Anyone who thinks the al Qaeda crowd aren’t regular folks just like you and me should get acquainted with the radical-Islamist ephemera on siteinstitute.org, where multilingual counterterror consultants surf jihadi websites so Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t have to. To dive into SITE’s public library of communiques, videos, manuals, and chat-room chatter (a mere fraction of what $5,000-a-year subscribers get) is to share in the everyday triumphs and challenges of average Mujahideen—from the amateur filmmakers whose giddy Allahu akbars can be heard off-camera as their IEDs annihilate passing Humvees, to the message-forum neophyte who wonders earnestly whether “it is permissible to use a saw in slaughtering hostages,” to the wise elder who answers no, for that would be cruel and un-Islamic, but an electric saw should be fine.
OK: “It’s a Small World” this ain’t. But while the less-than-fully-human portrait of jihadism that emerges can’t be blamed entirely on SITE’s counterterrorist zeal, it’s not exactly jihadism’s fault either. How full can any portrait be, after all, when most of it lies behind the veil of a subscription-only business model? Even al Qaeda knows better than to want that kind of control over its online operations. As a Sunday Washington Post story spelled out (“Terrorists Turn to the Web as Base of Operations“), radical Islamists are embracing the same buzz-word-y virtues—distributed collaboration, selective anonymity, loosely coupled social networks—that drive today’s open-sourced, Google-icious Web Renaissance. It’s jihadism 2.0, and SITE’s dot-com approach is no way to fight it.
What is? Opening the code: Let any old geek with a Hotmail account access cool premium content like “The Unique Ninja Book for the Vigorous Mujahid.” Let a million curious minds start playing around with the problem of jihadist culture. Then wait. Al Qaeda may be the deepest, gnarliest bug in our system now, but like the coders say: With enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.