Replication of sites and duplication of content became key features of online survival for al-Qaeda supporters. Openly available software and hosting services meant websites and forums could be created by anyone in minutes, and accessed by anyone around the world with an Internet connection. This lowered technical boundary for mainstream internet users meant relatively novice jihadis now had the power to create their own safe havens online.
As websites spread and newcomers clicked into discussions, a second enduring challenge quickly emerged: How does a global terror group maintain security and control over a worldwide movement of unknown people? Password-protected forums were a stop gap measure, and they grew and flourished. A pyramid scheme quickly dictated hierarchy among the propaganda outlets. The forum administrators who had been blessed by al-Qaeda provided exclusive inside information and naturally grew in popularity, garnering more members and more supporters. Competition among forums accelerated propaganda creation and distribution as each jihadi supporter sought to raise his own status in the jihadi community. Forums also created directories where more specific discussion on jihadi subdisciplines could be flushed out and niche content—text, audio, video, and files—could be uploaded and shared.
Al-Qaeda propaganda benefited from a new social media platform, new technology, and a new medium: video. Improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on coalition troops, beheadings of captured Western prisoners like the American Nicholas Berg, suicide bomber operations, and sniper shots on American troops were captured on handheld cameras and rapidly posted online. Links posted on forums could relay jihadi successes large and small throughout the jihadi sympathizer ecosystem. Online, videos of violent actions quickly eclipsed footage of proselytizing al-Qaeda senior leaders. Young jihadi boys wanted action, they wanted blood, they wanted to be Zarqawi. By 2006, foreign fighters inspired by internet postings were flowing into Iraq, seeking to join Zarqawi’s legions.
And then there was YouTube, which burst onto the scene in February 2005.
Previously, sharing videos required one to upload content to servers and then distribute the links on forums. Servers could be traced and shut down by law enforcement. Digital signatures compromised forum administrators and their online fans, and pursuit by counterterrorists stalled jihadi outlets. YouTube provided a ubiquitous medium any terrorist supporter could access or upload content to. No need to have your own server or hosting service. YouTube was both a spot to upload content and a place to discuss it—the comments sections quickly blew up. Any supporter could access it, and administrators couldn’t block their entry by restricting passwords or moderate their speech by suppressing their comments. Furthermore, once content was uploaded to YouTube, the link could be shared on forums far and wide, where other jihadis could rapidly view, share, or download the content.
Jihadis were watching YouTube, though. It was easy to see they were by monitoring the accelerating number of views for videos showcasing Zarqawi’s violent legion in Iraq. The next generation of jihad had already moved on from bin Laden, inspired by a new terror group using a whole new medium. And al-Qaeda in Iraq started its own rebranding in October 2006, changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and launching its own media group, al-Furqan. The rebranding and split media operations didn’t represent a fracture, at least not yet. Al-Qaeda’s al-Fajr continued distributing the newly branded Islamic State’s al-Furqan content; it had to. Without jihad’s Iraqi legions and their relentless attacks, al-Qaeda’s central propaganda outfit had little to cheer.
This is an extract from Clint Watts' Messing With The Enemy published by Harper