[Editor’s note: I am pleased to introduce another new contributor, Scott Sanford, who is a graduate student at George Washington University specialising in jihadism in the levant. Scott has guest blogged for Jihadica in the past, but now he is joining us on a more regular basis.]
“What is the Secret of the Falluja Forum’s Success?” This was the intriguing title of a recent post on Falluja presenting a detailed analysis of the web traffic to the forum itself. The contributor, named “Song of Terror”, broke the article into two parts: the first supplying the web analytic data and the second providing strategies and further analysis. While he claimed that jihadi propaganda efforts on the Internet are successful, the data does in fact not support his analysis.
Using data from Alexa.com, Song of Terror started by asserting that Fallujah is the most “successful” jihadi forum. Fallujah’s “Daily Reach”, the percent of global Internet users visiting Al-faloja.info, was up 42% from 0.00163% three months ago to 0.0022% on 27 April 2009. A majority of Fallujah’s users, 36.5%, were in Iraq. Algeria held the second spot with 9.1% followed by Egypt with 8.2%. Al-faloja.info’s traffic rank was 220 in Iraq, 759 in Georgia, and 821 in the Palestinian Territories.
Song of Terror reported that 19.64% of Fallujah’s visitors came from Google.com, 5.89% from Muslm.net, an Islamic forum that many militants frequent, and 5.56% from Youtube.com. He appeared to be disappointed with Youtube.com’s third place ranking and suspected that it would increase in the next “two weeks” because “a campaign to spread Fallujah’s link via [YouTube] continues in its infancy.” In fact, YouTube now has a new channel called FallujahTube that appears to be connected to this “campaign.” He also recommended that others who post videos on YouTube put the Fallujah link in the video description under the user name to make it more visible to users. He also claimed that the percentage reported for YouTube is inaccurate because other websites take videos from YouTube and post them elsewhere, which would make its percentage higher. As for Muslm.net, he stated that due to his own personal efforts posting Fallujah links on the website since 2007, it now holds the number two spot.
In regards to Google.com, Song of Terror claimed that Fallujah’s success is due to not requiring a login, which makes Fallujah searchable on Google. The top Google search terms leading to Fallujah were “The Fallujah Forums” written in Arabic and “al-faloja” written in English. He also noted that “proxy without installation” written in Arabic and “filezzz rapidleech” written in English lead visitors to the Fallujah Forums for technical advice. Indeed, a 10 May 2009 Google search of “proxy without installation” in Arabic revealed that the third link on the page connected to a Fallujah post about surfing the Internet without a proxy.
After visiting Fallujah, 14.85% of the visitors returned to Google, 5.46% returned to YouTube, 4.61% each went to Hanein.info and Muslm.net, and between 3.92% and 2.9% visited the upload sites Zshare.net, Rapidshare.com, and Archive.org. Song of Terror noted that this is evidence that Fallujah users use the website as a means to access videos.
In the second section of the post, Song of Terror outlined eight strategies and pieces of advice:
1. “Determine Your Goal,” which is “Winning the Battle of Hearts and Minds,” “Planting the seed of jihad in the hearts of the general Muslim population,” and “Transmitting the mujahedeen voice to the general population.”
2. “Choose the Means of Arriving to Your Goal,” which is using the Internet.
3. “Study the Field Data and the Means of Influence,” where he again stressed the importance of YouTube to the jihadi propaganda effort because of the supposed rising popularity of the Internet in the Middle East and because YouTube is the second most popular site in the world according to Song of Terror. He added that Falluja should not be the primary focus of propaganda efforts because many Arab countries ban the site.
4. Properly distribute one’s efforts to endeavors that yield the most results.
5. Remain flexible to adjust to the different characteristics of various websites.
6. This section dealt with security issues and Song of Terror added a link to a Fallujah post on how to use the Tor anonymity software. He also added links to several “Crusader websites” because they “distribute mujahedeen films”. It is unclear why he added this, but possibly, it is because jihadis could use links to videos on these sites as safe links that government censoring would not prevent.
7. The connection between the real world and the “hypothetical world.” Here it appears that Song of Terror was attempting to prove a connection to jihadi Internet propaganda efforts and the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq. In making his argument, he cited reporting from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, an unidentified Rand report, and al-Qaeda in Iraq reporting about their “martyrs,” which all supposedly concluded that most foreign fighters in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia, followed by Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Algeria. While he did not make his point explicit, it appears that he was insinuating that the movement of foreign fighters to Iraq from these Arab countries was proof of jihadi Internet propaganda success.
However, adding this point contradicts his entire argument that the Fallujah Forums are successful. Saudi Arabia placed tenth on the country list of Al-faloja.info users with only 2.5% of the site’s visitors being of Saudi origin. If Song of Terror’s correlation between Internet propaganda and the number of foreign fighters were correct, we would expect the number of Saudis entering Iraq to be much lower or the number of Saudi visitors on the Fallujah Forums to be much higher. Additionally, from the countries ranked above Saudi Arabia on the country list of Fallujah users – Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Libya, the UAE, Georgia, and Jordan – we would expect more of these nationalities to enter Iraq or less of them to visit the Fallujah Forums. It is possible that many of Fallujah’s visitors have gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan instead of Iraq, but it is reasonable to assume, with the exception of Pakistan, that the numbers and nationalities of foreign fighters entering these countries would be similar to Iraq’s experience, which still negates Song of Terror’s analysis. Finally, according Song of Terror, nearly 50 Yemenis entered Iraq, but Yemen is not even listed on the country list of Fallujah users. According to his analysis, we would expect Yemen to hold a much higher position on the list. In short, his data does not add up and it does not support the theory that jihadi Internet propaganda alone determines the flow of militants to war zones.
8. “Strategies of Intellectual Penetration and Contradicting Psychological Conditioning.” In this final point, Song of Terror encouraged jihadi propagandists to distribute documentary programs supportive of jihadi ideology and to learn about “psychological conditioning” by mainstream Arab satellite stations such as al-Jazeera.
Song of Terror attempted to apply some quantitative analytical reasoning to verify the success and usefulness of the Fallujah Forums and jihadi efforts at Internet propaganda. However, the data does not support his analysis. One might even use his data to make the exact opposite argument, that jihadi Internet propaganda has relatively little effect on radicalization and recruitment.
Document (Arabic): 05-01-2009-falujah-traffic-ranking-1
Document (Arabic): 05-11-2009-fallujahtube-2
Document (Arabic): 05-10-2009-without-a-proxy-post-4
Document (Arabic): 05-11-2009-how-to-use-tor-5
As someone who follows jihadism, and is starting his MA in Middle East Studies this Fall (also at GWU), I was intrigued by the topic to begin with. Beyond academic interest, however, I work for a web design company and specialize in using these kinds of web traffic analytics to retool sites and make them more appealing to search engines (a process appropriately called search engine optimization or SEO).
Scott Sanford is most certainly right on all counts here.
Superb job. Thanks for sharing. It’s not every day that my web work and my academic passion overlap.