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Daniel Kimmage, a senior analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is the author of a new study called "The Al Qaeda Media Nexus" (.pdf) about recent developments in jihadist Internet activities. The study finds that Al Qaeda and related groups "are moving toward a more structured approach based on consistent branding and quasi-official media entities. Their reasons for doing so appear to be a desire to boost the credibility of their products and ensure message control." In essence, Al Qaeda is seeking to emulate the "brick and mortar" structure of mainstream Western media with the creation of elite news brands—a select group of fundamentalist CNNs, if you will, complete with "jihad correspondents"—that can manipulate and control the virtual discussion among terrorist groups. Online propaganda operations like the Global Islamic Media Front, the Al-Sahab Institute for Media Production, and the Al-Fajr Media Center typically receive content, in the form of ideological screeds or videos of bombings or beheadings, from an array of terrorist groups in various conflict zones around the world, to which they afix a logo, suggesting to jihadist readers that the message has received "official" approval from a larger, global movement.
The trend runs counter to Al Qaeda's operational modus operandi, which emphasizes small cells working in isolation with minimal oversight from Al Qaeda central—a fact that could open Al Qaeda's media arm to new vulnerabilities if intelligence agencies can figure a way to disrupt key online hubs for the distribution of propaganda. But the larger threat may come from within, suggests Kimmage. Al Qaeda has long been ahead of the curve in terms of using the Internet to spread its message, but has so far refused to incorporate new technologies focusing on user-generated content... a decision that has the potential to backfire.
According to Kimmage:
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. 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?
Freer and more empowered networks, in the end, will do more to undermine Al Qaeda's message than the actions of any government. 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.