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"Electronic Jihad": The Internet as Al Qaeda’s Catalyst for Global Terror


Authors: Martin Rudner

Date of Publication: May 2016

Journal / Publisher: Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 40:1, 10-23


Purpose of the study

Key questions 

The study addresses the importance of the internet to the overall Al-Qaeda strategy and discusses the effect this has had on the Jihadi movement, it is a good general overview and introduction to how the internet has been exploited.

Those studied

Those travelling abroad to fight: The study mentions that part of the Al-Qaeda strategy was to recruit Foreign Fighters. 

Those inspired to attack on home soil: The study mentions the Al-Qaeda strategy.

Facilitators: The study mentions various terrorist roles including facilitation (specifically Recruiting and Funding), but does not go into great detail as to how those in different roles are influenced, and how they contribute to the Al-Qaeda Internet Strategy.



The approach is described as a “Descriptive Analysis” and uses findings from other studies and lists specific risks. The study suggests that it is empirically focused but there is no data mentioned. It also points out that there is no academic framework which can explain terrorist motivations and behaviouristics in their use of the Internet and states that this approach describes, analyses and explains actual practices. The study does not use many case studies to illustrate the points made; rather it brings together findings from various reports and other academic studies. 

A particular Case Study mentioned is the 2009 judgement of a Canadian court which found that an extremist website posted by the Global Islamic Media front purveyed messaging characteristic of militant jihadism that were tantamount to a terrorist threat, by way of:

  • Publishing and expounding on the speeches of Al Qaeda leaders.
  • Inciting people to conduct violent jihad
  • Urging people to support jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and its affiliates and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
  • Disseminating Al Qaeda textual propaganda.
  • Glorifying jihadist “Martyrs”  
  • Providing Advice on computer security, and instructions about hacking into computer networks. 
  • Engaging in physical warfare by threatening targeted societies and communities.
  • Delivering military training to carry out violent jihad, including tactics for urban and gang warfare, concealing explosives, executing ambushes, arrests, and explosions.
  • Webcasting news reports from jihadist battlefronts. 
  • Publishing online magazines like ‘Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), and Inspire.
  • Translating its propaganda material into various languages to reach out to a wide audience especially in the West. 

Assessor comment: - Global Islamic Media was an associate of Al-Qaeda, but administered from Canada. Other networks have they have ‘franchised’ the Al-Qaeda brand and used this for their own aims and do not necessary have a direct link.


Worldwide, and specifically makes the point that charismatic preacher and senior Al-Qaeda Commander Anwar Al-Awlaki appealed to English-speaking Muslims and wished to create ‘an enemy from within.’ The study also makes mention of “Inspire” magazine which was an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula magazine published online in English to reach a wider western audience and specifically encouraged attacks in the West and offered guidance in how to carry these out.  



The study considers many different scenarios and rates different messaging in ascending order of severity (in terms of risk):

  • Subverting Muslim communities in Western democracies while deceiving and distracting their governments from reacting to the threat in at hand. (References Walid Phares, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p.263.).        
  • Cultivating supportive attitudes towards acts of terrorism.
  • Offering theological justification to acts of political violence and terror.
  • Providing technical instructions and operational guidelines for terrorist acts.
  • Promoting direct involvement in preparatory activities that expedite terrorist operations.

Encouraging personal engagement in committing acts of terrorism (References Cf. Taylor and Ramsay, “Violent Radical Content, “p.100.).

Key findings 

The study concludes that computer engineers are highly over-represented among members of militant jihadist groups showing the importance of Electronic Jihad as an overall strategy. It is also concluded that AQ has mapped out infrastructure vulnerabilities as a prerequisite for an electronic attack, as endorsed by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of AQ in his 2011 pronouncement; “If we are not able to produce weapons equal to the weapons of the Crusader West, we can sabotage their complex economic and industrial systems and drain their powers. … Therefore, the mujahideen (Islamic warriors) must invent new ways, ways that never dawned on the minds of the West.”

Key recommendations 

There are no recommendations as such, more of a warning. In conclusion, the article points out that AQ have a high number of Computer Science graduates and that Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (Leader of AQ), have proclaimed that the Group should use technology to attack the economic infrastructure in the West.

Reviewer's Comments

There is a marked difference between AQ and ISIS strategies: AQ utilise highly trained and likely experienced operatives in at least leadership roles; whilst ISIS encourage frustrated travellers and those who remained in the West to conduct attacks. AQ have maintained a strategy for conducting complex and ‘spectacular’ attacks, whilst ISIS have encouraged subjects to conduct low level attacks, such as knife or vehicle enabled attacks. The extremists ISIS targeted with propaganda didn’t necessarily ever have a link to ISIS, who simply ‘franchised’ their brand. Some subjects did reach out to ISIS for encouragement and/or advice, but may not have received any tacit support. 

Many articles point out that not many extremists go on to commit violent acts, but here we see how essentially non-violent extremists (e.g. Marketing experts, and Computer Engineers) are actively and successfully recruiting and empowering/encouraging others to conduct violence. 

Even several years after his death, the propaganda material produced by the charismatic AQ Commander Anwar Al-Awlaki continues to resonate across the Internet and remains as popular as ever with the people who consume extremist material. Material from Al-Muhajiroun Subjects (originally having links to AQ, but later swore allegiance to ISIS), and in particular Mizanur Rahman, Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Sayyid Qutb (Member of the Islamic Brotherhood, author of Milestones, inspired the AQ and general Salafi Jihadi Doctrine) and Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal (Jamaican Salafi Jihadi Influencer). Presence of any of this material in an investigation or intelligence lead could be cause for concern.  

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