Over the past few weeks, the terrorist organisation has begun trying to spread its jihadist message beyond North Africa to the rest of the continent and Europe, by using Twitter, Facebook, blogs and video games.
AQIM’s propaganda arm, Al-Andalus Media, took the new “Africa Muslima” blog live on Thursday (May 2nd), about a month after the launch of the new al-Qaeda Twitter account.
The new blog calls for jihad and encourages Africans to defend the Muslim ummah. The website also posts videos of operations against the French forces in Mali.
“Al-Qaeda turned to social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter because this is where the young people are,” says Mauritanian researcher Bechir Ould Mohamed.
There is even an al-Qaeda video game.
“Mali al-Muslima”, displays the message “Congratulations, you have become martyrs!” in lieu of “Game Over”.
Terrorists are now using such non-traditional ways to win recruits, forcing security services worldwide to enter a new arena to penetrate their secrets.
Those tasked with protecting the public have to confront a harsh reality: without any special training, the most dangerous extremists can learn all they need to move from ideology to murder.
The self-radicalised “lone wolf “terrorist gets his education via the internet. He absorbs jihadist ideology and learns to make improvised explosive devices on his computer, not in a distant training camp.
The issue complicates matters for counter-terrorism forces. “We usually have a database on all actual and possible terrorists,” a senior security official in Mauritania tells Magharebia on condition of anonymity. “In most cases, we can locate cells and monitor their movements. However, it is difficult with the ones who have no security files.”
“It’s impossible to monitor all the intellectual poisons posted online, or what young people browse, given that their relation with the internet has become more intimate than their relation with real friends,” analyst Abu Bakr al-Ansari confirms.
“It has thus become necessary to think of new methods that would prevent this intellectual invasion that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups now resort to,” he adds.
Social media is also good for networking, AQIM is learning.
Its Twitter account follows those run by Syrian terror group Jabhat al-Nusra, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, and Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia.
The March move by al-Qaeda to enter the virtual world of Twitter was seen as a blatant attempt to attract new members.
“Al-Qaeda developed a media propaganda strategy that has a stronger impact on human souls than do bombers, mortars and aircraft,” Mauritanian columnist Moulaye Bahaide says.
The new use of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is carefully orchestrated by AQIM to show that it is “no longer that group fighting from caves” but rather one that uses “modern communication techniques regularly and in a sophisticated manner”, he adds.
The “lone wolf” is different from his predecessor. He relies on his own means to plan, select targets and carry out attacks.
“The person who carried out the 2011 Argana Cafe attack in Marrakech, for example, did it without the knowledge of the other members of his cell,” BNPJ chief Abdelhak Khayyam explains.
“He made the decision alone, prepared his bomb and detonated it without telling anyone.”
The Argana Café attack highlighted what was then a new trend, he adds.
Two years later, the internet links terrorists around the world.
“I think that politicians and experts will be convinced of the problem in the future, when they realise that jihadist groups spread their poisons via Facebook, Twitter and forums,” analyst Abdallah Ould Ahmed Salem notes.
Many of their elements also influence youths through personal accounts using pseudonyms, he adds.
“Terrorism has existed in Europe in different forms since the 1960s. But indoctrination and proliferation of the so-called ‘lone wolves’ is a new phenomenon,” French counter-terrorism expert Jérôme Pigné tells Magharebia.
“To counter these so-called interior threats requires more inter-service co-operation, on the national territory as well as beyond,” he adds.
According to political analyst Mourad Sebti, the internet is a real danger because it both allows communication through coded messages and is a source of inspiration.
“Terrorists have easy access to information and are reinforced by it,” he says. “In addition, there is the danger of indoctrination through the dissemination of jihadist ideas.”
“What we are seeing is some sort of virtual training. This is what happened, with the bombing of the Argana Café”. The suspect started out on the internet and moved to action, according to Sebti.
The incident served as a wake-up call for Maghreb states, some observers say.
“Until recently, al-Qaeda used to recruit young people directly, taking advantage of their ignorance of religion and their unemployment, and security services were not that vigilant,” Touareg researcher Abdel Hamid argues.
“However, the situation is different today. Governments started to realise the danger,” he says.
To counter this new threat, analyst Zine al-Abidine suggests that Maghreb states create an alternative, moderate religious discourse that attracts youths online.
“Why should al-Qaeda have its own jihadist forums while moderate ideology has no moderate networks?” he asks. “Why shouldn’t every faqih, scholar and cleric have his own blog or page on Facebook or Twitter to explain moderate Islam and counter extremist ideology?”
If this approach were adopted, he says, “Maghreb governments would prevail with the power of reason and numbers.”
“Youths should be addressed through the media they understand, rather than in the old way,” he says.