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05 July 2011

Jihadis online: a few thoughts

I. When considering the matter of jihadis online, remember that most of what we think we know is based on analyses of the comments made by an handful of vocal activists. The vast majority of jihadis online, be they on forums or social networking sites[i], say nothing. Skillful translations and insightful analyses by definition tell us little about this potentially lethal yet silent majority.

II. There is no known correlation between what jihadis say online, and the threat they represent in the real world[ii]. Yes, we may target vocal activists, may create for them opportunities to become involved in crimes related to terrorism, and then arrest and prosecute them on terrorism charges. That is not a correlation between speech and action. Rather it is an expression of our own tendency to pick off the low-hanging fruit[iii].

III. Correlations[iv] will likely be found in: the presence of jihadis on a handful of forums; their consumption of jihadi text, video and audio; their connection to social networks based on a combination of ideological affinity and geographic or linguistic proximity; and their involvement in jihadi media work[v]. None of these activities requires the aspiring jihadi to say much of anything in a public venue.

IV. For the practice of counterterrorism what matters is not what jihadis say so much as what the people they associate with have said or done; the content of the media they download, view, or listen to; and the degree to which they are involved in media work. Detecting a jihadi online and locating him in physical space is relatively straight forward. The real challenge is threat assessment.

V. These are questions I ask about any jihadi online:

• Where are they?
• Who do they know?
• What have they downloaded?
• What have they uploaded?
• What communities have they joined?
• What sites are they involved in operating?

VI. More general questions I ask include:

• Do they know anyone who has been involved in terrorism?
• Do they have any history of involvement in crime?
• To what extent have they been exposed to violence?
• Does their personal history suggest an increased risk of suicide?


[i] To include Facebook and Youtube.

[ii] Neither am I aware of evidence to support the Catharsis Hypothesis, i.e. that expressing violent intentions reduces the risk of perpetrating violence. A better explanation is that perpetrating an act of violence involves the interplay of a number of factors which are not equally present for all times, places, and people.

[iii] This is not to say we should forgo such investigations: if someone expresses a clear interest in engaging in terrorism we have not only the right but the responsibility to take them seriously

[iv] We will assume for this discussion that such correlations exist. It's a pretty safe bet.

[v] Defined broadly here as actions related to the production, distribution, and re-distribution of text, video and audio produced either directly by or in support of jihadi terrorist organizations, or the waging of violent jihad generally, and less often - but of significance - the setting up and operating of jihadi websites ranging from Youtube channels to forums.

Posted on 05 July 2011 @ 16:04

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