Digital Jihad: How Militants Use Social Media for Messaging

Posted on 12/3/13
By Razeshta Sethna | Via Dawn
(Illustration by Cаvin 〄)
(Illustration by Cаvin 〄)

As militant groups increasingly use social networking platforms to reach out to bigger audiences and shape media coverage of their actions, their drive to create sympathizers remains as relevant to them as their traditional objective to kill or destroy the enemy.

Hardly media shy, the late Pakistan Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud had met journalists in the tribal areas to broadcast his messages, give pressers and offer a reporter a stolen Humvee. In October, in the backdrop of hovering drones, he told a nervous BBC correspondent, “Don’t be afraid. We’ll have to die someday.”

After Mehsud was killed in a drone strike, the Pakistani Taliban’s media arm, Umar Media, released an online image confirming his death. Meanwhile, in a Newsweek interview, a senior Taliban commander pledged revenge for Mehsud’s death.

Turning their cause into a global brand is something the Taliban are learning to master alongside regional militant outfits.

Video clips of battlefield victories in Urdu with Pashto subtitles shot by Umar Media in Afghanistan’s Logar province, explain not only the ideological and logistical links between jihadi organizations, but joint media dissemination and cross-promotion.

According to a report by the SITE intelligence group, that monitors militant websites, when Badruddin Haqqani, the son of Haqqani network leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, was killed, the network’s media unit Manba al-Jihad released a video with key commanders paying tribute, including a statement from Mullah Omar. An integrated jihadi media network in the tribal areas and beyond point to operational collaboration.

When the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the December 2009 attack on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, Manba al-Jihad videos were released showing Mehsud with the Jordanian suicide bomber, al-Balawi — formerly a contributor on militant forums — although Al Qaeda first acknowledged the attack.

Militant leaders have featured in videos produced by their organisations and by other groups: Mullah Dadullah (Afghan Taliban), Hafiz Gul Bahadur (Pakistani Taliban) and Hakeemullah Mehsud have played cameos in Al Sahab videos, Al Qaeda’s media wing.

The multifaceted face of global jihad demonstrates Al Qaeda enables violence by militant groups from a similar ideological spectrum, facilitated by a collaborative use of digital media. In September, Nairobi’s Westgate mall attack by the Al Shabab demonstrated an emerging trend in Al Qaeda’s online media strategies, with communication from Al Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate routed through social media sites.

The official Al Shabab press office account provided Twitter updates to supporters covering the four-day siege. Jihadi spokespersons for groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have been using Twitter since 2010 to broaden their reach.

Senior Al Qaeda leaders have referred to varied media activity to promote their strategic narrative. With the Afghan war, regional and local militant organisations provided fighters for Afghan Taliban groups and Al Qaeda units, offering training and media collaboration.

Fighters create local battlefield footage, for example, a film by Al Qaeda is shot in Paktia (Haqqani’s home turf) in Afghanistan and sent to Pakistan for editing and distribution. According to an International Crisis Group report in 2008, ‘branded’ video footage is common — for instance, in an earlier attack on a US base in Khost, the Haqqani network used the same footage as the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). But the Haqqani DVD was branded by its own Manba al-Jihad, whereas the IJU’s ‘production’ company, Badr al-Tawheed/Elif Media used their own logo.

Al Qaeda realised that battleground spectacles not only drew new recruits but further enraged those aligned with their worldview when it initially released videos in 2005 by the Labayk media. The latter integrated with Al Sahab, based in Pakistan.

Osama Bin Laden’s earlier videos in 2004/2007 bear the hallmarks of Al Sahab. A 30-minute video on an Islamist website in September 2007 featured Bin Laden on the sixth anniversary of 9/11; it is now known that he was living in the Abbottabad compound at that time.

In the post 9/11 period with the loss of training bases, operational locales and dispersing of fighters, there was need to expand communications using global mass media and the internet for survival. Counterterrorism experts say it’s challenging to control a decentralised and amorphous organisation on the internet which remains virtually uncensored.

The terror infrastructure launches and closes websites frequently or the authorities ban them. Individuals also act as decentralised militant freelancers. The Labayk Media Foundation collates material from global jihadi sources forming an interlinked media nexus with a shared ideology, and in most cases a shared enemy.

Documents discovered in Bin Laden’s compound and others found during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and statements by militant commanders show that Al Qaeda’s media strategy focuses on propagation, legitimisation and intimidation of opponents.

This further explains that terrorists aim at the psychological effect of their acts more than physical consequences. The presence of Western troops during the war years in Iraq and Afghanistan lent purpose to militant organisations and their media strategies, especially when civilians were killed, and images were used against the West in propaganda messages.

But this could be one way of looking at the reasoning behind how militant groups strategise their media communications. It is challenging to monitor and remove militant messages especially as militant networks find that spreading information using newer media platforms is critical to their global war.

The writer is a journalist. This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest daily.

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