Understanding Online Radicalization: The Videos

In Parts One, Two, Three, and Four, this series has explained jihadists' use of blogs and web forums, social media, and some of the most prominent English-language magazines among Islamist extremists. The final part of this series will analyze the types of videos that are prominent among jihadists and their effect.


“We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s new chief, was quoted saying in July of 2005. “We are in a media battle for the hearts and minds of our umma [community of Muslims].” In context, Zawahiri’s declaration was focused on bringing video cameras into the battlefield and letting the footage speak for itself.

An explosion of video followed Zawahiri’s prophetic pronouncement, including recorded suicide attacks, propaganda films, and sermons. Over time al-Qaeda and other like-minded organizations even formed media wings like al-Fajr, al-Sahab, and GIMF, solely dedicated to promoting al-Qaeda’s theology and creating a brand name for the organization.

Up until relatively recently, English-language jihadists had much more limited viewing options. Early films about the glories of dying in battle, such as “Martyrs of Bosnia,” were rough-cut, unprofessional videos produced largely from stock footage and shaky battlefield shots. Despite a soundtrack featuring many songs by popular Muslim artist Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Cat Stevens, “Martyrs of Bosnia” had no "wow factor." It relied on poorly connected clips of Muslims suffering and mujahideen dying, overlaid with a rough voiceover background of the Balkans conflict and exhortations to Muslims to take to the battlefield.

Today’s English-language jihadi videos are a world away from their predecessors. Although many videos are still dedicated to classic themes like teaching Islamist ideology and showing attacks, many have evolved into sharp, complete arguments for jihad.

An al-Shabaab recruitment video profiled by the Investigative Project on Terror, titled “An Invitation to the Lands of Jihad and Ribat [Hospice],” shows how one video can present the total picture. Subtitled in Swahili and English, the languages of its target audience, the video shows typical clips of military training and street battles. However, the voices of the video aren’t just commanders, but fighters on the ground who seem like they are stopped mid-battle to tell the viewer the importance of what they are doing.

The video doesn’t make grand pronouncements, but instead appeals to themes like honor, patriotism, and loyalty that strongly resonate with Somalia’s youth diaspora. Fighters are presented as members of a family, who are welcomed and respected, and who are working together to build an Islamist paradise. “We rejoice at their arrival and are happy to honor them [...] we pledge to Allah to protect them with our blood, and to carry them upon our shoulders, and protect [...] ourselves and our families,” says al-Shabaab spokesman spokesman Ali Mohammad Rage. “Welcome to Somalia. Hakuna Matata [there are no worries],” he adds.

Although videos like this one try to synthesize various elements of jihad into a single narrative, others are focused on reinforcing a particular point in the jihad. Ansar Media Center’s “Do Not Forget the Day: The Occupation of Baghdad in 2003” features graphic images of dead children and clips of the foreign invader, the United States. It has no words; its nasheed, a song without instruments, plays over the that images tell the jihadi’s whole story.

Other videos focus on building up the jihad narrative through short segments. At the forefront of this effort are short clips from Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born scholar collaborating with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Clips from Awlaki’s popular series on the Islamic prophets and Muhammad are excerpted and reinterpreted through images comparing modern events with the historical situation he describes.