The significant role of jihadists stationed in online battlefields was reflected as early as 2006 in the communicative philosophy of al-Qaeda, which states that “the mission accomplished by a virtual Mujāhid is no less important than what conventional Mujahidin do on a physical battlefield.”
“To the pious, hidden soldiers who are based on our Jihad forums and platforms, praying night and day to stand on Jihadi media frontlines, strive hard and race to deliver the Mujahidin news and publish their statements and films to the nation, hoping to bring the Ummah to their side in the ranks of the good Mujahidin” (Abu Sa’d al-Amili, al-Kitaab al-Mata’ al-Jama’).
Aiming to reach a wider audience and convinced by the importance of media and communication in achieving their political agenda, terrorist organisations are not only covered by official news channels. In fact, they have created their own “news” channels, as a step towards anticipating any changes that could affect media policies, by reducing terrorist news coverage or misrepresentations.
Over the first decade of the twenty-first century, Al-Qaeda developed its performance in the virtual world through a number of virtual forums such as Shumūkh al-Ezz Network, Shumūkh al-Islām, the Maʼāsadah Media Foundation, the Fallujah Network and the Islamic Tahaddī Network, in addition to other integrated media platforms such as the As-Sahāb Foundation, the Furqān, Al-Fajr, the International Islamic Media Front, the As-Somūd Media Company, Al-Andalus Foundation for Media Production, Al-Ansār Postal Corporation, Al-Ansār Media Foundation, Al-Malāhim Media Foundation, Jihadist Media Elite, Al-Yaqīn Media Center, Al-Katāʼib Foundation for Media Production, and others. At the same time, al-Qaeda has increased its efforts to adapt its media activities by upgrading its online presence on social media, and encouraging its followers to be increasingly active on Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and other online social media platforms.
However, unlike al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) leaders are less worried about what sympathisers might face due to electronic security tracking. They consider that Tamkīn (establishment) and Istikhlāf (succession) stages require a large mobilisation of followers all over the world, but this should not make electronic security concern a pretext to withdraw from the virtual world. At the same time, IS’s media Diwān (ministry) worked on increasing robust cyber security procedures for the group’s strategic communication, using the most sophisticated apps to avoid tracking.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that in the area of online communication aiming to expand recruitment and mobilise youths, both IS and al-Qaeda were using small loyal jihadist groups to support them in the promotion of security instructions for members and sympathisers. In this way, they introduced a number of formative guides for the sake of security communication, as it is the case with the “Jihadist suitcase”.
In fact, this issue cannot be viewed as neglect on the part of IS, but as one of the outputs of the organic transformation that occurred within global Jihadism, as it moved from a central organisation structure –based on a network chain of related spots- to a form of central organisation but disconnected from all supporters from outside Syria and Iraq. It was a very sharp piece of the theory of Abû Mus’ab As-Sûrī, which paved the way for the concept of individual jihad.
Therefore, instead of focusing on the modalities of discretion among its followers, IS has favoured the change of the whole paradigm, and has moved towards the creation of a new set of navigation rules, based on new semantics, new rituals and new techniques for both online entry and exit. It is worth noting that IS followers have demonstrated a good mastering of light and short messaging, using effects that do not hinder the upload-download process, in addition to the improvement of electronic encryption.
Violent extremist organisations are now experiencing a new phase in the trajectory of current global jihadism as important as the one observed during the years 2001-2004, and in 2010-2014.
Since the establishment of IS, active groups in the Iraqi-Syrian zone, in the Sahel, and even in East Africa, have developed an important scale and degree of mastery in the political and economic management of the territory, and have become gradually familiar with the bureaucratic apparatus.
In terms of communication, they have in fact made extensive use of information tools to undertake psychological and media warfare, to transmit their narratives, and to succeed in engineering a counter-narrative of legitimacy and to establish a policy of violent images. These groups also brought a new understanding of the corpus relating to jihad and their political-religious project of the so-called Khilāfa (Caliphate).
Globally, jihadist groups have shown resistance and regeneration capacities through at least two factors:
- Communication capacity
Jihadist groups have been able to optimise on their own account the informational possibilities offered by social media, to reach a large audience quickly and in real time. They have even developed their own information structures (website, press organ, agency, publication service), in different shapes depending on regions and on their financial and technical capacities. The objectives pursued remain mainly to advocate, to recruit, and to create and retain an audience, to raise awareness through images and scenes that are violent, spectacular and sometimes with strong emotional content.
This trend was accentuated since 2014 due to the emergence of IS. The organisation had set up an information structure made up of around forty individuals and pursued a policy of diversifying its production online and in print. This platform has enabled IS to effectively reach sympathisers in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and of course in the African continent in at least two different ways; either by directly reaching the Arabic speaking public of North Africa, in addition to Sudan, and partially English-speaking countries in East Africa; or by allowing a transfer of know-how through the ties forged with Boko Haram and al-Shabab, which have adopted and adapted the skills to the African cultural and linguistic environment.
Jihadist groups have generally sought to construct and transmit their stories, their narratives, their versions of things, their interpretation of reality, and disseminate them with the intention of persuading and taking the Muslim world to witness.
- Converting media activity into a doctrine
Through their growing communication capacities, jihadist groups have been able to transform their media activity into a doctrine. Hence, media is no longer a tool or an intermediary, but a solid base for their own narrative.
In the matrix of the third wave of global jihadism, those who deal with news are referred to as “jihadists of word and image” or “anonymous jihadists”. This denomination was consecrated by Abû Sa‘d al-‘Âmilî, and then adopted by Hussain Mâathidi, head of the Islamic news agency Haq (wakâlat al-anbâ ’al-islâmiya Haq).
On the doctrinal level, in order to ensure effective, secure and resilient communication, the new generation of jihadists has successfully combined technical rituals with a doctrinal component in their access-exists rituals to the virtual world.
- The jihadist media act is a jihadist operation, as “the mission accomplished by a virtual Mujāhid is no less important than what conventional Mujahidin do on a physical battlefield.”
- “Discretion favours good deeds, and devotion to God”: in this doctrinal construction, discretion is not a technic to hide or to avoid exposure. Unsimilar to Shiite Taqiyya, discretion is fundamental to the doctrine of Tawhīd (oneness of God), of which al Ikhlās (devotion to God) is the most important pillar. But in their logic, devotion is very deceptive, since the one has “to avoid falling into Ar-Riyā” (insincerity and can’t), which requires reassurance that any act is faithfully proper to God, so nothing but discretion, can ensure that.
- The awareness (of enemies), in turn, based on the jurisprudence of jihad, combines self-preservation and altruism, for which security theorists of jihad invented a new chapter in their literature, named “Al-ʾAmniyāt- Security Affairs or Files”. We find its most important pieces collected in the “Encyclopedia of Jihadi Security” by Abû Zubaydah, who undertook the challenge to build a database dedicated to Al-Qaeda jihadist security ¨officers¨, which was later updated by IS leaders.
Abû Sa‘d Al-‘Âmilîi, one of the most influential figures in theorising electronic jihad, provides a clear model on how securing online jihadist actions can be perceived not as tools of communication, or just procedures of awareness, but as an act of worship.
In one of his chapters entitled “Who is Abû Sa‘d Al-‘Âmilî and other “anonymous people” of the Internet?”, Al-‘Âmilî comes to answer the inquiries of his readers, who ignore who he is. He wanted to convince them that hiding their identity, and maintaining an anonymous profile online is a devotional condition and not only a security precaution.
In fact, Al-‘Âmilî’s writings document a sensitive stage in the performance of jihadi media during a critical period in the history of jihadist movements, especially the transitional phase after the murder of Bin Laden, the outbreak of the Arab Spring, and the emergence of IS.