Why internet terrorism restricts itself

Terrorism Researcher Dr. Thomas Rid from Konstanz on Al-Qaeda's Crisis and the Weaknesses of its Web-Based Organisational Structure

The global Jihad has frayed and is massively losing support in the Islamic world. The legitimacy of radical Islamism has long been falling in the eyes of the moderate Muslim societies and the fringes of the militant movement is fraying at the edges," explains the expert on political violence," Dr. Thomas Rid on the occasion of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the inner crisis within the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. Political scientist Thomas Rid studies the internet-based martial and organisational structures at the University of Konstanz and analyses to what extent Al-Qaeda is having to battle with its own organisational structure. The same decentralised network structure that provides the terrorist grouping with extensive mobility for recruiting new members simultaneously represents a self-limiting factor and obstructs Al-Qaeda from being able to reach a broad social and political basis in the Arab world.

Thomas Rid observes a "Long Tail"-Effect in Al-Qaeda's organisational structure. The term "Long Tail" initially borrowed from the field of economics describes the principle of nevertheless being able to sell a niche product with extremely low economic demand by enormously expanding the market via the internet. While there is not enough purchasing power for a local department store to take on an exotic product range, an internet-based mail-ordering company can itself sell niche products profitably, since it can serve the collected demand of a much greater catchment area.

Thomas Rid transfers this department store logic to political ideas and applies them to the internet-based social networks of fringe groups, including terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda as well. Only the internet made it possible for them to find enough supporters at a decentralised level to form a critical mass. The "Long Tail"-Principle therefore makes it possible for an ideological minority to reach enough supporters across the world to become relevant.

The decentralised "Long Tail"- focus on fringe groups means, on the other hand, however, that on the broad basis of society, the "mainstream" hardly exerts any influence. The fringe group remains a fringe group, because is can recruit enough supposed supporters on the social fringes and so sees no need to enter into a compromise with the social basis for realising its goals. "The traditional 'career' of a successful political resistance organisation would, however, require it to move to the centre of society, explains Thomas Rid.

The political scientist concludes that although Al-Qaeda is very hard indeed to destroy due to its decentralised structure, it will nevertheless, at an overall political level, only play a minor role. The spring revolutions in North Africa, for example, cast doubt on the legitimacy of Al-Qaeda in the Arab world, explains Rid: "These revolutions were able to realise the core objectives of the Arab World, something that Al-Qaeda had never achieved. Al-Qaeda has been marginalised by the political "mainstream capable" movement of the Arabian youth."

The coincidence of the Arab spring revolutions with the highly symbolic killing of Bin Laden further aggravates the internal crisis within Al-Qaeda, continues Thomas Rid. The political scientist forecasts a fraying of the Jihad and observes how radical Islamism is splitting into three currents: "The first of these currents is made up of locally active Islamic rebels. The second channel is made up of a combination of organised crime and terrorism financed from drug dealing and extortion. The members of the third channel are hard to define as a uniform group. These are largely young Muslims living in the Diaspora in the second or third generation and feel themselves to be in a continuing state of holy war. Their motivation for fighting comes from their own dissatisfaction," continues Rid is greater detail.

Dr. Thomas Rid is doing research at the Institute for Advanced Study Konstanz, University of Konstanz within the scope of the Cluster of Excellence on "Cultural Foundations of Integration" funded Excellence Initiative by the German Federal and State Governments. His research focuses on forms of asymmetric warfare and, in particular, on the structures of "cyberwar". On the one hand, his methodology typically takes highly practical links from historical analysis, and, on the other, with a focus on new technologies and their influence on military conflicts. Thomas Rid attracted international attention with his book "War 2.0. Irregular Warfare in the Information Age."