As part of their online media campaign to groom recruits and market their ideology, jihadists have become adept at spreading their message using Western-based social media sites, such as Twitter or Facebook. Now they are turning to one of the world’s biggest music streaming services.
The Berlin-based SoundCloud is known as the “Audio YouTube” and boasts 175 million listeners every month. In recent weeks those listeners have been able to listen to a growing body of jihadist sermons and other content shared by al-Qaida and the self-styled Islamic State and their supporters.
As with tweets on Twitter and images uploaded to Instagram, the jihadi propagandists can rely on sympathizers to share the content too - spreading the jihadist message and extending its reach. Islamic militant content on SoundCloud includes the past sermons of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and Yemeni-American jihadi sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in September 2011.
There are sermons also from the leader of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as nasheeds, or songs, glorifying the jihadists and the establishment of the “caliphate” in eastern Syria and western Iraq announced this summer by al-Baghdadi.
Researchers at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a U.S.-based non-profit monitoring militant online activity, first noticed the extensive use of SoundCloud when jihadists on Twitter started to tweet links to their tracks uploaded on the music service site.
SoundCloud was launched in 2007 as a site designed originally for young musicians and composers to share their work, which can be uploaded for free.
“The use of social media in the current conflict in Syria and Iraq highlights the global jihad movement’s complete dependence on the Internet and on [mainly] U.S.-based social media companies,” said Steve Stalinsky, MEMRI’s executive director.
He said jihadists use social media not only for marketing and recruitment purposes but also to raise funds, to share plans on closed-off online forums, to argue ideology and to keep in touch with their families.
With SoundCloud, he notes, content from the Islamic State’s radio station, Al-Bayan, based in the Iraqi town of Ninawa, is uploaded and downloaded by others for dissemination.
Last week, the head of Britain’s eavesdropping and electronic surveillance agency, Robert Hannigan, warned in his first public announcement since taking over GCHQ that freely available Western technology has helped groups like Islamic State to grow. He accused major tech firms of being “in denial”.
In an opinion piece published by Britain’s Financial Times newspaper, Hannigan said U.S. technology companies had become “the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists.
“To those of us who have to tackle the depressing end of human behavior on the Internet, it can seem that some technology companies are in denial about its misuse,” he wrote.
The GCHQ chief wasn’t clear about what he wanted from Internet companies in the way of help, but he warned there were difficult decisions ahead about privacy rights. Internet companies have come under attack for not doing more to block jihadist material from being shared on social media sites, although both Twitter and Facebook say they have deleted hundreds of accounts for sharing violent material and closely monitor their sites for offending material.
MEMRI's Stalinsky pointed out that a lot of the jihadist material being uploaded to SoundCloud breaches the company’s terms of service, which state a user “must not use the Platform to upload, post, store, transmit, display, copy, distribute, promote, make available or otherwise communicate to the public... any Content... that promotes violence, terrorism.”
In study of the sound-sharing site, MEMRI found thousands of jihadi user accounts on SoundCloud and note the numbers are growing daily.
One user with the account name GOORBA offers on his page nasheeds and sermons justifying al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate.” Other tracks mourn dead jihadists, including al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi. The account has 32 tracks and 500 followers, with 1,000-3,000 plays recorded per track.
Western intelligence officials and counter-terrorism experts and academics are immersed in debate about how best to counter the jihadist use of the Internet. In a recent report, the London-based think tank Quilliam warned against trying to implement blanket censorship, arguing to do so would be counter-productive and would almost certainly fail.
In a foreword to the report, British journalist Nick Cohen argued that to start closing down the sites would “not only deny our spies access to useful intelligence” but will “run into the technological limits of state power.” He maintains extremists can get around the censorship.
“The highly motivated have always found ways around firewalls and by definition terrorists and potential terrorists are highly motivated,” he cautioned.
In the report Quilliam researchers write Western authorities should counter jihadist propaganda head on, as opposed to believing “their case is so obvious it does not need to be made.”