Rob at Arabic Media Shack has, as always, an informed take on the forum closures. I have a slightly different take that I’ll share after a summary of his argument.
Rob concedes that the closures are a big deal (doesn’t say why), but he’s skeptical that they are influential in the Middle East for the following reasons:
- Access: There is not much internet access in the ME compared to the West. Also, local censors can easily block the forums.
- Interest: Most Middle Easterners don’t think that much about Bin Laden or al-Qaeda.
- Coverage: If the forums were important, mainstream Arabic newspapers would have written more about them.
Rob ends his post by suggesting that influence should be measured by how many people in the region actually watch or read al-Qaeda material.
On the issue of access, Rob is right: connectivity in the Middle East is much less than in Europe and the U.S. But this varies across the region; Saudi, for example, has a high level of connectivity. And are censors that tough to beat? Iranian bloggers would say no.
Of course, internet access does not equal interest in Jihadi materials. In fact, Clint Watts has argued the opposite in his foreign fighter report. Still, there are a lot of reports in the Arabic press (particularly the Saudi press) of Jihadi forum members being arrested or carrying out attacks, so some portion of the population is interested. Moreover, Arab journalists regularly monitor the forums for material (new videos, etc.), so they do receive coverage. That the forums themselves have not been the sole object of coverage is not dispositive in a debate about influence; they weren’t covered in the English press either until a few weeks ago.
Rob is pushing back on the idea that the forums are influencing public opinion in the Middle East in the sense that hundreds of thousands of Arabs are signing on to the forums and being radicalized. I agree that is not the case and one hears similar hyperbolic statements about access to these forums in the West. Nevertheless, the forums are the primary conduits of propaganda that is reposted to mainstream forums and broadcast on satellite television, so in that sense they do have influence. Closing them cripples the propaganda flow. To be sure, Jihadis will find other ways to distribute their materials, but they won’t be nearly as effective. Posting a video on YouTube or Archive.org gets the material out there, but how will anyone know to link to it?
Finally, something is being overlooked in the recent discussion of the forum closures. These forums are not dangerous for the usual reasons cited (weapons manuals, travel info, coordination, etc–see my earlier posts). They are dangerous because they provide a community to reinforce ideas and an audience to applaud action. A young man in Tunisia who is motivated by propaganda but whose local community disapproves of suicide bombings might be dissuaded from action. But if he is part of a forum that will celebrate his deeds in song, video, and biography, he is more likely to act. This is forums true power and future discussion of their influence and the utility of closing them down should take this as its starting point. (As a parallel, ask yourself what the open-source software movement would be without discussion forums. The payoff for participating isn’t pecuniary; it’s the recognition of one’s deeds.)