Al Qaeda made its name in blood and pixels, with deadly attacks and an avalanche of electronic news media.
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...through a daily stream of online media products that would make any corporation jealous.
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, such as 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 bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, which 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.
Try to imagine 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 West Asia 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.
©2008/The New York Times
Edited excerpts. Daniel Kimmage is a senior analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org