Rethinking the role of virtual communities in terrorist websites

Information technology

This study analysed the discursive strategies and representations of virtual communities on 38 terrorist-related websites between 2009 and 2010.

Many security officials, policy analysts, and researchers are quick to identify the internet as a powerful terrorist recruiting tool that poses a growing security threat. Some worry that rapidly evolving technical capabilities offer terrorist groups a new strategic weapon with which to attack their enemies. Al Qaeda and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico were among the first such organizations to lead the migration of terrorist rhetoric to the Web, spearheading the exponential growth of such sites from a mere dozen in 1997 to more than 6,000 today.

Researchers have established that most extremist websites seek to fulfill five basic goals: to disseminate propaganda, organize the membership, communicate information, fundraise, and recruit new members. In 2001, Jenine Abboushi Dallal suggested that terrorists were embracing the Web as a platform from which to recast their images. In her view, extremist groups went online not so much to engage in dialogue, but rather to offer a "counter information system," and to create a virtual community. Dallal contended that these sites were not meant to be participatory or interactive, but rather were created to promote a tightly controlled authoritarian narrative.

Given the rapid proliferation of participatory applications on the Web in recent years, we set out to examine whether terrorism-related websites had embraced the Web 2.0 interactive applications that build community through commentary, social networking, and streaming video. Is there evidence that the internet has successfully generated virtual communities around websites run by terrorist groups?

To answer this question, between 2009 and 2010 the authors analysed the discursive strategies and representations of virtual communities on 38 terrorist-related websites, 28 published in Arabic and 10 in Spanish (see Appendix A). Thecontent analysis identified in each case: 1) the sender of a message; 2) the content of that message; 3) the intended publics (readers of the message); and, 4) the interactive and multimedia features available to users of that particular website. The 38 coded websites were filtered from an initial list of 80 Muslim-based and 20 Spanish-language extremist sites identified in studies conducted since 2000. For the purposes of this analysis, "extremist" sites were defined as sites that explicitly endorsed hatred and violence, and actively promoted their ideologies online. The filtered core list was expanded using the external links on each site, the Google search engine in Arabic and Spanish, and the back-link function of BacklinkWatch (this function helps researchers determine what websites link to the website they are studying).

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