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World: RFE/RL Study Explores How Al-Qaeda Exploits Internet

(RFE/RL) A new study by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty examines how Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups use the Internet to spread their message of global jihad.

The study, by RFE/RL senior analyst Daniel Kimmage, was formally released today at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. It focuses on the structure of the relationship between Al-Qaeda-linked media entities and armed groups that conduct operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The study -- "The Al-Qaeda Media Nexus" -- follows up on a similar study that Kimmage and RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo produced in 2007 about Iraqi insurgent media.

Kimmage says the latest study expands on the early work by focusing on the relationships between armed groups and the different teams that produce "jihadist media." Kimmage then draws conclusions from those relationships.

Download the full report here (PDF format)

"This is a study that really looks at two things," he says. "It looks at the global message that Al-Qaeda puts out and that its affiliates put out. It also looks at the network that is behind that -- and then, how...they get that [message] out to the world. What is the network that brings that [message] to people over the Internet -- because the Internet is really the primary delivery mechanism for Al-Qaeda."

The study notes that some scholars object to the term "jihadist" to describe the network that produces Al-Qaeda materials distributed on the Internet. That is because the term confers false legitimacy on an aberrant strain of thought that promotes exclusively militant interpretations of the word "jihad."

Kimmage says he uses jihad neutrally to refer to armed groups that described themselves as fighting a violent jihad against all perceived enemies.

"The message comes out in statements on a daily basis. It comes out in periodicals -- magazines published on the web. It comes out in books and it comes out in video," he says. "The material I used for this study comes from June 2007, and I collected 450 items from various places on the web that were all part of the Al-Qaeda media nexus."

Clear Patterns

Kimmage says clear patterns can be seen in the structure of messages posted on the Internet by groups with links to Al-Qaeda -- groups that he describes as "media production and distribution entities."

"The typical forum always has certain divisions. It has a section on events. It has a section on news from the jihad, audio-visual, poetry, general discussion," he says. "What we see here is that everything is branded. In other words, if you look at the right side of the forum, there is a little logo next to every single press release. It is the logo of the group that is releasing it. And there is another branding mechanism -- down at the bottom, there is a section that identifies who released and produced this particular video clip. What we learn from this is that there is an organization that this particular video is affiliated with, there is a production company, and then there is a distributor."

By studying the branding patterns and logos used by Al-Qaeda's media production and distribution entities, Kimmage says consistent relationships between different groups are also apparent.

"When you look at all of the information on all of the things that they release, what you find is that there are very clear and consistent relationships," Kimmage says. "So the Islamic State of Iraq always releases its videos through Furqan [the so-called Al-Furqan Media Institute] and through Fajr -- [the Al-Fajr Media Center]. And what you can see here, diagrammed out, is all the relationships that tied these groups together in June 2007.

"So all of the audio and video and books and press releases -- it's all produced and distributed by someone. And when you map it all out, these are the connections," he continues. "From there, it goes out to the Internet. So not all of these groups directly post statements. So in other words, an armed group will film an attack and then it will be posted by a different organization."

Priorities Of Jihadist Media

In addition to explaining how the Al-Qaeda media nexus links together franchises and affiliates of Al-Qaeda with armed groups, Kimmage also examines the priorities of jihadist media as a whole. He also analyzes the composition of media products coming from specific groups to draw conclusions and suggest topics for future research.

"Al-Qaeda, which was very, very advanced and very, very impressive in its use of new technology, is, I think, a bit behind the curve," Kimmage says. "They are sort of stuck in Web 1.0. They are producing what they think is the coolest content, the best videos, the most impressive press releases. And they are creating the most sophisticated -- the best network -- to distribute it to the web. What's missing is interactivity in user-generated content -- a world in which users generate a lot of the content and in which people what to interact with others. Al-Qaeda really seems stuck in the old model.

"In 2006, Al-Qaeda released a big position paper and they warned their supporters against creating their own content. They said this was 'media exuberance' and that their supporters should let the official distribution and production groups handle this," Kimmage continues. "Even when Al-Qaeda has tried to be interactive, it is quite old-fashioned. So the question that we end up with is: Al-Qaeda -- which had done so well using the Internet to spread its message over the last few years -- are they now doomed to fade with this new more interactive and user-generated network? And will they be replaced by a much larger, much more integrated, much freer, much more empowered world in which it is very difficult to control messages and in which no one has a monopoly on information?"

Kimmage concludes that the desire of Al-Qaeda's media-production teams to strictly control the messages being put out on the Internet could ultimately backfire, causing Al-Qaeda to lose support from its sympathizers.

"Freer and more empowered networks, in the end, will do more to undermine Al-Qaeda's message than the actions of any government," he says. "In the end, an idea that takes root in the political sphere -- an idea that encourages people and inspires them to commit violence -- it only fades and dies when the idea itself is discredited. The discrediting of this idea, of this ideology, will happen online through a large conversation that takes places mainly without governments."