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:
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
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,
Caucasus Emirate‘s sympathizers upload recruitment
calls to Arabic-speakers for combat against the Russian government,
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.
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
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,
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
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.)
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.”