A peek inside the virtual jihad

It’s ridiculously easy for anyone with an Internet connection to see how the U.S. media is covering Iraq. But it’s nearly impossible to find out how the Iraqi media covers the United States. That is, unless you are fluent in Arabic, have a deep understanding of all the factions jostling for power in Iraq, scan ...

600609_070713_rferl_05.jpg
600609_070713_rferl_05.jpg

It's ridiculously easy for anyone with an Internet connection to see how the U.S. media is covering Iraq. But it's nearly impossible to find out how the Iraqi media covers the United States. That is, unless you are fluent in Arabic, have a deep understanding of all the factions jostling for power in Iraq, scan the Internet obsessively, and basically dedicate yourself full time to the job.

That's exactly what Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have done for their report, Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images and Ideas. In their 74-page report (pdf), the two analysts find that Sunni insurgents are spreading their message through a rich array of media—disseminating slick daily press releases, printing weekly and monthly magazines, posting video clips, and producing full-length feature films. But messages from the insurgents are hardly unified. There are platforms for those sympathetic to al Qaeda, websites for the Baathist "resistance" movements, and postings from revolutionary brigades. These diverse groups have one thing in common when communicating with Iraqis: They're flexible, and they're fast.

Even more troubling, if you take the aggregate messages from all the media outlets they investigated—as Kimmage and Ridolfo noted in the Q&A period after their presentation Thursday at Washington's New America Foundation—you hear a lot more from global jihadist movements than you do from nationalistic insurgents. It's not that people on the ground are necessarily more intent on propagating Greater Islam rather than on uprising against the Shiite Maliki government. But rather, it suggests that global jihadists from abroad are better than Iraqis at disseminating the message of jihad. After all, it's probably a lot easier to spread propaganda from a computer in, say, Damascus (or London or Glasgow, for that matter) than it is from Mosul.

It’s ridiculously easy for anyone with an Internet connection to see how the U.S. media is covering Iraq. But it’s nearly impossible to find out how the Iraqi media covers the United States. That is, unless you are fluent in Arabic, have a deep understanding of all the factions jostling for power in Iraq, scan the Internet obsessively, and basically dedicate yourself full time to the job.

That’s exactly what Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have done for their report, Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images and Ideas. In their 74-page report (pdf), the two analysts find that Sunni insurgents are spreading their message through a rich array of media—disseminating slick daily press releases, printing weekly and monthly magazines, posting video clips, and producing full-length feature films. But messages from the insurgents are hardly unified. There are platforms for those sympathetic to al Qaeda, websites for the Baathist “resistance” movements, and postings from revolutionary brigades. These diverse groups have one thing in common when communicating with Iraqis: They’re flexible, and they’re fast.

Even more troubling, if you take the aggregate messages from all the media outlets they investigated—as Kimmage and Ridolfo noted in the Q&A period after their presentation Thursday at Washington’s New America Foundation—you hear a lot more from global jihadist movements than you do from nationalistic insurgents. It’s not that people on the ground are necessarily more intent on propagating Greater Islam rather than on uprising against the Shiite Maliki government. But rather, it suggests that global jihadists from abroad are better than Iraqis at disseminating the message of jihad. After all, it’s probably a lot easier to spread propaganda from a computer in, say, Damascus (or London or Glasgow, for that matter) than it is from Mosul.

Although it may be hard to log in from Iraq, it seems like everyone there’s got a cell phone. And what do people like to watch on their phones? As RFE/RL president Jeffrey Gedmin said Thursday, they like to look at “traditional” pornography, and they like to watch “political pornography”. Lots of people think that looking at traditional online pornography cools lovers’ ardor in the bedroom. Somehow, though, I don’t think the virtual jihad works that way.

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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