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Interview: How Al-Qaeda Functions Online

Almost a decade after their emergence, Al-Qaeda's password-protected online forums continue to remain popular. Government officials in the U.S and elsewhere have spoken out against the message boards, which are used by jihadis to converse and distribute information, saying they serve as a recruiting tool for terrorists and have been used to incite violence against the West. But some U.S. intelligence officials have argued against their removal, saying they rely on them for intelligence gathering. RFE/RL's Deana Kjuka talks to Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and author of “The State Of Global Jihad Online."

RFE/RL: In your report you say that jihadi online forums provide a certain sense of authenticity and exclusivity to their users. What kind of content is available on these forums?

Aaron Zelin:
Their biggest section is related to plain old news. They post news articles about events going on in the world, specifically in the Arab world or the West most of the time. And then individuals talk to each other about the news stories and then there are other sections related to new releases such as statements, video messages, books, essays, audio messages, and whatever else that they release for official organizations like Al-Qaeda and their branches, as well as other organizations such as the Tehreek-e Taliban from Pakistan or Jabhat Al-Nusra [operating in Syria], the main jihadist groups essentially. And then they have other sections related to Koranic study or issues related to women or issues about security on the Internet and software for that. But the largest section has to do with news stories.

Aaron Zelin
Aaron Zelin
RFE/RL: Last summer on one of its more prominent forums, the Shumukh al-Islam forum, Al-Qaeda ran an advertisement seeking jihadis to carry out suicide attacks. The forums have also been used by Al-Qaeda affiliates to claim responsibility for attacks. Are forum users recruited to commit terrorist acts?

There are different components of the online forums. There are some individuals who are writing on the forums who are actually off in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or Iraq and they are posting updates from the field. Then you have individuals who are sitting at home on their computers in their countries, and in Western countries, and they are just following what is going on and they are online grassroots cheerleaders in many respects. And then there are some individuals who decide that they don't want to just be talking to a keyboard anymore and they decide to connect up with a group in the world and pick up an AK-47 and then go off and fight. So it just depends who the individual is. There have definitely been cases where online jihadis have turned into fighters but I wouldn't necessarily say it's the complete norm but it's also hard to say who is who. Most of these guys are anonymous online so you don't know who the individuals are.

RFE/RL: In your report you outline that Al-Qaeda's accredited online media operations are coordinated by Al-Fajr Media, its official distribution network. What does Al-Qaeda look like online? How is the organization’s hierarchy reinforced online?

Al-Qaeda and their branches, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Each organization has their own media outlet -- for example Al-Qaeda in Pakistan has As-Sahab Media, in Yemen Al-Malahim, in Iraq Al-Furqan, and in North Africa it’s Al-Andalus -- and so these media outlets help produce the videos or statements from these organizations and then once they complete it they then send it off to Al-Fajr media which is a distribution network online that connects with organizations on the ground.... Then from there the administrators on the forum post the content into threads and then it goes live and then people are able to see it.

RFE/RL: In April last year, Al-Qaeda’s websites were offline for more than a week in what experts say was the longest sustained outage of their websites since their formation almost a decade ago. How often do these forums experience cyberattacks? What strategy do they use for handling these sorts of obstacles?

There is probably usually one or two major ones a year. But in the last year they have become stronger and longer -- longer in terms of time. For example, in March and April 2012 it was for two weeks and then in December 2012 and January 2013 there were ones where it was for six or seven weeks. The previous record before that had been only like nine or 10 days, so the last two major outages have been far-reaching and it has accelerated the process of individuals going onto places like Twitter and Facebook. Beforehand individuals were also using these but it was on a small level and it was usually only at the individual level. You didn't see organizations or media outlets or key ideologues being on Twitter and Facebook but now you see media outlets, organizations, and ideologues on Facebook and Twitter a lot more and it has created this hybrid architecture online in these social-media platforms which opens the rest of the world but also still using the forums, to an extent, which are closed, which allow them this private conversation.

RFE/RL: U.S. intelligence officials have argued against the removal of these forums, as they rely on them for intelligence gathering. What is the upside to keeping the forums functioning? How useful are they for intelligence gathering by outsiders?

I think that it's good for intelligence and you also know where everybody is. It's a lot easier to track what’s going on. Everybody is in one spot. It's sort of like a beehive and all the bees are inside, you know what’s going on. But once they start going to more decentralized platforms like Twitter and Facebook, it's a lot more spread out and you can't see it as much. Therefore it's like shaking the beehive and you have a bunch of bees flying everywhere all over the place and you might not be able to necessarily control things or be able to track things as easily. So people could be in isolated pockets from one another and not necessarily be all connected in one spot.

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