Al-Nusra Front: Breaking al-Qaeda's Forum Monopoly
By Rita Katz and Margaret Foster
A recent move by al-Qaeda's wing in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, illustrates again the importance of social media for the global jihadi movement and its effect on the evolution in jihadi online platforms.
On April 5, 2014, the al-Nusra Front rebuked the administrators of the top-tier jihadi forum Shumukh al-Islam for bias in favor of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and announced that it will no longer publish its material on the forum. In the statement, which was posted on the al-Nusra Front's Twitter account, the group explained that over the past several months, Shumukh al-Islam had become a "hotbed" for jihadists who wish to attack the al-Nusra Front. Soon after the message was released, the forum went offline.
In previous years, antagonizing the most important jihadi forum and primary al-Qaeda media distribution point would have been a no-go strategy for a jihadi organization, particularly at a time when the jihadi groups are fighting for greater support and publicity for their cause. However, the exposure that the al-Nusra Front has gained through the Twitter social media platform mitigates the potential costs, as a virtually unlimited number of people can view and disseminate their messages on the site.
Indeed, since beginning activity in August 2013, the al-Nusra Front's Twitter page has received over 54,000 "followers," while the entire membership base of the password-protected Shumukh al-Islam forum is only 9,258 registered users. Moreover, users can interact with the group's Twitter feed and "retweet"- or redistribute - its material through their own accounts, providing additional visibility to the al-Qaeda branch, and spreading the group's propaganda, which is not possible on the closed forums .
The reach of the al-Nusra Front's Twitter account, and their ability to continue media activities despite forgoing support from one of the major jihadi forums, has eroded the previously dominant model of online jihadi media platforms. The forum distribution model, pioneered by former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, was characterized by centrally-controlled password-protected forums which hosted content that has been approved--implicitly or explicitly- by the forum administration team. However, as social media sites gain importance and dependability, the password-protected forums have lost their monopoly on primary-source jihadi content. As a consequence, the most prominent jihadi groups in Syria are present on social networking sites that extend several-fold over the membership bases of jihadi forums. Not only are groups on Twitter, but many online jihadis have found social networking sites to be an easy to way communicate and follow one another, regardless of geography. This development provides jihadi groups with a substantially magnified reach over jihadi forums, many of which, such as Shumukh al-Islam, feature the majority of their content on closed access pages and often further limit access to their material by implementing restrictions on registration.
Twitter's tremendous platform has allowed the al-Nusra Front to extend their feud with the ISIL to encompass jihadi sources that support the former al-Qaeda affiliate over the al-Nusra Front. The presence of an alternative to jihadi forums has also fanned the flames of the conflict, as previous disputes and factional splits have, in the past, been settled quickly on the forums. In a previous case, such as the late 2012-early 2013 dispute between the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement and former American Shabaab fighter Omar Hammami, once forum administrators have arrived at a judgment, the forum censors viewpoints that oppose their own.
A similar dynamic occurred recently on the Shumukh al-Islam forum, as the forum administrators have minimized the visibility of messages from al-Qaeda that are critical of the ISIL. For example, the Shumukh al-Islam forum demoted the thread dedicated to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's April 4, 2014, message mourning al-Qaeda's representative in Syria, Abu Khalid al-Suri, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Aleppo, Syria on February 23, 2014. After forum members voiced their displeasure with the leadership of Zawahiri, forum administrators deleted the posts, and removed the discussion thread from a featured, or "sticky," to one that would quickly become buried as new discussions are added to the forum. Indeed, as a consequence of the ability of forum administrators to control the content of their forums, until the rise of stable jihadi social media platforms, administration teams of the top-tier jihadi forums acted as gatekeepers for online jihadi outreach.
The widespread distribution of the Nusra Front's challenge to Shumukh al-Islam acts as a herald of the changes that social media has brought to the online jihadi community. The dense penetration of Twitter and other platforms into the Syrian civil war has changed the ways in which jihadi groups, fighters, and supporters interact. Jihadi groups, many of which have migrated to Twitter, can independently develop enormous followings without going through central online locations. Social media exposure comes at some cost, with groups forgoing authentication and verification that jihadi forum administrators have offered to official group representatives. However, it has also unshackled the groups from having to rely on the support of jihadi forum administrators, and freed them to hold positions opposed by leaders of the community.