In Other Words

Iraq’s Networked Insurgents

When U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus briefed Congress on the status of the troop increase in Iraq, he commented on an often overlooked front in the struggle against Iraqi insurgents: the Internet. Petraeus told Congress that the United States needs to "contest the enemy’s growing use of that important medium to spread extremism." The ...

When U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus briefed Congress on the status of the troop increase in Iraq, he commented on an often overlooked front in the struggle against Iraqi insurgents: the Internet. Petraeus told Congress that the United States needs to "contest the enemy’s growing use of that important medium to spread extremism." The general’s admission that "this war is not only being fought on the ground in Iraq but also in cyberspace" drew a quick response from the Islamic State of Iraq, the latest incarnation of al Qaeda in Iraq. A September 13 statement posted to a jihadist Web site by the group boasted that the United States is trying to shut down insurgent Web sites because "media is an effective weapon that can crush thrones and destroy armies."

Iraqi insurgents have been marshaling the media to "destroy armies" since they began their armed campaign in 2003. Their media campaign uses the Internet to target educated, influential segments of the Arab population, and they can reach an audience of millions when the mainstream media pick up their diatribes or news bulletins. Unencumbered by a centralized bureaucracy or a brick-and-mortar infrastructure, the Sunni insurgent media network is lean, mean, and fast-moving. In recent months, al Qaeda-affiliated organizations, each with its own "media brigade," have appeared in Algeria, Morocco, and Lebanon. The insurgency’s initial message of uncompromising opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq has mutated over the years, with anti-Shiite sectarian hate speech now abundant, and a very public rift between nationalist and jihadist groups roiling the sites. But Sunni insurgents remain united in using the messages they create not to inform but to spin, shape, and shift opinion — in short, to wage a war of images and ideas.

Indeed, there is nothing impartial about Iraqi insurgent media; their primary goals are to recruit foreign fighters, raise money, incite violence, and foment religious hatred. Insurgent Web sites — both nationalist and jihadist — publish daily press releases and operational statements recording alleged attacks against coalition and Iraqi government forces. They also distribute books, magazines, and biographies of jihadist martyrs. Their video content is particularly potent. Visitors can download short clips of suicide bombings, as well as longer, feature-length Arabic-language films full of Islamist rhetoric, many of them subtitled in English, German, Kurdish, Turkish, and Urdu. One recent clip posted to the Islamic Fluga (Fallujah) Forums showed the destruction of a $3.2-million U.S. armored vehicle with a bomb that supposedly cost only $32, implying that insurgents can get a $100,000 return in damage for each dollar they invest in destruction in a matter of seconds.

The breadth of insurgent media is startling, with thousands of statements appearing on dozens of forums and other Web sites. Our research on two forums used by insurgent groups operating in Iraq — the World News Network and Mohajroon — showed that in March 2007 alone, insurgents issued roughly 1,000 press releases documenting operations and commenting on politics. Many of these are cut-and-paste claims from other sites about unverifiable assaults on "crusaders" and "apostates," but the total adds up to more than 30 unique statements a day.

The content of insurgent media doesn’t rest solely on simplified rhetoric of martyrdom and accounts of victories over the "Great Satan" within Iraq’s borders. Iraqi insurgent media also demonstrate an acute awareness of policy discussions and political battles in the United States and Europe. Since the "surge" began in February, insurgents have regularly quoted and commented on battles between the White House and the U.S. Congress over Iraq policy, often in real time. Forums also allow supporters to weigh in and give their assessments of the ongoing insurgent campaign against the United States and its allies.

One example of how closely insurgent media follow U.S. politics came in a July statement from the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), a prominent nationalist group that has tangled publicly with al Qaeda in Iraq. As usual, the statement appeared both on the group’s Web site and on a host of sympathetic forums. It made a bold prediction about the outcome of the 2008 U.S. presidential elections simply by using the feminine form of the Arabic word — ra’isah instead of ra’is — for "president." Noting that the "U.S. Congress holds marathon meetings in which partisan interests take precedence over the American national interest, which is an exit from the Iraq quagmire," the IAI concluded, "What all of this means is that the Americans, and especially the neoconservatives, will pass the crisis on to the next [female] president and the Democratic majority [in Congress], which is timidly crawling toward a solution. …" 

Bread-and-butter issues lie closer to home, however, and insurgents’ real interest in U.S. politics is what it means for Iraq. Their commentary on the Petraeus report claimed that it supported the insurgent view that the Iraqi government is near collapse, coalition forces are on the verge of withdrawing, and victory for the insurgency is near. And although the al Qaeda jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq acknowledged in their September 13 statement recent U.S. attempts to shut down insurgent Web sites and arrest operators of jihadist forums, they also praised contributors to insurgent sites and forums, telling them they were a tool to aggravate the enemies of God and support Islam. They advised these contributors to be patient, fearless, and steadfast in their work, saying: "Your media is an instigation for the monotheists and an announcement to join the fight."

For the United States, addressing insurgent media is vitally important. But it’s not an easy task. For every site that is pulled down, another pops up, often carrying archived content from the preceding site. Moreover, insurgents are adept at finding new and provocative ways to spread their message, from free upload-download sites to compressed film files for mobile phones. For groups that firmly believe that "media is half the battle," as one insurgent statement put it, the Internet is a lifeline to hearts and minds. They will surely continue to fight for their foothold in the virtual world, just as surely as they fight with bombs and bullets in the real one.

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