Is Al Qaeda’s Internet Strategy Working?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Stefano Mele

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This document is the testimony presented before the House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence on December 6 2011, by Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation.

The Author argues that terrorists use the Internet to disseminate their ideology, appeal for support spread fear and alarm among their foes, radicalize and recruit new members, provide instruction in tactics and weapons, gather intelligence about potential targets, clandestinely communicate, and support terrorist operations.

The Internet enables terrorist organizations to expand their reach, create virtual communities of like-minded extremists, and capture a larger universe of more-diverse talents and skills.

While almost all terrorist organizations have websites, al Qaeda is the first to fully exploit the Internet. This reflects al Qaeda’s unique characteristics. It regards itself as a global movement and therefore depends on a global communications network to reach its perceived constituents.

It sees its mission as not simply creating terror among its foes but awakening the Muslim community. Its leaders view communications as 90 percent of the struggle.

Despite the risks imposed by intense manhunts, its leaders communicate regularly with video and audio messages, which are posted on its websites and disseminated on the Internet.

The number of websites devoted to the al Qaeda-inspired movement has grown from a handful to reportedly thousands, although many of these are ephemeral. The number of English-language sites has also increased.

The Author points out that Al Qaeda has embraced individual jihad as opposed to organizationally-led jihad. Increasingly, it has emphasized do-it-yourself terrorism. Those inspired by al Qaeda’s message are exhorted to do whatever they can wherever they are.

This represents a fundamental shift in strategy. As part of this new strategy, al Qaeda has recognized online jihadism as a contribution to the jihadist campaign. Despite some grumbling from jihadist ideologues about online jihadists not pushing back from their computer screens to carry out attacks, the threshold for jihad has been lowered.

Action remains the ultimate goal but online warriors are not viewed as less-dedicated slackers.

Nevertheless, Al Qaeda’s overall recruiting efforts have not produced a significant result. Online jihadism is low-yield ore. Cases of real Internet recruitment are rare. Appropriate authorities are able to successfully engage in attribution operations as new online jihadists emerge, and the FBI has had achieved remarkable success in using the Internet to detect conspiracies of one.

For Mr. Jenkins any effort to limit Internet use must realistically assess the ability to monitor and impose the restriction and must obtain international agreement in order to be effective.

As Jonathan Kennedy and Gabriel Weimann point out in their study of terror on the Internet, “All efforts to prevent or minimize Al Qaeda’s use of the internet have proved unsuccessful.”

Even China, which has devoted immense resources to controlling social media networks with far fewer concerns about freedom of speech, has been unable to block the microblogs that flourish on the web.

Faced with the shutdown of one site, jihadist communicators merely change names and move to another, dragging authorities into a frustrating game of Whac-A-Mole and depriving them of intelligence while they look for the new site.

Read the full document here:

Cross-posted from Stefano Mele

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