My research plan – ‘Online Islamist militant discussion: does the Internet atomise?’

Note: Since I am writing a book on the value of ‘openness’ on the Internet, I have begun to appreciate the worth of making what might otherwise be defendend as intellectual property public. Here follows a stripped down and un footnoted version of my PhD plan. I will be completing this research between now and 2010 at the University Cambridge (This text originally from early 2008, based on plan of 2005) under the supervision of Christopher Andrew.

Proposal (short version)

Since the Madrid and London bombings, European Governments have become increasingly concerned about the prospect of terrorist attacks within their own borders, perpetrated by their own citizens. Since July 2005 in particular, the issue of the Internet and its perceived role in the radicalisation and recruitment of Islamist militants within Europe has been on the agenda at successive meetings of the Justice & Home Affairs ministers of the EU Member States. The series of convictions in British courts in the last half of 2007 highlights the centrality of the Internet in the radicalisation of so-called “home grown” militants and sympathisers. In July 2007, Younis “Irhabi 007” Tsouli, Waseem Mughal and Tariq Al Daour were convicted for incitement to commit an act of terrorism through the internet. The same month, in a separate case, Irfan Raja, Awaab Iqbal, Aitzaz Zafar, Usman Malik, and Akbar Butt, were convicted for downloading and sharing extremist terrorism-related material. Raja had met the others, who knew each other at Bradford University, through a chatroom. (This conviction was subsequently quashed in appeal.) In October 2007, Mohammed Atif Siddique was found guilty of collecting terrorist-related information, setting up websites showing how to make and use weapons and explosives, and circulating inflammatory terrorist publications. In December 2007, Samina Malik, known by her Internet nickname “the Lyrical Terrorist”, was given a nine-month suspended jail sentence. Yet despite the high priority placed on the issue of online Islamist militant radicalisation and recruitment at ministerial level in all EU Member States, and the demonstration of the important role of the Internet in recent cases at the British courts, there remains a dearth of reliable knowledge about the dissemination and reception of Islamist militant ideas on the Internet.

There is a need for empirical research into the spread and reception of militant ideas on the Internet. I propose to examine the extent to which the core elements of militant Islamist rhetoric, established by the signatories to the 1998 “Declaration of War on Jews and Crusaders” and in the statements of other militant ideologues openly affiliated with al Qaeda, remain consistent as they are communicated on the Internet among disparate audiences across chatrooms, web forums, and other online communication services over time. If successful, my research will reveal whether digital communication among loose communities of geographically dispersed individuals in the diaspora and elsewhere, and the current trend in two-way online communications, radically changes or atomises the core elements of militant Islamist rhetoric, and how this can inform future attempts to counter online radicalisation. I intend to examine whether the core ideology have become atomised over time, audiences, and media on the Internet. Before discussing the methodology I propose to use, I will give an overview of the content, which has two parts: first, the trend in Islamist militants’ use of the Internet; second, the recent “user driven” revolution in online communications.

(i) context
Context of research, part 1: Islamist militants’ use of the Internet

The information revolution that occurred since the mid 1990s has both empowered militant propagandists, and reduced governments’ abilities to intervene at the point where the call to violence is disseminated. Writing from Khandar, Afghanistan, in 2000, Abu Huthayfa wrote to Sheikh Abu Abdullah (aka Osama bin Laden) advising him to exploit the opportunities for communication presented by the Internet:

The importance of establishing a website … in which you place all your legible, audible, and visible archives and news must be emphasised. It should not escape the mind of any one of you the importance of this tool in communicating with the people.

This correspondence, taken from the US Department of Defence “Harmony” database of captured documents, illustrates the importance of the Internet to the militant Islamist strategy. The value of the Internet to fugitive communities had become obvious before 9-11 and the invasion of Afghanistan has disrupted the central al Qaeda hierarchy. Already, the Zapatista National Liberation Army had begun to use the Internet in the early 1990s to appeal to a wider, geographically disparate support constituency, spread anti-government information, and attack government IT services. Bin Laden’s original mentor, Abdullah Azzam, who introduced him to the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, taught him to prioritise media and communications long before the birth of al Qaeda. In 1984 Azzam established a magazine called al Jihad to disseminate propaganda about the jihad in Afghanistan. Eventually, 70,000 copies of al Jihad were printed per issue and distributed world wide. According to a contemporary of bin Laden, the magazine was “among the most important projects established by Azzam”. One of the magazine’s journalists stated that Azzam told prospective journalists that “if you work for the magazine inside Afghanistan, maybe in the eyes of Almighty Allah, your achievement will be more important than carrying a Kalashnikov”. Azzam Productions, based in the UK, continued to produce conventional media, such as the cassette “In the Heart of the Green Birds” focused on the fighting in the Balkans, in the early 1990s. The public relations lesson was not lost on bin Laden when he adopted the concept of offensive jihad against the West in the late 1990s. In 1998, al Qaeda established four departments to conduct affairs in military, finance, Islamic study, and media matters. For this last department, the establishment of which illustrates the priority placed upon communication from the outset, the Internet was a particularly important tool. The utility of the Internet was also clear to other militant groups. By 1999 nearly all of the thirty organisations designated as terrorist by the US Department of State had established websites, and 4,300 websites of purported terrorist groups were identified in a study between 2003-05.

Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian militant who influenced bin Laden to adopt offensive jihad, wrote in 2001:

A jihadist movement needs an arena that would act like an incubator where its seeds would grow and where it can acquire practical experience in combat, politics, and organizational matters.

The invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and increased scrutiny on travel from and to zones of conflict denied, at least initially, this physical environment to the Islamists. Yet, as the US Coordinator for Counterterrorism testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 13 June 2006, “Enemy safe havens also include cyberspace. Terrorists often respond to our collective success in closing physical safe havens by fleeing to cyberspace where they seek a new type of safe haven.” After Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ and the invasion of Afghanistan, the al Qaeda franchise appears to have become increasingly nebulous. The degree to which this has occurred is a point of some debate, however it is clear that the central leadership of al Qaeda were dispersed, and whatever centralised structure there may previously have been was significantly disrupted. In addition, surveillance in the West has made physical and personal interaction more difficult, making the Internet’s anonymity and convenience more appealing.

In this new context, the Internet became increasingly valuable to Islamist militants, allowing for a community of geographically dispersed sympathisers for whom al Qaeda has become an ideological reference point rather than a formal organisation. The curious, the sympathetic, and the committed can communicate across the ummah (Muslim world) and among the diaspora on the Internet, using chat rooms, blogs, websites, and forums. The Internet offers prospective militants opportunities to communicate, read, watch, or hear an instant fatwa from a preferred cleric, or participate in online debate with a fellow traveller.

As one perceptive commentator observed, the mobilisation of Islamist militants over the Internet has historic precedent in the Napoleonic levée en masse following the deregulation of the France printing presses. The deregulation of and lifting of censorship from the printing presses in France between 1789 and 1793 resulted in a wave of cheap, accessible communications uninhibited by libel laws, copyright or any other restriction. This enabled the mass-ideological mobilisation of the French, and swelled the ranks of the Napoleonic armies. As the Netherlands General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) reported in 2007:

Although virtual networks serve primarily to increase the jihadist movement’s strength in a general sense, the training material that is widely available could help convert the intention to carry out terrorist attacks into actual deeds. This is particularly true in the case of ‘home-grown’ terrorists. Being prepared to carry out terrorist acts is one thing, but having the knowledge, skills and means to do so is just as important. Using the propaganda materials available on the internet, a potential jihadist can learn about ideology, reinforcing ideology and ideological indoctrination.

Context of research, part 2: user driven Internet communications

This growing awareness of the importance of the Internet in militant radicalisation occurred at the same time as communications on the Internet was itself undergoing of a profound shift. In 2007, the IBM Institute for Business Value reported on the rising popularity of user-generated content and the move towards open distribution platforms. Another seminal report released in February 2007 by investment consultancy Piper Jaffray made the case that a “user revolution” is underway:

The historically passive state of consumers is changing rapidly as they not only are becoming much more informed and confident about purchase decisions, but are also increasingly controlling the consumption of information and content that used to be distributed by major companies – networks, studios, large retailers, and others.

Use of websites that rely on user generated content, such as Myspace, YouTube, Bebo, Wikipedia and CraigsList, has grown at a remarkable rate. In the United States, where usage of the Internet has grown 2 percent during 2006, usage of user driven websites has grown 100 percent. In April 2005, such sites held just 3 percent of Internet usage time, yet in October 2006 this had grown to 31 percent. The implication in that the current trend in Internet use is toward the user taking the active role of designer, contributor, editor, rather than simply viewer or readers. This has turned the norms of communications, marketing, business and innovation upon their heads. In the new world, the impact of the user is profound. Wikipedia, an encylopaedia maintained by amateurs, contains more information than the professional encylopaedias combined.

This revolution is knowledge-based, and is driven by access to collaborators provided by the Internet and relevant know-how. The need for capital is minimal. Microsoft’s chief competitor in the operating systems market is Linux, a system initiated by an individual and continuously developed and updated as a labour of love by thousands of particularly dedicated, or so-called “lead”, users cooperatively. Linux is largely distributed free (though commercial versions are available), and is updated and maintained by users. The same applies to other areas, such as computer games. Counterstrike, a game played by over 85,000 people at any one time in 2004, was developed and freely distributed by lead users who modified an existing, commercially distributed game called Half Life. This culture of user driven innovation means that design of concepts and products is no longer the exclusive preserve of specialists operating within a highly centralized media system.

Internet users are increasingly communicating horizontally, among each other at peer level. This change has empowered militants, and reduced government’s ability to directly control communications on the Internet. Increasing user domination of the Internet is a signature of its networked, horizontal structure. There is an additional aspect to the recent revolution in online communications. Joe Nye referred some years ago to the “paradox of plenty”. The Internet’s “end-to-end” (or consumer-to-consumer or end-user-to-end-user) design breathed renewed potency into word of mouth or so-called “viral” marketing. Internet users, with an unprecedented amount of information available to them, find it increasingly difficult to choose what information to view. For the information provider, this increases the need to compete for credibility. The response among Internet users has been to rely on horizontal recommendations made by peers. “Social bookmarking” services such as allow users to learn how their peers rank content on the Internet. Similarly, participants on militant webforums cite and recommend material to their peers.

In such an information environment, it might be assumed that no message can survive for long without some form of challenge or embellishment. As the UK Home Secretary rightly noted in her speech to Parliament on 17 January 2008, the new forms of communication on the Internet such as social networking are now of particular concern. However, the Home Secretary’s use of language about “grooming” suggests a belief that violent militant radicalisation is a top down process, similar to an adult grooming a child for criminal purposes. This may be misleading. The “sovereign individual” on the Internet has the power to contribute to and alter the norms of conversation on web forums and chat rooms. Radicalisation on the internet seems to be bottom up and horizontal, a process in which like minded individuals consult the Internet for information that will support their assumptions, and lend foundations to their political perspective. Fighting violent radicalisation as “grooming” would prioritise the identification of “groomers”, which could divert effort from the true priority: tacking the narrative that some young people in Europe are using to groom themselves as militants. The trend of “Web 2.0″ is that communication is now a two-way horizontal process. Internet users have become the masters of online content, rather than simply passive receivers of information. Since the user is in control, it is perhaps not surprising that an Al Qaeda website recently extended an open invitation to internet users to ask questions of Ayman al Zawahiri, who then promised to respond quickly to them publicly on the site. Indeed, he found himself responding to some difficult questions.

This, then, is the context of my research. First, it seems apparent that communication on the Internet plays a role in the radicalisation and recruitment of young Europeans to violence. Second, it is now understood that Internet users do not passively receive messages delivered vertically, top-down from authority. Rather, users on the Internet contribute to, adapt, and delete content horizontally. The question that my PhD poses is, to what degree are the core elements of Islamist militant rhetoric embellished upon or challenged as they are discussed on an Internet that is increasingly user dominated, and where users feel free to modify, criticise and embellish any content that comes their way? The answer may tell much about the current phase of the Internet communications, and about the resilience of the current wave of Islamist militant recruitment in Europe.

(ii) Methodology:

The editorial in the first edition of a new journal titled Media, War and Conflict, makes the point that new, cross disciplinarily research is needed to tackle the contemporary environment in which the fabric of traditional mass media is being replaced by an “ambient” media environment to which any person can contribute.

Testing the theoretical “4P” framework

My MPhil research attempted to determine whether one could draw upon similarities in militant Islamist and militant Irish republican rhetoric to establish a general interpretative framework. The conclusion of my MPhil thesis was that a single interpretative framework could be applied to both, highlighting their common reference to histories of persecution, citation of exemplars of their just cause drawn from historical precedent, maintenance of pious ideals that inform their justifications of violence, and use of examples of perseverance against overwhelming odds drawn from their respective histories. This framework was broad enough to allow for discrepancies in the reproduction of sources and translations, but capable of identifying the common rhetorical elements with which militant rhetoric justified violence and attracted prospective supporters. In November 2007, I published an article based on my MPhil thesis in the leading scholarly journal in my field, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, which refined this interpretative framework into four P-words: Persecution, Precedent, Piety and Perseverance.

The first step in my PhD research would be to test this “4P” framework in the context of newly available sources. At the time of completing my MPhil thesis in 2005 I did not have access to the recently declassified US Department of Defence “Harmony Database” of captured al Qaeda documents. Nor did I have access to other primary sources such as the recently published first hand accounts written by former militants such as Omar Nasiri and Ed Hussein, or to the range of contacts that I have built up in the research, security and journalism communities in the intervening three years. With the benefit of new primary materials, I can test my 4P framework and refine it to the point where it can generate a falsifiable hypothesis that I can test by reference to Internet material. A reliable means of doing this would be to take a random sample from a wide selection of statements of authoritative figures associated with the ideological core of al Qaeda, and determine how effectively the 4Ps apply to them. It may also be necessary to refine the 4P framework to reflect not just the P-themes, but also the militant Islamist lexicon that includes references to specific events, atrocities, heroic endeavours.

Data Collection

Assuming the 4P theory holds water, the next step would be to gather representative samples of content from digital media on the Internet to test for rhetorical consistency. The Internet represents a paradox of plenty, and some form of automation and sampling is necessary at the initial stage to produce a sample of materials that can then be studied in detail. I will use “web harvesting” to achieve this. Web harvesting is an automated means of trawling the Internet and storing entire websites and webforums, which can contain hundreds of thousands of individual postings, in tens of thousands of threads, of thousands of conversations, for later research. This mass of information can then be processed using strict criteria such as word or phrase frequency to select content for more detailed scrutiny. Web harvesting is a relatively new form of research. It has produced valuable results, for example in the George Washington University study of the influence of different commentators in the online dialogue surrounding the 2004 presidential campaign, and in the University of Arizona Dark Web project examining trends in terrorist activity. I am particularly fortunate to have a good working relationship with Professor Hsinchun Chen, the Director of the “Dark Web” web harvesting project at the University of Arizona. He has agreed to collaborate with me in harvesting sources for my research.

Due to the current limitations of web harvesting technology, I will supplement web harvesting with manual searches through online media that are difficult for automated web harvesting software to analyse, such as video content on YouTube, which can then be randomly sampled.

Applying criteria to sources

It will be important to delineate sources according to three criteria: i) date of communication; ii) proximity to the ideological core of al Qaeda; iii) medium of communication.

Date refers to the time at which a source was made available on the Internet. Most material on the Internet of relevance to this study has a time stamp. A useful characteristic of webforums when combined with the process of web harvesting is that one can collect data retroactively, allowing the researcher to attempt to conduct a retrospective longitudinal cohort study. Admittedly, this would be an unusual use of the retrospective cohort, which employed in epidemiology since the nineteen twenties. However, the characteristics of some internet content, and of web forum threads in particular, suggest that it would be amenable to this same method of retroactive examination. In one operation, web harvesting can archive postings that were submitted to a given web forum in different years, thereby allowing one to examine how the themes and content of discussion on the harvested forum evolved over time. By monitoring whether changes to rhetorical constancy have occurred over time, I plan to examine the extent to which rhetorical consistency, judged by the criteria of the 4P framework, has remained or not remained consistent in the years since September 2001.

Proximity will be based on whether discussion on webforums affiliated with militant groups is less or more consistent with core “4P” militant Islamist rhetoric than discussions on webforums that are entirely disconnected from al Qaeda or any affiliated movements. This will be the most difficult of the three criteria to determine. While some sources might openly avow their credentials and proximity to the ideological core of al Qaeda, many may not, and moreover, there may be many variations in between. To judge the proximity to the ideological core of al Qaeda, there are a number of tests that can be applied. First, if a web site or web forum that includes a store of documents that are permitted to remain openly available for users to download, it is possible to recognise whether any of these documents, including video and audio files, are standard al Qaeda or affiliated texts. Second, it may be possible to determine the extent to which authorities and references made in a web forum are similar to those cited by the ideological core. Third, there may be repeat users of the forum who post messages that appear rhetorically close to the ideological core, but those users might be outweighed by a larger number of users on the same forum who do not. All three of these tests can be initially attempted using automated analysis, but the second test of documents may require manual scrutiny.

Medium refers to the type of technological medium employed in the communication of the source. This could vary from a YouTube video to a reproduction of a statement produced as a PDF and hosted on a static webpage. Medium is easy to determine, but a powerful aid to this research. By tracking the consistency of rhetoric across different media on the Internet, for example from static websites to discussion groups or to video content, I will be able to attempt to draw more telling conclusions such as whether atomization of core rhetoric is prompted by the move to two-way Web 2.0 technologies, or whether the logistical requirements of video production entail a closer relationship to a hierarchy that is close to al Qaeda.

Discourse Analysis:

It will be necessary to determine the extent to which the materials collected and categorised according to the criteria above are consistent with the 4Ps. I will use Computer Mediated Data Analysis to examine these materials. Computer Mediated Data Analysis (CDMA) uses computer processes to apply linguistic analysis of words, phrases, and threads to the large sample on Internet content that represents a spread of proximity, medium and date. CDMA will produce frequencies of references to the refined 4P framework of core elements and militant Islamist lexicon of specific references. This first step will fulfil two functions. First, it will demonstrate the extent to which the 4Ps and core ideology remains central where Islamist militant dialogue occurs on the Internet. Second, it will separate specific posts or other elements of content that refer to the 4Ps from those that do not. However, this first step will not be capable of determining the extent to which the 4Ps are accepted or rejected, rather than being simply referenced. Due to the variety of material subject to analysis, CDMA may not be capable of gauging the extent to which references to the 4Ps and militant Islamist lexicon are made with positive or negative intent. The second step will require further scrutiny of materials where CDMA has indicated the 4Ps or lexicon are present to determine the degree to which the 4Ps remain dominant or are subject to criticism or adaptation.

By mapping the results of step one, which will produce frequencies of references and citations, and step two, which will demonstrate degree of acceptance or criticism, to the three criteria defined above, it will be possible to produce insights into how the 4Ps of the core ideology have become atomised or not over time, audiences, and media.

(iii) Brief literature review:

Some controversy continues to surround the Internet and its role in so-called “home grown” Islamist militant radicalisation & recruitment. On the one hand, one strand of work has focussed on the idea of an informal and geographically disparate group of like minded individuals who have sought out and adopted radical perspectives on the Internet without ever being formally recruited by an al Qaeda handler. This line of thought actually pre dates the current interest in al Qaeda. Two years before 9-11, Jerrold Post wrote on the concept of a “community of belief” in which informal groups of radicalised and mutually radicalising individuals might perpetrate particularly severe attacks. He was focussing at the time on groups such as the “Christian identity” right-wing sympathisers and far-right militants such as Timothy McVeigh who, though not formally associated with a militant group, might nonetheless undertake sympathetic operations in keeping that group’s ideology and goals. In November 2001, Post elaborated before the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. His concept of the community of belief is a forerunner to more recent thinking about “autonomous” and decentralised processes of radicalisation on the Internet in which “home-grown” individuals seek out groups of likeminded individuals on the Internet. The leader in this field has been the Dutch Security Service (AIVD), whose lead has been followed by other security services around the EU. Marc Sageman, who had previously focussed on face-to-face and familial connections between members terrorist networks, has also recently begun to focus increasingly on the role of the Internet in Leaderless jihad.

However, on the other hand, this concept of home-grown autonomous radicalisation has become a source of some debate among terrorism specialists. Although nether have yet published new materials that criticise the autonomous/home-grown perspective, two influential specialists have begun to argue the case. Bruce Hoffman, an established leader in the field of terrorist research, suggests that al Qaeda persists the dominant organising force of militant operations around the globe, and that the perceived spontaneity of self radicalised militants is only important in so far as it provides recruits for the central al Qaeda hierarchy to command. Peter Bergen, who published an important piece of research on bin Laden in 2007, also argues for the continuing importance of al Qaeda central, with particular reference to groups operating in Pakistan to plots targeting the UK. It should be noted that some on the “autonomous” side of the argument, such as Sageman and also Hamdi, accept that autonomous radicalisation often occurs as part of a local group process.

While there remains a debate about the nature of radicalisation, and the relative importance of “al Qaeda central” versus the autonomous home-grown individual who seeks radical material on the Internet, there is no such debate about the revolution in Internet communications. There is a wealth of work available on the “user driven” revolution in Internet communications. Seminal works include, in 1999, Davidson and Rees-Moog’s prescient The Sovreign Individual, and more recently James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams and Charles Leadbeater’s WeThink, all make the case for a shift in consultation/collaboration among audiences and content producers. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail reasons that the increasing pool of proactive purchasers of information on the Internet empowers those supplying a niche market for knowledge and services. Combined, these texts take user dominance of the Internet as a starting assumption. Indeed, even though it is so recent a change, the dominance of the user over the traditional content creator on the internet is so widely recognised that current debate centres not on whether this is the case, but on how it can be maintained and protected against countervailing trends, as in Jonathan Zittrain’s recent The Future of the Internet and how to stop it. In this context, the author’s 2007 book Countering Militant Islamist Radicalisation: a user driven strategy to recover the Web follows the prevailing trend.

Useful work has already been conducted on the ideological perspective of Islamism and of Islamist militancy. Not least among these are the commentaries written by the three key thinkers who established the basis of modern political Islamism – both violent and peaceful: Hassan al Banna, who formed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928; Sayeed Abdul A’la al Maududi, who founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941 ; and the highly influential Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb, who was himself influenced by Maududi’s writing and was a disciple of al Banna. Within the violent tradition two thinkers of paramount importance have also produced a great volume of their own material: Abdullah Azzam, who recruited bin Laden to the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was opposed to Azzam and under whose influence bin Laden eventually fell. These five thinkers have produced a vast quantity of primary materials which provide the basis of the 4P framework presented by the author in a recent article in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Before 9-11, a small but excellent body of work, centering around Oliver Roy and Gilles Kepel in France, examined these formative thinkers. More recently, the West Point Counter Terrorism Centre, where the “Harmony Archive” of captured al Qaeda documents is housed, has published an excellent Militant Ideology Atlas statistically charting the number of references to religious authorities to map spheres of ideological influence across Islamist militant groups.


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