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.
If the dissemination of official releases is no longer to be done centrally, it has the potential to make the forums obsolete, and usher in a new era whereby jihadi activists primarily rely on social media platforms to interact with one another. It could also force groups that are part of al-Fajr's distribution network to evolve and change their methods of content dissemination. There is already some evidence that this shift has started during the ongoing forum takedown.
Evan Kohlmann, an expert on online jihadism, noted on December 10, 2012: "Due to the absence of top jihad chat forums, al-Shabab (formerly @HSMPress) in Somalia has been forced to rely on Twitter to distribute its latest video release. This may be the first time that any terrorist group allied with Al-Qaida has ever used Twitter as the exclusive point of release for media." It should be highlighted that unlike other al-Qaeda affiliates, al-Shabab releases its content through the distribution network Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). Al-Qaeda in Iraq's creation in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (@jbhatalnusra), has also over the past few weeks used Twitter as the first point of release of its content, outsourcing what would be a forum thread with a ‘justpaste.it' page.
On January 25, Twitter shut down al-Shabab's extremely active account, which had some 20,000 followers and often featured pithy, tongue-in-cheek tweets attacking Western governments or other adversaries. Twitter said the ban was in response to a tweet sent by al-Shabab announcing that they would kill French hostage Denis Allex, and then saying they had done so, violating Twitter's rules against violent messages. But just yesterday, al-Shabab opened a new account, from which a tweet was issued that read, "For what it's worth, shooting the messenger and suppressing the truth by silencing your opponents isn't quite the way to win the war of ideas."
AQI and AQAP also used alternate methods to release their content. Instead of going through al-Fajr, AQI used the independent Iraqi-focused al-Yaqin Media to post its content to Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum. AQAP sent its content through Abdullah bin Muhammad, a rising jihadi star online, through his Twitter account. The only group that seems to have been left behind in this brave new world is al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan.
It is possible during the takedown in March/April 2012 that some of the forums learned by creating backup options. Both the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (@as_ansar) on April 13 and the Somali al-Qimmah Islamic Network (@AlqimmahNetwork) on April 9 created Twitter accounts once they returned. Both now feature links to their Twitter accounts prominently on the front page of their forums. This may be an effort to diversify the forums' ways of communicating with the public and delivering content.
Since the formal period of my study on the state of the jihadi forums and some Twitter accounts ended at the end of April 2012, others have also joined Twitter - though unsurprisingly, none that use al-Qaeda in their official name. They include -- in the order that they joined -- Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen's media outlet Madad News Agency (@W_mdd); Asad al-Jihad2 (@AsadAljehad2), a prominent online jihadi essayist; Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (@MinbarTawhed), a library of jihadi scholarly materials; Jabhat al-Nusra (@JbhatALnusra), the premier jihadi organization active in Syria; Muhammad al-Zawahiri (@M7mmd_Alzwahiri), the brother of AQC's leader and an influential Egyptian jihadi in his own right; Jihad Archive (@jehadarchiv), a website that archives old jihadi organization videos and statements; Abu Sa'd al-Amili (@al3aamili), a popular online jihadi writer; Fursan al-Balagh Media (@fursanalbalaagh), a jihadi translation and transcription service for official al-Qaeda and affiliated content; and Dr. Iyad Qanibi (@EYADQUNAIBI), a popular jihadi ideologue from Jordan.
There is some evidence that use of Facebook is also growing at the expense of the forums, and that individuals are moving jihadi content to invitation-only Facebook groups and pages. The nature of this activity is unclear at this point without further study. Additionally, some jihadi organizations - Jabhat al-Nusra, Jama'at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Jaysh al-Umma, and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia - have even gone so far as to establish their own personal forums.
But while more jihadis continue to be attracted to Twitter and Facebook, al-Qaeda's official distribution route through al-Fajr media has yet to replace its tried and true method of authentication using its approved forums. Also, online jihadis' reactions to the return of Shamukh after it was down for more than seven weeks illustrated that they were still attached to using the forums. In the future, it is possible that if Shamukh were to be suppressed again, al-Qaeda could confer legitimacy on the second-tier forum Ansar al-Mujahidin, which is already seen as trustworthy by online grassroots activists. In the past, after al-Fallujah Forum was permanently taken offline, it conferred legitimacy on Shamukh. AMAF like others forums, though, uses the same tools and is almost certainly vulnerable to the same kind of takedown tactics. And although Twitter provides a more public platform than a password-protected forum, one crucial utility of forums for jihadis is the ability to have relatively private conversations among themselves. At the very least, now more than ever, there is a hybrid ecosystem for online jihadis.
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is author of a recent New America Foundation study on the state of the global jihad online. It provides a qualitative, quantitative, and cross-lingual analysis based on data from February 1, 2012 - April 31, 2012.
Two weeks ago, 24-year-old Pakistani-American Jubair Ahmad admittedthat he had been making videos for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) from his Woodbridge,Virginia home under the direction of LeT leader Hafiz Saeed's son Talha. Aroundthe same time, governments on both sides of the Atlantic published findingsinto the link between online activity and terrorism. In the United Kingdom, theHome Office publisheda paper that concluded "the internet does not appear to play a significantrole in AQIR [al Qaeda influenced radicalization]," while in the United States,at a hearing on the Hill, RAND terrorism guru BrianMichael Jenkins concluded that jihadist websites "may create virtualarmies, but these armies remain virtual." But while the link between turningindividuals from passive consumers into active terrorists may be weak, caseslike that of Jubair Ahmad show the important role this virtual army can play inmagnifying the message of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.
Jubair Ahmed is not the first Western individual who has helpedestablish websites or created video content in support of radical groups. Oneof the earliest was U.K.-based www.azzam.com,established in 1996, which provided a point from which groups in Afghanistanand Chechnya could broadcast their message while also telling potentialrecruits how to contact the groups. In addition, www.azzam.com (using the moniker Azzam Publications) helpedproduce a series of videos and cassette tapes about the fighting in Bosnia andChechnya that venerated fighters in the field.
By the mid-2000s, the Internet had become a more viablevehicle through which videos could not only be sold, but also streamed anddownloaded. Recognizing the value of getting footage from the field out asquickly as possible, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was at the forefront of a newpractice, turning videos into slick packages that could be uploaded ontoradical forums. But what was most interesting was the revelation in late 2005that British police in London had found a young Moroccan who turned out to be theinfamous online jihadist known as Irhabi007(terrorist007). Using this online handle, Younis Tsoulihad set himself up as a key webmaster and designer for AQI, and was notoriousfor being able to find the webspace needed to publish the grim video Americancontractor Nicholas Berg's beheading.
The novel aspect in Tsouli's case was the fact that AQIleaders noticed his online abilities and started to use him as a key outlet fortheir material. There have been numerous other Western webmasters for importantal-Qaeda linked websites - for example, in Belgium, Malikael-Aroud ran MinbarSoS, a website that provided a forum to recruitFrench-speaking Muslims to fight in Afghanistan. From the sunny Costa Blanca inSpain, FaicalErrai helped run ansaraljihad.net, and provided assistance for radicalsseeking to get to Afghanistan and Chechnya. But Tsouli appears to have been oneof the first Western residents to have been actively solicited by groups in thefield for his technical abilities.
And since Tsouli, we have seen al-Qaeda in the ArabianPeninsula (AQAP) use the skills of a young Pakistani-American radical blogger, SamirKhan, to help them produce Inspiremagazine - a publication that has repeatedly shown up in the hands of recently arrestedterroristplotters. Khan and hisAmerican-Yemeni mentor Anwar al-Awlaki are now both dead, but in a reflectionof the importance that AQAP placed upon al-Awlaki's capacity to reach a Westernaudience through new media, communicationsfound during the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden'sPakistani compound allegedly include an offer from AQAP leader Nasiral-Wuhayshi to put al-Awlaki in charge of the regional group. Bin Ladendeclined the request, possibly highlighting the different level of importancehe placed upon new media capabilities in comparison to his regional affiliateleader.
A particularly surprising aspect of the Jubair Ahmad case isthe volume of micromanagement that Talha Saeed put into creating the video. Hetells Ahmad what images to include (not ones from the group's infamous Mumbaiattack), where to insert images of his father, the LeT leader, and what musicto have over the video. Saeed is obliged to get someone in America to do thetechnical work for him - quite a long distance from which to direct theproduction of a short YouTube video using easily available technology - whichlikely reflects a greater facility with such technology had by people broughtup in the West.
Just how easy it is to create these videos was seen recentlyin a case in the United Kingdom in which a law student, Mohammad Gul,was convicted of producing YouTube videos that glorified terrorist violence.While clearly the technology to make such videos is something that isuniversal, it does seem as though it is aspirant jihadists in the West who findit easiest to use. There was no evidence that Gul was being directed by foreignterrorist organizations to produce his material, and his case shows the continuedexistence of young Westerners producing radical material on their own. It mayindeed be the case that the virtual armies have yet to fully emerge as activewarriors on the battlefield, but in the meantime they are doing a great deal tokeep the jihadist flame alive on the Web, either by themselves or at thedirection of organized parties.
RaffaelloPantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study ofRadicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming "We Love Death AsYou Love Life: Britain's Suburban Mujahedeen" (Hurst/Columbia UniversityPress). His writing can be found at: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.
On the morning of July 26 I woke up at home in Karachi, nine hours ahead of eastern time, to an e-mail from an American friend who writes for The Atlantic's website. "How is WikiLeaks playing in Pakistan?" he wanted to know. The story had broken overnight, and I had no idea what he was talking about. In turn I picked up Dawn, The News, and The Express Tribune, the three Pakistani newspapers that are delivered to my house every day. Not one of them had anything to say on the issue.
It was another matter entirely when I logged onto my computer and the New York Times website. For the next several hours I was transfixed, trying to digest both the firestorm in the international media and the pin-drop silence at home.
The most likely explanation of this is that the story
broke too late to make it into Pakistani newspapers on Monday morning. The
conspiracy-minded might argue it could have been suppressed, perhaps even in
advance, by the Pakistani state, or that domestic newspapers would not want to
jump into dangerous territory without taking the time to examine the matter
closely. Either way, the silence continued almost unbroken throughout the day.
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Wearing army fatigues and a red cap, Zaid Hamid is perhaps Pakistan's best-known television personality. The strategic affairs expert, who coined the term 'Hindu Zionist' to describe the hypothetical Indian and Israeli nexus against Pakistan, has become a household name across the country for his conspiracy theories on economic terrorism and Indian-U.S.-Israeli plotting. His Facebook page currently has a following of 66,000, among them students of expensive schools and even pop singers and fashion designers. Whether it is explaining Taliban militancy, Pakistan's ever-present electricity crisis, Blackwater's involvement in planning terrorist attacks, or plans for the U.S. to take over Pakistan's nuclear weapons, conspiracy theorists call the shots in Pakistan.
Pakistan's booming television industry, allowed to operate by ex-dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, helped lead to his downfall. The country's vibrant Urdu press, which outsells its English-language counterparts in most areas of the country, also helps shape public opinion, with its small army of retired military officers and civilian officials dominate the opinion pages to air their misgivings and concerns. It seems that anti-Americanism on the op-ed pages sells to Pakistanis, who are among the most anti-American people in the world.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
Over the past four years or so, Pakistanis have become addicted to Facebook. The social networking website is home to local celebrities, including former President Pervez Musharraf, who recenctly began using the website as a way to update his "fans" about his speaking engagements and his new political party. It has spawned a culture of its own -- fashion designers and musicians use Facebook as a marketing tool, tagging pictures is a full-time activity, and local telecom operators have used Facebook's mobile services as a selling point. After former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and curiosity about her children grew, British tabloids published images of her son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, that were taken from his Facebook page. Pakistani grandparents use Facebook as a way to communicate with grandchildren living outside Pakistan, and the five Americans who were arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism last year reportedly used it to try and get in touch with militant groups.
But all that has come to an end -- until May 31, at least. Earlier today, the Lahore High Court ordered that access to Facebook be blocked in Pakistan. The move came after a petition was filed in the court by a forum of Islamic lawyers protesting a Facebook page called "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day," which began as a protest itself against a radical group which had objected to a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed on the animated U.S. television program South Park. Facebook users in Pakistan had campaigned on the social networking website to "report" the page to Facebook authorities, but no action was taken.
Not surprisingly, Pakistanis across Pakistan have protested against Facebook. Pakistan sees protests on a daily basis against issues ranging from the electricity crisis to mass layoffs to Aafia Siddiqui's case.
While one Indian Twitter user joked that the difference between Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Facebook in Pakistan was that the front group for the militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba is banned, it highlighted Pakistan's ironic tendency to act only when it comes to blasphemous content and not content that affects the state's security. Hateful and derogatory literature is available openly in Pakistan, and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has not attempted to block YouTube channels such as that of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or videos of hate-laden speeches by Jaish-e-Muhammad leader Masood Azhar. Objectionable content is available on scores of different websites. Facebook was not the first to be blocked in Pakistan. What might be next?
Pakistan has an unfortunate history of blocking websites it believes are objectionable for blasphemy reasons. In 2006, Blogger.com and all blogspot.com addresses were blocked in Pakistan in the wake of the Danish cartoons controversy. Since the cartoon images had been posted on blogs hosted by Blogger, the entire website was pulled down for at least two months.
This February, YouTube was temporarily blocked for almost an hour. Once service had been restored, Internet users in Pakistan discovered that the video that had been blocked was of President Asif Ali Zardari allegedly screaming "shut up" to someone while addressing a crowd.
Ever-enterprising Pakistanis will undoubtedly find a way around the Facebook ban. When blogspot.com was blocked, a rerouting address was created for blogs hosted on the website. At least this time, Pakistan's ban did not affect the website in question the world over. In 2008, a Pakistani government attempt to block YouTube caused hours of downtime for YouTube users around the globe.
The new Facebook ban reflects the laws of Pakistan, where blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment. But it also leads me to question the sense of a legal system that ordered an entire website blocked for the content of one page and points to the inanity of those who believe blocking the website in Pakistan will somehow stop would-be cartoonists. I also have to ask what this judgment will do to the morale of the thousands of young students who in 2007 mobilized to campaign for the restoration of Pakistan's judiciary and organized protests of then-President Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule -- using Facebook.
Saba Imtiaz works for the Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.
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