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Al-Qaeda online minting few militants: experts

Al-Qaeda's online propaganda is a valuable source for intelligence agencies and is minting few militants willing to go out and actually carry out attacks, US experts said on Tuesday.

world Updated: Dec 07, 2011 11:37 IST

Al-Qaeda's online propaganda is a valuable source for intelligence agencies and is minting few militants willing to go out and actually carry out attacks, US experts said on Tuesday.


"Thankfully, the vast majority of youth who watch and read al-Qaeda propaganda are either unaffected or choose not to act," William McCants, an analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) told a congressional panel.

"We don't have reason to believe that large numbers are being swayed by this propaganda, much less going the extra step and taking action," McCants told the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

"You still have a very small number of people who are responding positively to al-Qaeda's message and, of them, an even smaller size who are willing and able to take up violence," he said.

McCants and other experts, testifying on "Jihadist Use of Social Media," recommended against trying to cleanse the Internet of al-Qaeda-linked sites.

"The first priority should be monitoring and not taking down content," said the analyst for the CNA, a federally funded research and development center for the US Navy and Marine Corps.

"Focus more on following the smoke and looking for the fires of criminal activity," McCants said. "And focus less on removing incendiary material."

He said the FBI and other law enforcement bodies in the United States "have done a fair job in finding al-Qaeda supporters online and arresting them before they hurt anyone."

Brian Jenkins, a senior advisor at the Rand Corporation, said "many would-be jihadists begin their journey on the Internet.

"Of these, a few go beyond the Internet to seek training abroad or to plot terrorist attacks here," Jenkins said. "But overall the response in America to al-Qaeda's intense marketing campaign thus far has not amounted to very much.

"Between 9/11 and the end of 2010 a total of 176 persons -- Americans -- were identified as jihadists," he said. "Al-Qaeda has created a virtual army which has remained virtual."

The Rand Corporation advisor also said jihadist online discussion forums are a "source of valuable intelligence."

"And so rather than devoting vast resources to shutting down content and being dragged into a frustrating game of Whac-a-Mole -- as we shut down sites they open up new ones -- instead, we probably should devote our resources to facilitating intelligence collection and criminal investigations," he said.

Andrew Weisburd, director of the Society for Internet Research, told the panel that jihadist discussion forums were largely "echo chambers" and did not pose much of a threat.

YouTube, however, is "perceived as something of a risk because it's where jihadist content can be put in front of a mainstream audience," Weisburd said.

"There's always some concern that this content is going to be appealing to some people who otherwise might not be exposed to it," he said.

"How great a risk that is I think is easily overstated," he said. "I'm not particularly alarmed about it."

Weisburd also said the September 30 death of US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi in Yemen in a suspected US air strike was a big blow to al-Qaeda's propaganda machine.

Awlaqi, leader of external operations for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was "particularly good at taking the core message of what they call global jihad and synthesizing it and speaking directly to his followers," he said.

"Because he worked in English first and foremost, his material was accessible to everybody who doesn't read and write and speak Arabic, which is a much larger potential audience for his message," Weisburd said.