When the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released a video taking credit for the Times Square bombing early Sunday morning following Mayor Bloomberg's press conference, the group didn't post its message through traditional jihadist forums or send a tape to al-Jazeera.
Instead, the TTP chose to use the titan of video on the internet, Google's YouTube. The enormous video sharing website has become a significant platform for jihadist groups and supporters, fostering a thriving subculture of jihadists who use YouTube to share propaganda, communicate with each other, and recruit new individuals to the jihadist cause.
The TTP is just one of many other terrorist groups utilizing YouTube to distribute propaganda. For example, in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) selected YouTube to distribute their propaganda online threatening the sports event.The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Afghan Taliban, and even al-Qaeda have released videos through YouTube.
Easily accessible from almost anywhere in the world, YouTube's massive global audience ensures that jihadists can simultaneously target both potential recruits as well as those whom the movement intends to terrorize. Furthermore, rather than having to wait for an extended period of time to download videos from jihadist forums, users on YouTube can watch virtually instantaneously. YouTube also conveniently suggests related videos, enabling an individual to find and consume more media in a shorter period of time than even on jihadist forums.
As important as the videos hosted on YouTube, though, is the website's facilitation of social networking among jihadists. Comments left on videos and user channels, as well as the capability to send private messages to other users, helps jihadists identify each other rapidly, resulting in a vibrant jihadist subculture on YouTube. This community is comprised of many of the same individuals active on jihadist forums, who create their own video channels of jihadist propaganda designed to cultivate an atmosphere that radicalizes others.
Among the more widely known jihadist members of YouTube is Colleen LaRose, known as “Jihad Jane,” who was charged in March 2009 with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. LaRose maintained several YouTube channels replete with jihadist content. According to her indictment, LaRose posted on YouTube that she was “desperate to do something somehow to help” the plight of Muslims.
Another prominent YouTube user is Zachary Chesser, the American-born Muslim convert from Virginia known as Abu Talha al-Amriki who recently “warned” the creators of South Park from depicting the Prophet Muhammad, also operates a YouTube channel filled with scores of jihadist videos. Perhaps evidencing the large numbers of jihadist supporters on YouTube, Chesser's channel has over 700 subscribers and more than 800 friends.
Even more troubling, jihadist groups can also find and recruit radicalized individuals through YouTube. In December 2009, five young Americans from the Virginia area were arrested in Sargodha, Pakistan, after allegedly traveling to Pakistan to join a terrorist group. An interrogation report issued by the Sargodha police revealed that at least one of the individuals, Ahmed Minni, was in contact with another user on YouTube who recruited the men and exhorted them to travel to Pakistan. The report explained that Minni “used to the praise the videos which showed attacks on the US Army and Installations. This became a regular feature and Minni, a registered user of YouTube, regularly praised such attacks. Soon after, Minni was contacted by a person named 'Saifullah.'”
To Google's credit, the company has made flagging inappropriate content on YouTube easy, and YouTube quickly responds by reviewing and removing jihadist videos and channels, explaining in the website's community guidelines, “We draw the line at content that's intended to incite violence or encourage dangerous, illegal activities.” However, this process is passive, relying on the reporting of the general YouTube population and results in the reposting of jihadist propaganda to YouTube shortly thereafter.
For example, although the TTP's video on YouTube claiming the Times Square attack was reported and taken down within hours of its posting, the TTP simply created another YouTube channel after a few hours. This channel housed not only a newly uploaded copy of the video taking credit for the attack but included two additional videos featuring TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud threatening the United States. These videos have since spread to several other YouTube channels.
Perhaps an improved way for YouTube to handle this issue is to make posting jihadist content more difficult by preventing users from uploading known jihadist propaganda. Google has already demonstrated through its “Content ID System,” which compares media uploaded to YouTube to a database of copyrighted movies, television shows, and music, that the company can immediately and automatically identify copyrighted video and audio and prevent that media from being displayed on YouTube.
By building a database of known jihadist media, Google's same technology might be applied to stop jihadist propaganda from being uploaded and recirculated on the website. Similar to how Google treats copyrighted content, provisions might be made to allow for short clips of jihadist propaganda to remain on YouTube for purposes of reporting, parody, and other legitimate reasons.
While of course such actions would not be a panacea to rectifying the problem of jihadist activity on YouTube, let alone the internet, Google will most certainly be reminding its jihadist users of the company's motto: “Don't be evil.”