Al Qaeda made its name in blood and pixels, with deadly attacks and an avalanche of electronic news media. Recent news articles depict an online terrorist juggernaut that has defied the best efforts by the United States government to counter it. While these articles are themselves a testimony to Al Qaeda’s media savvy, they don’t tell the whole story.
When it comes to user-generated content and interactivity, Al Qaeda is now behind the curve. And the United States can help to keep it there by encouraging the growth of freer, more empowered online communities, especially in the Arab-Islamic world.
The genius of Al Qaeda was to combine real-world mayhem with virtual marketing. The group’s guerrilla media network supports a family of brands, from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (in Algeria and Morocco) to the Islamic State of Iraq, through a daily stream of online media products that would make any corporation jealous.
A recent report I wrote for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty details this flow. In July 2007, for example, Al Qaeda released more than 450 statements, books, articles, magazines, audio recordings, short videos of attacks and longer films. These products reach the world through a network of quasi-official online production and distribution entities, like Al Sahab, which releases statements by Osama bin Laden.
But the Qaeda media nexus, as advanced as it is, is old hat. If Web 1.0 was about creating the snazziest official Web resources and Web 2.0 is about letting users run wild with self-created content and interactivity, Al Qaeda and its affiliates are stuck in 1.0.
In late 2006, with YouTube and Facebook growing rapidly, a position paper by a Qaeda-affiliated institute discouraged media jihadists from overly “exuberant” efforts on behalf of the group for fear of diluting its message.
This is probably sound advice, considering how Al Qaeda fares on YouTube. A recent list of the most viewed YouTube videos in Arabic about Al Qaeda included a rehash of an Islamic State of Iraq clip with sardonic commentary added and satirical verses about Al Qaeda by an Iraqi poet.
Statements by Mr. bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, that are posted to YouTube do draw comments aplenty. But the reactions, which range from praise to blanket condemnation, are a far cry from the invariably positive feedback Al Qaeda gets on moderated jihadist forums. And even Al Qaeda’s biggest YouTube hits attract at most a small fraction of the millions of views that clips of Arab pop stars rack up routinely.
Other Qaeda ventures into interactivity are equally unimpressive. Mr. Zawahri solicited online questions last December, but his answers didn’t appear until early April. That’s eons in Web time.
Even if security concerns dictated the delay, as Mr. Zawahri claimed, this is further evidence of the online obstacles facing the world’s most-wanted fugitives. Try to imagine Osama bin Laden managing his Facebook account, and you can see why full-scale social networking might not be Al Qaeda’s next frontier.
It’s also an indication of how a more interactive, empowered online community, particularly in the Arab-Islamic world, may prove to be Al Qaeda’s Achilles’ heel. Anonymity and accessibility, the hallmarks of Web 1.0, provided an ideal platform for Al Qaeda’s radical demagoguery. Social networking, the emerging hallmark of Web 2.0, can unite a fragmented silent majority and help it to find its voice in the face of thuggish opponents, whether they are repressive rulers or extremist Islamic movements.
Unfortunately, the authoritarian governments of the Middle East are doing their best to hobble Web 2.0. By blocking the Internet, they are leaving the field open to Al Qaeda and its recruiters. The American military’s statistics and jihadists’ own online postings show that among the most common countries of origin for foreign fighters in Iraq are Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. It’s no coincidence that Reporters Without Borders lists Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria as “Internet enemies,” and Libya and Yemen as countries where the Web is “under surveillance.” There is a simple lesson here: unfettered access to a free Internet is not merely a goal to which we should aspire on principle, but also a very practical means of countering Al Qaeda. As users increasingly make themselves heard, the ensuing chaos will not be to everyone’s liking, but it may shake the online edifice of Al Qaeda’s totalitarian ideology.
It would be premature to declare Al Qaeda’s marketing strategy hopelessly anachronistic. The group has shown remarkable resilience and will find ways to adapt to new trends.
But Al Qaeda’s online media network is also vulnerable to disruption. Technology-literate intelligence services that understand how the Qaeda media nexus works will do some of the job. The most damaging disruptions to the nexus, however, will come from millions of ordinary users in the communities that Al Qaeda aims for with its propaganda. We should do everything we can to empower them.