The age of selfie Jihad: how evolving media technology is changing terrorism.

AuthorBurke, Jason

At around 9:00 PM on the evening of June 13 this year, a 25-year-old French extremist and petty criminal named Larossi Abballa killed Jean-Baptiste Salvaing, a senior local police official, in the latter's home in a residential neighborhood of Magnanville, a small town northwest of Paris. Larossi stabbed Salvaing seven times with a large knife. He used the same weapon to kill the dead policeman's wife. Leaving the couple's three-year-old son unharmed, Larossi then turned to his smartphone. (1,a)

Using Facebook's new live stream application, Facebook Live, the food delivery man broadcasted a rambling speech in Arabic and French that lasted 12 minutes. He spoke of his motives for the attack; pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; called for further attacks in France against a range of targets, including prominent rappers, journalists, and politicians; and told those watching he was unsure of what to do with the traumatized child sitting a meter or so away from him. (2)

Larossi's use of Facebook was an entirely predictable step. Terrorists' quick exploitation of technological developments has been well documented, as has the impact that innovations in media has had on terrorist groups themselves. (b) But the advent of smart phones with high processing power, miniature video and camera devices, high speed data networks, and increasingly ubiquitous encryption have created, for the first time, the capability for individuals to communicate with large numbers of other people in real time. This has had potentially profound implications for the future of terrorism. This article charts the impact of changes in media technology on the way terrorist groups have organized their resources, tactics, and activities, and it looks at how the increasingly fast pace of technological change may impact terrorism in the future.

Historical Background

If terrorism depends on creating fear among target populations and those populations are often of significant size, then some form of mass messaging is prerequisite for any terrorist strategy to succeed. It has often been noted that terrorism in its recognizably modern form emerged in the mid- to late 19th century alongside newspapers and other forms of dissemination capable of carrying the news of a given terrorist act to large numbers of people. It was also roughly contemporaneous with the development of the telegraph, allowing news of events to be relayed with unprecedented rapidity to audiences many thousands of miles away. (3) Several decades later, strategists belonging to national liberation movements during the peak years of violent struggle against colonial rulers in the decade or so following World War II were quick to recognize the potential of television and to adjust their strategies to exploit this powerful, new mode of communication. In the 1970s, further technological developments were a factor in the surge of spectacular violence during that decade. (4) One of these was the ability to send images live from an overseas location. Like the telegraph almost 100 years earlier, this brought a new immediacy to reports of very distant events, which terrorists were fast to exploit. (c)

Not all groups were able to gain from these developments, however. Achieving greater publicity depended on the ability to meet a threshold set by officials or news professionals who controlled the content of news bulletins or front pages. It was extremely difficult for terrorists to influence this reality with the limited means at their disposal. For most groups active during this period, the only means of production and dissemination of "content," remained leaflets or even graffiti. Even as late as the mid-1990s, Islamist militant propaganda produced by Algerian groups circulated in the U.K. consisted primarily of audio cassettes, a form of dissemination used in the Middle East since the 1980s. Only those groups with significant existing capabilities, or the possibility of acquiring them, were able to execute the kind of spectacular attack that would be guaranteed to capture the attention of the mainstream media in their target countries. The IRA was a clear example. The PFLP, which was behind the 1970 Dawson's Field hijackings, and Black September, which was responsible for the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, were both able to take advantage of substantial infrastructure such as training camps. (d)

Al-Qa'ida was founded in 1988. Though his objectives and interests remained fairly constant from the early to mid-1990s, Usama bin Ladin's media strategy took nearly a decade to mature. While in his native Saudi Arabia and then in exile in Sudan, bin Ladin had largely relied on print and audio cassettes to disseminate his ideas. Soon after shifting to Afghanistan in 1996, he appears to have become much more interested in television. His arrival had coincided with the maturing of satellite broadcasting, which was transforming the media landscape of the Middle East and beyond. Bin Ladin recognized the advantages of satellite networks to broadcast material, which would previously have been kept off air by states long able to control what their populations watched, in local languages.

The best-known satellite network example was Qatar-based Al Jazeera, set up in 1996, but there were also other outlets that enabled the leader of al-Qa'ida, though based in remote Afghanistan, to reach an audience of hundreds of millions, which would have otherwise been impossible. English-language networks also played a role, albeit a less significant one. In 1997, bin Ladin was interviewed by CNN for example. Anyone with a decoder and a dish anywhere in the world would have been able to see and hear him. By the early 2000s, few corners of the Islamic world-even tightly controlled authoritarian states-were beyond the reach of satellite TV. (e) Though illegal in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, dishes and decoders were sufficiently widespread for large numbers of people to watch the invasion of 2003 in real time. (f)

By the mid- to late 1990s, the campaign against "the Far Enemy" of the West had become al-Qa' ida's major purpose. This had three linked goals: to force a physical, financial, and diplomatic withdrawal by the United States from the Middle East; to precipitate the fall of hated "apostate" regimes there; and to prompt the formation of a new cohort of supporters. It was a mission statement they wanted to be heard by the U.S. government, Muslims around the world, and the broader population in Western countries.

Many factors determined the structure and organization of al-Qa'ida, but the desire to execute major, spectacular terrorist attacks that would attract global media attention for their message was arguably central. (g) To achieve this, bin Ladin needed to launch operations that the new media gatekeepers-executives at satellite networks around the world-could not ignore. (h) In Afghanistan, al-Qa'ida built, or appropriated, a training structure that provided this capability. The best recruits in basic boot camps, often run by local groups or factions, were funneled into a smaller number of camps run by al-Qa'ida where they were taught advanced techniques. This provided the capacity for the escalating series of attacks executed by the group between 1998 and 2001, which can be seen as progressively more ambitious attempts to capture the world's attention. The structure al-Qa'ida was forced to adopt to execute these strikes, however, was cumbersome, expensive, and as was shown in the weeks after 9/11, vulnerable.

The Digital Revolution

The next decade saw a dramatic evolution of media technology. Islamist militant groups everywhere adapted their strategies and their structures as a result. The changes were neither linear nor uniform.

Until around 2004, the internet played a minor role in Islamist militancy, limited largely to providing forums for discussions and communication between a small number of people. If there were some well-known websites, these had limited reach and faced a variety of significant logistic issues, such as download times and access. Images of Daniel Pearl's murder in Pakistan in 2002 first circulated on a video cassette before being uploaded to a militant-linked website. As far as can be ascertained, they were viewed by very few people in either format, and no satellite network existed that would broadcast them. Even in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the production and dissemination of most propaganda remained reliant on familiar methods. When makeshift studios set up by terrorists were...

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