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Research and Technology - Analysis of Jihadi Extemist Groups' Videos - July 2009


July 2009 - Volume 11 - Number 3


Analysis of Jihadi Extremist Groups’ Videos

Edna Reid
Associate Professor
Clarion University
Clarion, Pennsylvania

Abstract | Introduction | Overview | Content Analysis | FindingsConclusions | Notes | Acknowledgments | References/Suggested Readings


Using a content analysis of 60 jihadi extremist/terrorist groups’ videos, this exploratory study describes how the videos, as strategic communication devices, are diffused via the Internet and for what ends. Using a typology, we analyzed the video types, groups’ operations, communication approaches, and video production features.1 After we mapped the videos to a two-dimensional grid, the results indicated that the jihadi extremist groups use “underground” media organizations to help them produce and distribute videos via popular electronic networks and sites.

The videos are “narrowcasted” to various audience segments to achieve maximum impact in terms of propagating the ideology of religion-sanctioned vengeance for the perceived ongoing and escalating atrocities committed against Islam and its believers. The impact is deemed maximum when many new extremist cells (informal nodes) in diverse geographic locations around the world become organized and actively operationalize extremist-prescribed activities. Given the growing interest in digital and multimedia evidence (DME) among counterterrorism researchers and intelligence communities, the videos are increasingly being used as court exhibits for prosecuting extremists, as well as data for research and policy analysis. DME-based analysis represents an exciting new research frontier, not only for counterterrorism studies but also for a host of sociological, political, legal, and cultural investigations. Future studies using a larger database of videos are encouraged to gain insights and to surface embedded cultural cues and strategic communication goals (planned versus realized).


The early 21st century has experienced a global expansion (e.g., Spain, England, Canada, the Netherlands) of the jihadi 2 (“holy war”) social movement, punctuated by an increase in violent Islamist extremist/terrorist (hereafter described as extremist) groups’ attacks, facilitated in large part using the Internet. The social movement, known as global Islamist terrorism, is influenced by isolated organizations such as al-Qaeda that exploit the Internet to inspire, virtually connect, and mobilize people worldwide to spread radical ideologies and violence among a wider audience (Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations [hereafter “Ministry”] 2006; Sageman 2008).

The attacks are attributed to homegrown jihadi extremists living in their native countries, who plan attacks via the Internet (Corman and Schiefelbein 2006; Ministry 2006; Sageman 2008). The homegrown jihadi extremists are grassroot groups or individuals who, on the grounds of perceived victimization and humiliation by the “infidels” and their collaborators, have resorted to violent jihad. They operate on their own initiatives within their homelands and are often spurred by local circumstances (Ministry 2006).

Instead of calling them homegrown groups, Kirby (2007) uses the term self-starter cells to describe autonomous groups that—despite the absence of institutional training, recruitment, or formal membership—share an ideological affinity with the original al-Qaeda group. Examples include the Madrid group that was responsible for the March 2004 attack in Spain and the group that perpetrated the July 2005 attack in London. For these informal networks, the Internet represents a catalyst platform for enhancing global communication and interaction while seemingly nurturing a collective identity and fostering solidarity.

Jihadi extremist groups use everything from websites and discussion forums to blogs and multimedia artifacts (such as animated cartoons, combat computer games, and videos) to support community building (ummah) and provide inspiration for becoming operationally active, as well as for training and tactical operations (Brachman 2006; Sageman 2008; Weimann 2006). They also use other Web 2.0 social networking applications (such as online discussion forums, e.g., la7odood.com; wikis; and online video-sharing sites such as YouTube) to support online collaboration, networking, virtual training, and sharing (Chen et al. 2008; “Lieberman Calls on Google to Take Down Terrorist Content” 2008). For example, password-protected online discussion forums are used to discuss ideologies, present interpretations of current events, and share links to videos and instructional manuals.

At free web-hosting sites and YouTube, the Internet provides access to many extremist groups’ videos that include do-it-yourself instructions on how to make devices (e.g., suicide vests and improvised explosive devices [IEDs]) and a media-rich platform for collaboration, clarification, validation, and glorification of attacks and martyrdoms. For instance, the video titled The Explosive Belt for Martyrdom Operations or How to Make a Suicide Vest is available on the Internet. It shows the steps in the bomb-making process such as selecting fabric, stitching vests, selecting explosives, arranging shrapnel, and attaching the detonator (Myers 2004).

The Need for Detailed Analysis

The diversity, volume, and quality of jihadi extremist groups’ multimedia cultural artifacts (e.g., audios, videos, training manuals) disseminated over the Web are vast. They are used to expand and augment the extremist groups’ socialization, radicalization, and recruitment processes across several continents and develop relations via the Internet. According to the intelligence communities in the United States and Norway, the jihadi extremist groups’ messages delivered via audio and video have increased in quantity, frequency, technical sophistication, translation capability, subject coverage, and media savviness. Such enhancements enable these messages to reach a wider global audience (Allen 2008; National Coordinator for Counterterrorism [hereafter “National”] 2007; United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs 2008).

Within the last few years, the systematic analysis of how groups use videos to support the jihadi extremist social movement has increased (Hafez 2007; IntelCenter 2005; National 2007; Salem et al. 2008; Stenersen 2008). The present study is an updated version of Salem et al.’s earlier work to provide an analysis of jihadi extremist groups’ Arabic videos. It expands the study to include a prototype analysis of how the videos support the jihadi extremist groups’ strategic communication approaches.

Overview of the Jihadi Extremist Groups’ Videos

Videos produced by jihadi groups and their sympathizers are disseminated in online discussion forums, blogs, third-party Web sites (such as free file-hosting Web sites), and video-sharing sites (such as YouTube). Their content is written in different languages (e.g., Arabic, French, Dutch), packaged in varying formats (e.g., Windows Media Player, QuickTime), and recorded using different levels of technical sophistication (e.g., professionally produced, amateur) and perspectives (e.g., operational, instructional). For downloading purposes, various formats and sizes exist for high-speed Internet, dial-up connection, and mobile devices.

In addition to being produced by groups and sympathizers, videos also are created as part of the communication and media strategies for al-Qaeda. Creation and distribution of the videos have evolved into a conglomeration of “underground media” organizations that include (but are not limited to) as-Sahab, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), and al-Fajr. As-Sahab provides multimedia productions. The GIMF provides translation, repackaging, and dissemination services, while al-Fajr supports networking and usage by having the videos played on numerous electronic platforms such as Web sites and media outlets (Allen 2008; National 2007; Seib 2008; Stenersen 2008). The GIMF also provides video production, testing, and confirmation services for validating that the materials are authentic (National 2007).

As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s official media company, released 16 videos in 2005, 58 in 2006, and more than 90 in 2007 (Seib 2008). However, Stenersen (2008) reports that as-Sahab has not produced any instructional videos. The GIMF has produced one popular instructional video that shows how to assemble an AK-47 rifle. The main part of the GIMF video is an adaptation of an American instructional video produced by the Life, Liberty, Etc. company (Stenersen 2008).

The GIMF also produced and distributed a video called Jihad Academy that portrays the events of a single day in the life of a mujahid (“warrior”) and includes clips by jihadi groups in Iraq such as the Islamic Army in Iraq (al-Jaysh al-Islami fil-‘Iraq).The persuasive messages in this video illustrate excellent techniques of propaganda, training, and collective mobilization of members and sympathizers. This same video was then produced in different formats and disseminated in various discussion forums, blogs, and Web sites. For instance, the Jihad Academy video was posted at the discussion forum “la7odood.com,” which provides links to free file-hosting Web sites where the video can be downloaded. Figure 1 outlines a process of multimedia production, repackaging, and dissemination via the Internet (Salem et al. 2008).  

Figure 1 outlines a process of multimedia production, repackaging, and dissemination via the Internet.
Figure 1: Example of production and dissemination of video

Recurring Visual and Themes

The videos function as cultural screens for multiple enactments, viewings, and interpretations of accepted patterns, themes, and norms of struggle (e.g., suicide bombing, hostage taking), which, over time, helps in the development of shared understandings and evolving glossaries of radical visuals about their ideologies, goals, and tactics (Salem et al. 2008). The use of recurring visuals and themes in jihadi Web sites and videos has been validated by several researchers. For example, a content-analysis study of jihadi groups’ Internet visual motifs conducted by Brachman and Boudali (2006) described how the images allow the groups to share their objectives, enemies, and strategies through graphics, photographs, and symbols. The study, conducted at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, resulted in an open-source database of images and their meanings.

In reference to recurring images and themes in videos, Hafez (2007) described how jihadi brothers rely on emotional narratives to construct the myth of heroic martyrdom—the key message. They use themes of humiliation (e.g., inflicted on Muslims in Iraq and throughout the world), collusion (cooperation and collaboration of Muslim leaders [seen as traitors] with Western leaders), and redemption through faithful sacrifice. The latter motivates individuals to take up the jihadi struggle and, whenever possible, become martyrs (such as suicide bombers). Videos produced by groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq are dedicated to legitimizing attacks against Shiite4 militias because the latter groups allegedly kill, torture, and humiliate Sunnis (Hafez 2007).

Recurring images and themes also have been identified in extremist groups’ pamphlets, speeches, online training resources (e.g., in al-Battar magazine), and instructional videos. For example, Ulph, a senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, identified several themes—such as undermining and rejecting the current order in the world and in Muslim societies and instilling the duty of jihad in Muslims—that can be gleaned from the online jihad curriculum (as cited in Hassan 2008).

Stenersen (2008), a researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment’s Terrorist Research Group, analyzed more than 20 instructional videos to explore how the Internet is used to support military training and prepare Muslims for the duty of jihad. She found that the videos provide detailed instructions on terrorist tradecraft such as using and making improvised explosive devices and detonators. The videos also include illustrations and instructions on how to use and make military devices, in addition to providing safety precautions and testing procedures.

Those videos also emphasize the importance of the mobility of training sites. Such sites move to different households, quarters, or villages because they can no longer be available in their original physical training camps in Afghanistan. This ideology was designed by an al-Qaeda strategist, Abu Musab al-Suri, described as the chief architect of al-Qaeda’s Internet movement (Brachman 2006). Al-Suri is considered the author of The Global Islamic Resistance Call, which advocates spreading a culture of preparation and training via the Internet (Lia 2007; Stenersen 2008).

Groups’ Communication Approaches

The recurring visuals and themes in the videos resonate with the perspective of many groups and are used to support al-Qaeda Central’s strategic communication goals for jihadi media operations. Corman and Schiefelbein (2006) analyzed 31 declassified documents (known as the “Harmony” documents) seized during insurgency operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq, translated statements from jihadi leaders, and other communications to identify the communication goals of al-Qaeda Central Command. Although Corman and Schiefelbein analyzed dated documents, they are more interested in the jihadi communication and media concepts and expect them to spread as the social movement metastasizes. The communication goals and themes they identified are legitimating (“Things are getting worst for you/the enemy and better for us”), propagating (“We continue to plan attacks against you”), and intimidating (“We easily penetrate your security walls”) (Corman and Schiefelbein 2006).

Furthermore, Corman and Schiefelbein concluded that jihadi media strategy is executed using Internet and sophisticated techniques that resemble those used in the corporate world. These techniques include audience segmentation and adaptation, disinformation campaigns, coordination of media with operations, tools of the trade such as after-action review (e.g., Lessons Learned from the Armed Jihad Ordeal in Syria), and multimedia such as videos of taped messages (Corman and Schiefelbein 2006; International Crisis Group 2006). Table 1 provides a jihadi audience segmentation that generally divides the audience into two major categories: insiders (“good guys”) and outsiders (“bad guys”), although sympathizers are considered “good guy” outsiders.

Table 1: Jihadi Audience Segmentation Concept*

Audiences Examples Descriptions
Insider, Good guys Supporters Inside the movement—supporters such as mujahideen/warriors; members.
Outsider, Good guys Sympathizers Backers who provide emotional and/or material support. May be able to bring them into the movement.
Outsider, Bad guys, Near enemy Troublemakers Members of deposed regimes, tribal cliques, hired fighters, and standard criminals. Viewed as less serious enemies and possibly redeemable.
Outsider, Bad guys, Near enemy Apostates Outside the movement—fallen Muslims such as leaders of countries who are objects of attack operations.
Outsider, Bad guys, Far enemy Jews Outside the movement—Israeli state.
Outsider, Bad guys, Far enemy Unbelievers (Infidels) Foreigners, especially those in the West such as U.S. leaders, citizens, and soldiers and their allies.
*Source: Corman and Schiefelbein 2006

An example of audience segmentation and adaptation of the intimidation strategy can be gleaned from a recent al-Qaeda video that shows the public execution on a busy market street in Iraq of a former al-Qaeda “supporter” who had become a “troublemaker” (CNN 2008). In addition, Sageman (2008) described the distinctions made between the “near enemy” (e.g., a local leader) and “far enemy” (especially the United States), as well as global Islamist ideologies and how these have evolved into different religious interpretations, operational strategies, and levels of radicalization. Sageman noted that in the West, people assume that a single al-Qaeda ideology exists when, in fact, terrorists disagree about the different operations that they can carry out and whether it is “acceptable” for harm to befall fellow Muslims.4

Content Analysis of the Videos

The production and dissemination of jihadi extremist groups’ videos have prompted organizations to identify, collect, translate, and analyze cultural artifacts such as Web sites and videos. For instance, the AI [Artificial Intelligence] Lab’s team (University of Arizona) collects extremist groups’ Web sites, forum postings, and multimedia artifacts that are then used for Web mining, content analysis, and visualization research. The IntelCenter, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), and the SITE Intelligence Group conduct analysis of videos. The IntelCenter Report (2005) classified the videos into seven categories: produced, operational (short), hostage-related, internal training, statements, tributes, and instructional.

For the current study, the sample was drawn from the AI Lab’s Dark Web multimedia collection of extremist groups’ audios and videos. In 2006, 60 Arabic videos produced by groups or sympathizers in Iraq were randomly selected and their content analyzed. The sample videos are listed in Salem et al.’s earlier work (2008). In addition to the selection of the sample, the content-analysis process included generating a list of content categories and associated content features, assessing coding reliability, designing a coding tool, coding the videos, and analyzing the videos.

Coding the Videos

A Multimedia Coding Tool (MCT) using MS-Access/Visual Basic for Applications was designed to manage the coding process in a systematic and structured manner. MCT allows the user to create/edit the coding scheme, load the video, play the video, record observations, and generate reports. The content and technical features of each video were captured, classified, and stored using the MCT. Figure 2, which displays scenes from a video titled 1st Suicide Attack on British Troops, illustrates the coding process.

Figure 2a
Figure 2b

Figure 2c

Figure 2: 1st Suicide Attack on British Troops video: (a) title and location, (b) group name and logo, and (c) tactic: suicide attack.

The first screen shot [Figure 2(a)] displays the title of the video, which would be typed into the title section of the MCT. Figure 2(b) displays the group’s name and logo. The group’s name, al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq (Tandhim al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn), and logo would be recorded. Figure 2(c) shows the suicide bomber driving his vehicle on his way to attack British forces. The suicide-bombing tactic, victim’s nationality, dates, target, and weapons are recorded in the MCT.

Coding Scheme

The coding scheme consisted of 25 variables (content categories) that were classified into 8 high-level classes (Salem et al. 2008). The content features captured the specific aspects of the videos according to the coders’ observations. The coding scheme was based on the features of jihadi videos, terrorism ontologies, the IntelCenter’s categorization, and terrorism incident databases such as the RAND-MIPT (Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism) database. The following describes the title and source variables of the coding scheme.

  • Title: The title is a distinguishing and carefully chosen identifier of the video. In fact, it is common in discussion forums to see references to videos by their titles. Coders recorded the title displayed in the video. In cases in which the title was not displayed, the coders derived it from the name of the file or metadata tags. The file metadata tags often include a description of the video in the title. Otherwise, the coders created their own title based on the content of the video.
  • Source: The video is put into context when associated with the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) from which the video was obtained originally. The URLs for the 60 videos were extracted from the Dark Web collection log files.

Intercoder Reliability

The 60 videos were coded over a three-week period. Ten of them were coded independently by two domain specialists who speak Arabic. To deal with multiple responses for one content category (variable), the coders treated each possible content feature (response) as a separate variable. Because of the open-ended nature of content features, category reliability was measured using Holsti’s (1969) formula for computing reliability. The percentage of agreement between the two coders was higher than 80 percent for all content categories analyzed.


Types of Videos Produced

The 60 jihadi extremist groups’ videos were analyzed to identify the types and the groups’ operational patterns, as well as how the videos supported communication strategies. The average length was 6 minutes and 32 seconds. Table 2 provides the frequency count for jihadi extremist groups’ video types, which were grouped into two categories: “violent acts” (e.g., documentary, suicide attack) and “nonviolent acts” (e.g., tribute, message such as leader statement). The violent acts category had the largest number of videos (78 percent).

Table 2: Types of Video

Video TypesFrequency
Violent Acts


Hostage taking5

Suicide attack 5

Nonviolent Acts






Total 60

Documentary Videos

In our sample, the documentary (violent acts) videos were often short, filmed in real-time (showed the attacks in action), instructive (took the viewer inside the planning and attack-execution processes including scenes of the different weapons), and low-budget (limited promotional costs as indicated by the low quality of some videos). The plots were simple (focused on a few goals such as damaging the enemy’s embassy), versatile (could be used for training, fundraising, motivational sessions), persuasive (displayed actors’ emotions and commitment), succinct (quickly presented the material in short videos), and targeted (the producer controlled the message and sequencing).

Documentary videos identified the name and sometimes the logo of the extremist groups but rarely included a direct verbal message from the group. However, they were often accompanied by a wish for the success of the operation in the form of religious or semireligious phrases. For example, the Road Side Bomb 1 video was only 12 seconds long. It showed an IED bombing of an American military vehicle in Dayali and identified the group claiming responsibility as the Islamic Front of Iraqi Resistance (al-Jabha al-Islamiya lil-Muqawama al-’Iraqiya), an insurgency group in Iraq that was formed in 2004. The video had Arabic subtitles and religious verses.

The documentary videos often involved IEDs, artillery, and rocket attacks. In Figure 3, the distribution indicates the high number of documentary videos (60%) that are used by groups to provide proof of their operations and claim responsibility for their attacks. Documentary videos included all types of violent attacks except suicide attack, beheading, and hostage taking, which are normally longer in length. According to the International Crisis Group (2006), extremist groups in Iraq have adopted hit-and-run tactics such as IED attacks, which constitute the bulk of their day-to-day operations.

distribution of videos by type and percetntage

Figure 3: Distribution of videos by type (n = 60)

In the sample, 9 of 10 extremist groups produced documentary videos. Mujihadin Central Command did not produce a documentary but had a hostage-taking video. Table 3 provides a breakdown of documentary videos by group. For example, the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance (al-Jabha al-Islamiya lil-Muqawama al-’Iraqiya) had 11 documentary videos that included bomb attacks against U.S. properties (far enemy).

Table 3: Breakdown of Documentary Videos by Group*

Group Name
# Videos
Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq†
Iraq Islamic Army (Jaysh al-Iraq al-Islami)
Islamic Army in Iraq (al-Jaysh al-Islami fil-’Iraq)
Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance (al-Jabha al-Islamiya lil-Muqawama al-’Iraqiya)
Islamic Jihad Army (Jaysh al-Jihad al-Islami)
Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya fil-’Iraq)
Mujahidin Army (Jaysh al-Mujahidin)
Partisans of the Sunna Army (Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna)
Victorious Group’s Army (Jaysh al-Ta’ifa al-Mansoura)
*Alphabetically sorted
†Also known as al-Qaeda Organization in Mesopotamia or Tandhim al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn or al-Tawhid al-Jihad or al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Suicide-Attack Videos

Suicide-bombing videos are, in general, more elaborate and show different stages of action and community development. For example, Figure 4 provides scenes from the Mosul suicide-attack video, which illustrated stages of a suicide attack. The video is also available via YouTube (“Mosul Base Commanders Had Warning of an Attack” 2004).

Figure 4 shows still frames of a suicide-bombing video.

Figure 4: The attack against a U.S. base in Mosul, Iraq, featuring (a) title and suicide bomber’s name, (b) moral/religious justification, (c) planning, (d) farewell, (e) execution, and (f) aftermath (Salem et al. 2008).

The video showed verbal patterns such as reading religious messages and playing background religious hymns. Nonverbal patterns included gestures such as hugging, which is typical for ummah, group closeness, and harmony; silence when a member was reading the religious message; and a process-oriented approach to the attack that included preparation, planning, and execution.

Group members seem to share specialized knowledge as seen in their preparation (moral/religious justification for the attack, information about the U.S. target), planning (individual assignments, floor plan of the mess hall at the U.S. military base), farewell (greetings, prayer), and execution (skill for effective use of suicide vest, suicide attack during the day at a U.S. military base). The verbal and nonverbal patterns can support shared knowledge, confidence among the members, and group dynamics. They can be viewed as expressions of collective identity because the group members tend to be interdependent on one another and have ties of loyalty as well as shared goals (propagate a suicide attack against a far enemy and intimidate) and ideologies (take up jihadi struggle and destroy the enemy).

Other Types of Videos

In the same way, sample videos of beheadings and other violent acts followed a structure roughly consisting of, first, a message by the hostage, followed by a verdict or warning, and typically concluded with a grisly beheading or shooting of the hostage. In the nonviolent video category, the video types included activities such as message (10%), tribute (5%), propaganda (5%), newsletter (2%), instruction, and training. The sample did not contain instruction or training videos.

Groups’ Operational Activities

Based on the analysis of video types, a matrix of jihadi groups’ videos is proposed. The matrix classifies the videos into four basic types according to two dimensions: operational versus nonoperational and individual-oriented versus group-oriented (Salem et al. 2008). Figure 5 presents the schematic diagram of the classification of video types.

Figure 5 displays a matrix of 4 quadrants that classify the videos analyzed in the study.

Figure 5: Matrix of video types and uses (number of videos in parentheses).

A video can be classified as operational because it requires planning, perhaps rehearsals or mock training, and eventually execution of a violent attack as well as results (visual impacts). Nonoperational videos center on showing nonviolent activities that may appear legitimate and nondestructive, such as paying tribute to a fallen comrade. Although nonoperational activities may involve threats, they are still considered nonviolent acts.

The other dimension classifies perpetrator(s) either as a group or an individual. A suicide attack is a violent act that may be committed by a single individual (yet planned by a group). Tributes and messages often focus on an individual, such as a martyr (shahid). Most of the sample videos (42) fall into Quadrant 2 because they are group-perpetrated acts of violent attacks (e.g., documentary, beheading). Quadrant 4, nonoperational and individual-oriented, has the second-most number of videos (9).

Table 4 shows to which quadrants the videos produced by various groups belong. Because most groups produced documentary videos, they seem to view this as one of the main uses of video. Suicide-attack videos were produced by only two groups: Partisans of the Sunna Army and al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq (previously led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. operation in June 2006).

Table 4: Breakdown of the Matrix of Video Types by Group

Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq (AQI)
Iraq Islamic Army
Islamic Army in Iraq
Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance
Islamic Jihad Army
Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq
Mujahidin Army
Mujahidin Central Command
Partisans of the Sunna Army
Victorious Group’s Army

In nine of the videos, the groups failed to identify themselves. In Table 4, the four most prominent groups (in terms of the number of videos) are in bold. These are also the four main insurgency groups operating in Iraq and described as increasingly organized and coordinated (“Iraq: Insurgency Little Understood by Coalition Forces, Says Think-Tank” [hereafter “Iraq”] 2006). Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq produced the largest number of videos, which included suicide attacks (4), a beheading (1), a hostage taking (1), documentaries (2), messages (2), and tributes (2). This finding agrees with the Institute for the Study of War’s (hereafter “Institute” n.d.) assessment that al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq is the most deadly group despite being one of the smallest factions in the Sunni insurgency. It has adopted a radical religious program based on the interpretation of Islamic law known as Wahhabism. The latter represents a subgroup of Islamic faithfuls who reject Shi’ism and condemn Shiites as apostates (Sageman 2008).

Groups’ Targets

In the sample, the major targets identified in the videos were Western military vehicles, which represent the far enemy. Military vehicles constituted 56% of the total identified targets in the sample, whereas 20% of the identified targets were military bases, and 7% were aircraft. The results suggest a pattern of specialization (or a division of expertise/labor) among extremist groups.

For example, the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance carried out 10 roadside bombings and artillery attacks against Western military vehicles and bases (could not identify the nationality of one military facility). However, they did not conduct any beheadings or suicide attacks. This provides support for the International Crisis Group’s findings that an informal division of labor and specialization seems to be taking place within the Iraqi insurgency.

The locations of the depicted attacks were often mentioned in the subtitles, and occasionally, the narrator provided the location name. Most attacks occurred in the Sunni triangle (Iraq), which includes Balad, Dayali, Baghdad, Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib. In addition, U.S. military installations in Mosul were frequently attacked (as reported in the international media). Moreover, each extremist group operates in selected regions of the Sunni triangle. For instance, the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance has operated mostly in the Salah al-Din, Diyala, and Baghdad governorates, while al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq operates mostly in Anbar, Baghdad, and Salah al-Din. The results are compatible with media reports on the Iraqi insurgency during that period.

Improvised explosive devices were the most common type of weapon used. Preparing, implanting, and detonating the IED were often depicted. Several videos by the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance and al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq used IEDs in their attacks of American properties. The videos had Arabic subtitles and the logos of the groups. Mortar and rocket attacks were the second most frequently observed weapon. Other weapons included assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and, less frequently, suicide vehicles.

Strategic Communication

Examples were identified as to how the videos support the strategic communication goals of al-Qaeda Central. Table 5 provides a matrix of videos targeted to different audiences, which are in line with Corman and Schiefelbein’s (2006) analysis. Some of the videos, such as the 1st Suicide Attack on British Troops, are aimed at multiple audiences. The video targets supporters, sympathizers, and far enemies.

Table 5: Examples of Audience Segmentation

AudienceCategorySubcategoryExample VideoVideo Type
Insiders Good Guys Supporters Osama Clip Message
Bad Guys Former supporters (Turncoats) None in the sample  
Outsiders Good Guys Sympathizers 1st Suicide Attack on British Troops; Labayk Fallujah Suicide attack; Documentary
Bad Guys Near enemy
Execution of Iraqi Policeman Hostage taking
Near enemy
Sawt al-Khilafah (Voice of the Caliphate) Newsletter
Far enemy
(United States)
Mosul Attack Suicide attack
Far enemy
(Coalition forces)
Communiqué No. 6 Message

Bin Laden’s message (Osama Clip) provides an example of a strategic communication addressed to the members (insiders) of the extremist groups. He stated: “I swear by Allah, I ask Allah to bless this number which I see in front of me [addressing the gathered extremists]. If you persevere and are pious, then by Allah we shall conquer with you, the living and the dead and the Arabs and non-Arabs—Allah willing.” He provided a religious legitimacy to the jihadi struggle and encouraged them to continue their religious devotion and attacks against the nonbelievers as well as to propagate the visions, goals, and slogans so others will understand and mobilize.

The background hymn of the video titled 1st Suicide Attack on British Troops invited the audience to “wake up and join jihad.” Such videos clearly address the wider population of Arab sympathizers. The video did not provide English subtitles. Its purpose was to document and share the success of the struggle as well as to urge the youth (others who are sympathetic to the cause) to inquire about and eventually join the jihadi enterprise and become operationally active.

Al Jazeera, the Arabic news and satellite television channel, is considered a sympathizer. This was evident in the documentary video Labayk Fallujah, which used several clips from Al Jazeera such as Bin Laden’s speeches. The video provided another approach (Arabic media) for legitimizing and propagating the vision, goals, and slogans so that people will comprehend and support the movement.

Although police forces in modern societies are responsible for upholding the law, there are examples of police officers’ committing abuses against Muslims. In turn, a group may retaliate against police officers. For example, one of the videos displayed the hostage taking and assault-rifle execution of an Iraqi police officer. The video was distributed by the Media Division of the Partisans of the Sunna Army. It provides an example of intimidation.

Videos such as Sawt al-Khilafah (Voice of the Caliphate) and Communiqué No. 6 serve more than one audience. For instance, Sawt al-Khilafah (Voice of the Caliphate), a video “newsletter” of the GIMF, presented an interview with a representative of the Partisans of the Sunna Army that attacked and warned the Islamic Party and its leaders about their support of the Iraqi government. In addition, the video provided critiques of Western media, referring to them as the “Crusaders’ media.” Thus it was directed toward both near enemies, such as parties and factions involved in the political process in Iraq, and far enemies, such as the Western media.

Communiqué No. 6 was directed toward the coalition countries and their media. The speaker in the video said: “Do not believe their media, for their casualties are far higher than what they admit,” referring to Western media. The speaker continued: “. . . to the American soldiers, we say, you can also choose to fight tyranny with us, lay down your weapons, and seek refuge in our mosques, churches, or homes. . . . and to George W. Bush, we say, you have asked us to ‘bring it on’ and so [we] ask, do you have another challenge?” This message to the West is an example of narrowcasting, in which the message is directed to a particular audience such as the U.S. military, Western media, or former President Bush.

According to the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism (2007) in the Netherlands, jihadi groups have developed an understanding of narrowcasting. The Internet makes it easy for them to target the content of videos to specific communities. Several studies have identified that jihadi groups’ messages target the public in specific Western countries, as well as children, youth, and Muslim women (Aaron 2008; National 2007; Weimann 2008).

For more than a decade, Weimann has been studying terrorist groups’ use of the Internet. He identified narrowcasting as a trend because the groups employ contemporary market-segmentation techniques that are similar to those used in the commercial world. For example, Weimann described how jihadi groups are exploiting children’s and youth’s fascination with online games. The GIMF released an online game called “Quest for Bush” that involves players armed with guns shooting at the character representing former President Bush (Weimann 2008). According to Weimann, the U.S. Army uncovered an online jihadi video that showed children with guns wearing ski masks. They kidnap a man on a bike and later sit around a campfire singing al-Qaeda songs.

Production Features

In addition to the media-savvy technique of narrowcasting, a range of production patterns, from amateurish to professional, were identified in the sample videos. Diverse special effects were noted, such as the use of subtitles (English or Arabic), background hymns (with or without music), the groups’ logos, and excerpts of leaders’ speeches (Salem et al 2008). Fifty-five videos had special effects.

Another aspect of the production patterns is who claims credit for the production and/or distribution of the videos. This can be divided into three groups: extremist groups, unidentified persons/organizations, and media organizations. Table 6 lists the eight underground media organizations—such as as-Sahab, the GIMF, and the Islamic Media Center (IMC)—identified in the production of 17 videos. As-Sahab produced three videos, two of which featured messages by Bin Laden, for example, the Bin Laden interview excerpt. English subtitles are available. This finding confirms those of the IntelCenter’s (2005) report about al-Qaeda’s use of a production company to plan and produce high-quality videos targeting global audiences including the media (Salem et al. 2008).

Table 6: Media Organizations Identified in the Videos

Media Organizations No. of Videos Types and Features Groups
1. As-Sahab
Message (Bin Laden), Tribute

English, Arabic subtitles and religious texts
Al-Qaeda (In the findings, it is listed under al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq)
Propaganda, Newsletter

Arabic subtitles and hymn

Victorious Group’s Army
3. Islamic Media Center

Arabic subtitles and hymn
4. Jihad Media Battalion

English subtitles and hymn
Islamic Army in Iraq
5. Media Division of Islamic Army in Iraq

Arabic subtitles and hymn
Islamic Army in Iraq
6. Media Division of the Partisans of the Sunna Army
Documentary, Hostage Taking, Tribute

Arabic subtitles and religious texts
Partisans of the Sunna Army
7. Media Division of al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq
Tribute, Suicide Attack

Arabic subtitles, hymns, and religious texts
Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq
8. Media Platoon of the Islamic Jihad Army

English subtitles
Islamic Jihad Army

According to Table 6, half of the extremist groups used the underground (nonlegitimate) media organizations, whereas some have their own outfits, for example, the Media Division of the Partisans of the Sunna Army, which produced five of the group’s eight videos. This supports Corman and Schiefelbein’s (2006) observations about the increasing interest among extremist groups in a war of words and efforts spent on promoting their own religious justification for their violent actions.

This also highlights the importance of having an informational committee as described in al-Qaeda documents (Harmony Document Database 2007). The media organizations appear to function as informational committees because they handle knowledge creation, packaging, translation, validation, and dissemination processes for spreading al-Qaeda’s vision of jihad to Muslims.


In this exploratory study, we used an evidence-based approach to analyze 60 extremist groups’ Arabic videos to identify patterns associated with how the groups are using videos. Specifically, we analyzed the video types, group operations, communication approaches, and video production features.

Classification of Videos

The results indicated that the variety of videos could be organized into two categories: violent acts (e.g., documentary, hostage taking, suicide attack, beheading) and nonviolent acts (e.g., message, tribute, and newsletter). The violent acts category had the largest number of videos (78%). Within the violent acts, 60% of the videos were documentary, which are short, low-quality video clips of attacks executed by a group. This agrees with the IntelCenter’s (2005) earlier classification of jihadi videos. The IntelCenter classifies documentary videos as operational videos that frequently display one short attack per clip.

Groups that are very active may release a new video every day and disseminate them via the Internet, where such videos quickly get converted into different formats and sizes and are made available on many forums, blogs, and Web sites including YouTube. Because of the quantity and fast release of the videos, they tend to be the largest category of video types. Initially, the documentary videos had limited value, but now they are being used by extremist groups to capture and validate their operations, claim credit, and publicize their attacks (“Caught on Tape: Video As a Terrorist’s Weapon” 2005); support training and recruitment; intimidate near and far enemies; and review lessons learned. The videos also are being used by the enemy to analyze a group’s modus operandi, train coalition troops, and review their usefulness as digital evidence (“Court Shown Extremist Video Film” 2007).

We presented a two-by-two matrix of jihadi groups’ videos that organized them into four basic types according to the dimensions operational versus nonoperational and individual-oriented versus group-oriented. The majority of the videos fell into the group-oriented violent acts, which include documentary, beheadings, and hostage takings. This finding supports the Western media descriptions of extremist groups’ videos as “callous” and “insensitive” for displaying brutal attacks that are morally repulsive. Perhaps these extremist groups’ media stunts represent their local brand of “shock and awe,” clearly aimed at intimidating foreign “infidels” in their midst.

In order to identify the groups’ operational patterns, we used the matrix to depict each of the 10 groups identified in the sample in relation to their videos. Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq—a small, local extremist group, relatively speaking—produced the largest number in the sample (12 videos), including four suicide attacks, a beheading, and a hostage taking. This is in line with a previous study that reported al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq as the smallest yet the most violent group (Institute n.d.).

Communication Strategies

A pilot analysis mapped the extremist groups’ videos to jihadi audience segmentation. Although some of the videos were aimed at multiple audiences, some were clearly targeted to specific national audiences such as the United States, described as one of the far enemies (but was the major target in many videos). In the videos, it was obvious that the jihadi extremist groups were trying to prove their capabilities by targeting important symbols of U.S. military power and establishment. This supports Sageman’s (2008) analysis that jihadi warriors confront the United States by targeting strategic and formidable symbols of American power such as military vehicles (56%) and military personnel in uniform (20%), and if that fails, any foreign partner of the United States is acceptable (e.g., British troops and French civilians). Images of successful targeting effectively put in disrepute the claims made by the occupying forces as to the security and safeness of certain zones. That is, the superior army is not invincible after all, and the extremists know their vulnerabilities.

Almost a third of the videos appeared to be produced by underground media organizations such as the well-known as-Sahab and the Global Islamic Media Front. Both are al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations that produce high-quality resources that are widely disseminated via the Internet and the media such as Al Jazeera. Extremist groups seem to be interested in systematic jihadi media operations that use videos and other resources to spread their campaign of legitimacy, propagation, and intimidation. Videos are increasingly being used in the war of words between extremist groups and other forces. An ongoing but less visible power struggle among contending factions can be seen in this war. That is, the faction that can effectively motivate and energize the existing, or newly formed, extremist groups to conduct destructive and high-impact acts of extremism gains global notoriety as well as support and attention.

Future Research

Because jihadi extremist groups’ videos continue to increase in volume and sophistication, automatic extraction of structural (e.g., subtitles, images) and semantic content (e.g., weapons, target locations) can aid in the dynamic analysis of the groups’ videos. Therefore, future studies should expand this effort to analyze Arabic extremist groups’ videos by creating collaborations with research teams in the automated video-content analysis domains such as the Informedia Group at Carnegie Mellon University.

This exploratory research provided a glimpse into some of the challenges in analyzing jihadi extremist groups’ videos. However, it was limited to a sample of 60 Arabic video clips. Future studies of this kind should endeavor to enlarge and broaden the sample and verify whether similar results can be found. They should also include time-series analysis of the videos such as what trends are being seen in terms of the messages, production, and sophistication.

Future studies also should focus on narrowcasting and the targeting of specific subpopulations such as Americans or Dutch. What segments of the American people are being targeted? Do the groups use different methods for targeting each segment? What do they hope to accomplish by doing this? Are these new propaganda tactics? What are the metrics for assessing the successful deployment of the tactics? Finally, following the new developments in cultural intelligence, a deeper analysis of the embedded cultural cues in each of the videos can help reveal tacit knowledge about the groups’ operations, propaganda, and communication patterns.


1. The current study expands on Salem et al.’s (2008) content analysis study, which includes a list of videos and a coding scheme.

2. “In Islam the term jihad has a dual meaning. The ‘big jihad’ refers to the continuous inner struggle to live as a good Muslim; the ‘small jihad’ refers to the armed struggle in defense of Islam” (Ministry 2006). This study uses the term jihad in the latter sense.

3. For a description of the groups, see the Institute for the Study of War, http://www.understandingwar.org/theme/al-qaeda-iraq.

4. According to Sageman (2008), the death of the Prophet Muhammad split the Muslim community into two groups. The majority of the Muslim community accepted Abu Bakr, who was not a descendant of Muhammad, as the new leader. They became known as Sunnis (“followers of the Sunnah”). Other members of the community believed that the leader must be a direct descendant of the Prophet. They became known as Shi’a (“followers of Ali”) (Sageman 2008, p. 181).

5. For an analysis of al-Qaeda ideologies driving the jihadi social movement, please see the Militant Ideology Atlas (2006), created by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. It provides a systematic mapping of ideologies to the jihadi movement’s top thinkers.


Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF), COPLINK Center of Excellence. This research has been supported in part by NSF, Information Technology Research Program, COPLINK Center for Intelligence and Security Informatics—A Crime Data Mining Approach to Developing Border Safe Research, EIA-0326348, September 2003–August 2006. I would like to thank the staff members of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the University of Arizona who have contributed to the project, in particular, Arab Salem, Hsinchun Chen, Wei Xi, Catherine Larson, Chun-Ju Tseng, and Shing Ka Wu.

References/Suggested Readings

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Salem, A., Reid, E., and Chen, H. Multimedia content coding and analysis: Unraveling the content of jihadi extremist groups’ videos, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (2008) 31:605–626.

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