Supporters of al Qaeda-inspired movements are often referred to as “fanatics.” There is an element of truth to this as al Qaeda’s online following resembles a type of global fan club where supporters connect online through creating material, discussing issues with other supporters, and following new developments. In some cases, individuals use this information to conduct an attack.
In the case of Dzhokar Tsaernevs, the Boston Bomber, his only connection to al Qaeda was established through regular consumption of their online media products, from where he accessed Inspire Magazine’s (Al Qaeda’s online English-language magazine) “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”. Tsaernevs conducted a “Fan-attack”: an expression of allegiance, or perhaps appreciation, for the group and its aims. Though treating groups like al Qaeda as fan cultures may seem like making light of the damaging effects of their attacks, fans and fan cultures, according to Henry Jenkins, communications scholar and author of Convergence Culture, have enormous potential for social change (regardless of whether it is progressive or reactionary) and should therefore be taken seriously.
Al Qaeda’s fan culture is not only represented through attacks, but also by online content such as articles and videos produced by supporters. The notion of extremist “fan cultures” is also applicable to more recent movements with a global following (including individuals in the West) like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS supporters create and share a variety of media including videos, memes, and even video games. Inspire Magazine, which is produced by Al Malahem Media, the media branch of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, provides an example of how both the production and consumption of online material creates different forms of involvement with terrorist groups resembling contemporary online fan cultures.
For Jenkins, convergence culture is not a technological change, but a social one where media consumers are no longer passively consuming material; consumers now interact with producers of media online by either repurposing old media (e.g. television, books and movies) to make their own creations such as fan fiction and short films, or work collaboratively with other consumers or fans, to uncover information withheld from them by media producers. To Jenkins, these fan cultures and their activities are not only shaping television and film, but other aspects of life like politics.
Collective intelligence, is an important component of convergence culture. Jenkins borrows this term from media scholar Pierre Levy to describe how virtual communities combine their expertise and knowledge to collectively work through a problem. As a collective, online users can work through vast amounts of information, something that would be difficult to do individually. Jenkins uses the activities of fans of the popular reality TV show Survivor, or “survivor spoilers”, as an example of collective intelligence in action. “Survivor spoilers” share information on online forums from personal travels, satellite images, rumours, and information collected from a close analysis of episodes, to collectively figure out important details from the show before it airs. Details include the contestants’ names and the individuals who are “voted off” first. By working collectively, fans were able to impact the production of the show as the show’s producers had to alter content and focus their energies on securing information to stay one step ahead of the “spoilers.” To Jenkins, collective intelligence is not a frivolous activity, but a very important development as similar forms of collective intelligence used to spoil survivor can also be applied to more “important issues”.
With al Qaeda’s and its affiliates’ online presence and its reaching out to new “fans” in the West, it should be no surprise that online “fans” of al Qaeda employ forms of collective intelligence, which is the work of what terrorism scholar Jarret Brachman, author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, calls “Jihobbyists.” Jihobbyists are “self-starters” who only have an online relationship with al Qaeda. Jihobbyists participate in the movement through activities like video production, website hosting, compiling speeches, designing propaganda posters, and writing training manuals: materials that keep the movement afloat. Brachman’s Jihobbyist shares many similarities with Jenkins’ “survivor spoilers.” By using language skills for translating major ideologues speeches, weapons manufacturing knowledge for creating bomb manuals, and technical skills for encrypting messages and distributing clips, Jihobbyists work collectively through previously inaccessible material to make it more comprehensible and accessible to other al Qaeda fans while forming an important knowledge base that helps al Qaeda operate.

Figure 3- “Open Source Jihad” section from Inspire’s fourth issue (Page 44)
Figure 3 – “Open Source Jihad” section from Inspire’s fourth issue.

Inspire magazine, its “Open Source Jihad” section in particular, is an example of Jihobbyists’ collective intelligence in action. Inspire contains ads inviting readers to participate in the production of the magazine, which is produced and distributed online pooling knowledge of ideologues, graphic designers, translators, and weapons experts. In the “Open source Jihad” or the OSJ section, readers can access bomb recipes from “the AQ chef” or learn how to carry the movement forward using the internet from a contributor known as Terr0r1st. Terr0r1st shares information on encryption software, contacting the mujahidin online without being detected, and helping with the production of the magazine. This author also invites readers to participate by creating ads: “Come to Jihad” ads that use “graphics to convey the importance of partaking in jihad” and “A Cold Diss” ads, which “…convey straightforward meaning with little words to discredit the enemies of Allah with a touch of humor.”
Figure 1- “A cold Diss ad”

One example of “A cold Diss” advertisement (see figure 1) features an image of Obama looking distressed with a caption “LEMME GUESS, YOU’RE UPS’D?” referring to a bombing carried out by al Qaeda through sending explosive packages on a UPS plane in December of 2010. The word “Open Source” invites fans to not only follow the movement, but to take a more active role in it, whether it is writing for the magazine or carrying out an attack.
Though Inspire Magazine is more of a finished product than an online forum (it is distributed as a PDF file), the production of the magazine is a product of collective intelligence pooled by users online. Both contributors in a more combative role and contributors exclusively involved online, work together to create and distribute not only ideas, but strategies to carryout operations or attacks (both in West and in places like Iraq and Afghanistan) to outwit their enemies. This is similar to the way survivor spoilers both on the ground observing the production of the show and at home analyzing episodes will pool information to take down the producers by exposing the show’s well kept secrets.
By reconceptualising fans as an active group impacting entertainment, consumption and politics, Jenkins changes the notion of what it means to be “involved” or “active.” With an internet connection, fans have a printing press, a production studio, and a meeting spot to tackle problems, be it spoiling survivor or planning a terrorist attack. Through online media production and consumption, supporters of groups like al Qaeda and ISIS resemble an online fan culture, albeit a dangerous one. Studying online extremist fan cultures not only reveals potential first steps of involvement with these groups, but also how the creation of narratives through the collaborative distribution, repurposing, and creation of new media products connects their global following.

Nadia Hai is a PhD student in Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. Her current research area of interest is how extremist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS produce online media to appeal to Western, English- speaking audiences. She completed both her Bachelors and Masters’ degrees at the University of Calgary. Her Master’s Thesis The Rhetoric of Terrorism: A Rhetorical Analysis of Inspire Magazine focused on Inspire, al Qaeda’s online English-language magazine and the rhetorical strategies used by the authors to make the movement more appealing to Western Audiences.
Photos from Inspire Magazine courtesy of Internet

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