Monday, April 13, 2009

Keeping Current: Jihadi Media, U.S. News, & Cyber Environments

My new research project, tentatively titled "The Art of the Martyr & Mujahid," has introduced me to a variety of new environments, chief among them the expansive cyber networks of the "Islamic" or "Muslim" Internet. Although the vast majority of web sites and Internet forums are about rather mundane topics such as everyday religious practices and how to live a moral life according to religious legal texts, a small but important segment of the "Islamicate" Internet is inhabited by Salafi Sunni radicals and their supporters. (On the Salafi trend within modern Sunni Islam, see HERE. Note that most Salafis are NOT jihadi, though they have become a convenient bogeyman for lazy U.S. journalists, pundits, and government mules). This is the world of the jihadi Internet, a set of cyber environments dominated by web sites run by and/or dedicated to these groups and, most importantly, online discussion forums, such as the al-Falujah Islamic Forums and the Ansar al-Jihad forums. Here I am making a distinction between these groups and nation-centered groups, and I explain why below.

I have seen a clear difference between the visual media created by nation-centered groups, such as the Palestinian HAMAS and Lebanese Hizbullah, and transnational Sunni jihadi groups, such as al-Qa'ida and its regional affiliates (though these "affiliations" may be little more than PR). Whereas the former is focused on a particular national issue ("free Palestine," etc.) and Jerusalem, an Islamic holy city, the transnational groups see local/regional conflicts as part of a larger whole, a global struggle for the establishment of what they define as "Islamic" states. In other words, they have a set of territorial interests and demands, whereas the transnational groups such as al-Qa'ida seem to be driven not only by territorial interests and disputes, but also by an ideology that draws upon their own militant interpretation of their religion, combined with certain political and social beliefs and goals. This combination creates a peculiar Machiavellian "jihadi" ideology, an ideology in which the ends justify the means, a concept far from foreign to other cultures and religions.

As specialists in Sunni jihadi groups, such as Drs. Thomas Hegghammer and William McCants from Jihadica, an academic blog dedicated to the subject, have noted, the jihadi Internet forums include a wealth of information about the social networks that support these groups. My own current project seeks to look at just one aspect of these cyber environments: the visual media produced specifically for, or reproduced on, the Internet. The study of the visual media produced by jihadi groups and the nation-centered movements mentioned in the second paragraph is still in its infancy. There has been some initial, general work done in this area, including West Point's policy-oriented Islamic Imagery Project, but most of the research done has been very much policy-oriented and, in the case of the IIP, is often quite generalized (and I do not agree with all of the analysis provided, but such is the reason for academic research!). I am less interested, personally, in the policy implications of the study of Muslim political/ideological art than examining this art as a form of persuasive visual media aimed at a specific set of constituencies or potential constituencies.

Members of these online discussion forums, who represent a wide variety of nationalities, generally are quite well informed, if highly ideological, about current events and world news, particularly related to regions of the Islamicate world and the U.S., which is of course heavily engaged in Islamicate countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Here is an example, which I found on the Ansar al-Jihad forums (Click HERE to View). It references the current economic recession, in good but still not fluent idiomatic English, and seems to also refer to the growing difficulties faced by the U.S. in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Judging from the photograph of President George W. Bush, this motif was presumably designed just before Barack Obama took office.

As Dr. Hegghammer blogged several days ago at Jihadica, a new English-language jihadi magazine, Jihad Recollections, was recently published on the Internet (a favorite medium of jihadi bloggers and denizens of the Internet forums) by an individual named, according to the American right-wing web site Jawa Report, Samir Khan, in North Carolina. The magazine which is, depending on whom you read, is either well-designed or not, is a fascinating example of the same type of online magazines that have been published by a variety of Muslim groups, both radical and not, for many years. I am not going to upload/link to the entire magazine, but have posted several sample pages (which I took from a PDF copy), and a sample article. Please see below.

A sample article, on the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan, can be read HERE.

I am currently examining a special Internet magazine produced by the Palestinian political Muslim (Islamist) group HAMAS about the recent Gaza war with Israel. It is entitled, Ma'rakat al-Furqan or "Affirming Battle," the group's most frequently-used term for the war.

From Jihad Recollections

Commemorating a recent attack on foreign troops by Harakat Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Mujahideen Youth) in Somalia, a key country of interest to al-Qa'ida at the present time, along with Sudan and Afghanistan. This motif is similar to an Arabic language one that appeared on many jihadi forums. The man on the left has the nom de guerre Abu Mansur al-Ameriki ("the American"). Note his native accent in English.

A video commemorating the same attack can be seen here.

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