This Online War is No Game: The Iraqi Insurgency Masters the Web

You might have missed it, since the article was in the Style section instead of among the political news, but Philip Kennicott wrote in Tuesday’s Washington Post about a fascinating Radio Free Europe report on the Iraqi Sunni insurgency’s use of the web as a communications tool. Besides obvious political messaging, the researchers found “a surprisingly rich mix of news and religion and entertainment.” For instance:

“Top 20,” produced by Ansar al-Sunnah, is a compilation video of attacks on U.S. forces, presented as a greatest-hits competition among “insurgent brigades” for footage of the most spectacular attack. It is made with the express intention to encourage “healthy” rivalry among cells of fighters.

“It is very fast-paced and clearly aimed at the video game generation,” says [Daniel] Kimmage, who is an Arabist and a regional analyst for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which broadcasts into Iraq.

Insurgent groups cater to a wide array of media consumption habits, from high-quality videos with long download times to compact, shorter videos suitable for cellphones. People who prefer to read aren’t neglected either.

Whole books can be downloaded. Among them are the extensive “martyr biographies,” collections of obituaries with inspirational messages detailing the lives of young men who have died in the struggle.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, considering that insurgents have had four years to experiment with modern media techniques, but these tactics have largely been hidden from the general American public. The Internet lowers the barriers to political action, and clearly not always for people we’d like to see spread their words. And countering them won’t be easy, since according to the report’s summary page:

The popularity of online Iraqi Sunni insurgent media, the authors contend, reflects a genuine demand for their message in the Arab world. A response, no matter how lavishly funded and cleverly produced, will not eliminate this demand. The authors argue that efforts to counter insurgent media should not focus on producing better propaganda than the insurgents, or trying to eliminate the demand for the insurgent message, but rather on exploiting the vulnerabilities of the insurgent media network.

Scary stuff — check it out, and be prepared to ditch some preconceptions. Sophisticated insurgency tactics aren’t limited to the battlefield.


Written by
Colin Delany
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