An Al-Qaeda-linked group from the Philippines managed to publish excerpts of a recruitment film for over 24 hours on YouTube, raising questions about online safety.
YouTube took the video off the site after pressure from security officials. But is that a bad idea? Terrorists resorting to YouTube surely increase transparency?
One way to answer these questions is to review what we're missing out on after YouTube owner Google removed the video due to pressure from the Philippine army and US security officials.
The Abu Sayyaf group is quite small but deadly dangerous. It has received international attention on a number of occasions before; in the late 1990s they kidnapped for ransom several foreign tourists, and in February 2004, they are likely to have been involved in one of the bloodiest bomb attacks in the Philippines ever, killing over 200 people on a ferry off Manila Bay.
The two rebels speaking in the video are both long dead. They were the group's founder and his brother. Abdurajak Janjalani died in 1998. His brother who replaced him, Khadaffy Janjalani, was fatally wounded in a shootout with marines in Patikul town, Sulu province in September last year.
Observers downplay the significance of the video, saying the recruitment attempt, if not a fake, is evidence that the group is in trouble. The video is spoken in Arabic; that is clearly to appeal to Middle Eastern donors. They must be cash strapped. "What we should turn our attention to [..] is not the "facts" of Islamist videos, but the way those videos frame their messages, the contexts they use to legitimize them, and the various cultural codes they rely on to appeal to their intended audiences", dr Lina Khatib at the Department of Media arts at the Royal Holloway, University of London told us.
The transparency issue is what is most interesting in this development. Abu Sayyaf's publicity stunt might be considered an isolated example of a u-turn in terrorist use of the web, but on the part of the US secret agents hunting them down online, a profound change has been taking place during the last few months.
The intelligence community are starting to adopt open source technology. This development is evidence of a new kind of logic that is growing in the world; the success of open source has led people to believe that anything is possible, including crowdsourcing by spies.
New questions arise. Where is the logic in secret services' singing the praises of open source? And what bearings does this have on our idea of what is healthy openness? Among the people that are pondering these issues are Eliot A. Jardines, the Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Open Source. He has been in the job since December 2005, responsible for developing a strategic direction, establishing policy and oversight of fiscal resources for open source exploitation.
In addition, he serves as the IC's senior document and media exploitation (DOMEX) officer. The first conference on the issue was held last July. At the conference professionals from the intelligence community, academia, federal, state, local, tribal, private and corporate entities and international partners were networking and debated open source and information sharing issues.
How secret agents operate in their online open source tactics exactly isn't immediately clear. A a podcast interview with Lewis Sheperd, the Senior Technical Officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency on Itconversations.com suggests that the US secret services are focused on crowdsourcing, but that this takes places mainly within the confines of the various intelligence agencies.
Extremists give intelligence officials a hard time because they generally resort to heavily encrypted sites or showing anonymous footage of their cruelties after they have happened on public sites. But where it gets tricky is how the authorities are dealing with sites like YouTube's Arabic equivalent, Ikbis, which runs Muslim Brotherhood material non stop. This also throws up different questions about what classifies as offensive and which counteraction induces religious and race biases.
'We might think the definition of terrorism is fairly straight forward but is it? For example, the UN representing just about all nations, quite rightly opposes terrorism, but finds it impossible to accurately define it - because different countries have different views," Peter Power at Visor Consultants in London told us.
The public video sharing websites themselves are also faced with an immense dilemma, to which they do not appear to have immediate solutions.
Three cheers for transparency.
The cops themselves are faced with intransparency however because of the sheer numbers involved as well the creativity involved with home made videos. Agents on the hunt for terrorists have difficulties keeping up with only vetting the material. That is not surprising; every day some 65,000 videos are uploaded on YouTube alone. An additional dimension is that there are so many fakes involved.
”We should not forget that the internet also enables the manufacturing of information, and therefore cannot be regarded as a transparent source. What we should turn our attention to, therefore, is not the "facts" of Islamist videos, but the way those videos frame their messages, the contexts they use to legitimize them, and the various cultural codes they rely on to appeal to their intended audiences", says dr Khatib.
It's impossible to get a handle on this because it's not public. But the material that the secret services possess is not in the public domain either. One side detail of the Abu Sayyaf story shows how secret agents keep hold of their juicy information awfully literally; both leaders speaking on the video werelong dead when they made their 'claim to fame', but the death of Khadaff Janjalani wasn't confirmed until last January, after tissue samples from his remains had been sent to the United States for DNA testing.
The implications for the parties involved are largely to do with public perception. Strangely, this unites terrorists, secret agencies and the public in a bizarre way.
Al Qaeda for starters is likely to still be more dependent on how it's perceived than on how it actually operates on the ground.
So their resorting to public platforms could be taken as a sign of weakness.
So their resorting to public platforms could be taken as a sign of weakness.
The website Search for International Terrorist Entities said the Al-Fajr Information Center distributed the video. "This is the first time that material from Abu Sayyaf Group has been distributed within the jihadist Internet community," according to the site.
”It is highly unlikely that otherwise non-extremist individuals will join a radical group simply after viewing a video such as the one posted by the Abu Sayyaf group", according to dr Khatib.
"However, what the internet enables is the publicizing of the presence of such groups. But this can be beneficial to intelligence officials, as the more mainstream the web publicity used, the higher the ability to monitor such activities."
But just like your average Mohammed in Croydon is not immediately going to sign up for a combat career with Al Qaeda, as a result of the Abu Sayyaf Group's recruitment drive, it's highly unlikely that the Al Qaeda group itself is immediately transformed into a group with an accessible agenda as a result of one cell's resorting to a mainstream hip and trendy medium. These extremes are worlds apart.
Peter Power points out that vice versa, the global mechanism involved in defeating the terrorists is equally far removed. "[...] we [..] seem to have the worst of all situations: Terrorists inspired by a divine mandate, keen to die for their cause and indiscriminate who they target, verses a global mechanism to defeat this, let alone understand it, that seems as elusive as ever."(Angelique van Engelen is a freelance reporter based in Amsterdam. She is currently involved in the development of Reportwitter.com, a site for grassroots reporting that is going to be launched later this month.)