Last week I was invited to give a talk about the likely impact of trends in information technology on al-Qaeda. I thought I would put at least few of the ideas from that talk out here, even though I don't have an actual text to reproduce.
Information Technology and the Future of Al-Qaeda
To unpack the likely impact of changes in information technology on al-Qaeda, I think that it is important to break out two very different types of things al-Qaeda tries to do: terrorism and outreach. IT will affect these two domains very differently. Trends in IT might well strengthen its ability to care out acts of terrorism - whether by AQ Central or by Marc Sageman-style small groups of self-motivated radicals - but at the same time diminish its ability to spread its ideology, frame public discourse in the Islamic world, or assert claims to leadership of Islamist movements. This is particularly the case because the same IT trends which empower al-Qaeda in the "war of ideas" realm are equally available to its main rivals - the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab regimes, traditional Islamic trends, non-jihadist salafis.... and us.
I've argued before that al-Qaeda's grand strategy uses terrorism in the service of a 'constructivist' mission: spreading and deepening Islamic identity among Muslims, defining this Islamic identity in very specific salafi-jihadist terms against the competing definitions offered by other Islamist groups, and establishing that Islamic identity requires costly participation in a very specifically defined jihad. The first stage requires reaching out to a broad, mainstream, non-Islamist audience and convincing them of the reality of a deep existential conflict between Islam and the West. That puts al-Qaeda in conflict with other Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who offer a very different substantive vision of Islamist identity and strategy. The second requires mobilizing those individuals who have accepted the AQ identity into jihadist action and giving them the tools to act. The outreach / "constructivist" phase involves very different Information Technology components than does the operational / terrorist phase.
One way to think about how AQ will adapt to new information technologies is to look at how they adapted to past innovations. Over the last decade, Arabic satellite television was a key vehicle for the first stage. Al-Jazeera and its counterparts helped bring al-Qaeda's ideas and discourse to a broad public, and to mainstream their ideas of a clash of civilizations. AQ adapted extremely well to the new Arabic TV environment in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Bin Laden was able to reach a mass audience previously unavailable to such ideologues, and at times to dominate the news agenda.
But this has had dramaticallly diminishing returns over the last few years. The fragmentation of the Arab media market and the rise of strong competitors to al-Jazeera, changes in even al-Jazeera's editorial policy (most visible in its coverage of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and its presentation of AQ videos), the diminishing news value of AQ productions and speeches, and the aggressive counter-AQ campaign waged by (especially) the Saudi media have all reduced the utility of the Arab media for al-Qaeda. At the same time, other Islamist competitors have used the Arab media more effectively, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the popular 'Islam Lite' offered by Amr Khaled. In short, al-Qaeda adapted very quickly and effectively to the satellite television revolution.. but its competitors have caught up, its advantage has diminished, and it is not likely to ever again enjoy the satellite TV advantage it had in the past. Information overload, intense competition and fragmentation, and the increasingly aggressive counter-ideology campaigns all stand in the way.
What about internet forums? Such forums allowed AQ to circumvent Arab TV editors by posting videos and statements directly to forums where all news producers could pick them up directly - and once anybody, however obscure, ran with it the others were sure to follow. Beyond that, though, they were not really useful for mass audiences, who were unlikely to find their way to the forums, whether or not they were password protected. Instead, they were 'semi-public spheres' where those already committed to the identity could download materials and engage in arguments about tactics and strategy and doctrine. The forums built group cohesion, boosting morale and strengthening identity - and offering recruiters a pool of potentials.
But forums also had problems. Their audience was limited to those already at the second or even third stage of mobilization. The doctrinal arguments on the forums tended to reward the most doctrinaire at the expense of the pragmatists, arguably driving AQ doctrine even farther from the mainstream. Sometimes, the debates could undermine morale or turn into open dissent, to the dismay of movement leaders. Most of the forums were thoroughly penetrated by intelligence agencies of one sort or another, creating security risks. And the forums themselves proved vulnerable, as we saw when the major forums went down last month, with only al-Hesbah thus far returning. (Plus, the download sites often feature ads for pornography and icons of half-naked women while you're waiting... I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's a glitch or a feature for the jihadists downloading their bin Laden videos....)
Overall, those technologies which have empowered AQ to date seem to have largely run their course. As Dan Kimmage has pointed out, "When it comes to user-generated content and interactivity, Al Qaeda is now behind the curve." I'm not going to talk here much about rapidly improving encryption will likely make it harder and harder for intelligence agencies to keep up, or the iPhone, which could be seen as terrorist killer ap (so to speak): real time satellite imagery and GPS, secure encrypted chat, google, you name it. I want to focus on some other, less 'operational' information technologies - how might each affect AQ, were they adopted and exploited? Here's just a few preliminary thoughts:
- Social networking: one of the biggest problems for a virtual network like AQ today is that it needs to build connections between its members while protecting itself from its enemies. That's a filtering problem: how do you get your people in, and keep intelligence agents out? An AQMonster.com database would be easy pickings - an online list of all the 'explosives experts' would be a gift to intelligence, no? An AQFacebook or AQSpace might create an identifiable universe of jihadist sympathizers, but again would probably help intelligence agencies as much as AQ. Perhaps an AQLinkedIn model, where members need to be recommended by a current member would reproduce the low-tech approach of allowing in trusted members and keeping out unknown quantities. This could potentially strengthen the 'organization' part... but at the expense of a greater distance from the pool of potential recruits who would not be sufficiently trusted to join. Overall it's hard to see how AQ could adapt social networking without creating such vulnerabilities. Its rivals, on the other hand, have no such problems - Muslim Brotherhood youth are all over Facebook.
- Wiki: many of the doctrinal arguments and tactical discussions on the forums run the risk of disappearing down the memory hole when forums disappear - remember al-Tajdid? Perhaps an AQWiki would allow them to capture these debates into an ongoing, updatable compendium of the state of jihadist knowledge. This would be available to their enemies as well, but no more so than the forums currently are. More seriously, though, a wiki would take ideology and doctrine out of the hands of the central leadership and give the upper hand to the harder-line doctrinal purists who already tend to dominate the forums. Given how far outside the mainstream most of their views are, on everything from suicide bombing to the Shia question to democracy to jahaliya and takfir, this could again strengthen in-group cohesion at the expense of outreach to the wider Islamist community.
- AQoogleAds: in the face of information overload, an increasingly hostile media, and the shuttering of forums, AQ faces problems getting its message out to those who it wants to reach. That's an advertising problem, and the google system of targeted and sponsored ads on searches seems like one solution. Where would this be deployed, though? Google isn't going to host it, obviously. Presumably it would have to be hosted on existing Arabic sites - but people who make it there are not the ones they want to reach.
- AQThirdLife: I think a lot of the hype over terrorist use of virtual worlds, such as virtual training camps, is exaggerated. I suppose that virtual worlds could become a form of hijra, or an area for creating a virtual caliphate ruled by virtual sharia or something. I'm dubious though, because if existing platforms are used then there's no security. If AQ wants to devote its resources to building its own virtual worlds platform, I think I'd be okay with that compared to some other things they could be doing... but I know others disagree about this. At any rate, if the AQ Virtual World is anything like the actual world in areas ruled by like-minded groups (Taleban, Islamic State of Iraq) then virtual exposure to it might again drive people away rather than attract them.
These are all very preliminary thoughts, so suggestions about other IT realms or impacts very much encouraged in comments. It's interesting to speculate - I just hope that this post doesn't give the wrong people any ideas!