Factors for the Success of Jihadist Information Operations in Social Media
By: Captain Edval Zoto, Armed Forces of the Republic of Albania
No one questions that terrorists in general, and jihadists1 in particular, use the internet as their main propaganda tool. Not only have the quantity and quality of the information that jihadists upload evolved over time with the development of the internet, but the strategies used by such groups and individuals to spread their ideology and attract the public to their cause have also become more "tech-savvy."2 Although most of us may be well aware of changes to the internet because it affects our daily lives, the ways in which terrorists match their strategies with the new opportunities that the internet offers is a topic that remains inadequately explored. The objective of the research described in this article is to identify some specific elements in the contemporary online environment that contribute to the success of jihadist information operations and internet strategies.3
There have been several attempts to study jihadist internet strategies, and there is considerable research into technological products that will make it easier for security agencies to analyze data from social networking sites. The tools that are currently available consist of computer programs that track, collect, and process the data gathered through social networking sites or from the Web. These programs enable researchers and investigators to find and structure data, but they do not provide further qualitative analysis, which is left to the human operator. The data structuring and the resulting analysis itself also depend on human assumptions, which are too often based on factors deriving from incomplete research. This kind of research faces another well-known problem, which is the difficulty of identifying a limited and representative statistical sample of the environment that is to be studied. Certain aspects of the internet—indiscriminate, anonymous, borderless, and extremely fast—when combined with the rapid growth of jihadist content, make it extremely difficult to isolate a representative sample of jihadist information operations and then submit that sample to qualitative and, especially, quantitative analysis.
This study overcomes both of these problems by selecting a limited sample: the characteristics of jihadist information operations developed for the specific audience of Albanian language speakers.4 The singularity of the Albanian language merges the perpetrators with their prospective audience and provides a well-contained sample from which to analyze certain characteristics of jihadist information operations on social networking sites. This process of collecting and analyzing jihadist online content and network data allows us to identify specific factors that contribute to the success or failure of jihadist information operations on the internet, especially on social networking sites. The language serves as a useful limiting factor in building a consistent sample of jihadist propaganda, and Albanian words are quite easy to search and track within the social networking sites.5 After building a data set from an analysis of the jihadist content in Albanian, descriptive statistics, social network analysis, and visual analytics techniques allowed us to isolate and verify those factors that contribute to the success or failure of jihadist information operations.
The Internet and the Jihadist Enterprise
From its emergence following World War II to the present, the internet has evolved through two main phases. The first phase, which may be called the traditional internet, includes the period from about the mid-1980s, when the internet became available to the wider public, to 2005, when the first social networking sites appeared. The second phase encompasses the modern internet and the explosion of social networks, from 2005 to the present. A common pattern that characterizes both phases is the increasing number of internet users, while a distinguishing characteristic of each phase is the way in which people use the internet. Three general characteristics of the internet—its lack of barriers to access, speed of communication, and the high level of anonymity that it provides to the general user—have also made it a preferred tool for Islamist extremists.
Throughout modern history, dissident groups have resorted to acts of terrorism from a position of weakness in relation to their enemies. To succeed in their campaign, terrorists need publicity. Sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer maintains that terrorism is strongly connected with the publicity it generates, and that without an audience, terrorism would cease to exist.6 The need for the right kinds of publicity makes terrorists choose their targets carefully. Symbolism (e.g., taking down the World Trade Center towers) is more appealing than the direct effect of simply killing people. In this way, terrorist attacks fit media demands for sparkling audiovisual content and also attract sympathizers to the terrorists' cause.7 The terrorists' success is defined not only through their political achievements against the government (or governments, in the case of international terrorist groups) but also in terms of recruiting and logistical support, which are strongly connected with the publicity that surrounds the terrorist group. Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli observe that al Qaeda, for example, exists only in a "cathode mode" and that all of its operations are dependent on the media space that the group can occupy, especially the types of media that offer the greatest amount of spectacle.8 From this perspective, the technological development, and especially the modernization of the global media environment, have helped Osama bin Laden's jihadist initiative succeed to the degree that its success depended on publicity. Given the poor internet access in bin Laden's initial area of responsibility, the Arabian Peninsula, and to a lesser extent the entire Islamic world, from the 1990s to 2001 al Qaeda's main source of publicity was Arabic and international television channels. In regard to the design of the videotapes bin Laden prepared for broadcast, Joseph Tuman notes,
Bin Laden invented a policy tailored to video clips and ads; brief speeches that were easily incorporated into prime-time news; carefully designed, simple settings; and straightforward speeches devoid of affectation or sophistication.9
The public appeal for the whole jihadist struggle came from a central point, which was bin Laden. In his short appearances, bin Laden himself looked more like an object for display: a simply dressed man of few words, calm but emotionally appealing to the masses. In the less personal environment of mass media, al Qaeda's practice of releasing videos of bin Laden first to Al Jazeera for the initial airing and later to other Western stations for retransmission demonstrates careful management not only of the media profile of the organization's leader but also of the organization itself.
Al Qaeda "used abundant audiovisual, as opposed to ideological, references, which have an impact on a young Arab audience that owes its education to television rather than to the crumbling educational system" that is found in several Middle Eastern countries.10 Observations regarding jihadists' early exploitation of audiovisual media to disseminate reports on their activities for propaganda purposes can be valuable for understanding al Qaeda's more recent exploitation of the internet.
The number of jihadist websites still amounted to only about a dozen by the end of the 1990s. It was the 9/11 attacks on US soil that would dramatically change how al Qaeda communicated its messages, not only between itself and the wider public, but also within the organization. After the invasion of Afghanistan by US and coalition forces in late 2001, al Qaeda's information operations went almost entirely online, due to the physical dangers of trying to produce and distribute television-ready video while under military attack. Embracing the internet for their information operations allowed the jihadists to overcome that problem, but it left them vulnerable to other difficulties. The main problem they faced was managing the flow of information to preserve their traditional hierarchical structure.
With regard to message management, the higher leadership of al Qaeda was not prepared for the anarchical mode of internet communications. Both bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leaders of the international jihad movement, believed in centralized management of the information campaign. In his essay "Knights under the Prophet's Banner," al-Zawahiri described three important elements that he regarded as necessary for conducting jihad: a leadership that people can trust, follow, and understand; a clear enemy to strike at; and the courage and willingness to act.11
This centralized model preferred by the elder jihadists was inevitably challenged by the younger generation of jihadist ideologues. Abu Musab al-Suri offered the main critique to the centralized model in his 2004 book The Global Islamic Resistance Call, in which he strongly maintained that indoctrination and awareness-building would not follow a centralized campaign, and introduced what has come to be called "leaderless jihad."12 Al-Suri identified the internet as a "powerful engine for communicating with the public at large,"13 and promoted it as an inexpensive tool that might serve to overcome the difficulties associated with spreading the call for jihad through traditional media. In his recommendations regarding the building of messages, al-Suri also pointed out the need to consciously tailor the content of the message to the caste or stratum of society at which it would be directed.14 Another supporter of the leaderless jihad and an advocate of the internet jihad is Anwar al-Awlaki. In his treatise "44 Ways to Support Jihad," which appeared in 2009, al-Awlaki asserted that the most media impact for the jihadist cause could be realized through the use of internet tools.15
The recommendations put forward by prominent jihadist ideologues are quite similar in terms of defining goals and means, but what becomes apparent is that a well-defined media strategy is missing. That leaves ample space for other jihadists and sympathizers to use self-initiative in spreading the call to jihad.
The Nature of the Jihadist Enterprise in the Balkans
The sudden fall of communism and the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation in the early 1990s, and the transition of the Balkan states from autocratic regimes to more liberal democratic ones, allowed several factions engaged in terrorism and Islamist radicalization to conduct their "business" in the region, especially in countries with large Muslim communities.16 In the case of Albania, all religious activities had been banned in 1967, when the Communist regime decided religious expression was incompatible with the atheistic character of the country's political ideology. By 1990, however, religious observance began to revive unopposed by the government, and after the fall of Albania's Communist government in 1992, the law that banned religions was abolished. Religious communities and organizations began to flourish. Along with the national institutions that sought to manage this religious revival, many foreign religious organizations rushed in to play a role and establish their presence in the country.
As Islamic religious organizations emerged on the Albanian scene, they became aware of the lack of qualified indigenous religious leaders to drive the revival of Islam, and their immediate solution was to take an active role to address this issue. Foreign Islamic radical organizations exploited this lack by offering scholarships in Islamic studies to Albanian youth, while disseminating religious texts for free and encouraging freelancers sympathetic to radical Islamic sects to offer religious services to the public. Observers reported a similar approach in all the Balkan countries, not only in Albania.
The attitude of Albania's governing authorities toward this growth of Islamic entities in Albania was practical. The country's inability to attract Western aid and financing at the levels required for a smooth transition to a liberal market economy forced the Albanian authorities to be more receptive to the Islamists' activities than they might otherwise have been, despite disagreements over these issues in Parliament and in public opinion.17 Given the permissive environment and weak rule of law in the newly independent countries, many of the Islamist organizations entering the Balkans became a safe haven for individuals engaged in terrorist activities. The eruption of internal conflicts, first in Bosnia (1992–1995), then in Albania (1997), Kosovo (1998–1999), and Macedonia (2001), and the resultant spread of weapons and ammunition, made those countries a preferred venue for jihadist-type engagements supported and financed primarily by radical Islamist NGOs operating in the region.
As a result of two decades of radical Islamist propaganda, viewpoints, and proselytizing, in recent years, jihadism has been flourishing in Albania, and youths from Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia are joining the ranks of Islamic terrorist organizations operating in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Social networking sites and the internet in general serve as these groups' communications battle horse for disseminating information about their activities and recruiting support to their cause. The reasons behind their effectiveness (or lack thereof) are the topic of our research, which follows.
Elements of Success and Failure: Establishing the Analytic Database
Any approach to analyzing the potential success or failure of jihadist information operations on social networking sites should take into account two major influential factors: first, the recommendations made by prominent jihadist ideologues concerning the public image of the jihad, and second, the exploitation of social networking sites' capabilities by jihadists. The jihadist ideologues' viewpoints on information management, although mostly of a rhetorical nature, especially when related to the traditional and high-level leadership, can be framed so as to be operationalized for further analysis. Ideological divisions over the issue of organization type (centralized vs. decentralized) for the jihad do not influence how we classify ideological perspectives on the management of the information, or mediatic, jihad. Opinions of this nature have to be accepted and assumed to be complementary to each other, independent of the source.
Previous research into and analysis of the writings and public messages of prominent jihadist ideologues yielded the following four elements, which the movement's leaders consider necessary for the conduct of a successful jihadist information operation:
Quantity and outreach—This twofold element appears in the recommendations of every prominent jihadist ideologue. In terms of our analysis, this element presupposes that activists should fill the internet with jihadist material through as many outlets as possible in order to reach the optimal audience.
Networking—Prominent jihadists recommend that spreading the call to jihad should be seen as a common effort. On this matter, al-Suri and Mohammed bin Ahmed al-Salim are the most outspoken, and both offer detailed recommendations. Framed for the purpose of this study, this element assumes that to achieve success, jihadists should actively participate in the common effort to spread radical content over the internet, provide feedback, expand their reach, and share materials through different outlets.
Specific tailoring—Leading jihadists suggest that successful activism on the Web requires communications to be tailored to the class and customs of their specific audience. This element presupposes that jihadist information operations will tend to match their narratives to local conditions, by exploiting local languages and symbolism and offering "solutions" to local grievances through jihad.
Audiovisual media production standards—Prominent jihadists recognize the power of well-produced messages. This element presupposes that higher audiovisual production and editing values plus originality improve the likelihood that a media campaign will be successful.
These four elements, described in this way, serve as a theoretical explanation of the factors for the potential success of jihadist information operations, but to be useful for analytical purposes, they need to be operationalized. Operationalization is done through a process that takes into account the current developments and opportunities offered by the internet and, for this study in particular, social networking sites. Generally speaking, social networking sites provide users with publicly available data on the performance of other users' postings, or other users' activity on the site. A user may choose to remain anonymous or restrict the release of his data to third parties, but for our purposes such users have no analytical value because our object of study is focused on extroversive uses of social networking sites. Table 1 lays out the user data that can easily be obtained by visiting two major social networking sites, YouTube and Facebook, categorized according to the four elements described earlier. Such a scheme can help us measure the performance of various jihadist information operations on social media.18
Quantity and Outreach
# of views
# of likes
# of dislikes
# of subscriptions driven by post
# of shares
# of comments
# of videos posted by user
# of status updates, photos, and videos published
# of likes
# of shares
# of comments
Usernames of other users who interact/respond to postings of the original user
Web addresses and hyperlinks to other websites, or other social media sites
Organization/group/individual mentioned in postings
Usernames of other users who interact/respond to postings of the original user
Web addresses and hyperlinks to other websites, or other social media sites
Organization/group/individual mentioned in postings
Language or dialect used
Date of posting (to match with important local events)
Name of user
Location of user
Other data (Description section)
Language or dialect used
Date of posting (to match with important local events)
Name of user
Location of user
Other data (About section)
Quality of editing
Length of video
Quality of editing
Table 1: Specific Units of Measurement for the Four Elements of Successful Jihadist Information Operations
The measurement units displayed in table 1 can be collected more or less as they appear from the Web pages of social networking sites.19 Some of the more subjective measurements, such as the "quality of editing" and "audiovisual quality," may have to be coded by the researcher, for example, by assigning weight points for aspects like spelling, grammar, image sharpness, sound quality, and so on.
The collection of data for the measurements shown in table 1 provides detailed information for each jihadist information operation on those two social networking sites, but identifying factors of success or failure requires further processing. The data obtained for the quantity and outreach element are of fundamental value, not only because they can be quantified, but also because the bigger the audience, the greater the chances that the jihadist information operation being measured will be successful. This numerical measure alone does not, however, provide any qualitative analysis of the operation. By using various methods of analysis that compare the data for the quantity and outreach element with the measures of other elements, it is possible to obtain qualitative insights into the overall performance of each jihadist information operation compared to others. This approach can also reveal trends and patterns of performance based on the two major influential factors mentioned earlier: the suggestions of prominent jihadist leaders and a realistic quantitative data set extracted from the social networking sites where common jihadists and their sympathizers carry out their part in the jihad.
Building and Analyzing the Data Set
To obtain better results from our study of jihadist information operations on the internet, in addition to the theoretical and textual-historical approaches to identifying factors of success or failure, we built a data set that helped us both quantitatively and qualitatively test empirically determined factors. (Our data were collected between September and November 2013; the last update took place on 22 November 2014.) The building of a data set for this purpose brings up a few challenges, which are described briefly in the following subsections.
Where to Start?
The first decision is to choose which social networking site's data to mine for jihadist-inspired content. We chose YouTube, which was the first major website for user-generated content, and also one of the most visited social networking sites. YouTube is widely used by jihadists and their sympathizers to spread audiovisual content intended to serve the purposes of the global jihad.20 YouTube is also the third most-visited website in Albania, following Facebook and Google.21 Although most Albanians use Facebook for social networking even more than they do YouTube, we chose YouTube because of its earlier presence in the market and its higher perceived anonymity of operation and because it is the preferred social networking platform for jihadists to conduct their information operations.
Local Language-Driven Research
Rohan Gunaratna observes that although al Qaeda operates as an international organization, its affiliates tend to operate locally and recruit from "among their own nationalities, families, and friends."22 This is a quite logical way to grow an organization. In much the same way, we begin our study by focusing on jihadist information operations in the Albanian language, which is spoken almost exclusively by the Albanian populations in Albania, Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Montenegro, and by Albanians living in other countries. No other nation in the world naturally speaks Albanian. For the purposes of this research, by looking for jihadist information operations in Albanian, we can automatically identify the target audience and obtain a highly representative sample within the global "population" of jihadist information operations.
This kind of research can begin by matching keywords in the predetermined language with the subject of the research. We used only one keyword: jihad, which in Albanian is written xhihad and is pronounced the same as in English. This small spelling change was enough to provide us with substantial results when we put it into the YouTube site's search engine.23 The search engine identified 4,530 results (see figure 1).24 (Note that this result represents the number of
times the word is found throughout the YouTube database, not the quantity of videos addressing the subject.) The word xhihad may be found within the titles of videos, in the "About" section of each video, or in the "Comments" section, and may even be part of a username as well. The number of actual videos that are of interest for our research is much smaller. In the end, only 84 videos fulfilled the requirements to be processed for data collection.
These videos show up first, of course, if the researcher applies the relevancy filter available on the YouTube search engine. The relevancy filter brings videos containing the word xhihad in their titles or usernames to the top of the results list, followed by videos in which the word xhihad is found most frequently within the video's Web space (in the "About" and "Comments" sections). We found that the number of hits sharply decreased by the time we had made a subject-driven evaluation of the first 200 videos that appeared, and also by that point the word xhihad no longer appeared in the titles. Of course, there might be other videos dealing with the same subject that were not included in our research set, but that is not an issue of concern for our purposes. The goal of this element is to attract and influence as many users as possible. These users need first to be "pulled" into the video space, and to do so, the use of keywords within the title of the video is the most logical method. In some cases, users might have decided to unsubscribe from appearing on public searches, but this also excludes them from the scope of our research, because the point of the research is to identify posts that are purposefully within the public sphere.
The keyword search exploits the automated services provided by social networking sites, but it also generates problems, especially with regard to the subject matter and relevancy of the results set compared to the purpose of the study. The word jihad has an ambiguous meaning—generally not the meaning that is promoted by al Qaeda and other violent Islamist organizations. Due to this ambiguity, the original search results might not be as accurate as needed for the purposes of analysis. At this point it is necessary to determine which videos deserve to be identified as jihadist information operations, rather than videos with an entirely different purpose.
According to Bruce Hoffman, al Qaeda's jihadist propaganda "has three basic themes: the West is implacably hostile to Islam; the only way to address the West is in the language of violence; and jihad is the only way for true believers."25 This explanation is quite clear, but these themes do not have to occur simultaneously to characterize a communication as coming from an al Qaeda sympathizer. Since the crackdown on al Qaeda in Afghanistan, many jihadist organizations have franchised al Qaeda's cause and methodology, and they shape their messages according to their needs, often framed carefully in a way that is more compelling to the public. A jihadist-inspired communication (information operation) may concurrently contain facts, jihadist rhetoric, religious rhetoric, religious verses, and other elements that are not likely to be considered illicit by the target audience. Jihadist content on social networking sites in the Albanian language typically does not confront the public with full-fledged al Qaeda-type propaganda, as noted by Hoffman—rather, the jihad is carefully framed and often disguised with harmless religious verses.
At this point, the researcher needs to be very careful about which content to identify as jihadist information operations. When we determined which of the videos that turned up in our initial search to include in our database, we considered whether they invoked the general themes mentioned by Hoffman, but we also took into consideration any elements that we knew were forbidden by local laws, such as inciting violence, overt discrimination, or the use of offensive language. We also categorized as jihadist information operations those videos that promoted a code of conduct condemned by local religious authorities, such as segregation and discrimination based on religious patterns, and videos that promoted important actions that went against the recommendations of the local religious leaders, such as calls to join the jihad in Syria. The recruitment of Albanians for Syria's internal conflict, which is accomplished primarily by framing participation as a religious duty, is a salient problem nowadays in the Albanian-populated regions of the Balkans. Thus, our database also includes videos that seek the moral disengagement of the public from civic norms and their recruitment into the jihadist cause, no matter whether the videos make a direct call for violent action.
The identification and selection of useful data from the results of the initial search query might seem to be a difficult process, but it is worth pursuing because it also allows the researcher to identify YouTube channels that can be mined for further analysis. Sometimes the sifting process is very smooth because jihadist-inspired videos often are branded, either by the actual mention of specific terrorist organizations or because the videos carry the signature brands of known jihadist media organizations.26 Of course, the more familiar the researcher is with this sort of material, the easier it is to process the data set. This step follows the principles of A. Aaron Weisburd's "artisanal approach," and it is somewhat time-consuming, but to date there is no automated method for obtaining data of similar quality.27
Creating the Data Set
Once the population of jihadist videos has been identified, it is necessary to extract data from them and develop a data set that the researcher can then analyze. The data that we collected reflect the measurement units shown in table 1, taken from YouTube. It is important to note that our research was video-based rather than channel-based. YouTube allows users to establish their own accounts, called channels, where they can post their videos. Because we searched specifically for videos that contained the word xhihad in Albanian, that is the basis of our data set. Users can, however, also research channels. The collection process requires that researchers record a significant number of data points, so we recommend setting up the measures in a spreadsheet in whatever order best fits the researcher's needs.
Results from the Data Set Analysis
The data set we obtained through the YouTube search engine contains data from 84 videos that we identified as jihadist information operations. There may, of course, be other videos that could be identified as jihadist information operations if the search were to include other keywords in Albanian, but such a search goes beyond the purpose of this study.28 Our intention here is to provide an example of how research might be conducted to identify and test factors of success in jihadist information operations on social media, rather than to analyze YouTube-based jihadism in the Albanian language.
The First Element: Quantity and Outreach
The data we obtained from the collection process was quite vast and left room for different types of analysis.29 For the purpose of this study, we tested only the four jihadist-recommended elements of success laid out in table 1. We began by designating the element of "quantity and outreach" as an independent variable. It is fundamental to the jihadists' success—above all, to "speak and to be heard"—independent of how they frame the message. The production and dissemination of jihadist messages not only communicate the jihadist ideology but also influence levels of recruitment and donations to the cause. In the world of social networking sites, if jihadist information operations actively reach out to as many site users as possible, then they have successfully fulfilled their mission.
To build up the data set, we represented the element of quantity and outreach in YouTube by the numerical values of views, likes, subscriptions, the length of time that individual videos were watched, shares, comments, and the overall number of videos posted by the channel (user). The number of views is the most representative of these because it is the one that is always reported, independently of the will of the channel owner (see the left column in table 2). The analysis based on this value also, however, needs to take into account the time factor. Videos that have been online for a longer time have had more opportunity to become popular than more recent posts, so we needed to adjust these values. We therefore divided the number of views by the number of days the video had been online and derived a value that represents the views per day for each video (see the right column in table 2).
As table 2 shows, some of the videos that ranked in the top five for total number of views do not appear in the top five for views per day. The following brief descriptions of the top five most popular jihadist videos (by total number of views) are derived from the data found within the data set.
The video "***nah_1," which ranks first for number of views and fourth for views per day, was posted in March 2013.30 This video shows an Albanian mujahedeen fighter in Syria among other foreign mujahedeen. In terms of its quantity and outreach measures, this video performance is above average. It is also the most watched (calculated in hours of time watched)31 and the most commented on (383 comments), and it contains a hyperlink that encourages the viewer to connect (and thus become further engaged) through a Facebook profile. The audiovisual quality of this highly popular video is nevertheless fairly poor.
The third- and fifth-ranked videos (***l1m_2 and ***nal_1, respectively) are quite similar to the first (***nah_1) in several ways, despite the lower number of views. Both also were quite recent when the data were recorded, and both relate to the jihad in Syria. The number of comments generated on these videos is above average. These two videos, however, have a higher audiovisual quality, and they both display the producer's brand.
The second (***dii_3) and the fourth (***HGT_1) videos have a few differences from the other three videos. They are quite old by social media standards (dating back to March 2009 and February 2007 respectively), and they reflect a general perspective of the jihad (both were made well before the current Syrian crisis, which began in 2011). The video "***dii_3" also provides a hyperlink for the public, and it carries the brand of an Albanian-named audiovisual editing studio. The fourth video (***HGT_1) has comparatively fewer elements of success (networking, local signs, and audiovisual quality).
The ranking of videos according to the number of views per day yields a slightly different result from the ranking for total views. The three Syria-related videos from the first list are still present in the top five videos viewed per day, and the top-ranked video on this list portrays an Albanian mujahedeen calling in Albanian for viewers to join the jihad in Syria. The content of all the top five videos in this second list relates to the Syrian jihad, and in terms of the elements for success, these videos more closely follow the recommendations of prominent jihadist leaders in terms of "going local"—that is, reflecting local customs and exploiting community grievances through jihadist propaganda. The quantity and outreach measures for this group are above the average for the whole data set, and their audiovisual quality measures are near the top of the scale. All five of the videos were recent for the research period, with the oldest dating back to March 2013 and the most recent from October 2013. The quantity and outreach measure shows not only viewers' predisposition toward videos that encourage them to join the jihad in Syria, but also that the participation of Albanians in the Syrian jihad may be correlated with successful jihadist information operations online.
Using the quantity and outreach element's data, we used simple regression analysis to draw out further observations that substantiate the prominent jihadists' recommendations. The data we analyzed were the number of subscriptions (in general, not to a specific video) to a channel and the number of videos posted by the channel. The number of subscriptions is actually better than the number of views as a measure of the potential success of a jihadist campaign because there are many YouTube viewers who occasionally wander onto the website and skim the content without paying a lot of attention to it. A subscriber, by contrast, is interested in the type of videos posted by a selected channel. In this case, there is a high positive correlation value of 0.72 between the two measures: the more videos that are uploaded to a channel, the higher the number of subscriptions there will be to that channel.
By increasing the number of subscribers, channels have more opportunities to tailor their messages in ways that will influence their subscribers' opinions. As was mentioned earlier, jihadist activists on the internet do not generally declare themselves to be full-fledged al Qaeda supporters; rather, they carefully reveal their messages within postings that include general religious narratives. The same can be said about the channels that are part of our research data set. A quick overview showed that some of these channels contain a number of videos that hardly qualify as jihadist information operations. But that, too, may be part of the jihadists' information strategy. Some YouTube users will be attracted by general, non-militant Islamic videos and subscribe to a channel that later exposes them to jihadist propaganda videos. This exposure is essentially guaranteed because YouTube's subscription mechanism promotes videos posted on subscribed channels to the subscriber ahead of other videos.
Another regression that verifies the quantity and outreach recommendation is one that correlates the "number of views" measure with the number of days the video has been online. Our study showed that the correlation is positive and its value is 0.24. In simple terms, the longer a video stays online, the greater the number of times it will be seen by general users. Thus, the sheer number of messages pushed out to the public is not the only factor that increases the popularity of the jihadist cause; the stable presence of the message among the public is also important. The "forever" quality of the internet makes it an excellent depository for jihadist messages, and social networking sites make it even easier than the traditional Web to encounter those types of messages.
The Second Element: Testing the Jihadist Information Network
On the one hand, testing the second recommendation, networking for jihad, is a difficult task. On the other hand, research on the networking elements can be very profitable in terms of identifying and targeting further research elements in the data set. Network analysis also incorporates the third recommended element, the localization of the jihad.
Figure 2 shows the connections among YouTube users (the red nodes) who comment on the respective videos. The topics of the videos are distinguished by the color of the ties that connect them to the red nodes: Afghanistan/Iraq in gray; general call to jihad in dark purple; jihadist leaders in pink; Syrian conflict in green; and West vs. Islam in yellow. As mentioned earlier, this kind of imaging allows very interactive users (those who comment on two or more videos of the same topic) to be identified immediately and targeted for further research. Users may be also identified as very interactive and very competent users if they comment on two or more videos promoting different topics. Such users become a
potentially interesting subject for further analysis. For example, the presence of several big clusters of red nodes linked by green ties shows that the Syrian conflict is most users' favorite topic for comment. The red nodes located between the four "Syrian conflict" clusters represent users who have commented on two or more videos related to the Syrian conflict. These can be categorized as very interactive users. The red node that connects the green cluster to the two purple clusters represents a user who has commented on a Syrian conflict video and also on a "general call to jihad" video. This user can be identified as both very interactive and very competent, and might warrant closer scrutiny.
The sociogram presented further down in figure 3 contains some of these individuals. For the purpose of this study, there was no need to conduct further analysis on these users' activities, but processing the networking and localization elements through social network analysis (SNA) software and methodologies would offer relative results that could be useful for further study.
The Third Element: Tailoring to the Audience
Figure 3 shows that the majority of jihadist YouTube videos (the red triangles) relevant to our study are related to subjects such as the Syrian conflict and the general call to jihad (the colored squares represent the five topics identified earlier). From an Albanian perspective, this topic-based illustration of jihadist information operations is compelling. The number of videos on the jihadist campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq remains small because Albania shares almost nothing in common with these countries, and the jihadist cause there is simply not compelling to Albanians. The same applies to videos about the West vs. Islam. Albanians in general are very pro-Western, and it is hard to change the local narratives on that perspective.
As in figure 2, the sociogram depicted by figure 3 makes it possible to identify special actors among those who posted the videos in our data set. Here, the users are channel owners (the black dots), among whom the very active ones are those who have uploaded two or more videos on the same topic. Those channel owners who have posted videos on two or more topics are considered highly competent actors and are easily spotted in the space between the topic clusters, where they connect to multiple topics. The sociogram shows that the overwhelming majority of channel owners within our data set posted only a single video; there are several owners who posted on two or three topics, but only one who posted to four, and none to all five topics.
As in figure 2, once special actors have been identified in this way, they can be subjected to further research and analysis.
The Fourth Element: The Audiovisual Effect
We tested the last recommended element, the audiovisual effect, through regression analysis, and by taking the values for total number of views and number of views per day as independent variables, while the measures for editing quality and audiovisual quality were taken as dependent variables. The results show that both sets of correlations are positive and statistically quite significant;34 that is, if the videos are better edited, include more local features, and are of a better audiovisual quality, the number of views and average views per day are expected to be higher.
In conclusion, our analyses clearly demonstrated that the prominent jihadist leaders' recommendations on how to conduct effective jihadist information operations on the internet are valid and important. By contrast, operations that disregard these recommendations are more likely to result in failure (i.e., attract few viewers and fail to bring donations or recruits to the cause), especially on social networking sites.
Jihadists will continue to use the internet as their primary tool for conducting information operations. Their transition from the use of Web 1.0 to the use of Web 2.0 applications may be slow, but it is inevitable, because jihadists need to reach the wider public at any cost, whether they successfully influence it or not. Social networking sites have presented less tech-savvy jihadists with problems such as learning how to exploit such sites, along with the restrictions and dangers posed by counterterrorism bodies that mine the internet for information on terrorist activities. By raising their popularity scores on the Web, jihadists may attract the attention of counterterrorist researchers who are carrying out the kinds of data analysis highlighted here.
The lack of a centralized information management structure contributes to a further degradation of jihadist information operations on the Web. As the al Qaeda leadership is hunted and captured or killed, there is no sign of a potential reestablishment of the information management structure, as it existed in the pre-9/11 era. The future of jihadist information operations belongs to lone jihadists or smaller disconnected groups of individuals. From a counterterrorist perspective, the decentralized (or leaderless) jihad presents new challenges, especially in the information management and intelligence-gathering fields. Jihadist activists on the internet may exploit the opportunities offered by the internet without any significant restrictions. Many Western commentators have suggested that the information operatives of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, aka ISIS or IS) seem to be more comfortable with social media than the group's predecessors. But even the ISIL operatives are making mistakes quite similar to those made by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during the US-Iraq war, such as posting a constant stream of atrocities, or showing themselves comfortably ensconced in well-kept homes as they talk about jihad. ISIL's target audience, however, is young jihadists, who are coming from all over the world to join the fight in Syria. For this purpose, ISIL will make use of both local (Syrian and Iraqi) jihadists and international jihadists to promote the internet jihad. Linguistics plays a role here, and our model of using a keyword search to isolate a data set may help identify and analyze jihadist internet networks and the characteristics of their information operations.
The identification of elements that help ensure the success of jihadist information operations on social networking sites can provide counterterrorism specialists with a tool to distinguish important and potentially important jihadist communications from the vast amount of jihadist-inspired Web content. In this study, the four elements were tested and found to be valid. In addition to highlighting these elements of success, our research also describes a methodology that researchers and analysts can use to build their own data sets and further test the prominent jihadists' four recommendations on the conduct of a specific information campaign. Further analysis of these four factors may serve different purposes, from the assessment of jihadist information strategies to the identification of key jihadist Web activists, who could then be closely monitored and targeted by counterterrorism forces. By assessing jihadist information strategies on the internet, counterterrorist forces may also plan and conduct counteractions that improve the collection of intelligence, rather than simply shutting these Web spaces down and compelling the jihadist propagandists to innovate.
Al-Awlaki, Anwar. 2009. "44 Ways to Support Jihad." Victorious Media: http://ebooks.worldofislam.info/ebooks/Jihad/Anwar_Al_Awlaki_-_44_Ways_To_Support_Jihad.pdf
Al-Suri, A. M. 2004. The Global Islamic Resistance Call. https://archive.org/details/TheGlobalIslamicResistanceCall
CTX: Social Media in Jihad and Counterterrorism (Special Issue) 2, no. 4 (2012).
Everton, Sean F. 2012. Disrupting Dark Networks. New York: Cambridge University Press.
About the Author(s):
CPT Edval Zoto proudly serves in the Armed Forces of the Republic of Albania.
Copyright 2014, Edval Zoto. The US federal government is granted for itself and others acting on its behalf in perpetuity a paid-up, nonexclusive, irrevocable worldwide license in this work to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, by or on behalf of the US federal government. All other rights are reserved by the copyright owner(s). Foreign copyrights may apply.
- Unless noted otherwise, in this article the word jihad refers to the violent or nonviolent campaign of individuals associated with al Qaeda or its proxies around the world, and their sympathizers, to promote the objectives announced by Osama bin Laden in his 1996 speech, "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places," and his 1998 speech, "World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders." In Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli, eds., Al Qaeda in Its Own Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2010), 47–50, 53–56.
- For a wide-ranging look at jihadist uses of social media, see the CTX special issue, "Social Media in Jihad and Counterterrorism" (CTX 2, no. 4, November 2012), guest edited by Dr. Dorothy Denning.
- The term jihadist internet strategies as used in this study means the organized effort to conduct online media operations that will further the objectives of the jihad. The term jihadist information operations indicates specific media campaigns that take advantage of the combination of means and resources available online to target the public with radical messages.
- This article was excerpted from the author's master's thesis, "Failure and Success of Jihadi Information Operations on the Internet" (master's thesis, US Naval Postgraduate School, December 2013). The data therefore reflect the research he carried out in 2013, but given the nature of the analysis, the discrepancy in time does not affect the value of the findings.
- Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 162.
- Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000), 139.
- Kepel and Milelli, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words, 29.
- A cathode is the "positive" electrode from which a conventional current leaves a polarized electrical device. Kepel and Milelli are using this metaphor to imply that al Qaeda is organized largely to disseminate ideas via popular media. Ibid.
- Joseph S. Tuman, Communicating Terror: The Rhetorical Dimensions of Terrorism (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2003), 28.
- Kepel and Milelli, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words, 29.
- Ibid., 197.
- Jim Lacey, A Terrorist's Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri's Islamic Jihad Manifesto (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2008).
- Ibid., 192.
- See A. M. Al-Suri, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, 2004: https://archive.org/details/TheGlobalIslamicResistanceCall . A different translation is available on the website KavkazCenter.com: http://www.kavkazcenter.com/eng/content/2009/02/16/10561.shtml . See in particular items 18, "Following the news of Jihad and spreading it"; 19, "Spreading the writings of the Mujahideen and their scholars"; and 29, "WWW Jihad."
- The Balkan states following the breakup of Yugoslavia are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Greece, Turkey, and Romania are sometimes included in a broad definition of the Balkan region.
- Christopher Deliso, The Coming Balkan Caliphate: The Threat of Radical Islam to Europe and the West (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2007), 30.
- The same type of data can also be obtained on a case-by-case basis from other traditional websites, blogs, and other social networking sites.
- I chose to use YouTube data because it was easy to identify, obtain, code, and process for further analysis.
- Evan Kohlmann described YouTube's potential as a radicalization tool in the hands of terrorists during testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, US Congress, in 2011. The Antisocial Network: Countering the Use of Online Social Networking Technologies by Foreign Terrorist Organizations, Before the House Committee on Homeland Security, 112th Congress (6 December 2011) (testimony of Evan Kohlmann, John Lefkowitz, and Laith Alkhouri): http://homeland.house.gov/sites/homeland.house.gov/files/Testimony%20Kohlmann%5B1%5D.pdf
- From the Alexa website: http://www.alexa.com/topsites/countries/AL . The last check was conducted on 22 November 2014.
- Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, 3rd ed. (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2002), 129.
- For other languages, this may be different. A way around that may be to search through other combinations of words recalling some specific jihadist activity, or individuals, events, places, and so on. We stayed with the xhihad search results because they yielded the data we were looking for.
- The last check was conducted on 22 November 2014. See https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=xhihad&sm=12
- Gabriel Weimann, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges (Washington, D.C.: USIP Press, 2006), 44.
- During the research, we found some videos that were easy to exclude because they were not related to the jihad. For example, some Albanian users of YouTube have the given name Xhihad, and the videos uploaded by them kept appearing in our search data as relevant because of the poster's name. We also excluded videos uploaded by national news channels, which use YouTube as a tool to upload and share video news, and also videos uploaded by well-known Albanian religious figures who were explaining concepts related to the jihad.
- In this case, the research (the query, evaluation, and integration of data into the prepared spreadsheet) took nearly 18 hours. We spent most of that time evaluating and processing the first 200 videos out of 660 in total. The remaining videos were easy to evaluate and discard from the research. We spent no more than 15 minutes for each video that fulfilled the criteria for further processing.
- There may be other videos that promote jihadism but do not show up in keyword searches. The purpose here is to analyze only those videos that promote the jihad and do it as publicly as possible.
- We provided a copy of the data set to the NPS CORELab, and it may be released by request at no charge. Contact the NPS CORELab at http://www.npscorelab.com/
- See note 3.
- It is the most watched of the videos for which this measure was made public. Information about this measure is made available to the public at the channel owner's discretion.
- Visualization obtained through ORA network visualization software. This diagram represents the network of interacting users (commenters) and the videos posted by jihadist information operations. The five main video topics are colored by subject: Afghanistan/Iraq in gray; general call to jihad in dark purple; jihadist leaders in pink; Syrian conflict in green; and West vs. Islam in yellow.
- Visualization obtained through ORA network visualization software. The triangles (red) represent the jihadist information operations (videos posted to YouTube), the squares (by color) the class of topic that the videos address, and the circles (black) are the channel owners.
- The correlation value between the views per day and the editing quality is 0.42, and the correlation value between the views per day and the audiovisual quality is 0.27.