On Oct. 7, 2001, a video of Osama bin Laden was released in which the al-Qaeda leader lauded his group’s attack on America, declaring the country had been struck “in one of its vital organs” and “has been filled with horror from north to south and east to west” – just a terror kingpin and his monologue, a camouflage jacket, a microphone, and a jagged wall of rock as the backdrop.
Today, a terror group would be releasing the video online rather than slipping it to Al-Jazeera for broadcast. They would be adding flair to the message such as a carefully crafted show of force or explosive montage, topping it off with threats ranging from veiled to overtly dramatic – such as when an ISIS-supporting media group promised the destruction of Paris by ripping off footage depicting the Eiffel Tower crashing down from the 2009 movie “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” They would have a target audience in mind and tailor the film to those viewers through messaging, visuals, sound effects, or even the helpful voice of an American narrator who had been wooed to their cause. And then they would make a sequel, or four.
But it’s not only the production quality of terror groups that has increased. The ecosystem of online terror propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training is truly borderless, inviting extremists not only of different origins but different ideologies to feast on a massive trove of resources and remotely learn from one another. The distribution of these online materials quickly became impossible to rein in, as extremists share, promote, network, and plot from crowded public spaces or isolated corners of the dark web. The players in this sphere range from terrorists working in concert with a group to soft peddlers of extremist ideologies who dangerously deploy what can seem benign at first blush in a mission to help the extremism take root in a more mainstream or palatable iteration.
The Terrorist as Influencer
Twenty years after 9/11, the strength of a terrorist group, movement, or ideology can’t simply be measured in terms of living leadership structure, training camps, or kinetic operations. They’ve learned how much mileage they can get from being the puppetmaster and influencer through social media, online forums, file-sharing sites, messaging apps, and more.
These influence operations have been about not only reaching their target audience but broadening that audience to attract and entrench a deeper well of adherents and sympathizers. It’s about luring a recruit to commit an attack within his skillset and using that attack to influence even more to join their cyber or ground forces. It’s about planting seeds in impressionable minds – the extremist obsession with news about wildfires, for example, is at its core a push to get recruits to take inspiration from the destruction inflicted by lightning-sparked blazes and use simple incendiary tools to deploy fire as a weapon.
This reach is underscored by the vast amount of propaganda materials that are easily accessible online no matter how tech companies try to bottle the problem, by the ability of extremists to freely function on social media as they take care to avoid censors or quickly resurrect under a different account if suspended, and by the ability of extremism to breathe in perfect time with the news cycle and capitalize on crises or controversy in order to draw new adherents or push a person on the edge to attack. When al-Qaeda first began their media propaganda ops, their goal was getting a message out. When al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began English-language Inspire magazine, their goal was reaching new western audiences with evergreen and practical terror how-tos. When the Islamic State blasted out of the gate with their media ops, an overarching theme was the desire to look cool – and for a significant number of recruits the group succeeded in painting their claimed caliphate, provinces, and cells as a magnetic powerhouse, whether through flashy action-movie imagery or, as in a 2015 guide attributed to British ISIS member Siddhartha Dhar, promises of “some of the best lattes and cappuccinos around,” endless supplies of Snickers and Kit-Kat, and pickles that “beat anything from your local Tescos or Walmart.”
What can be especially insidious is an influence op that thinks outside of the box within which many assume extremists will stay. In 2016, as the #OpISIS movement was in full swing with gray-hat hackers taking down as many ISIS accounts and websites as they could, one hacktivist collaborative told me that ISIS recruiters hiding behind kitten or baby avatars on Twitter were preying on non-Muslim American girls between the ages of 13 and 15. They would befriend what appeared to be a lonely young teen, cultivate an online friendship, isolate them from friends and family, then try to recruit the girls to conduct attacks in their hometowns or travel to wed ISIS fighters. The hackers were receiving new messages each week from frightened girls who tried to back out of the relationships only to come under threats; in deep by that point, they had no idea where to turn for help. The extremist as an influencer, thriving across social media, can and will use a seemingly innocuous façade to reach out to vulnerable recruits in sometimes unexpected ways.
The Terrorist as the IT Department
As nation-state foes found a jackpot in cyber warfare, terror movements have salivated over the possibilities of what a few good hackers could inflict. We’ve thus seen terror groups establish what they call cyber armies and issue public calls for both seasoned hackers to join their cause and for recruits to buckle down and learn about computers. Recently ISIS supporters have tried to put more of the IT power in their hands: instead of just hoping that some computer whizzes will drop into their ranks, they have expanded the terror group’s use of propaganda to educate supporters on everything from weak passwords to avoiding the security “nightmare” of Windows. The Supporter’s Security, a 24-page magazine released last year by the Electronic Horizons Foundation – a group that appeared in 2016 as a sort of ISIS IT help desk – was unique in that it offered extremists the same sort of tutorial guidance on cybersecurity that other terror magazines apply to bombmaking. It reflected a sharper focus on ensuring that terrorists operating online patch their own vulnerabilities before exploiting others’ vulnerabilities.
There has also been a spotlight on carving out safer spaces online – not just sneaking onto a platform hoping to remain unnoticed and not kicked off, but creating their own platforms in addition to maintaining a presence in the broader online arena. EHF announced this spring that they launched their own cloud and chat platforms to help churn out new propaganda and allow followers of the terror group to better “close ranks” online. The group has also tried to function as their own type of CISA, sharing mainstream news on cyber vulnerabilities and issuing their own cyber alerts that have warned jihadists of penetration risks in areas such as using Android downloads or soliciting funding via Bitcoin.
The Terrorist as Media Mogul
The only way in which the Taliban have changed is that now instead of smashing TV sets they want to make sure people have screens on which to view the films produced by their studio that come with lots of sequels – Land of Heroes #12 was released this summer, as well as Education and Training #44 – along with their version of on-scene news reports, interviews with key figures, and finely crafted propaganda often attempting to depict their iron-fisted rule as civic-minded. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan recently released Prepare to Fight #6; this series of training camp videos features jihadists clad in team-spirit matching T-shirts with “TTP” emblazoned on the back conducting a variety of military drills and calisthenics from sit-ups to somersaulting over kneeled comrades.
The Taliban have al-Emara Studio. TTP has Umar Media. Al-Qaeda has As-Sahab Media. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has al-Malahem Media. Al-Shabaab produces through al-Kataib Media. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has al-Andalus Media. ISIS has its al-Hayat Media Center and Amaq News Agency; during the heyday of its physical claimed caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria, ISIS recruitment pitches included calls for sympathizers with video production or other media experience. If those are the terror network stations, add to the propaganda churn the independents: followers of extremist ideologies who, sometimes coining names for their own media outlets, crank out videos, posters, magazines in various languages, social media activity, and more to disseminate propaganda, encourage attacks, and recruit. It’s common to see individuals who post terror content online also sharing content from media groups representing movements other than their own claimed affiliation or tagging other media groups in their posts.
One thing those media outlets have in common – along with the domestic extremist videos produced by groups such as the neo-Nazi National Socialist Order (Atomwaffen Division) – is the attention paid to putting out products that will visually appeal to their audience along with the messages, with a distinct exception for Ayman al-Zawahiri’s staid videos over the years. They’ve gone from bin Laden’s HandyCam and mic to slickly produced features tailored to their messaging. Al-Qaeda videos, for example, tend to be more engrossed in poaching news footage to highlight current events like domestic unrest, while ISIS has been more focused on making stylized violent reels of their exploits with the pacing of an action franchise and the graphics of a videogame (and sometimes including graphics stolen from videogames). And TTP wants to show their recruits piling into a human pyramid.
The Terrorist as Reality Personality
The livestreaming of terror attacks has been not only an especially brutal way for violent extremists to spread their undiluted message and gain notoriety in real time, but the self-broadcasts have shown staying power beyond the live event as a tool of incitement and recruitment. By the time a social media company is alerted to an attack livestream and takes it down, it’s already been recorded by someone – perhaps by the one of the online communities paying rapt attention to following the event or cheering on the terrorist – and will be disseminated to inspire copycats, attempt to demonstrate the strength of an ideological movement, or further terrorize the community targeted in the attack.
It took me under 10 seconds at the keyboard to find the video of Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant’s murderous rampage, posted with white supremacist tags such as “1488” by a person also posting a glut of neo-Nazi propaganda, odes to the KKK, and memes on ways to “skin” Black people. In addition to Tarrant’s video the person posted the livestream of Stephan Balliet’s 2019 attack outside a synagogue in Halle, Germany.
While far-right terrorists have left lengthy manifestos – which also circulate online long after the attacks, as shown with the attacks in Utoya, Christchurch, Poway, or El Paso – ISIS has encouraged its followers to record short videos before attacks that include declarations of allegiance to the terror group. But all groups have taken note of the deadly domino effect of an attack livestream. In its special Inspire edition released this summer, “Praise & Guide: Colorado Attack,” AQAP reviewed the March mass shooting at the King Soopers market in Boulder and encouraged those who would emulate such an attack to “give out a media message” before or during the attack — such as livestreaming the attack, contacting media directly, posting on social media using one’s real name, etc., “as it multiplies the results” by inspiring others.
The Terrorist as Online Tutor
I can’t remember what search terms led me to al-Qaeda’s free digital download on the site of America’s largest retail book chain, but two listings popped up on Barnes & Noble in the self-published Nook Press e-book titles in 2018 for “An English Translation of Al-Malahem Media’s Audio Release And If You Must … by the Mujahid Sheikh Ibrahim al-Rubaish May Allah Protect Him” and “Al-Malahem Media Foundation presents: A Special Gift to the Islamic Nation: The first Magazine issued by al-Qaida in the English language.” The former referred to a frequent Inspire contributor before what the terror group said was his death in a 2015 drone strike; the latter was the 2010 issue that included the infamous “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” article from “The AQ Chef” later linked to the pressure-cooker devices used by the Boston Marathon bombers. One of the two listings plainly put Al-Malahem Media Foundation, AQAP’s media arm, as the self-publishing author. And they had been there for a while: one included a review that was more than three years old, while the other had two reviews dated six years prior.
Terror content is not hiding on the web. Of course, extremists do network and organize and plot in darker corners of the web, taking care to be as far from the cyber reach of law enforcement as possible. But the materials that make up the wealth of the extremist library – magazines, e-books, manifestos, videos, lectures, photo essays, propaganda posters, and more – are for the most part readily accessible. And they are accessible – and can be useful – to extremists across ideological lines: the white supremacist can get a bomb recipe from al-Qaeda, while a lone jihadist can pick up pointers from a neo-Nazi training video.
We are in an era of open-source terror, where tutorials offer everything from tips on target selection and how to increase body counts to specific step-by-step instructions for constructing a range of explosive devices. There is an already huge and growing library of terrorists’ lessons to share about online outreach, organizing, propaganda, tactics, and lone attacks, and the body of information helps extremist movements help each other – even if they might never admit it.
The Terrorist as Culture Warrior
“Liberalism has no objective morality to provide humankind … rarely will one hear a sound response detached from liberal emotionalism and empty of pre-built assumptions that liberal principles are unquestionable and therefore in need of no proof,” stated an Aug. 23 article on the Taliban website, arguing that no liberals can “explain or prove why women’s rights as understood through a liberal framework are more correct, good, or are more moral.”
This is far from the first attempt by extremists trying to persuade an audience – perhaps a new-yet-receptive audience, they hope – by wording propaganda pieces or using imagery that essentially parrots cable news debates or firebrand Twitter pundits. For domestic extremist groups exploiting the headlines is their bread-and-butter, reflected in the white supremacist recruitment posters that litter college campuses and other locations and turn online discussion forums into a hunting ground for new adherents. Al-Qaeda has drilled into tensions over police-involved shootings to argue that marginalized communities in America should join or at the very least sympathize with their side. In a 2016 special edition of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine focused on that year’s “9/17 Operations” in New Jersey and New York, the terror group blasted that “it is astonishing and deceptive to hear Obama talk about the necessity of acting boldly in combating the danger of greenhouse gases, yet his own state has not responded and dealt adequately in reducing these deadly emissions.”
The Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol ignited new fervor across the ideological spectrum not just from domestic extremists who have used the events in their own propaganda and online forums, but from al-Qaeda and ISIS. “What matters to us in all of this is that America the crusader will be busy more with herself and that political struggle inside it will pay off,” ISIS said in the group’s weekly al-Naba newsletter two days after the attack. Al-Qaeda’s approach, though, was multi-pronged outreach: first, boasting about how America had been shaken by “her miserable people demolishing her pillars,” according to AQAP leader Khalid Batarfi in a video including riot footage released soon after the attacks; then, telling “the raiders of the Congress” and similar groups in a recent video that “they will find what they need in the Inspire magazine issued by the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula.”
This reflects a propaganda operation coordinated to current affairs that overtly tries to stoke tensions and capitalize on culture wars and political rifts – and other rifts as well, as al-Qaeda stated that President Biden “insists in almost a provocative manner on putting the Pope’s picture on display on his office desk” and suggested that Protestants assassinate the Catholic president. “The world would have witnessed a bloodbath. Pelosi, Schumer, Adam Schiff, and perhaps the traitor, the Vice President Pence, who refused to intervene to impede Biden’s victory, would have all been hanged on gallows erected in the lawns of the Congress,” al-Qaeda said of Jan. 6, adding that “it was Allah’s wisdom that the fourth plane whose downing was ordered by Dick Cheney on the 11th of September did not reach its target and the Americans were left to destroy the edifice of their democracy with their own hands … this hurts them more and brings greater joy to the believers.”