Thursday, May 17, 2012

And to our viewers and bloggers in Abbottabad...

By Michelle Sarver

Snapshot from a video of Osama bin Laden watching himself on screen.
Source: Fast Company

In a 1999 Foreign Affairs article, terrorist expert Bryan Jenkins stated “Garden-variety terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” In the years following its publication and the 9/11 attacks, we've largely dismissed this major factor at the foundation of terrorist activity. As noted in Inspire, an online publication by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), their jihadi media efforts were in full swing as U.S. military remained distracted on the streets of Iraq. Strategically produced in English, the magazine reached as far as London and California, and their publications and large internet presence are evidence of the new possibilities for international actors use the Internet. in fact, al-Qaeda is noted as being the "first guerrilla movement in history to migrate from physical space to cyberspace."

Seventeen documents captured from bin Laden's compound in Pakistan were released early this month around the anniversary of his death. While the major message was one of disjointedness between bin Laden and al-Qaeda affiliates, it also revealed bin Laden’s media interests. While their own radio shows promoted jihad to inspire religious activism and their magazines commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in a congratulatory spirit, key media strategists ranked U.S. network news and journalists as well. Upon ranking major American news organizations, CBS received some of the best scores for its interest in al-Qaeda issues and noted terrorism-focused journalists as important to al-Qaeda strategy. In other words, al-Qaeda had not only been using their own forms of media, but ours too.

AQAP's Inspire Magazine:
An Internet publication in English
Source: Middle East Media Research Institute
However, media initiatives changed since its start with print newpapers like Nashrat al Akhbar, the Newscast, new media efforts moved online for both effectiveness and anonymity. Bin Laden’s focus, as evidenced by documents spanning 2006-2011 note, was often on American media. Largely focused on the 10th Anniversary of the WTC attacks, al-Qaeda’s American spokesperson and media guru Adam Gadahn identifies al-Qaeda's strategies behind offering exclusive interviews with bin Laden or providing exclusive materials to CBS considering the network's popularity, quality, and reputation as a source of American news. Wide distribution was favored for “healthy competition between channels” which all ties in to al-Qaeda’s master media strategyToday's media production centers for al-Qaeda, such as As-Sahab Foundation for Islamic Media Publication, or As-Sahab, and Al Jihad Network, a jihadi forum, shifted away from bin Laden’s original message. At the same time, numbers of terrorist websites jumped from 15 in 1998 to thousands in 2010.

On average, a new video was posted
every three to four days in 2007,
compared to every two months in 2002.
Source: IntelCenter
Graphic: Washington Post
The problem lies in the very nature of terrorism which is designed to advance a "political, social, or bureaucratic agenda” as well as provoke retaliation or conflict.While terrorist groups traditionally used media for movement, propaganda, and intimidation, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda today can use it for legitimacy as well. In many cases, it successfully legitimized itself as standing up to America for Islamic values (often a theme on al-Qaeda owned websites). It relies on perceptions and acceptance of its constituencies in a battle over winning hearts and minds, making the media and particularly the internet, a key component in "radicalizing new agents." 

The “adventurism and drama of faraway battlefields,” attract recruits, and the media’s attention to terrorism supports the “grandiose beliefs that they are making history.” Yet on the anniversary of the long-awaited act of retribution performed last year against the organizer of the 9/11 attacks, it seems we have learned little from this. FBI alerts, advisories, and increased national and local security measures were taken based on a potential threat that was developed without receiving any credible leads, as was evident on every major U.S. news source on May 3. While overall, coverage of terrorism in American news sources [cite] has declined over the years, our "anniversaries" continue to fit quite nicely into al-Qaeda's strategies for legitimacy and recruitment through acknowledgement. 
The head honchos of media publication in the al-Qaeda network, AQAP, developed Inspire magazine in an effort to strengthen a prime tool for recruiting and funding: the Al-Qaeda brandHowever, the new documents reveal how splintered and weak the brand was becoming, with its central leaders of al-Qaeda's media strategy dissatisfied with other branches or killed in recent years, given the death of the symbolic figures bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.
The internet is "an ideal vehicle for propaganda, providing access to large audiences free of government censorship or media filters, while carefully preserving their anonymity. Its ability to connect disparate jihadi groups creates a sense of a global Islamic movement fighting to defend the global ummah, or community, from a common enemy." -- The Economist
New media provides insurgents with greater access to media outlets for the creation of the jihad-centric narrative, and U.S. military’s ability to confront and defeat them is hindered. The new insurgent network organization is a challenge unheard of before the information age and the rise of global access. Ethan Frisch argues that “post-9/11 global context of weak borders, wide-reaching media, centralized counter-terror networks and easy transportation and communication, a decentralized, international network is the most effective structure for an insurgent organization.”

IntelCenter's anaylsis of the network of terrorist video productions from 2010-2011

These organizations can now reach internationally and spread ideologies to those with similar goals. For example, al-Qaeda’s ideology and membership spread over a number of countries through their international network. It developed strong followings in Iraq (AQI), the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP), and the Maghrib (AQIM). They even developed links to groups like “Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, and other organizations in other countries with shared ideological goals but different immediate, operational goals."

In 2007, as web presence continued to increase, Irhabi007
and other central cyber-jihadists contributed to the online efforts
to recruit and train for extremist organizations(The Economist)
Propaganda distribution networks like the al-Fajr MediaCenter
linked such webmasters of different sub-organizations
from around the world together in one network.
Despite new media's opportunities, reports from al-Qeada often feigned success. Its popularity has fallen although terrorist concerns have grown.These new forms of media may not be the best thing for terrorist groups. Many called al-Qaeda's media strategy "failed" long before, in the mid-2000's, claiming that media strategists misunderstood its America audience and lost American's lack of acknowledgement. However, it also failed to truly latch on to or have been hindered from the changing form of the media despite continued calls for action and publication by al-Sahab and other online initiativesWhile it creates the opportunity for public engagement in the form of no-name sympathizers uploading videos, it also opens doors for criticism and mockery, no longer fitting the assumption that Arab media parrots the line of the day which, according to Marc Lynch, an Arab media expert, is a challenge for existing Arab regimes and organizations. 

The internet poses ever-challenging dilemmas for national security and the U.S. reacted with attempts to control it. Success stories exist, like the April announcement to continue with the extradition of  Babar Ahmad  in U.S. courts. Ahmad operated English-language al-Qaeda websites like However, like many other once-al-Qaeda sites displaying "Hacked, Tracked, and Now Owned by the USA" logo's like, the information itself cannot be owned. Much of the content simply shifted to other sites under different names. In addition, video dissemination has moved to smartphones and tablets, and virtual training camps take place over "e-mail, chat rooms, e-groups, forums, and virtual messages" with websites catering to the audience in various languages. While these new media efforts create opportunities for these organizations, government attempts at countering them through internet filtering appears fruitless given the decentralized nature of the internet.

Suggested Resources:
As-Sahab Publications
Analysis of the Released Documents
SITE Monitoring Service
Forest, James J. "Influence Warfare: How Terrorists and Governments Fight to Shape Perceptions in a War of Ideas" via Praeger Security International.

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