By Caitlin Potratz – Al Qaeda is a dynamic, flexible network that has successfully executed multiple attacks since September 11th. Al Qaeda affiliates are presumably responsible for many of the Iraqi insurgency’s bombings, kidnappings and executions. These terrorist attacks have succeeded in creating widespread fear, disrupting daily life, and garnering additional adherents to al Qaeda’s cause. The attacks and al Qaeda recruitment rely increasingly on the internet.
Academics, analysts and policymakers debate al Qaeda’s future direction, Osama bin Laden’s organizational significance and the salience of the terrorist threat to national security. Understanding al Qaeda’s use of the internet, particularly for future terrorist recruitment, would help contextualize the al Qaeda threat.
Online communications facilitate the planning of terrorist operations at decentralized levels around the globe, provide a forum for terrorist training and fundraising, and also allow terrorists to collect intelligence on their targets. Further attacks are likely to occur since terrorism promotes al Qaeda’s mission to defend Islam from the West and fuels online propaganda to inspire new recruits.
To use terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman’s metaphor, al Qaeda is like a shark that must continually move forward or perish. The internet’s ability to facilitate al Qaeda’s activities at various levels will beget more terrorist attacks as communication becomes easier and cells grow at the local and regional levels. Since the internet hosts over fifty al Qaeda websites alone, al Qaeda’s legacy as an ideology will endure.
The internet has played a significant role in terrorist recruitment in the West for many years. Marginalized youth populations are more vulnerable to radicalization and can be mobilized online since they rely heavily on the internet for communication and news. Many of the more than 4,800 terrorist websites hoping to attract recruits are tailored to appeal to young adults via colorful, graphic images and inspiring appeals to defend Islam.
Jihadi websites teach homegrown radicals to be terrorists. Of the many terrorist attacks in 2004, several hostages were brutally murdered on film which was then posted on jihadi websites to glorify violence and promote jihad. Such internet, ‘Mujahideen films’ depict gruesome footage of urban guerilla warfare and hostage executions in Iraq. Extremists use violent forms of communications to demonstrate insurgent tactics and to indoctrinate and recruit to their ranks.
Some terrorist experts believe online radicalization and recruitment will extend beyond Europe and North America to include Africa. Africa may be prone to future terrorist activity given its history of conflict, youth bulges, and widespread poverty.
While al Qaeda will continue to threaten the West, youth in the Maghreb or Horn of Africa are unlikely candidates for online radicalization and mobilization. Internet usage in African countries is well below seven percent compared to ninety percent in Europe. Still, such limited internet access in North Africa can be sufficient for radical youth to access jihadi websites, devise bomb plans and formulate a plot. While it only takes a few willing individuals to carry out a successful terrorist act, online radicalization is not likely to play a large role in less developed countries. African terrorist radicalization and recruitment is likely to progress through interpersonal communications with al Qaeda affiliates and through the co-opting of members already belonging to local insurgent groups. While recruitment may grow by traditional means, the internet is unlikely to trigger a wave of new recruits in Africa. Furthermore, most Africans do not strongly identify with anti-American Arab religious and political causes.
The US government has not identified evidentiary links between online propaganda and terrorist recruitment; however, recruitment from diaspora communities combined with online radicalization and mobilization will continue to increase the gravity of the al Qaeda threat. Even though collecting intelligence on terrorist recruitment remains difficult, the role of the internet should remain a major concern in understanding al Qaeda as a present and future threat.
Caitlin Potratz is a Program Associate with the Security for a New Century project at the Stimson Center.