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Islamist Web Tactics: Seeds Of Self-Destruction?

25/11/2009

When Thomas Hegghammer publishes, it’s always worth taking the time to read what he has to say, and his latest piece for Current Trends in Islamist Ideology is no exception.  Thomas focuses on The Ideological Hybridization of Jihadi Groups and argues that this phenomenon is poorly understood but may be evidence of a structural weakening of the jihadi ‘movement’.

Thomas proffers some ideas as to why this diversification of ideology might be occurring: changes in political environment, organisational structures, and radicalisation/recruitment pathways may all account for some of the differentials we can see between ‘jihadi’ groups across the world.  This is not to so that they do not remain a potent force under some circumstances and in some places, but that they are far less homogeneous than often thought.

One additional driver Thomas identifies is the modern media environment.  He writes:

A … possible explanation is that hybridization is the result of changes in the media and communications environment of jihadist groups.  The Internet revolution in the 2000s has, of course, greatly facilitated the production and distribution of jihadi propaganda, and this has made it easier for groups to borrow talking points and operational ideas from each other.  As such, new communications technologies may have had a homogenizing influence on jihadist groups.  For example, the increasing global jihadist influence on revolutionary groups since 9/11 reflected, at least partly, the realization by local groups of the formidable propaganda value of the al-Qaeda brand name.  The Internet also produced fierce competition between jihadist groups for the attentions of prospective recruits and supporters, as well as for the attention of the world’s mainstream media.  Thus, in an effort to extend their reach and influence, groups may have sought to opportunistically escalate their rhetoric on issues where they used to be relatively moderate.  

This is linked closely to another of Thomas’ suggestions, that

Ideological ambiguity or heterogeneity may be seen by some groups as a way to appeal to a broadest possible constituency.  By addressing a wider range of grievances―global as well as local―they hope to widen their prospective recruitment base.

In this formulation, global information space is an environment of abundant opportunity (propaganda vehicles, recruitment channels) but also one of scarcity (recruitment base, attention span).  The medium is, in part, responsible for the shaping of the message, without which the message will not survive on the global internet.  To borrow a Darwinian concept, the message must be ‘fit’ for the medium in which it is intended to operate.  Darwin only stretches so far, though, as iterative attempts to make the message palatable and effective may actually be fragmenting the ideological integrity and ‘fitness’ of the message.  This is what Johnny Ryan calls the ‘atomisation’ of the message, and what Thomas suggests may in the long run hinder jihadis more than it helps them.

This is an important point.  Analysts often assume that the internet provides the perfect medium for jihadis to promote their cause and to which new followers adhere through radicalisation and recruitment.  The above comments suggest this is only partly true, at least as far as the ultimate utility of the internet.  The nature of the medium may be forcing propagandists to spread themselves mighty thin in an effort to remain relevant and to maintain a viable support base.  The ubiquity of the internet might actually be contributing to them becoming less effective, rather than more.

This has significant implications for information counter-strategies as well as legal responses to ‘internet terrorism’, and shows once again that the internet is not something to be trifled with: things are not always as straightforward as they seem.