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.
These videos are then mixed with the blatantly violent speeches which he has produced, giving Awlaki an edge in recruiting youths who would not otherwise be interested in al-Qaeda’s message. He promotes the message that the West is at war with Islam and scholars who don’t speak about this have been bought by the CIA. Jihad is the only answer and the goal is an Islamic state ruled by shariah law.
Awlaki has also directly addressed jihadi media on the importance of their message. In his “Message about the Media,” Awlaki tells the story of Abdulelah Haidar Shaea, a Yemeni journalist who was temporarily imprisoned for promoting al-Qaeda. “A journalist is responsible before Allah for what he presents to people, as the media role in shaping minds is clear,” he remind jihadi video makers.
Many films also draw from preexisting Arabic media, and simply subtitle or dub them in English. Despite the simplicity of just translating existing mediums, it remains important for would-be terrorists to receive messages directly from al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and to feel themselves a part of the larger jihadi world.
English-language jihadi voices have even become celebrities in the Arabic jihadi world. Anwar al-Awlaki’s works are being translated into Arabic, while Adam Gadahn gave a speech in English for the new full length feature titled “For Incitement and Publishing: You Are Held Responsible Only for Yourself.”
“By the grace of Allah, the enemies’ interests are today spread all over the place and easily accessible,” Gadahn says. “So the opportunity to carry out the divine obligation of fighting the enemies of Allah is available to anyone who has the will and determination, regardless of where he might be.”
“And I advise every brother who wants to work for this religion not to undertake any action before taking advantage of the wide range of resources available today on the internet,” he adds.