The Strengthening of al-Qa'ida in the Global Jihad Arena: Online Activity as a Test Case

Ariel Koch follows the online activities of al-Qa'ida, with an emphasis on its presence on the encrypted messaging network Telegram, as part of its preparations for again becoming a leading player in the global jihad arena.
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The Telegram channel of al-Sahab Media
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The Telegram channel of al-Sahab Media


Beginning in 2013, pushing al-Qaeda out of the global jihad movement was one of the more conspicuous ramifications of the Islamic State's rise to power in Syria and Iraq, even though that organization was originally known as al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq.[1] As a result, security, political, media, and academic attention focused on IS and its online and conventional activities,[2] while al-Qaeda was neglected. However, al-Qaeda is actually growing in strength, and even increasing its online activities as part of its ‘media jihad’ (al-Jihad al-‘Alami), by its own definition, in preparation for the day when it will again play a central role in the global jihad arena. The organization is working to reinforce its connections with its various affiliates in Asia, Africa and the Middle East,[3] which continue to pose a threat to other countries in the Arab and Islamic world and beyond.[4] For this purpose, the Telegram encrypted messaging network is al-Qaeda’s platform of preference. [5]

In the past, al-Qaeda operatives and other jihadist groups operated online groups based on text messaging software like ICQ, chat rooms, forums, and blogs,[6] but these were targeted by cyberattacks, and were frequently shut down. Jihad propagandists were forced to find an effective and accessible solution. Eventually, the jihadists settled on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter;[7] with a preference for Twitter.[8] However, public pressure on the services’ corporate owners led to increasing disruption of the jihadists’ routine functioning, and they therefore turned to other channels, including Telegram.[9] Recently, Telegram has also begun to combat the jihadists’ activity on the platform and close their accounts, but their activity nevertheless remains steady. From web content, we can learn about other platforms al-Qaeda uses to disseminate propaganda, including Justpaste.it and Risala.ga.

One of the most prominent Telegram channels operated by al-Qaeda was opened in July 2017, and is affiliated with the official media channel, al-Sahab (The Clouds), which accumulated over 3,100 followers by the end of August. Most of the content on the channel is in Arabic, but English and other languages are also used. Content includes the daily magazine al-Nafir ("call to arms/mobilize"), and video and audio clips of current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.[10] Over time, more than 2,000 additional followers joined the channel,[11] which not only exposes its followers to current content published by the organization, but also shares links to other Telegraph channels operating on behalf of al-Qaeda, including Ansar Qaedat al-Jihad fi Jazirah al-Arab (Supporters of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) that serves al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Ifrikia al-Muslima (Muslim Africa), which serves al-Qaeda in North Africa.[12]

Alongside the official channels, there is a network of al-Qaeda-affiliated media agencies, such as the al-Kafah channel, which is responsible for translating and disseminating propaganda in French.[13] On the third anniversary of the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the channel published a statement taking responsibility for the attack. This message was disseminated by the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen. Another channel, al-Tamkeen ("Change and Consolidation"), is charged with translating and disseminating propaganda in English.[14] Its recent publications include a transcript of Al-Zawahiri's latest video, in which he attacks the United States and reminds his audience that it is “the first enemy of the Muslims.”[15]

There are also Telegram channels serving the media arms of the jihad organizations identified with al-Qaeda, which publish and disseminate propaganda. They include channels operated by or affiliated with the Islamic party of Turkmenistan;[16] the Taliban in Pakistan[17] and Afghanistan;[18] Ansar al-Islam wal-Muslamin (Supporters of Muslims and Islam) identified with al-Qaeda in northwest Africa;[19] Anṣār Ghazwat al-Hind (Supporters of the Raid of India) identified with al-Qaeda in Kashmir; [20] Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen identified with al-Qaeda in Somalia; [21] and the official channel of Tanzim Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion), identified with al-Qaeda in Syria.[22] To these, we would add Minbar at-Tawḥīd wa’l-Jihād,[23]named for the website established by Sheikh Essam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi (also known as “Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi”), who is considered one of the senior Salafi philosophers supporting the idea of global jihad as promulgated by Bin-Laden and his followers.[24] The site formerly served as the most important online collection of radical Salafi literature.[25] The channel has more than 2,400 followers and serves as a platform for the several publications by al-Barqawi and his colleagues, who remained loyal to the Al-Qaeda and are leaders of the organization today.

The content produced by al-Qaeda and disseminated by the various channels helps create a trans-national jihadi community, and spread the organization’s ideology regarding global jihad. Take for example, an Arabic text on al-Sindh, one of al-Qaeda’s media outlets in the Indian subcontinent, attributed to Zakir Musa, the current leader of Ansar Ghazias al-Hind,[26] in which he discusses whether the connection between jihad in Kashmir and the global jihad will harm the struggle of Muslims in the region. In the text, Musa presents his negative position, and argues that the struggle is not only against India or Pakistan, which signed a cease-fire agreement with India and closed Mujahidin training camps in the country, but also against the United States. For Salafi-Jihadists, this statement stands, regardless of any territorial dispute. As al-Zawahiri put it: “America is the first enemy of the Muslims.”

The claim that al-Qaeda is gaining strength, as reflected in its online activity, is consistent with the position of researchers, including Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Bar, who claim that despite the challenges the organization has faced in recent years, including its defeat in Iraq (2007-2009) and the rise of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda has emerged with the upper hand.[27] This is further supported by Bruce Hoffman, who claimed that the events of the Arab Spring and the subsequent revolutions in other countries, especially the war in Syria, helped al-Qaeda restore its status. [28] He claims that al-Qaeda and its affiliates now have tens of thousands of loyalists around the world, with the ability to undermine local and regional stability, and mount attacks in many countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Russia.According to Hoffman, al-Qaeda now has more influence than the Islamic State, in part because of the high level of its manpower and cohesion. Although the Islamic State is now capable of carrying out deadly attacks in the West, that does not mean that al-Qaeda is not also itself planning terrorist attacks in the West. Evidence for this includes past reports received about people from al-Qaeda who travelled from Afghanistan to Syria to train and prepare terrorists for such attacks.

Al-Qaeda’s activities on Telegram demonstrate the importance it assigns to the varied technological tools that aid its efforts to remain relevant to its supporters around the world, especially among the younger generation, particularly in light of the apparent decline of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. While it seemed that al-Qaeda had been defeated and the Islamic State had replaced it as the main organization in the global jihad arena, it has actually grown stronger, especially considering the war in Syria. The online activity and geographical distribution of the Telegram channels operated by various organizations identified with al-Qaeda and its affiliates testify to the organization’s far-reaching global deployment, and its role as an important factor for jihadists. All of the above heightens our understanding that the threat of jihad remains active, coming not only from ISIS, but also from al-Qaeda, which continues to prepare for the day when it will again play a significant, leading role in the arena of global jihad.

 



[1] Jean Pierre Filiu, “Al-Qaeda Is Dead, Long Live Al-Qaeda,” Carnegie, August 22, 2014. 

[2] Nico Prucha, “Part 5: Influence and information Campaigns: from Twitter to Telegram,” Online Jihad: Monitoring Jihadist Online Communities, September 17, 2017. 

[3] Bruce Hoffman, “Al-Qaeda's The Resurrection,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2018.

[4] Barak Mendelson, The Al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and its Consequences (USA, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[5] “Terrorists on Telegram,” Counter Extremism Project, [no date]. 

[6] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The State of Global Jihad Online: A Qualitative, Quantitative, and Cross-Lingual Analysis,” The New America Foundation, January 2013. 

[7] Gabriel Weimann, “Terror on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring / Summer 2010): 45-54.

[8] Gabriel Weimann, “New Terrorism and New Media,” The Wilson Center, Research Series, Vol. 2, 2014, p. 8.

[9] Nico Prucha, “How well Established is the Jihadist Movement on Telegram?,” Online Jihad: Monitoring Jihadist Online Communities, March 15, 2018.

[10]Al-Qaeda Media Wing Al-Sahab Active on Telegram,” MEMRI, August 31, 2016. 

[11] Al-Sahab Media Channel – March 13, 2018 

[12] Africa_Muslima3, Telegram, March 27, 2018.

[13] The Al-Kafah channel was accessible until February 2018. It was then closed and later reopened as a private channel that is accessible by invitation only.

[14] Al-Tamkeen channel, Telegram, March 27, 2018.

[15] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “America is the First Enemy of Muslims,” Risala.ga, March 22, 2018.

[16]Sawt Al-Islam The Voice of Islam channel, Telegram,  March 13, 2018.

[17] UmarMediaArabic2, Telegram.

[18] Al-Amara,  The Emirates Channel, Telegram, March 13, 2018. 

[19] The name Al-Zalaka (“The Slippery land”)is derived from the battle of Al-Zalaka between the Muslim army that invaded Spain via the straits of Gibraltar and the Christian army that attempt to repel them in 1086. Al-Zalaka channel, Telegram, March 13, 2018 Note: the channel has since been closed.

[20] There is no shareable link for the Al-Hur (Freedom) Telegram channel.

[21] Al-Shahada Ak-Ahbariya (Martyr’s News Agency), Telegram, March 23, 2018.

[22]Telegram,  March 13, 2018.  

[23] Telegram, March 27, 2018.

[24] Joas Wagemakers, “Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi,” West Point CTC Sentinel, Vol. 1, No. 6, May 2008, pp. 7-9. 

[25] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s site was at www.tawhed.ws

[26] “Al-Qaida-Linked Cell Ansar Ghazwat-Ul-Hind Announces Zakir Musa as its Chief in Kashmir,” Times of India, July 27, 2017. 

[27] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “How al-Qaeda Survived the Islamic State Challenge,” Hudson Institute, March 1, 2017. h

[28] Hoffman, “Al-Qaeda's Resurrection,” March 6, 2018.