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10 Reasons Why Blocking Awlaki Youtube Speeches is Counter-Productive

05/11/2010

1) Al-Qaeda and affiliates always find ways around site shut-downs. Other video forums—even body building and football websites—haven been used in the past to disseminate extremist videos. Al-Qaeda’s media empire is massive, regenerative, and redundant. These ace marketers would never allow one video-sharing website from keeping Anwar al-Awlaki’s messages from getting across to would-be loan wolves.

2) Furthermore, any blocking of videos will likely, as in the past, also force al-Qaeda and supporters to find fresh new dynamic and innovative ways to get Awlaki’s word across to English audiences—giving al-Qaeda new audiences and a new set of digital challenges to counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation professionals.

3) When al-Qaeda does implement brand new communications approaches, mainstream media will once again—as it has done steadily over the past decade—announce al-Qaeda’s strength and survivability. Such innovations are no surprise to counterterrorism analysts but seem to startle U.S. citizens somehow. And any announcement of al-Qaeda strength becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as D.C. policy hacks call for more unprecedented action against a group of terrorists that seem more and more to own the same (unjustified) existential mythic adversarial status as the USSR.

4) Media coverage of unprecedented blocking of speeches trying to inspire violence gives Awlaki yet further credibility as a seeming dangerous threat to the United States. The shut down—along with open U.S. congressional damning and Obama’s announced intent to kill or capture Awlaki—is a badge of honour for Awlaki and will give him yet further status in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda writ large.

5) Such press coverage will also introduce many more people to his videos which are still on other sites, CDs, and DVDs and in print. This is the “Mel Gibson” method of marketing—free media coverage of a controversial issue yields massive audiences.

6) Front page news will also make Awlaki seem like an ideological pinnacle to English speakers susceptible to radicalisation, when in fact his lectures—although slick, simple, and in easy-to-understand colloquial Americanized English—reek of academic slothfulness, lack of historical understanding, and a sophomoric education on Islam’s original texts.

7) Over the past four years over two dozen terrorist attack plotters were found to have viewed Awlaki’s videos before their planned attacks. But not in one case is there proof that his speeches actually inspired these conspirators. It may be more logical that those already considering violent extremism would naturally watch his and other videos. Listening to Awlaki may be a symptom instead of driver of radicalisation.

8) No matter how distasteful this might seem, Awlaki is still a U.S. citizen with rights to freedom of speech. Curbing anyone’s freedom of speech—by the government or corporation—is a win for al-Qaeda as Usama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri try to force the United States to damage freedoms that define the nation. Awlaki’s hateful speeches are not equivalent to yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre and clearly are protected by the constitution.

9) The vast majority of Awlaki messages and speeches cover basic concepts and day-to-day subjects of Islam such as when to pray and how men should shave to stay within religious-legal parameters. It is therefore possible, that an entire shut down of Awlaki’s speeches would be fodder for extremist messaging trying to prove that Islam is under attack from the West. In short, shutting down Awlaki’s harmless lectures may help to radicalize those susceptible to al-Qaeda’s narrative of Islam under attack.

10) The U.S. government thinking it can shut out any al-Qaeda online messaging shows the United States’ complete lack of understanding of al-Qaeda, its media organs, its messaging, its narrative, its ideology, and strategies that might actually undercut al-Qaeda instead of handing it more recruits. Violent extremists and their supporters have come to expect website shut downs as a reality of day-to-day life. It is only the U.S. government and youtube who think blocking videos will have any effect on radicalisation. Advertising United States’ poor conceptualization of the fight in which it finds itself will embolden al-Qaeda further to seek more sympathizers and recruits. This move will raise the spirits and determination of al-Qaeda.