Rethinking the Role of Virtual Communities in Terrorist Websites

By: Dr. Dana Janbek

Many security officials, policy analysts, and researchers are quick to identify the internet as a powerful terrorist recruiting tool that poses a growing security threat. Some worry that rapidly evolving technical capabilities offer terrorist groups a new strategic weapon with which to attack their enemies.2 Al Qaeda and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico were among the first such organizations to lead the migration of terrorist rhetoric to the Web, spearheading the exponential growth of such sites from a mere dozen in 1997 to more than 6,000 today.3

Researchers have established that most extremist websites seek to fulfill five basic goals: to disseminate propaganda, organize the membership, communicate information, fundraise, and recruit new members.4 In 2001, Jenine Abboushi Dallal suggested that terrorists were embracing the Web as a platform from which to recast their images.5 In her view, extremist groups went online not so much to engage in dialogue, but rather to offer a "counter information system," and to create a virtual community. Dallal contended that these sites were not meant to be participatory or interactive, but rather were created to promote a tightly controlled authoritarian narrative.

Given the rapid proliferation of participatory applications on the Web in recent years, we set out to examine whether terrorism-related websites had embraced the Web 2.0 interactive applications that build community through commentary, social networking, and streaming video. Is there evidence that the internet has successfully generated virtual communities around websites run by terrorist groups?

To answer this question, between 2009 and 2010 we analyzed the discursive strategies and representations of virtual communities on 38 terrorist-related websites, 28 published in Arabic and 10 in Spanish (see Appendix A). Our content analysis identified in each case: 1) the sender of a message; 2) the content of that message; 3) the intended publics (readers of the message); and, 4) the interactive and multimedia features available to users of that particular website. The 38 websites we coded were filtered from an initial list of 80 Muslim-based and 20 Spanish-language extremist sites identified in studies conducted since 2000. For the purposes of this analysis, "extremist" sites were defined as sites that explicitly endorsed hatred and violence, and actively promoted their ideologies online. The filtered core list was expanded using the external links on each site, the Google search engine in Arabic and Spanish, and the back-link function of BacklinkWatch (this function helps researchers determine what websites link to the website they are studying).

A Terrorist Counter-information System

In 2004, researcher Gilles Kepel wrote: "Al Qaeda was less a military base of operations than a database that connected jihadists all over the world via the Internet."6 The hyperlinks that connect the websites of these organizations to one another confirm this argument. Rather than relying solely on real-world physical connections, al Qaeda also connects like-minded organizations and their members in cyberspace, reinforcing the real-world extremist network with a virtual community mirror. Yet the results of our analysis suggest that these organizations limit user interactivity in the virtual communities they create by maintaining tight control of all discourse, while avoiding the most common and popular Web 2.0 interactive applications.

Common Features

Looking through these Arabic- and Spanish-language websites, we saw common trends.

More than two-thirds of the Arabic-language websites and half of the Spanish-language ones offered responsive search functions and featured multimedia displays in the form of audio files, video files, pictures, or a combination of the above. Most of the websites displayed user-friendly navigation, ample content, and working hyperlinks that presented a static narration of the organization's mission, history, and goals, in a format that we now associate with the early days of the "read-only" Web. Interactive features were notably absent from all sites.

Arabic- and Spanish-language websites displayed different categories of content in their photos. While all websites showcased images of local people, guerrillas, fighters, and clashes with security forces, the Arabic-language ones included more graphic photos of blood-spattered bodies and corpses. The content of the audio and video files for all websites frequently featured talking heads, or a narration that provided a romanticized view of the organization and its members. Overall, the websites were user-friendly and sought to engage and entertain users by providing multimedia offerings. A few of the sites offered variable download speeds, a feature meant to enhance the user experience. While the availability of multimedia content hints at a level of technical sophistication, however, formatting errors such as broken multimedia hyperlinks were plentiful, possibly hinting at a scarcity of technical resources.

As mentioned, interactive features were sparsely available. One-third of the Arabic-language websites included listservs, forums, RSS features, guest books, or a comments section. None made chat rooms or blogs available to users. Five of the ten Spanish-language websites we coded offered users RSS feeds and the opportunity to register their e-mail (presumably, although this was not clearly stated, for the purposes of joining a mailing list). Only two of those five provided fora where users might register their comments; these consisted of moderated environments where comments were subjected to review and approval prior to publication. Editorial controls on most of the 38 sites prevented users from posting comments uncensored, and forum rules restricted comment threads. Likewise, when sites provided room for user feedback, the feedback was sometimes deleted (users complained accordingly). It is thus possible that the organizations allowed like-minded individuals to post comments but suppressed dissenting views. None of the sites provides links to social networking applications and tools, thus discouraging users from easily sharing or commenting upon the content. This choice of format and tight editorial control seem to indicate that the primary goal of these sites is to inform, persuade, and communicate a structured discourse, rather than to engage users in dialogue.

Target Audiences

Of the 38 sites we coded, most consistently proffered a discourse and message that resembled those of real-world resistance movements that seek to capture the media spotlight through violent acts of terror. Most sites framed their overall mission as a struggle to end foreign occupation through armed resistance. Prominently displayed banners and seals associated the organizations with patriotic or religious armed resistance movements. The few sites that listed the names of their martyrs and detailed the operations in which the martyr died stressed the importance of armed resistance and sacrifice. Among Muslim organizations, the farewell videos posted by aspiring "martyrs" on their websites justified the planned violent suicides by borrowing heavily from the Qur'an.

Most of the sites targeted current members and potential recruits, or local and international media audiences, with customized messages. News releases published online, while ostensibly targeted to the news media, also seemed geared to deliver information to current members and potential recruits, providing political analysis that countered mainstream news reports. Published in a variety of languages, these releases seem to confirm that the organizations sought to influence foreign public opinion beyond the Arabic- or Spanish-speaking worlds.

While the majority of the sites seemed to target male users, a notable few had sections geared to women, and two sites included content meant for children. This may indicate the beginning of a shift in the mostly patriarchal groups that some researchers identified as predominant on the internet.7 Overall, however, the online discourse remains predominantly masculine in tone.

Multimedia applications provide a compelling alternative to text-based content among younger or semi-illiterate audiences. One of the sites offered mobile ring tones, confirming its intent to connect to a younger, media savvy demographic. The same site boasted mobile video footage, possibly indicating the involvement of a younger generation in the production of jihadist propaganda. A few sites included user-generated information, but in each instance user content was submitted to a moderator for approval prior to publication, presumably to allow for editorial control of the narrative and censorship of critical or opposing views.

Research has shown that video and interactive content features and applications that allow users to stay connected with the organization and interact with other members are central to the promotion of virtual community.8 Such features have been shown to foster virtual ties between the organization and its supporters. Yet, the near total absence of interactive components in the websites we analyzed is consistent with a "read-only" online environment, where the narrative is tightly controlled in a way that eschews the participatory and community-building capabilities of the interactive Web.

Conclusions

Twelve years after Dallal reached her conclusions concerning the limited ways terrorists were likely to use websites, it does indeed seem that terrorist groups continue to rely on the internet to communicate a "resistant discourse," and propose a counter-hegemonic narrative through a traditional unilinear mode of communication. No matter how active or tame their online presence, these groups for the most part have yet to leverage the power of interactive Web 2.0 applications to create vibrant participatory communities.

Whereas the rapidly increasing availability of interactive and collaborative Web features now allows for real-time dialogue among users worldwide, terrorism-related websites remain static, tightly moderated, and effectively closed Web environments. They monitor user-generated content, shy away from adopting Web 2.0 technologies that enable users to develop unique voices or attract a personal following, and curtail messages that contradict or challenge the organization's viewpoint. Forgoing Web 2.0 interactive features, these terrorist sites provide a controlled model of information flow, a unidirectional narrative that eschews the possibility of dialogue. True to their ideological purpose, the sites seek to inform, persuade, and communicate a predetermined message, rather than to offer a public space for the free exchange of ideas. The websites thus work to reinforce existing beliefs and to connect like-minded individuals in the virtual world.

For the most part, extremist or terrorism-related websites cater to audiences that perceive the underlying organizations as legitimate political movements. They publish online content that counters traditional media discourse, acknowledges shared grievances, and reframes narratives of political conflicts. This content resonates among those who share an alternative worldview that more often than not remains marginalized by the mainstream press. Having adopted the internet as a strategic tool, these groups offer an alternative media source and provide an online forum that engages audiences in a closely moderated dialogue. In this corner of cyberspace, like-minded individuals share online virtual communities where the narrative rigidly follows the ideological party line.

Appendix A: Extremist Websites Analyzed in the Study9

Arabic-language websites

  1. Islamic Army in Iraq
  2. Tawhid and Jihad Forum
  3. Islamic Resistance in Lebanon
  4. Baghdad Sniper
  5. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade
  6. Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group)
  7. Brigades of the Martyr Ezzedeen Al-Qassam
  8. HAMAS (Islamic Resistance Movement)
  9. Palestine Liberation Front (PLF)
  10. Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)
  11. PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC)
  12. Ansar al-Islam
  13. The Jihadi Empowerment Network
  14. Al-Nasser Salah Addin's Brigade
  15. Jihad and Reform Front
  16. Jamaat Ansar Al-Sunna
  17. Al-Muslmeen Army in Iraq
  18. Army of Saad bin Abi Waqas
  19. The Army Men of Al-Nakshabandia Way
  20. Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance, Jame3,
  21. The Brigades of Salah Al-Deen Al-Ayoubi
  22. The Islamic Resistence Movement—Hamas
  23. Iraq—Al-Fatih Al-Islamy Brigades
  24. Jihad and Change Front
  25. High Command of Jihad and Liberation
  26. Al-Rashedeen Army
  27. The Brigades of the Martyr Abu-Ali Mustafa—Media Site
  28. Jihad on the Land of Rafedean Brigades—News Network
  29. The Nationalist and Islamic Front
  30. Al-Mojahden
  31. The Voice of Jihad

Spanish-language websites

  1. National Liberation Army—Eln Voces
  2. National Liberation Army—Frente de Guerra Oriental
  3. National Liberation Army, Patria Libre
  4. National Liberation Army, Occidente Rebelde
  5. Zapatista National Liberation Army, EZLN
  6. Zapatista National Liberation Army, Zezta Internazional
  7. Zapatista National Liberation Army Radio
  8. Rebeldia Magazine
  9. EZLN Letters and Communications
  10. Revolutionary Army of the Insurrectionist People

About the Author(s): Dr. Dana Janbek is assistant professor of Public Relations at Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate communication courses. Her research focuses on terrorist use of the internet as a media outlet, and the use of information and communication technologies in developing nations, specifically the Middle East. Dr. Janbek is co-author, with Philip Seib, of Global Terrorism and New Media: The Post Al-Qaeda Generation (Routledge, 2010). She earned a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Miami. Dr. Janbek is originally from Jordan and is fluent in English and Arabic. Dr. Paola Prado, assistant professor, Journalism and Digital Media at Roger Williams University, specializes in digital inclusion, digital media convergence, and multimedia production. Her research focuses on the adoption of information and communication technologies for development and social change in Latin America. She is the co-creator of the Community Communicators journalism and multimedia workshop program, which trains community reporters in Colombia and the Dominican Republic. She is the author of journal articles and book chapters on topics related to digital inclusion, media diversity, and the effect of the internet on gender roles in Latin America. Dr. Prado earned a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Miami. She is fluent in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.


NOTES:

1. The authors thank Shannon Hodge, student at Lasell College, for her research assistance.

2. Gabriel Weimann, "Terror on the Internet: The New Trends," speech delivered at the University of Miami School of Communication, Coral Gables, Florida, October 23, 2008.

3. Jon Swartz, "Terrorists' Use of Internet Spreads," USA Today, February 21, 2005: http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/technology/2005-02-20-cyberterror-usat_x.htm; accessed September 19, 2012.

4. Barbara Berman, "Remarks by Barbara Berman," in "Combating Terrorist Uses of the Internet," Ashley Deeks, Barbara Berman, Susan Brenner, and James A. Lewis, eds., Proceedings of the American Society of International Law Annual Meeting, 2005, 104–108; Fred Cohen, "Terrorism and Cyberspace," Network Security vol. 5 (2002): 17–19; Steven Furnell and Mathew Warren, "Computer Hacking and Cyberterrorism: The Real Threats in the New Millennium," Computers and Society vol. 18, no. 1 (1999): 28–34; Timothy Thomas, "Al Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of ‘Cyberplanning,'" Parameters vol. 33, no. 1 (2003): 112–123; and Gabriel Weimann, "Www.terror.net: How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet," United States Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., 2004: http://www.usip.org/files/resources/sr116.pdf; accessed on October 8, 2012.

5. Jenine Abboushi Dallal, "Hizballah's Virtual Civil Society," Television New Media 2 (2001): 367–372.

6. Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 6.

7. Fernando Reinares, "Who are the Terrorists? Analyzing Changes in Sociological Profile among Members of ETA," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism vol. 27, no. 6 (2004): 465-488; and Charles Russell and Bowman Miller, "Profile of a Terrorist," Terrorism: An International Journal vol. 1, no. 1 (1977): 17–34.

8. "Jihad TV: Terrorism and Mass Media," Paul Eedle, producer, Films Media Group, Princeton, New Jersey, 2006; Thomas, "Al Qaeda and the Internet," 112–123.

9. The above websites were active from 2009 to 2010, when the data for this study were coded. Counterterrorism agencies worldwide work continuously to disable websites linked to extremist groups. For that reason, some of these websites may no longer be in service and/or their content may have migrated to mirror sites.

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