Jihadists: Virtual Strategists
Images of martyrdom in the Jihadist culture of remembrance: Atiyatallah al-Libi, leading figure of al-Qa'ida, killed in a drone strike in 2011. © University of Vienna/Lohlker

A romantic aura of adventure, catchy music, visions of paradise and the promise of salvation: this is one version of how radical Islamic groups present themselves on the internet. Violent content is not all that counts, and the groups tap the entire “storytelling” spectrum to further their cause. “Many videos are based on computer game aesthetics”, explains Rüdiger Lohlker from the University of Vienna. As a professor of Islamic studies, he has been performing important pioneering work for years by exploring the Islamic presence on the internet. In a project funded by the FWF, Lohlker and his team have now focused on global Jihadist groups and their online presence. “We have to understand the strategies of the Jihadists in order to be able to develop counter strategies. So far, this has not sufficiently been the case”, emphasizes Lohlker.

Social aspects under scrutiny

One reason for this incomplete understanding resides in the fact that Jihadism research has mainly focused so far on security issues. In view of current developments that indicate a shift from an online Jihadist sub-culture to an online propaganda war, this approach certainly falls short of the mark. The FWF project has now managed to fill a research gap by placing the focus of investigation on the social aspects surrounding these radical groups and their online manifestations. In concrete terms, the researchers analyzed three different levels: religious, rhetorical and visual aspects. Both the Islamic expertise of the team and their language skills played a seminal role in the completion of this task. Rüdiger Lohlker and his team studied mainly Arabic-language internet platforms, since, as the researcher explained, they were still the central focus for Jihadist internet presence: “Arabic is the threshold one has to cross to be accepted in a Jihadist environment.”

Internet professionalism

The team conducted mainly qualitative research, analyzing inter alia internet forums and a great number of videos. The result could be summarized as follows: the tools used by the Jihadist communication strategists are increasingly on a par with professional PR tools used by the private sector. One finds corporate design and corporate wording - i.e. recurring and easily recognizable visual symbols adapted to the religion-based lines of argumentation. General Islamic discourse is reinterpreted in Jihadist terms and then used to establish the legitimacy of radical activities. “Distribution strategies for material are also very good, comparable to those of the gaming industry”, reports Lohlker. And, finally, the establishing of contacts plays a central role in internet activities. The researchers were able to demonstrate how something like an oath of allegiance is used to lure potential fellow activists on board.

Benefits for society

The next steps planned are big-data analyses based on the “matrix” established by the FWF project. But the scientists’ ambition does not stop there. They want to develop de-radicalization strategies for practical application. “This is the only way to erode the foundations of Jihadism”, Lohlker is convinced. “Particularly when it comes to prevention, but also in other crucial areas, there is still a lack of understanding of what it means to be active on the internet. A fact that never fails to surprise me”, professes Lohlker, who is busy working on counter measures. The FWF project, for example, has given rise to an online strategy that has already been tested for its viability. In addition, his department is currently contributing to the establishment of a center in Indonesia designed to train about 4,000 adherents of a large Muslim organization in order to advance de-radicalization. “In Austria and Europe we could benefit from such activity by training multipliers who are knowledgeable both about religious aspects and about how to use the internet.” The scientist is convinced that what is needed is support of activities rooted in civil society. To this end one must relinquish control, would be Lohlker’s advice, “since bureaucracy simply doesn’t work on the internet.”

Personal details Rüdiger Lohlker has held the chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna since 2003. He has published numerous texts on Islamist movements on the internet and is the author of the blog "Die Sandalen von Sind".

The Dschihadismus online project has given rise to three anthologies:

  • Rüdiger Lohlker/Tamara Abu-Hamdeh (eds.): Jihadism: Jihadi Thought and Ideology, Berlin: Logos 2014
  • Rüdiger Lohlker (ed.): Jihadism: Online Discourses and Representations, Göttingen: Vienna University Press 2013
  • Rüdiger Lohlker (ed.): New Approaches to the Analysis of Jihadism: Online and Offline, Göttingen: Vienna University Press 2012