Author: Nick Heffernan (IPS FSV UK) 


Much of history is made up of certain technological innovations that define eras and change the course of history. Some examples would be the wheel, the printing press, the automobile, and so on. Today, however, we undoubtedly live in the era of the internet.

The internet began to grow rapidly in the mid-1990’s and laws & regulation have understandably struggled to keep up with its expansion. As a result, the world wide web has become an information revolution, with its anarchic nature enabling users all around the world to share anything and everything, causing many analysts to call it the “new Wild West.”

But just as it was in the Wild West, the internet can be equally as beneficial to bad guys as good guys. The Unites States government has demonstrated that they are very aware of the dangers of the internet, and that they intend on dealing with the problem at some point in the near future. Their feelings were echoed by former Central Intelligence Committee Director George Tenet, who stated in 2004, “Ultimately, the ‘Wild West’ must give way to governance and control (Benjamin Davis, 2006).”

One particular group that has learned to utilize the internet’s lack of regulation to push forward their agenda is Al Qaeda, along with other jihadist organizations. The world wide web has given jihadists a platform to effectively exert what Joseph F. Nye has termed “soft power,” in order in order to recruit and radicalize new members across the globe.

First, this essay will examine Nye’s concept of soft power and how it has become increasingly more important since the end of the Cold War. Second, the new concept of “cyber jihad” will be broken down and analyzed in relation to Nye’s concept of soft power. Finally, this essay will attempt to determine wether soft power techniques or hard power techniques, such as increased internet law and regulation should be used to combat cyber jihad. Finally, it will ultimately conclude that soft power measures must be taken to reduce this problem in the absence of effective hard power techniques.

Nye’s conception of Soft power

In 1990, an article by Joseph Nye was published in Foreign Policy that signaled a fundamental change in how power is measured in international relations. “Traditionally, the test of a great power was its strength in war. Today, however, the definition of power is losing its emphasis on military force and conquest that marked earlier eras. The factor of technology, education, and economic growth are becoming more significant in international power, while geography, population, and raw materials are becoming somewhat less important (Nye 1990, 154).” Basically, new actors have begun to find ways to make an impact on world politics without using the traditional state mechanisms of power. In turn, there is an increase in forms of vulnerability that a state has (Nye 1990). Nye termed this phenomenon “soft power.”

Nye stressed that this new form of power is especially beneficial to private actors in developing countries. The modernization, urbanization, and new communication technology has enabled private actors to more effectively diffuse power from governments, therefore increasing the influence of private actors (Nye 1990).


Joseph Nye

He suggested that modern issues in IR will no longer be as simple as pitting one state against another, because multiple states will now have to deal with “non-state transnational actors,” mentioning the drug trade and terrorism as examples (Nye 1990).  More international cooperation will be needed to address these issues, because while they do have domestic roots, they also transcend international borders (Nye 1990).

In terms of the internet and cyber jihad, the most important part of Nye’s article is the area that focuses on information becoming more accessible and flexible. He says that information is power, and that a critical power resource is being able to get access to new information (Nye 1990). Basically, if states can’t control information as effectively as they have in the past, then there is a risk of power being diffused to other groups. Further, private actors who use this information effectively will be able to push forward their agenda and increase their “co-optive” or “soft” power by influencing others. If a state or private actor can make its cause seem attractive in the eyes of others, it will begin to gain popularity and therefore increase its soft power (Nye 1990).

The emergence of cyber jihad

In the age of the internet, getting others to want what you want has become much easier than it was in the past. After being decimated by the United States and its allies in retaliation for 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda adapted a strategy of decentralization in order to survive (Barak Medelsohn 2011). The internet was arguably the most effective mechanism they used in order to maintain influence and train new members. Al Qaeda in Iraq alone completes upwards of 20 posts online per day, ranging from promotion of attacks, announcements of alliances with other groups, and even executions of enemy prisoners (Davis 2006). Moreover, it has been found that the organizers of the 9/11 attacks and the London bombings both used the internet substantially to plan and communicate with each other (Davis 2006; Shima Keene 2011). In a nutshell, the internet has made the decentralization of jihadist groups like Al Qaeda very easy. Terrorist cells in Pakistan can now communicate with allied groups in Syria or Chechnya with the simple click of a mouse.

Jihadists have essentially become masters of utilizing the internet as a medium to increase their soft power. There are now thousands of jihadist websites that promote global terrorism, as they have taken advantage of the lack of monitoring and regulation in the cyber world. Setting up a website is simple and cheap for anyone to do, including a terrorist, and requires minimal disclosure. While it is technically illegal, it is remarkably easy for internet service provider (ISP) registrants to use false information when registering for a website domain. Additionally, it is equally difficult to locate the IP addresses used to create and participate in these websites (Davis 2006).

The most dangerous aspect of these online operations is how effective they are in recruiting new members. Online instruction manuals & videos, periodicals, interactive forums, and radical sermons are all readily available online for anyone interested in joining the jihad movement (Stenerson 2008). Indeed, there is a large body of evidence that proves this soft power strategy is working. For example, US Department of Defense interrogation transcripts of detainees at Guantanamo Bay frequently reference to how online fatwas that they saw had inspired them to join Al Qaeda and the Taliban (Keene 2011). New recruits can now also train to be mujahideen from home. Jihadist websites have been known to supply instructions on how to make bombs, fly planes, and use guns (Stenersen 2008).

Countering cyber jihad

There have been some attempts at countering cyber jihad through hard power. The United States’ PATRIOT Act encourages ISP’s to act as cyber watchdogs and report suspicious online activities (Davis 2006). However, encouraging is not the same as requiring and it is hard to tell if ISP’s are following through with this. Ultimately, one can be assured that the United States is actively tracking the users behind these jihadist websites, but the secretive nature of US national security makes it difficult to know exactly how they plan to deal with them.

The European Union has arguably made the biggest step in combating online jihad by passing a directive in 2005 that requires member states to keep online communications data for up to two years (Davis 2006). This could be helpful in finding information on an upcoming or previous attack. However, the anonymity of the internet can still make it hard to track someone down based on an IP address. Nonetheless, this is being applauded as a step in the right direction, as many analysts think ISP’s should be held more accountable for the activities of their users (Davis 2006).

Other experts such as Gregory McNeil believe that a more hardline approach must be taken, suggesting a global embargo on jihad websites through an international agreement (Gregory McNeil 2007). This seems unrealistic, especially when examining it from Nye’s point of view. He points out in his article that it is hard to get small, weak states to cooperate on matters like this because many of them are not capable of controlling their own domestic affairs (Nye, 1990). Another obvious flaw in McNeil’s article is that it tacitly supports limiting free speech, which is something that the United States is supposed to vehemently promote.

Ultimately, the internet is a very large and complex animal that is very difficult to patrol and regulate. There appears to be no prospect of an effective international monitoring regime of the internet in the near future, and in the meantime it could be more effective to take a soft power approach to countering cyber jihad. Jim Winkates downplays the US hard power approach to combating terrorism and says more soft power methods should be taken instead. In his article “Soft Power Contributions to U.S. Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” he mentions some guidelines laid out by the RAND Corporation on how to combat radical jihad through soft power methods. Many of these points are applicable to cyber jihad, including: Promote the creation of moderate networks to counter radical messages; Disrupt radical networks, particularly how they communicate, recruit, and fund their operations; Promote democratic change in Muslim world over support for oppressive regimes; engage muslim communities, especially in humanitarian endeavors (RAND Corporation 2004; Winkates 2007). The US and its allies should be reaching out to Muslim communities with these soft power techniques both physically and virtually if they want to make any progress in reducing radical jihad.


There is certainly no easy way to reduce cyber jihad, but in the absence of any effective hard power measures, the West essentially has to use soft power and beat the radical jihadists at their own game. It won’t be easy, but using some of the suggestions in this essay would certainly be a good start. It is quite striking how accurate Joseph Nye was at predicting the new nature of international power relations, even without knowing the full potential of the internet. His analysis of power should not be looked over in the debate of how to combat cyber jihad.



Davis, B. (2006). “Ending the cyber jihad: Combating terrorist exploitation of the internet with the rule of law and improved tools for cyber governance.” Commonlaw Conspectus,  15. pp.119-186.

Keene, S. (2011). “Terrorism and the internet: A double edged sword.” Journal of Money Laundering Control, 14/4. pp.359-370.

McNeal, G. (2007). “Cyber Embargo: Countering the internet jihad.” Journal of International Law, 39/789. pp. 789-826.

Medelsohn, B. (2011). “Al-Qaeda’s franchising strategy.” Survival, 53/3. pp. 29-50.

Nye, J. (1990). “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy, 80. pp.153-171.

RAND Corporation (2004). “US Strategy in the Muslim World After 9/11.” RAND Research Brief. pp.2-3.

Stenersen, A. (2008). “The internet: A virtual training camp?” Terrorism and Political Violence, 20. pp.215-233.

Winkates, J. (2007). “Soft power contributions to U.S. counterterrorism strategy.” International Studies Association Annual Meeting. pp.1-29.