Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Confluence of Jihadi Media: The Case of Abu Layth al-Libi

*Al-Sahab (The Cloud) is al-Qa'ida's media wing. It produces video and written press releases, propaganda, and audio tapes from al-Qa'ida leaders and operational commanders in the field.

The Internet provides people with an intricate set of interactive cyber environments in which to surf, research, create, and persuade. Muslim religious and political leaders, both those nominally religious and those who actually practice, and socio-political movements have fully adopted the opportunities provided through the utilization of these cyber environments. Further focusing on one community or set of like-minded communities within the "Islamic" Internet, we can further examine how specifically these groups have made excellent use of the Internet as a new medium of communication, a medium which is able to connect geographically dispersed groups and constituencies (and potential constituencies).

In my current research project, "The Art of the Martyr & Mujahid," I am focusing on the diverse and richly textured visual media which are found, or reproduced, on web sites and Internet discussion forums run by or dedicated to Muslim socio-political movements, with a special focus on nation-state-centered resistance groups (such as the Lebanese Hizbullah) and transnational militant jihadi groups (of which al-Qa'ida and its regional affiliates, however loosely affiliated, are prime examples). Specifically, I am examining this visual media as a form of both persuasion (aimed at the producer's constituencies, sympathizers, and potential sympathizers) and propaganda (aimed at the producer's enemies).

Abu Yahya al-Libi (right), another AQ leader in Afghanistan-Pakistan

The confluence of media formats provided by the Internet has enabled these groups to produce persuasive and propagandistic media that is, with the increasing global accessibility of the Internet, able of reaching millions of viewers across the globe. Despite the often disparate geographical locations in which this media is produced, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Western Europe, the Middle East, and North America, this media is often remarkably similar, visually and with regard to content tone, style, and message. This is particularly true of the Sunni and Salafi Sunni transnational jihadi groups, such as al-Qa'ida and its regional allies such as the Harakat Shabab al-Mujahideen in Somalia and many (but not all) of the Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups.

To illustrate this confluence of media that is made possible by the Internet, I have selected the example of the commemoration of Abu'l Layth al-Libi, a senior al-Qa'ida (AQ) operational commander and strategist based in Afghanistan-Pakistan (or, in the new ugly-sounding U.S. government parlance "AF-PAK").

Libi, who is Libyan, was seen by U.S. and other intelligence services as being just below AQ leader Usama bin Laden, who was/is more of a financier and symbol than actual operational commander, and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian medical doctor and militant who is AQ's real ideologue.

Before joining the Afghan Arabs, as Arab mujahideen (literally, "those who struggle," but more commonly used to describe "fighters in the path of God" or "holy" warriors) who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and their Afghan allies came to be called, al-Libi was a leader of the
Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group which sought to overthow the country's military strongman, the eccentric Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi.

He was a persuasive speaker, with visible charisma (see the video later in this post), and an able military strategist. He reportedly planned the kamikaze bombing at Bagram on February 27, 2007, when then U.S. Vice President and chief Neoconservative hawk Dick Cheney was visiting.

Al-Libi was assassinated on January 29, 2008, reportedly by a pilotless Predator attack drone operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Yesterday, Taliban sources released a video of the "confessions" of several Afghans accused of passing on information to the U.S. about his location, which resulted in his assassination. The men were subsequently executed. Al-Libi's life and death as a "martyr" have been commemorated in numerous mediums, both visual, aural, and written. In order to illustrate the "confluence of media" mentioned earlier, several examples of this media are provided below.

EXAMPLE 1: Written

In the recently published Internet jihadi magazine Jihad Recollections, al-Libi is memorialized as a great scholar and military commander, a leader who dedicated his life, and death, to fighting the "Crusaders" in Muslim lands. The piece, which is less an article than a collection of annotated quotations, includes lengthy quotes from al-Libi's media releases, as well as quotes from senior AQ and Taliban leaders, including Usama bin Laden and the prominent Afghan Arab ideologue 'Abdullah 'Azzam. In one quotation, al-Libi says, "The true leaders in this Ummah (global Muslim community) in our present time are many. And the Ummah accepts them due to their sincereity, their situation, their devotion, and their sacrifices." READ THE ARTICLE HERE.
[French Islamicist Gilles Kepel may disagree with this claim, as he argues that the "great narrative of jihad through martyrdom" has largely failed to win the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the world's Muslims, despite their criticisms of U.S. foreign policy. See his most recent book, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom]

EXAMPLE 2: Video & Aural (Jihadi Poetry)

Another Libyan AQ commander in Afghanistan-Pakistan, Abu Yahya al-Libi, is seen reciting poetry in Afghanistan-Pakistan in this clip. Poetry is a popular form of persuasion and propaganda used by jihadis, and many of the major Sunni jihadi Internet forums have sections dedicated to poetry which extols the bravery of the mujahideen and is infused with religious and historical themes.

This nasheed commemorates the life and death of al-Libi.


Interspersed with the text of this post are several photographs, part of a much larger group, found in several threads dedicated to al-Libi on various Sunni
jihadi Internet forums. Along with text praising his accomplishments, these photographs form the strong, and as yet understudied, visual component of the "Islamic" Internet, and specifically of militant cyber environments.

The centered text reads, "Wind of Paradise."

Al-Libi is shown in four photographs to the lower far left, in one photograph in the lower far right, and in one photograph in the "banner," to the right of Usama bin Laden.


... said...

Any plans to cover Chechen jihadis and their media tools and maybe how Russians were able to cut down their media tools while it's not working with others?

إبن الصقلي said...

There is a link in this post to a brief survey of some of the visual media produced by/for the Chechen groups (not the nationalist ones, the transnational jihadi ones).

Although it's not my area of focus, the Chechen/Caucasus-related jihadi media seems to be fairly healthy:

The issue of Chechnya and the Caucasus also appears fairly frequently on many of the jihadi Internet discussion forums.