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Readings: Aaron Zelin on Global Jihad Online

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 5:30 PM

Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—with whom we are piloting our little analytic experiment—has an important and timely report out entitled The State of Global Jihad Online: A Qualitative, Quantitative, and Cross-Lingual Analysis. Here are the report’s introduction and findings:

Introduction

More than 11 years after the attacks of 9/11 and nearly a decade since the rise of popular online jihadi Internet forums, there is strikingly little empirical research on the manner in which jihadi activists use the Web to propagate their cause. Whereas researchers and policy analysts have systematically collected and analyzed the primary source material produced by al-Qaeda and its allies, very little work has been done on the conduits through which that information is distributed—and even to what extent anyone is accessing that propaganda other than counterterrorism analysts. As William McCants asserted during testimony in December 2011 before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, “There is little research to go on, which is striking given how data-rich the Internet is. In hard numbers, how widely distributed was Zawahiri’s last message? Did it resonate more in one U.S. city than another? Who were its main distributors on Facebook and YouTube? How are they connected with one another? This sort of baseline quantitative research barely exists at the moment.”

This paper begins to fill that gap. First, it quantifies the use of English-language jihadi forums, which rose in prominence with the emergence of American-born Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki within the jihadi propaganda enterprise. Second, it measures the use of Twitter by online jihadis. This baseline is limited; it would also have been fruitful to systematically assess the activity in other virtual spaces used by jihadis, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Archive.org, and to do so over a longer period. Nonetheless, this paper assesses:

(1) the most prominent English-language forums;

(2) the English-language sections within prominent Arabic language jihadi forums;

(3) how the English-language forums compare to the Arabic-language forums; and

(4) the current status of the nascent rise in Twitter activism.

Findings:

  •  The English-language forums are far less active than Arabic-language forums, which suggests that jihadi ideological penetration into the West is limited.
  • When more prominent jihadi forums go down, activity increases on smaller forums, which suggests that the overall jihadi communications enterprise is durable in the long term.
  • While many have worried about the rise of jihadism in the West, the online architecture is far less active in the English-speaking universe of jihadis than in the Arabic speaking community. This suggests that the global jihad movement is still very much attached to the Arab heartland in terms of the majority of individuals active online.
  • A wide range of individuals, organizations, and Web forums have established Twitter feeds to promote their activities. This trend is likely to continue, but Twitter is unlikely to supplant the forum architecture because it cannot replace the sense of authenticity and exclusivity created by the forums.

Here is Zelin in Foreign Policy describing how jihadist groups utilize official online forums, and how these organizations use various social media platforms to meet their content distribution needs.

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