Skip to comments.Islamist Websites as an Integral Part of Jihad: A General Overview
Posted on 02/21/2007 7:52:12 AM PST by Valin
Introduction Alongside military jihad on various battlefields, Islamist organizations are engaged in another type of warfare: jihad on the media front. The media is viewed by Islamist organizations both as an important battlefield and as an effective tool, and they consequently make extensive use of it.
The media platform favored by the Islamist organizations is the Internet, which they prefer for several reasons: firstly, for the anonymity it allows - anyone can enter and post to a site without divulging personal information; secondly, due to the medium's availability and low cost - all that is required is a PC and an Internet connection; and thirdly, due to the ability to distribute material to a great number of people over a wide geographic area in a matter of seconds.
The organizations use the Internet mainly for propaganda and indoctrination, but also for operational military needs.
This paper will discuss the distinguishing characteristics of the websites of Islamist organizations and their supporters; the various online activities through which terrorist organizations assist the mujahideen on the ground, both militarily and, especially, with propaganda; and the Internet polemics that these organizations conduct vis-à-vis their enemies. 
The Internet in the Service of Islamist Organizations
*Main Characteristics of Islamist Websites
Islamist websites operate out of various countries, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and their target audience includes countries and communities all over the world. Accordingly, the websites address their audiences in various languages, from Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Turkish to Western languages such as English and French.
Some websites have versions in different languages, both Eastern and Western. Examples are the unofficial Hamas site, www.palestine-info.co.uk, and the site of the British organization Supporters of Shari'a (http://www.supportersofshariah.com ), which was headed by Abu Hamza Al-Masri, who is currently serving a prison sentence in London. It is noteworthy, however, that the different versions do not carry the same content, since they are aimed at different audiences.
Islamist sites tend to be transitory and impermanent - new sites appear and others close down or are shut down on a daily basis. An example is the Islamist forum Al-Qal'a (http://www.qal3ati.com ), once popular and active, which was shut down after it posted the statement taking responsibility for the July 2005 London bombings. Sites also frequently change their URLs, as in the case of the unofficial Hamas site www.palestine-info.info (previously www.palestine-info.co.uk and www.palestine-info.com ).
*Most Islamist Websites Hosted in the West Islamist organizations utilize the services of Western Internet companies and exploit Western freedom of speech in spreading their message. Most Islamist websites are hosted by servers in the West, and some are even registered there. A 2004 MEMRI review of Islamic sites (published as a two-part report titled "Islamist Websites and their Hosts") found that most of the sites used servers of Western companies. 
*Islamist Organizations' Use of Internet Services
Islamist organizations and their supporters use of all the usual Internet services, including websites, forums, and discussion groups. According to some media reports, they also use the Internet for communications, instead of telephones and land mail.
Websites Official websites of Islamist organizations:
The Islamists' basic use of the Internet is the establishment and operation of websites through which they disseminate their messages. Some Islamist organizations maintain official websites, established by the organization and run by individuals with ties to the organization. It is not always possible to know for certain whether a given website is indeed an official one, but from the website's contents it can often be understood that those running it have direct ties to top organization officials. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many Iraqi terrorist organizations fighting against the Coalition forces have set up official websites. Examples are the site of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella organization of several Sunni Iraqi terrorist groups led by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (http://islamiciraq.modawanati.com ), and the site of the Islamic Army in Iraq (www.iaisite.org ) - the largest organization that has not joined the ISI. (http://islamiciraq.modawanati.com ).
Official websites of religious scholars supporting the Islamist organizations:
Another category is websites of religious scholars who play an active role in setting up the organizations' ideological infrastructure, and in granting religious-legal legitimacy to their activities. Many of these religious scholars are currently serving prison sentences for incitement to terrorism or even for active involvement in terrorism - but this does not prevent them from spreading incitement and supporting terrorism via their websites, which remain active. An example is the website of the Jordanian Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi (www.almaqdese.net ), who was the spiritual mentor of former Al-Qaeda in Iraq commander Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi. The name of Al-Maqdisi's site is Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad (The Podium of Monotheism and Jihad), which is reminiscent of the original name of Al-Zarqawi's organization, initially called Jama'at Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad (The Monotheism and Jihad Group). Al-Maqdisi's website contains numerous writings that provide ideological and religious-legal legitimacy for many Islamist terrorist organizations. 
Unofficial websites supporting the organizations:
Most websites utilized by Islamists are not designated as official websites of a specific organization or individual. Nonetheless, in many instances they promote the aims of certain organizations, regardless of whether members of these organizations are involved in running the site. Al-Qaeda, for instance, currently has no known official website, but there are sites that identify themselves with the organization and its activities, such as Al-Qa'idun (www.qa3edoon.com), whose founders describe themselves as "a group that identifies with the jihad fighters, and whose task is to publish statements from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."
Forums Internet forums are currently the Internet service most widely used by Islamist organizations for conveying messages related to the organizations' terrorist activities or propaganda. The importance that the organizations attach to these forums as a media venue is evident from the fact that their official statements, such as communiqués or videos, are often posted in forums before they are posted on the websites themselves.
In some forums, such as Al-Hesbah (www.alhesbah.org ), most of the rooms are dedicated to the activities of Islamist organizations or support for them. Other forums, such as the Saudi forum Al-Saha (www.alsaha.com ), deal with these topics as well as other matters.
Many forums are limited to members only and require prior registration. Some even have an "admissions committee" and assign a different status to different forum members, while other forums are closed and no new members are admitted. While this might appear to run counter to the organizations' desire to spread their messages, registration is possibly aimed at increasing the forum's prestige, keeping tabs on members, as a defensive measure against alleged activity by infiltrators from intelligence services, or - assuming that some sites are actually operated by these services - in order to collect information on the Islamists who enter the site.
The Islamists also use the Internet portal Yahoo for establishing discussion groups to spread their extremist views. One example of this is the Modjahede discussion group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/modjahede ), which included links to guides for the production and use of conventional and nuclear weapons. 
Islamist Organizations' Internet Activities: An Integral Part of Jihad Islamists regard their information activities as an integral part of their jihad, and therefore invest great resources - both material and non-material - in Internet activities. In fact, media or information activities on the Internet are described as a kind of jihad that can be carried out by those who cannot take part in the fighting on the battlefield. This kind of jihad is called "propaganda jihad" (al-jihad al-da'wi) or "media jihad" (al-jihad al-i'lami). The concept is based on the well-known Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: "One who sees a wrong must correct it with his hand, and if he cannot, then with his tongue, and if he cannot, then in his heart, and this is the weakest level of faith."
This perception is reflected in the media activity of Al-Jabha Al-I'lamiyya Al-Islamiyya Al-'Alamiyya - known in English as the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) - an Islamist media group that has posted numerous reports and statements dealing with jihad fighters. GIMF denies that it has a connection to Al-Qaeda, though it has posted several Al-Qaeda statements taking responsibility for terrorist acts.
With the GIMF's establishment, its leader, who calls himself "the second Salah Al-Din," published a statement declaring that "the Media Front's project is a project of media jihad, for jihad is one of the doors to Paradise." Urging Muslims to join GIMF, he said that it was meant for "everyone who believes in Allah, the One and Only, and who believes that Muhammad is his servant and his messenger... [It is meant for] everyone who cannot carry out jihad with his wealth or with his life, for everyone who feels in his soul the jihad of the word and of opinion, for everyone who can reveal the facts to the people of our [Muslim] nation and to those non-Muslims who are not hostile towards us, and for everyone who wants to publish reports on Muslims and to convey their pure words to those who want to take part in spreading awareness by every means." 
When, in August 2005, GIMF established the Media Jihad Brigade (Katibat Al-Jihad Al-I'lami), it explained that "the media war is an integral part of the war on the battlefield." The members of the Brigade were described as "a group of Muslims who desire to wage jihad and to bear arms, but until Allah allows them to do so, they take upon themselves to help the jihad fighters by toppling the Zionist hegemony over the media." 
Islamists use the Internet as a tool in the military training of jihad fighters by circulating military guidebooks on weaponry, battle tactics, explosives manufacture, and other topics. An example is Al-Qaeda's online military magazine Mu'askar Al-Battar (The Al-Battar Training Camp), published by the Military Committee of the Mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula.  Some websites also carry courses on manufacturing explosives and even guides for making homemade dirty bombs. 
However, Islamist organizations' most prominent use of the Internet is for information and propaganda. They see this use as of the utmost importance, and invest considerable resources in it; thus, it constitutes most of the organizations' online activities. Al-Qaeda, for instance, has media divisions and several production companies, such as Al-Sahab, and is also served by media groups with uncertain affiliation, such as the aforementioned GIMF.
It should be noted that prominent terrorists play an active role in the organizations' online media activities. For example, Fares Al-Zahrani, a top member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, used to post on various Islamist sites like Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad under the pseudonyms Abu Jandal Al-Azdi and Al-Athari.  Another senior operative in this organization, 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-'Anzi, who was likewise arrested after participating in military clashes with Saudi security forces, was also very active on the Internet. Al-'Anzi served as head of the Media Council of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, recruited supporters on Internet forums, and was one of the supervisors of www.alsalafyoon.com, under the pseudonym 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Bakri. He also wrote regularly for Al-Qaeda's online magazine Sawt Al-Jihad (The Voice of Jihad) under various pseudonyms. 
Main Goals of Online Propaganda *Glorifying the Organization's Activities
One of the goals of the organizations' online activities is to praise and exalt their operatives and activities. This is done through statements, speeches, and videos, in which the organization leaders boast of their terrorist activities. A prominent example is speeches by Al-Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri, by former Al-Qaeda in Iraq commander Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, and by his successor Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir. Videos of operations showing preparation and execution of attacks likewise serve to glorify the organization and its fighters. 
*Spreading the Organizations' Ideology
In order to spread their extremist ideology, the organizations post essays and fatwas by religious scholars who are active in the organizations or who support their activities. Examples can be found in Al-Qaeda's online magazine Sawt Al-Jihad and in the abovementioned website of Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal Jihad, both of which include essays and fatwas by fundamentalist religious scholars supplying ideological justification for terrorist activities.
*Legitimizing the Organizations' Activity
The organizations make an effort to legitimize their activities by bringing various arguments justifying their actions. The issue of legitimizing jihad was discussed explicitly in the magazine of the Information Division of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Dhurwat Sanam Al-Islam ("The Crest of the Summit of Islam" - an expression which is commonly used to refer to jihad). The author of the article, writing under the pseudonym Nur Al-Din Al-Kurdi, wrote: "If we want monotheism to triumph through jihad, we must [conduct] a goal-oriented media [campaign] to explain the aims of the operations carried out by the jihad fighters. [Our] aim is not just to carry out the operation. We must [also] explain why the operation was carried out the way it was. Only then will out mission be complete... Our nation has lost so many campaigns because [it failed on] the media [front]." 
*Threatening and Influencing the Enemy
The organizations use the Internet to convey messages to their enemies. A prominent example is a speech by bin Laden which was released by Al-Qaeda's production company Al-Sahab just before the U.S. presidential elections of October 2004. In this speech, bin Laden hinted that a U.S. state that did not vote for Bush would not be targeted.  Videos showing small-scale terrorist operations, such as attacks on Hummers and helicopters, or sniper attacks, are likewise aimed at demoralizing the enemy and at influencing public opinion in enemy countries. The organizations assume that showing images of wounded or killed soldiers affects public opinion and may induce the public to pressure its leadership. GIMF's Media Jihad Brigade has declared that its aim is to "affect [the] enemies' morale, thwart their aspirations and dreams, and expose the truth about what goes on in Iraq." 
The Internet as a Front of Confrontation with the Enemies In addition to serving as a tool to assist the fighters in combating their enemies on the ground, the Islamist websites are also an environment in which this confrontation takes place.
*Hacker Activities in Both Camps
Islamist websites are subject to hacking attempts by Arab and Western hackers trying to shut down their activity, and the Islamists use the same methods against "enemy" sites, calling it "electronic jihad." GIMF's Media Jihad Brigade claims to have hacked forums and websites used by soldiers in Iraq and their families and to have posted "frightening messages" in them.  In fact, Islamist forums such as Al-Firdaws (http://www.alfirdaws.org/vb/ ) have special areas devoted to electronic jihad, which include instructions for hackers and serve as a platform for exchanging information.
*Alleged Activity by Western and Arab Intelligence Services on Islamist Forums
Some Islamist websites claim that Western and Arab intelligence agents are active on Islamist forums, and accuse various sites of being "espionage sites" run by intelligence services. For example, the Al-Tajdeed forum (www.tajdeed.org.uk ), which is affiliated with a London-based Saudi oppositionist organization, has leveled this accusation against Al-Hesbah (www.alhesbah.org ), claiming that the latter is operated by Western and Arab intelligence services with the aim of exposing and arresting prominent individuals who post there, such as "Irahabi 007" or "Bin Roma."  Such accusations raise important questions regarding the authenticity of some Islamist websites, which is an issue that would require further investigation.
*Attempts to Conduct Dialogue with Individuals on Islamist Sites with the Aim of Reforming Them
A different kind of confrontation is represented by the Saudi Al-Sakinah (Tranquility) campaign, which aims to initiate online dialogue with extremists on the Islamist websites in an effort to lead them to renounce their extremist views. This initiative was launched in 2003 by volunteers and later received the blessing and support of the Saudi Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs.
The initiator and director of the campaign, 'Abd Al-Mun'im Al-Mushawwah, told the Saudi daily Al-Madina on July 1, 2005 that the campaign was being conducted by "some 40 'ulama and propagators of Islam who have Internet skills. [They] enter extremist websites and forums and converse with the participants in order to bring them to renounce their extremist ideas." He added that the 'ulama "conduct dialogue [only] with individuals who have expressed solidarity with the operations of violence and terror, but have not participated in them, in order to prevent them from doing so [in the future] - because those who express solidarity [with the terrorists] are likely in the future to turn into collaborators and perpetrators, and this is the most dangerous thing..." He further explained that "after identifying people with extremist views on the various sites, the Al-Sakinah representatives try to draw [them]... into one-on-one dialogue using chat or messenger [programs], since one-on-one dialogue affords more scope for persuasion. It allows you to exchange views far from the hubbub of the public dialogues and without external influences..."
According to reports in the Saudi media, 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-'Anzi, mentioned above as a terrorist active on the Internet, renounced his extremist views and disappeared from the websites following a conversation with an Al-Sakinah representative. 
*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI
Good companion article.
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