Netwar in Cyberia: Decoding the Media Mujahedeen and the Jihadist Swarmcast

Principal Investigator:
Ali Fisher, CPD Research Fellow 2015-17

At the dawn of mass access to the internet some, including Douglas Rushkoff, foresaw that dissident groups would use technological innovation and the networks of our postmodern society in unconventional ways and toward subversive goals. That time has come.

The mobile phone network has been used to detonate IEDs. Video footage of the resulting explosions is captured via cameras intended for home movies. Go-Pro, more often seen on the helmets of snowboarders, are now mounted on the barrel of an AK-47 to give a game console inspired ‘first-person-shooter’ perspective of the battle. Video sequences from the battlefield, edited into high quality HD movies are distributed via social media and file sharing platforms. 

Jihadist use of the internet to distribute information and audiovisual content is closely aligned with Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s concept of Netwar and ideas of emergent behavior in complex systems. As the use of the internet has grown, so extremists have utilised the opportunity it creates. Prior to 2011, al-Qa’ida (AQ) had established a “jihadist cloud” which, Nico Prucha argued, allowed AQ to remain resilient within “its virtual spaces and niches on the Internet”, despite setbacks on physical fronts. Since 2011, Jihadist information dissemination has evolved rapidly into complex multiplatform systems, fuelled by the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

The increasing emphasis on challenging Jihadist ideology online echoes an earlier prediction that in an internet enabled ideological struggle, “the battle for your reality begins in the fields of digital interaction”. In this vision, warfare would be “conducted on an entirely new battleground; it is a struggle not over territory or boundaries but over the very definitions of these terms”. This is the type of conflict for which Public Diplomacy should be most suited, one based on ideas, persuasion and engagement with communities around the world. However, it is also one in which the ‘Media Mujahedeen’ - the supporters of jihadist groups who disseminate propaganda content online – have thrived. As the range of online platforms has expanded, jihadist groups and the Media Mujahedeen have increasingly made effective use of sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, VK, Google+ and Tumblr to create a complex system through which to disseminate rich audiovisual content. Thus far, Public Diplomacy responses have been unable to keep pace with the speed, agility and resilience of the Media Mujahedeen. This project will seek to identify ways to redress that balance.

Netwar in Cyberia will examine Jihadist media strategy using the military concept of Netwar and assess whether Jihadist strategy has extended beyond Netwar to embrace the potential of collective and emergent behaviours within complex information systems. Through a strategic assessment of the information dissemination systems, Netwar in Cyberia will identify factors which could influence the success of Public Diplomacy responses to Jihadist online content.

Read Fisher's CPD Perspectives article, "Netwar in Cyberia: Decoding the Media Mujahidin," here.