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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Charting Bin Laden's Death On An Arabic-Language, Jihad-Friendly Forum

Following up on my chart of topics from the English-speaking online jihadists for the first four weeks after bin Laden's death, I decided to examine one of the Arabic-language forums to see how the emphasis compared.

In the English-speaking forum I looked at, Ansar Al Mujahideen, interest in the death of Osama bin Laden dwarfed interest in the Arab Spring.

For comparison, I decided to look at the Hanein forum, which bills itself as "an independent network that seeks to Preach for Allah as well as for what is best to serve the Islamic nation." I picked Hanein in part because I follow it fairly regularly and in part for technical reasons related to how I'm mining the data.

Hanein vs. Ansar English is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Hanein was once a higher-tier jihadist forum that went through a shutdown and various problems before re-emerging in its present form.

Aaron Weisburd at Internet Haganah characterizes Hanein as suffering " from a certain amount of not-Islamicly-correct nationalism," and has recently stopped listing it as a jihadist forum. So it's an interesting barometer for folks who might as easily swing either toward an Islamist extremist orientation or toward a more secular political orientation.

The posts I examined were taken from its "news" subsection, whereas the Ansar posts were taken from all posts. Hanein is a much more complicated forum with more sections and subsections. Most of the impact of that difference falls under the "other" category but it does skew things somewhat toward the Arab Spring over the death of bin Laden.

I ran through this data myself, once, which is all the time I can afford to commit to this right now, so keep in mind that the data could most definitely use a second set of eyes. Figure a 2 to 5 percent margin of error because of that. With caveats in place, here's what I found in the four weeks following the death of Osama bin Laden.

There were 2315 total threads created during the four-week period, consisting of 750 mainly related to the Arab Spring, 340 mainly related to the death of Osama bin Laden, and just three related to Anwar Awlaki, whom I include as a point of comparison due to my own interest in American jihadists (cue obligatory book plug).

That's a sharp difference from the English-language Ansar forum results for the same period, where bin Laden handily trounced the Arab Spring as a topic of conversation.

Even allowing for the differences in forum structure noted above, I think this is significant. There are a number of possible reasons for the difference. Obviously, jihadists for whom English is a primary language will be living in the West more often than those for whom Arabic is a first language. So Hanein's users are geographically closer to the Middle East and its uprisings in addition to its aforementioned shift in character.

But it's worth noting that Ansar users are not only less interested in the Middle East but less interested in politics generally. Most of the "other" entries from Ansar are battlefield reports from jihadists in various locations. There isn't much conversation about world events, although it's not totally absent.

Since Hanein has a much bigger sample size (more than four times as many posts), it's worth looking at the breakdown of topics a little bit more. First, here's how the Arab Spring section breaks down:

Here are the totals, listed alphabetically:

1. Algeria -- 15
2. Bahrain -- 15
3. Egypt -- 276
4. Iraq -- 2
5. Jordan -- 7
6. Libya -- 115
7. Morocco -- 32
8. General (multiple countries) -- 37
9. Oman -- 2
10. Syria -- 174
11. Tunisia -- 15
12. Unclear reference -- 7
13. Yemen -- 50

I will admit to being surprised by these numbers. Most notably, I would have expected that Libya and Yemen would make a stronger showing than Syria. Yemen and the Gulf (excluding Iraq) are not generally well represented in the sample.

Here's a look at the breakdown of Arab Spring vs. Bin Laden vs. Palestine. Totals here are slightly off due to some posts having more than one coded topic.

Interesting here is the relative weakness of Palestinian issues. There were 269 posts on Palestine compared to 276 on Egypt and 340 on bin Laden. I can understand Bin Laden trumping Palestine given the uniqueness of that event, but Egypt's narrow win was noteworthy, especially given fairly major developments on the Palestinian issue relating to speeches by Obama and Netanyahu.

Several posts were about both Egypt and Palestine, regarding likely and actual changes in border security and political positions.

Otherwise, the posts on Egypt covered a pretty wide gamut of topics, including Mubarak schadenfreude, general uprising news, and (based on an eyeball estimate) a fairly significant number of posts regarding sectarian violence, particularly in Imbaba.

For more about how American jihadists use the Internet, buy J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, out now!

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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