konkurrenten hätten einander wieder den Treueeid geschworen.

Gab es auch einen Richtungsstreit, nachdem Osama Bin Laden am 1. Mai von einem US-Kommando getötet wurde? Nein. In den einschlägigen Foren waren ganz ähnliche Reaktionen zu beobachten: Man veröffent-lichte Nachrufe auf eine „große Gestalt in der Geschichte des Islam“. Man schwor den USA und der pakistanischen „Verräter-Regierung“ Rache. Und man ist sich einig: Der globale Dschihad ist nicht zu Ende.

AARON Y. ZELIN arbeitet als Politikwissenschaftler an der Brandeis University, Massachusetts und betreibt die Website

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.


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.