PARIS, Feb. 29, 2008 -- In a world of increasingly affordable, accessible technology, where no act – however gruesome - and no threat – however dire - goes unrecorded, militant Islamist Web sites inhabit a parallel, ceaselessly shifting underbelly of the Internet.
Al Qaeda’s global operations these days, experts say, are broadly divided into four major regional arms: al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq), al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa) and “al Qaeda high-command,” – the core of founding fathers believed to be based in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While each arm has its own media division, experts say as-Sahab (literally “the cloud” in Arabic) stands at the top of the media command structure.
“Every time as-Sahab posts a message, everyone pays attention,” said Ned Moran, deputy director of Total Intelligence Solutions, a security consulting firm based in the US state of Virginia. “When the central leadership releases a statement, this is significant.”
Over the past few years, as-Sahab has been steadily upping its output. In 2002 for instance, as-Sahab released six militant videos, according to IntelCenter, another cyber security firm based in Virginia. By 2005, it had jumped to 16 videos. By the end of 2006, as-Sahab had released 58 videos. Last year, the figure hit the three-digit mark.
While some experts advocate keeping jihadist sites online for intelligence-gathering purposes, others believe their presence poses a security and propaganda threat. But keeping a lid on jihadist content in this day and age, experts admit, is easier said than done.
Sites that are brought down promptly reappear on other servers in a process known as “piggybacking,” whereby site operators may not even be aware they are hosting militant Web content.
The output is so profuse that security experts tracking jihadist sites say the West is losing the media war with Islamic extremists. “They’re pretty much kicking our butts right now,” said Moran.
‘Cyber thrash’ in a cluttered market
The drawback for al Qaeda of winning the online game though, is the level of noise – or “cyber thrash” as Moran calls it – cluttering the cyber-jihad world.
There are now so many jihadist sites online that al Qaeda’s media bosses, experts say, are facing the same sort of headaches plaguing media chiefs across the world: how to stand out in a crowded market and retain audiences.
“Al Qaeda is exploring different ways, different formats to make their messages more engaging,” said Ben Venzke, head of IntelCenter. “If you think of what news organizations or political figures do – like taking questions, inviting responses – al Qaeda is doing the same thing.”
One recent example is the offer posted Dec. 16, 2007, on several jihadist sites inviting questions for al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although more than an estimated 2,000 questions were posted, over a month after the cutoff date for query submissions Zawahiri’s response had not yet appeared.
As al Qaeda’s media ops develop, they will, like conventional media organizations, face increasing pressure to deliver professional content – on deadline, next time.