Reading Their Lips:
The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites in Arabic as a Source for Information
Global Geopolitics Net
December 8, 2007
By Dr. Reuven Paz*
Copyright © Dr. Reuven Paz - Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM)
The credibility of information obtained from open sources for intelligence and security communities has always been a problematic issue. Historically, intelligence communities—many of which had served totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia—were often known as ‘masters of disinformation.’ The former KGB, for instance, could have obtained much valuable information simply by perusing the foreign press. Instead, the most notorious intelligence service of the former Eastern block relied upon the same information only if it came from its secret agents.
Western intelligence communities and security services have not always granted much more credibility to open sources than the KGB and its former Eastern block sister services. Not only were Western agencies well aware of the complicated relations between intelligence and the media, but they frequently utilized the media for psychological warfare. Hence they too were suspicious towards the use of open sources, as well as the tricky process of distinguishing between information and disinformation.
The culture of militant Global Jihad is a new phenomenon in the Islamic world, that thus far, is advocated only by a small minority of Muslim groups, movements, scholars, and individual sympathizers. Various factors however, have widened the rank and file of supporters and sympathizers of this culture. These include the extensive use of terrorism (primarily by martyrdom-suicide operations); the insurgency in Iraq; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; growing anti-American and anti-Western sentiments; social and economic frustrations among Muslims; and growing multinational integration among Muslim communities in the West or regions of conflict in the Muslim world. Global Jihad is deeply rooted in the interpretations of the earliest sources of Islam and Islamic history, and adheres to the strictest doctrines of Salafist scholars; it is primarily a doctrinal development that requires legitimacy on the part of clerics and scholars, in the form of interpretations, rulings, and preaching. It embodies the Islamists’ struggle to revive the Islamic civilization through global solidarity and brotherhood on one hand, and the demonization of the eternal enemy, on the other. Most importantly, however, this process takes place publicly.
In the past decade the global war on terrorism and the exceedingly access to Islamic and Islamist media through the Internet, have produced a synergy that has affected the attitude towards open sources of information. The highly intensive and efficient use of the Internet by Islamic movements and groups in general, and the wide scope of Islamist terrorist groups in particular, provide us with an extremely wide range of information, that also affects intelligence communities. In addition there is some “competition” with the Western media, which is relying on these web sites as well, and thus provides them with an enormous exposure. Yet, it seems that Western intelligence and security services have still a long way to go before they can more fully rely upon the information available on Jihadi web sites. Two main obstacles stand in their way of exploiting the information available on these web sites:
First, the global Jihadi phenomenon is still new and unfamiliar to many Western analysts. Furthermore, it is a very dynamic phenomenon, and controversial even among the various Jihadi groups and trends themselves. It is admittedly very difficult to understand the differences, disputes, argumentations, and mindset of the Jihadis in all its complexities. The Jihad movement is more akin to an “ideological umbrella” than to a homogeneous movement, which makes swimming in this deep ocean a challenging task. The dynamic nature of the Jihadi phenomenon is also a function of the Jihadists’ “relationship” with the “enemy” and a response to its “aggressive nature,” especially since 2001. In the eyes of most of the Jihadis, theirs is a struggle in an asymmetric war of self-defense.
Secondly, despite its global nature and aspirations, the Jihadi phenomenon developed from within the Arab world and is subsequently exported to the larger Muslim world. The Jihad is therefore, almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the political context of the Arab world. The American and Western occupation in Iraq and the Jihadi insurgency that followed increase the importance of the Arab element in this phenomenon. Likewise, the majority of the supporters of global Jihad involved in forms of terrorism among Muslim communities in the West are Arabs or from Arab origins too. Most of the Western intelligence and security analysts are still unable to read the information in the original Arabic language, and lack the knowledge, insights, and tools, required to analyze Islamist radical groups and their mindset.
Jihadi use of the Internet – the Open University for Jihad
There are several main reasons why Jihadi movements, groups, clerics, and scholars, turned the Internet into their main, and sometimes only, vehicle for propaganda, indoctrination, publicity, and teaching of their messages. Besides the known advantages of this medium of communication, several factors should be noted:
- Most Arab and Muslim countries face oppositions that are oppressed and groups that are persecuted, rendering the Internet their only alternative to spread their messages. Citizens and groups are prevented from freely publishing books and newspapers, or from giving open lectures. Moreover, in most Arab and Muslim countries they have no access to the traditional means of Islamic religious indoctrination, such as mosques, Friday sermons, religious universities and colleges, or religious ceremonies.
- The nature of the Jihadist ideology and doctrines, as well as the core of Jihadi mission is to create a global solidarity and brotherhood. To that end the Internet is nowadays the best means to promote this goal cheaply and rapidly, while reaching the broadest possible audience.
- The Internet is the best means available today to create a spectrum of doctrines, new interpretations, and a multitude of new groups, but also to create an image of a large volume of activity.
- The Internet is intensively surfed and read by the global media. Every Jihadi event or message is instantly exposed to the world, circulated by news agencies, and cited in Muslim countries, whose populations do not read Arabic.
- The past decade, has witnessed a heightened significance and weight of this medium in the eyes of Jihadis, due to a number of highly important events. These include the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent global war on terrorism; the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq; Jihadi terrorist operations all over the globe; the image of a global clash of religions and civilizations; and the rise of Jihadi terrorism as a global strategic factor in the West. There is a growing dynamic in the mutual relationship between the Jihadi groups that use the Internet and the global media.
- The strategy of the global Jihadi doctrines is to target the Arab and Muslim youth—the largest, most educated—and in terms of the Internet—most connected segment of Muslim societies. Besides, the use of the Internet for various goals, and the access to it in many Arab and Muslim countries is growing rapidly, alongside the growing development of education in many of these publics, including of females.
Most importantly for the purposes of this paper these groups are above all targeting their own societies and not Western regimes and their citizens. The Internet may be used to intimidate Western publics, knowing the audiences’ wide exposure to the global media and the huge effect that exposure has upon the sense of security in the West. Jihadis know that the widely circulated video clips of beheaded foreigners and Muslims in Iraq terrorize Western publics. Even so, the main reason why Jihadis circulate these clips, photos, audio material, books, articles, or military manuals, is to indoctrinate their own Arab and Muslim audiences; plant feelings of pride, a sense of belonging, and a new identity in their minds; and recruit their support. The Internet provides by far the best means to achieve the desired goal of virtual nation building of the Muslim nation—Ummah—an aspiration anchored in the doctrines of the Jihadi-Salafi currents. In other words, the Internet is the global Open University for Jihad.
One of the documents of indoctrination published in 2003 and recently re-circulated by the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) is talking about the nature of the university of global Jihad. The author, nicknamed Ahmad al-Wathiq bi-Allah, deputy director of GIMF, presents Al-Qaeda as an “organization, state, and university”:
“Since the operation of USS Cole [November 2000] and the glorious events of Manhattan [September 2001] until the present events of this blessed month [Ramadan 2005] hundreds of Muslims from all over the world join this global Jihadi university, in which they study all the studies of the Jihad, its rules and kinds… This is a non-central university, with no geographic borders, which has its presence everywhere, and each person zealous for his religion and nation can join it… This university has its own presidency, whose role is to incite, guide, indoctrinate, and encourage the awareness of the Mujahidin. Its presidency is the leadership of the Mujahidin headed by Osama bin Laden… The university includes several faculties, among them for electronic Jihad, martyrdom, and the technology of side bombs and car bombs.”
The article bears propagandist overtones, but it clearly summarizes the indoctrinative nature of global Jihad, and thus, the center of gravity of this phenomenon, i.e. the Muslim audience. If this is the main audience then there is almost no room for disinformation. An intensive reading of these web sites, and especially of the most radical 15-25 Jihadi forums and dozens of message groups, reveals the highly serious approach and attitude of their participants, i.e., those who are targeted by this global indoctrination. In some Muslim communities in the West, but especially in the Arab world, we can trace a growing role of this indoctrination in the willingness to support, justify, and volunteer to join Jihadi terrorist groups. Since 2001, these Jihadi web sites have gradually replaced the old Madrassa as a tool of recruiting the first generation of Jihadis in the 1980-90s. The Internet in fact, has become one global madrassa.
Another recent publication by GIMF—an analysis of the global strategy of Al-Qaeda—is even more lucid. Under the title “Al-Qaeda’s War is Economic not Military,” the author, a Saudi scholar and supporter of global Jihad, analyzes the significant role that indoctrination plays in the global movement:
“We should direct some of these efforts to other targets that could serve another goal, namely to promote the glory of the Muslims, especially among the youth, who are swimming in the oceans of pleasures and lust. Those youth are in fact unused petrol, while many efforts are dedicated to confront those clerics who are selling their minds to the dictatorships, and who are useless too. These moral attacks would have a tremendous impact on the souls of the defeated youth.
Many idle youngsters were motivated to join the Jihad by a photo or a video such as of the USS Cole, or Badr al-Riyadh, or by watching the crash of the planes into the high buildings. Those youngsters, even though they were not fully aware of the impact of the attacks upon them, turned their minds and bodies towards the Jihad. Here comes the role of indoctrination and developing the thinking of these people. It is a mistake to leave these youngsters with their superficial understanding of the nature of the war.
Whoever listens to the calls of Osama bin Laden senses in his words his care for the indoctrination of the supporters of the Jihadi current, like for example in the Gulf States, in order to target the oil fields. The Sheikh, I think, could direct the Mujahidin through personal secret messages. However, he wanted the indoctrination to be public, in order that the crowds of people, who wait for his speeches through the TV channels or the Internet, would internalize his targets and follow them. If these messages would be clandestine and then the oil field would be attacked, the masses of sympathizers might not approve it and might even turn to the opposite side and withdraw their support. Public statements by the Sheikh or the many videos of the Mujahidin can avoid such a negative impact of such an attack.”
In the final analysis global Jihad must use open indoctrination in order to sustain and broaden its audience in general, and its younger generations in particular. Open indoctrination is incompatible with disinformation. Therefore, even though we should be selective and careful in our selection of which information on Jihadi web sites we follow. Once we have established the authenticity of a Jihadi web site, we can be reasonably certain that the words we read from their lips are credible. The Jihadist instigators cannot allow themselves to mislead the “Solid Base”—Al-Qaeda al-Sulbah—the base of the future pioneering Jihadi generations. Furthermore, we should understand the role of Jihad played by the present ideological umbrella of global Jihad. This role is not merely one of terrorism but, and perhaps more importantly so, a crucial pillar in the current solidarity among Arabs and Muslims, as well as in the nation building process of the future Muslim Caliphate. In April 1988, Dr. Abdallah Azzam, the spiritual father of modern global Jihad, wrote so very clearly in the article in which he established the idea of Al-Qaeda:
“The Islamic society cannot be established without an Islamic movement that goes through the fire of tests. Its members need to mature in the fire of trials. This movement will represent the spark that ignites the potential of the nation. It will carry out a long Jihad in which the Islamic movement will provide the leadership, and the spiritual guidance. The long Jihad will bring people’s qualities to the fore and highlight their potentials. It will define their positions and have their leaders assume their roles, to direct the march and channel it…
Holding of arms by the group of believers before having undergone this long educating training—Tarbiyyah—is forbidden, because those carrying arms could turn into bandits that might threaten people’s security and do not let them live in peace.”
The long Jihad with which the West—and indeed much of the world—is currently facing uses the Internet to provide both Jihadists and ourselves, a wide spectrum of diversified information. Western intelligence and security analysts can learn more about Jihad by reading the lips of Jihadi clerics, scholars, operatives, commanders, leaders, and above all their growing audience. Improving their ability to do so, and above all in the original language must be our priority.
* Reuven Paz is the founder and director of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements—PRISM—in the GLORIA Center, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel. He has been dealing with the research of Islamic radicalism and movements, and Jihadi terrorism, for many years.