If Al-Qaeda Is Myspace, ISIS Is Facebook

Photograph by Ken Schles/Gallery Stock

1988 Al-Qaeda is formed in Peshawar, Pakistan.

On Nov. 1, 1996, through an office he maintained in London, Osama bin Laden bought an Inmarsat Mini-M satellite telephone, one of the first global telephones. It looked like a laptop and retailed for about $15,000. Associates ferried it to Kandahar, where bin Laden had recently taken shelter with the Taliban. During the next two years he made more than 900 satellite calls to Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Yemen, and even a ship sailing in the Indian Ocean. By satellite phone, bin Laden organized suicide truck bombings on U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the summer of 1998, attacks that killed more than 200 people and announced al-Qaeda as the modern world’s deadliest practitioner of cross-border terrorism.

From its origins, al-Qaeda transcended categories. The group’s leaders, bin Laden first and foremost, believed their actions were ordained by God and would be vindicated in the afterlife. To the extent that al-Qaeda articulated a vision of political economy, it called for the imitation of life in seventh century Arabia. Yet bin Laden, who studied business administration as an undergraduate and whose family members owned Hard Rock Cafe and Porsche franchises, was at the same time a terrorism modernizer. More than any obscurantist of his generation, he exploited globalization—satellite communication, jet travel across open borders, and new media. In the annals of terrorism, bin Laden proved much more disruptive as a communicator and a brand builder than as an ideologist.

Al-Qaeda’s founder grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. On television he watched Bonanza and international news broadcasts. Like many young Arabs of his generation, he was influenced by the televised violence and hijackings staged by secular Palestinian terrorists. On July 22, 1968, when bin Laden was 10, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an El Al Israel Airlines flight and ordered it flown to Algeria, where its crew and five passengers were held prisoner for more than a month. The attack modeled terrorist assaults on commercial aviation as a strategy for small groups of violent radicals. “At least the world is talking about us now,” said George Habash, the PFLP’s founder.

Bin Laden joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a high school student. In his 20s he volunteered in Afghanistan’s revolt against Soviet occupation. In the context of Saudi Arabian religious culture and foreign policy, bin Laden’s choices were orthodox rather than radical, comparable to a Christian American youth’s decision to spend summers building houses in Africa. His sophistication about the disruptive potential of cross-border telephony and media arose from his place in a successful, highly conventional Arabian business family that marketed Western brands in Saudi Arabia and even owned early equity in Iridium, the pioneering if overambitious satellite phone innovator.

In the summer of 1988 in Peshawar, after years of exposure to the Afghan jihad and in the company of exiled Egyptian Islamists, bin Laden helped to found al-Qaeda and accepted the position of emir. (He was probably nominated for the position because he alone had a bank account that could fund the enterprise.) Al-Qaeda aspired to be a vanguard of preordained worldwide Islamic revolution, one designed to reestablish an Islamic caliphate and hasten Judgment Day. As a means to that end, the group’s founders pledged in essence to do to the U.S. and allied secular governments in the Arab world what Afghan jihadis had done to the Soviet Union.

In its early years, al-Qaeda fragmented. After Soviet troops left Afghanistan, that war descended into intramural ethnic conflict among Muslims. Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. He agitated against King Fahd, accusing him of corruption. Soon he found himself in exile again, in Khartoum, Sudan, this time as a true dissident and a black sheep of his prominent family. It was by denouncing the legitimacy of his native Saudi Arabia that he passed from pious-but-conventional youth to most wanted radical.

He hoped now to mobilize international revolt. Al-Qaeda’s first innovative tool became the fax machine. From Khartoum, bin Laden faxed subversive manifestoes to clandestine sympathizers in Saudi Arabia. His was an early example of a transnational network of like-minded subversives, consolidated through early forms of unofficial social media.

In May 1996, Sudan expelled bin Laden to Afghanistan. There he penned a furious, rambling declaration of war against the U.S. Bin Laden’s threats might have passed unnoticed but for two factors. First, he invited reporters from Al Jazeera, then a nascent satellite news channel, to interview him. These segments allowed him to beam his incendiary messages over the information barriers erected by Arab police states directly into the satellite dish-equipped homes of Arabic-language media consumers. Second, as bin Laden contemplated spectacular violence against the U.S., he enlisted a Hollywood-inspired Pakistani planner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to help him think big. In conceiving the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden also clearly drew on the Palestinian examples of his youth.

After 2001, al-Qaeda saw its communication innovations overtaken by successors and competitors. For a while, despite the emir’s old-school proclivities, al-Qaeda innovated through the Internet by seeking to inspire and train scattered adherents virtually. But the group would lose influence to successors such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and more recently Islamic State. They exploited digital media more fully while bin Laden hid in a house without electricity in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and wrote messages to colleagues by hand.

Islamic State’s Twitter and YouTube-enabled communications follow the same border-hopping asymmetric strategy that bin Laden pioneered with satellites. Its messages offer promises of righteous government within a new state, something al-Qaeda never delivered. Islamic State is to al-Qaeda what Facebook was to Myspace: a successor that took a successful but short-lived model and adapted it for a new generation.

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