Last week, following government requests, YouTube removed videos in which New Mexico-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki urges Muslims to take up arms against the United States. Most of the video propaganda—by the man government officials say has become a key figure in Yemen-based al Qaeda—has disappeared, but lots of al-Awlaki's jihadist lectures are still available.
As of November 9, 2010, a simple keyword search for "Al Awlaki" bought up dozens of the cleric's YouTube clips. These range from sermons on the Biblical/Qu'ranic figure of Lot (which quickly turns into an anti-homosexuality screed) to lectures on Muslim history to rants against the Freemasons to far more political content.
Asked about the videos, a YouTube spokesperson tells Fast Company:
YouTube has Community Guidelines that prohibit dangerous or illegal activities such as bomb-making, hate speech, and incitement to commit violent acts. We also remove all videos and terminate any account registered by a member of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and used in an official capacity to further the interests of the FTO.
But jihadists—much like the rest of humanity—continue to make plenty of use of YouTube. Quite a few organizations who have secured "terrorist" designation from the United States government maintain steady online presences on the video sharing site. The infamous Somalian al-Shabab militia has its own YouTube channel. Viewers can watch "Shabaab al-Mujahideen warn the West, (We Are Coming!)" and lectures by Aden Hashi Farah, killed by an American airstrike in May 2008.
Propaganda videos from various Al Qaeda spinoffs and franchises are easily available—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) threaten Christians, Jews and Shiites and hawk the latest issue of AQAP's magazine. Al Qaeda in Yemen opts for a primarily Arabic-only approach while Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb aims their videos at speakers of Arabic and French. The video sharing site has thousands of pro-Taliban propaganda videos, too, some of which are aimed at English-speakers.
In Russia and the Caucasian states, the Islamic Caucasus Emirate's sympathizers upload recruitment calls to Arabic-speakers for combat against the Russian government, video galleries of fighters in action and Russian-subtitled jihadist propaganda videos originally aimed at Germans (warning: graphic content). Even the most far-flung regions of the world produce jihadist propaganda: There are video calls for armed incitement against the government of the Philippines and calls to jihad in Nigeria.
According to a United States government source not authorized to speak on the record who works in counterterrorism, YouTube plays a key part in disseminating jihadist propaganda to mainstream audiences.
Here's how it works.
Jihadis and jihadist sympathizers first obtain new videos from file sharing sites (al-Awlaki's latest, for instance). The videos are then uploaded to jihadist bulletin boards and web forums; users of these forums then typically upload the videos to YouTube and other commercial sites for mainstream consumption. Even when YouTube does remove videos after complaints, they're often reuploaded, thanks to the ease of creating new YouTube accounts.
Thomas Hegghammer, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and editor of the popular Jihadica blog, notes that "YouTube is extremely important for the dissemination of propaganda videos. I think YouTube is much more influential than bulletin boards because it reaches a much wider audience. Websites that specialise in jihadi propaganda are self-selecting in the sense that the people who access them are interested in jihadi propaganda to begin with. On YouTube, on the other hand, you can come across jihadi videos by accident, for example while searching for more moderate sermons. Basically, having jihadi propaganda on YouTube dramatically lowers the barrier of access."
YouTube isn't the only video distribution site used by jihadists, either. Users of Vimeo can watch Taliban propaganda videos, clips from the late homegrown American site revolutionmuslim.com and lectures from the ever-present al-Awlaki. Other smaller video sites are also regularly used to disseminate propaganda.
Many of the better-organized jihadist organizations opt for the most traditional method of video dissemination: their own websites. Hamas' armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, maintains an active internet presence with plenty of video content. Chechnyan jihadists have their own English-language propaganda site, the Kavkaz Center, which hosts video of attacks on Russian troops and the murder of alleged Russian-government collaborators.
By far, most jihadist videos posted to the web are disseminated via fly-by-night bulletin board sites and specialized Islamist websites. Many of these sites, judging from this reporter's experience, tend to frequently—and mysteriously—be infested with malware. These bulletin boards often end up parsed by anti-terrorism blogs, which is symptomatic of a much larger cat-and-mouse game being played between jihadists and intelligence agencies on the Internet.
In the case of YouTube, though, the combination of YouTube's reliance on user flagging to monitor videos and the sheer bulk of videos on the site mean that violent jihadist propaganda often stays online for months or years on end—the site often takes down pornographic video or clips that violate copyright laws much quicker than they seem to remove clips from terrorist groups. (In fact, one English language clip calling for Jihad that we originally included as an example was taken down from YouTube as this story was being reported—not because of its calls to violence but because of a copyright infringement complaint.)
"We have removed a significant number of videos under these policies," YouTube says in its statement to Fast Company. "These are difficult issues, and material that is brought to our attention is reviewed carefully. We will continue to remove all content that incites violence according to our policies. Material of a purely religious nature will remain on the site."