Focus on what events and material means to Salafi-Jihadi groups – Da’wa as Constant on the Path of Jihad

Defeating a Salafi Jihadist group requires more than Western commentators and politicians finding an expedient way to claim some form of victory.

Introduction

Over the years there have been many Western-centric interpretations of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’, the AQ single narrative, claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are ‘defeated’.

The shift to using social media made the material the Salafi-Jihadi movement produce easier to locate which created an opportunity for greater numbers of researchers to comment on these groups. Some of this commentary, often from within orthodox Terrorism Studies, has based the analysis on what they understand from the writing, images, nashid and video they came across – in effect they are asking; what does this mean to me?

It is only in a western-centric context or an environment, which tends towards neo-colonialist approaches, that ‘Utopia’ might seem a reasonable interpretation. Look back – how many articles claiming to have identified material about a jihadi ‘utopia’ quote any Salafi-Jihadi text talking about utopia?

When you take a moment to examine references to Utopia in Salafi-Jihadi texts, a stark reality becomes clear – there are more articles by researchers claiming to have found evidence of a ‘jihadi Utopia’ or a ‘Utopian narrative’, than there are genuine references to Utopia in Salafi-Jihadi literature.

This is because the focus on concepts such as ‘Utopia’ and Western interpretation of victory and defeat are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens or habitus.

In the current context, the message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump, echoed by supporters and reinforced by researchers pushing their new book in that policy environment. It is possible to produce a definition to back expedient claims of ‘defeat’, as authors of the ISIS Reader have attempted to do. This type of commentary may provide easy and comfortable material for policymakers to read. However producing material that is comforting for policymakers is not the purpose of progressive research.

The purpose of research is to develop a deeper understand the object of study.

Claims of ‘Utopia’ and ‘defeat’ fail to reflect reality on the ground, do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes, and as such do not act as useful predictor of the future behaviour of Jihadi groups.  

Far from defeated, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.

Instead of contorting definitions to fit a Western-centric notion of defeat, a more progressive approach would focus on analysing what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and what the groups themselves intend to communicate. This means being able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.

As detailed discussion of the meaning of Jihad has already filled many volumes, this post focuses on a single specific issue. A progressive approach leads to a different understanding of what victory and defeat mean for Salafi-Jihadi groups. This post shows how an evidence-based interpretation differs from the more common interpretation produced by neo-colonialist elements of orthodox Terrorism Studies.

The major distinction between a progressive and the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies can be encapsulated by the difference in interpretation of victory and defeat. In light of the continued fighting and estimates of fighters – consider which would be the more accurate predictor of continued violence:

  1. The definition of defeat proposed by some within orthodox Terrorism Studies – that losing territory is defeat – based on Western military theory.
  2. The Salafi-Jihadi understanding of defeat based on the perspective expressed in theologically inspired material produced by the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the demonstrable willingness to continue to fight.  

We are people for whom if this world puts upon us pressure the sky widens for us by means of martyrdom

A progressive perspective

A progressive approach proposes the second option and bases the interpretation of contemporary Salafi-Jihadi writing based on the thought expressed in the previous writing, audio and video. This approach is typified by the ability to quote from earlier texts, trace the development of the Salafi-Jihadi ideas, and identify the references to historic writing and Koranic verses which are incorporated into contemporary books, newspapers, magazines and videos. The progressive approach focuses on evidence-based interpretations because these theological concepts anchor contemporary jihadist media to its historical foundations.

Understanding those theological chains of thought and how they are interpreted by the core of the Salafi-Jihadi movement provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. As a result, research design based on the constants of Salafi-Jihadi theology is a fundamental element in the process of developing an evidence-based approach and strong data culture within a progressive Terrorism Studies.

Media Jihad, like other approaches to Jihad, continues to the final hour – as a result, the missionary work of al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) has and will continue despite the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For Salafi Jihadi groups, religion is about constants which are valid for human believers throughout time (since the revelation). Da’wa, missionary work, part of which has been undertaken electronically for the last past two decades, is part of these constants that make up the Jihadi framework of reference.

Salafi-Jihadi definition of defeat

Salafi-Jihadi groups have continued to fight uninhibited by the pronouncements of their defeat. This makes understanding the meaning of events in a Salafi-Jihadi worldview a vital part of research. Salafi-Jihadi worldview is entirely different from the Western-centric interpretations which are abound in orthodox Terrorism Studies.

The progressive approach to analysing Salafi-Jihadi groups uses an evidence-based methodology – this means being able to quote from the archive of Salafi-Jihadi writing to demonstrate the constants which are present in historical and contemporary material as these in combination with the context in which a group finds itself are the best predictors of future behaviour.

Salafi-Jihadi groups interpret events based on their current context and the constants contained in their theological worldview. They take seriously the command encompassed in the recent IS magazine ‘And Prepare Against Them’ – as has been repeatedly shown by Salafi-Jihadi groups over decades. Salafi-Jihadi groups have operated online and offline communicating to those willing to receive their message a mixture of pedagogical content (theology in the framing of “why we fight”) and military/terrorist operational art (“how we fight”).

As a result, when open fighting is not possible, Jihadi groups prepare for their next opportunity, the fertile soil.

..one of the most important fundaments for training in our jihadi Resistance Call is to spread the culture of preparation and training, its programs and methods, with all their aspects, by all methods of distribution, especially the Internet, the distribution of electronic discs, direct correspondence, recordings and every other method.

For example, context plays an important role in determining the meaning of the word da’wa. Da’wa mostly means propagating or calling to Islam, in reference of missionary work, an important pillar for all major religions. However, depending on context, it can also have a much more broad meaning, akin to general calls to act on behalf of Islam, or, as in the case of the title of as-Suri’s famous book ‘Global Islamic Resistance Call’, the word translated here as ‘call’ is Da’wa.

Applying this understanding to the nature of Salafi-Jihadi groups, it is apparent that the Jihadi movement have a dissimilar understanding of their purpose to those with a neo-colonialist agenda within the Terrorism Studies orthodoxy. For Salafi-Jihadi groups from AQ to Taliban to IS – ‘territorial loss’ is not defeat.

This can be shown through a range of writings from previous Salafi-Jihadi authors. For example, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi listed a range of meanings of defeat in Constants on the Path of Jihad, they were, in short;

  • Following the way of the kuffar
  • Accepting their Supremacy
  • Inclination towards the kuffar
  • Obeying kuffar
  • To lose hope *Some Jihadi translations into English write “loose hope” – the text makes it clear it is to abandon hope e.g. ‘giving up on the victory of God’ so ‘lose’ is used here.
  • Giving up the banner of Jihad
  • Giving up hope on military victory
  • Fear of the enemy

For the Jihadist movement, the timeline for victory extends to a spiritual dimension beyond death. In addition to the meanings of defeat, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi noted 11 meanings of victory in his book, Constants on the Path of Jihad, of which only one meaning is what a post-Westphalian state would refer to as victory on the battlefield. As such, the interrelated concepts of victory and defeat, for al-‘Uyairi, are not limited to the temporal or physical constraints of victory/defeat which dominate the mindset of post-Westphalian states and orthodox Terrorism Studies.

Similar understandings of victory and defeat can be found throughout the writing of the Salafi-Jihadi movement. This is an important reference point for evidence based research, as a key aspect of any struggle is how victory occurs within the minds of an adversary, and when an adversary is likely to believe it has been defeated – or in other words, what is success in an adversarial struggle?

As Anwar al-Awlaki explained in the 44 Ways to Support Jihad;

Victory here doesn’t necessarily mean against their enemies in this world. It means that they would succeed in preserving the religion and fighting for it until they die and meet Allah. It means they will never give up, compromise, or falter in carrying on the banner of Islam.[i]To illustrate the importance of this meaning of victory / defeat, Anwar al-Awlaki recalled, in 2009, the story of the “people of the ditch” (Companions of the Ditch). This is a theological element that appears consistently within the Salafi-Jihadi literature[ii];

These were a nation who became Muslim and the king wanted to force them to apostate and they refused. So he dug for them trenches and he filled these trenches with wood and he set fire to them and he would throw them one after the other in the fire until they would burn to death. They didn’t win, they were all killed till the last man. Men, women and children were all burnt alive and they did not win. It was the king who won against them. But what does Allah say about it in Quran? After he mentioned the story Allah (Azza wa Jal) says: “That is the great victory”. Why is it called victory? Because they were steadfast till the last moment, they didn’t give up. If they gave up, they would have lost.[iii]The “Companions of the Ditch” illustrates a specific concept of victory / defeat, which would be familiar to readers of other texts produced by the Jihadist movement. We can show both purpose and success consistently extend beyond the physical world from earlier iterations of the movement to the more recent material from al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya. 

For example, in The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, Abu Mus’ab as-Suri quoted Sura at-Tawbah: 111.

Verily, Allah has purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the Paradise. They fight in Allah’s cause, so they kill and are killed. A promise binding on Him in truth in the Taurat [Tora] and the Injeel [Bible] and the Qur’an. And who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah. Then rejoice in the bargain which you have concluded. And that is the great victory.[iv]

Defeat and al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya

In addition to familiar figures from the past such as al-‘Uyairi, al-Awlaki, and as-Suri, the interrelated concepts of victory and defeat are equally clear in the media produced by al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya. For example, a nasheed released by al-Hayyat Media Center, about the battle for the Philippine city of Marawi begins:

Diamonds and pearls and palaces are waiting the men of tawhid, virgins and wine, never ending time in gardens with rivers beneath. Holding firm to the rope of Allah are the brothers in Marawi. Engraved in their heart is the love for their lord and for him they continue to bleed.[v] 

Those ‘brothers’ who remain steadfast, by ‘holding firm to the rope of Allah’ will receive the reward for victory in paradise. This continuing element in the meaning of victory within contemporary Jihadist content was exemplified by another example from the province of Kirkuk (ولاية كركوك). In this video entitled The People who are Steadfast (اهل الثبات) an ISIS fighter speaking directly to the camera references both Marawi and Mosul as demonstrations of the Jihadist interpretation of victory.

I guess it is clear from the overall situation that we have already won the battle on the field of morale and ideas, winning it on the ground is just a matter of time, by the grace of Allah.[vi]He goes on to explain this perspective in a way which is important to the understanding of victory within the Jihadist movement. First, he highlights the importance of hardship in attaining victory by linking their actions to the experience of prophet Muhammad;

For a Muslim, trials and tribulations carry great gifts from Allah within them, we’ve been living under siege in Wilayah Kirkuk, although it seems like a hardship for a moment, however it is a divine honour from Allah to simulate those who were the first carriers of this message. We are under an embargo similar to the embargo that the prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) along with his followers went through in Mecca. We are under siege just like the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his companions were under siege during the battle of the trench.[vii]Accordingly, hardship has a role as part of attaining victory:

This is the nature of this path, this is how it has always been for anyone who carries this message throughout history. It is the path of trials and tribulations which purifies our ranks and prepares us for the upcoming victory …  and ultimately grants us the highest ranks in Jannah.[viii]

This echoes many earlier writings for example, in the section entitled ‘The Fourth Path – Patience and Steadfastness’ in Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir’s Paths to Victory, the following verses are used to highlight the struggle on the ribat:

‘O you who have believed, persevere, outlast [your enemy] in patience, perform ribat, and fear Allah that you may succeed’” (Reported by Malik from Zayd Ibn Aslam).[ix]“We will surely test you with something of fear, hunger, poverty, death, and lack of food – and give glad tidings to those who are patient” (Al-Baqarah 155). At-Tabari said, “Allah tells the followers of His Messenger that He will test them and try them with hardships in order to distinguish those who will continue to follow the Messenger from those who will turn back on their heels” (At-Tafsir).[x]

Where the Coalition information operations and commentators have emphasised the killing of many fighters and demolition of formerly IS held cities as defeat for the Jihadist forces, Jihadists interpret these events differently. Addressing ‘the crusader coalition lead by the pharaoh of today’ (America) the ISIS fighter from Kirkuk continues;

When will you understand that you are fighting people who view the rockets and bullets or whatever weapons you use against them as keys to the highest ranks of paradise. We chose this path to either live as (honoured) Muslims, worshiping Allah as he commanded us, or even better to meet our lord; there is no third option.[xi]

Although commentators mistakenly claim ISIS does not mention losses[xii], here the video directly references losses but is clear that this is not how victory is measured.

victory is not measured in square kilometres rather it is measured by the overall outcome, including the outcome in the hereafter, and not short-term achievements. It is true that we lost ground, but with every day that passes the reality of the battle is becoming apparent to the Muslims worldwide, that this is a global campaign against Islam and the Muslims, it is a campaign against the Sharia and the very basic fundamentals of Islam.[xiii]

While within orthodox Terrorism Studies ‘territorial loss is defeat’ passes as an acceptable interpretation, for the individuals involved, victory / defeat is not about the area of land held. It is in following what they believe to be the true path of Allah measured through entrance into paradise.

Equally through their actions, demonstrating steadfastness they act as role models to others.[xiv] The final section of the video also shows the value which IS (and the Jihadist movement) place on the physical destruction caused by Coalition and other anti-ISIS operations. This is used to create a connection between contemporary events and historic events. In doing so they demonstrate their steadfastness (as they believe others have before them) in continuing to fight until the city around them is reduced to rubble.

The recent statement by the ‘Spokesman of the Islamic State’ Abu Hamza al-Qurashi continued this theme.

They found no way to battle the Islamic State except by pouring their hatred in the form of molten lava over the Muslims in Iraq and Sham. Thus they destroyed their cites, killed and maimed thousands, until the epics of Ramadi, Mosul, Sirte, and al-Baghuz took place. After which they declared their victory over the Islamic State, without celebrating their alleged victory for too long. As they know with certainty their claims of eliminating it are belied just as they were from before. How [could they claim victory] and its soldiers remain in various lands, with some of them maintaining empowerment within, by the bounty of Allah, while the affliction upon the kafirin and apostates has not ceased for an hour?

This complex combination of interpretations is not an attempt to build a brand around violence or presenting themselves as victims. It is giving da’wa. In following this approach, recent statements mirror the interpretations of ‘defeat’ laid out by previous generations of writers within the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Abu Hamza al-Qurashi’s statement highlighted the history of premature claims of victory from the West;   

Thus we say to the protectors of the Cross, America, and her allies from the Arab and non-Arab rulers: Verily, you experienced the war of the Islamic State when fighting was centered in Iraq, in the alleys of Fallujah, Ramadi, the north and south of Baghdad, Diyala, Salahuddin, and Mosul. You repeatedly alleged and announced eliminating it. You become surprised after every announcement the expansion of operations of its soldiers, by the bounty of Allah.

In later sections of the statement he claimed, (after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi);

many kafirin, murtaddin, and munafiqin thought it the actual end of the Islamic State, while the transgressing Crusaders declared that it is not so based on their long experience in dealing with the Islamic State. They were assured that the word “baqiyyah” was not a mere slogan the muwahhidin used to provoke their disbelieving enemies. But rather, it is an expression based on a firm methodology among the soldiers of the Khilafah that prompts them to preserve what their preceding brothers left behind, completing what they started, and recovering what they lost.

Similarly,

Therefore, O tawaghit of America, O worshipers of the Cross, occupy yourselves with something two dogs who ruled America before you, Bush and Obama, also claimed and declared they had defeated the Islamic State a number of previous times. Or do you have no shame? You all have been declaring and claiming for 15 years the elimination of the muwahhidin…

… If in your estimation you believe you have concluded a battle and the mujahidin have retreated, then know that the matter, all of it, is in hands of Allah, the Mighty. Far removed is it that He would grant victory to you over His believing slaves. However, He tests His slaves to distinguish the truthful from the liar in jihad for Him. This is the tradition of Allah, the Mighty, in relation to His creation. Allah said: “And certainly, We shall test you with something of fear, hunger, and loss of wealth, lives, and fruits, but give glad tidings to the patient” (Al-Baqarah: 155)

In contrast to researchers focused on short-term trends and repeating pronouncements of defeat, the Jihadi movement maintains the assessment of success over a long timeline, which extends into the afterlife. Contemporary difficulties are frequently interpreted as tests of faith. For example, 

And He said: “And We will, verily, try you till We know who from among you are patient mujahidin; and We will test your pronouncements” (Muhammad: 31).

Endure and be patient; guard your posts, and fear Allah, so that you may be successful. Know (may Allah keep you steadfast) that what you are facing is nothing but the tradition of Allah concerning His believing slaves, just as it is His tradition concerning the Prophets and Messengers. Allah said: “Or do you think you will enter Paradise without such (trials) that came to those who passed away before you? They were afflicted with severe poverty and ailments and were so shaken that even the Messenger and those who believed along with him said: ‘When is the help of Allah?’ Verily, indeed, the help of Allah is near” (Al-Baqarah: 214).

The reward for remaining steadfast in faith is entry into paradise (and emphatically not the physical world utopia of Western imagination).

Strive in your endeavors and seek Paradise, as we have only come out for the two best outcomes: a martyrdom pleasing to the Lofty Lord or a great conquest that gathers the Muslims and guides the astray.

“Then for him who transgressed all bounds and preferred the life of this world, verily, his abode will be the Fire. But as for him who feared standing before his Lord and restrained himself from desires and whims, verily, Paradise will be his abode” (An-Nazi’at: 37-41).

The interpretation of the interrelated concepts of success, victory and defeat are clear in jihadi writing (and these examples are easily available in English). With the Jihadi interpretation in such stark contrast to what appears within orthodox Terrorism Studies research, and the ongoing fighting casting significant doubt on the so-called ‘defeat’, one may wonder what the ISIS reader would look like if the authors had more than faux Arabic access to the documents not reproduced in English.

UK Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter has emphatically rejected claims that IS is defeated. It should be clear to those even loosely acquainted with the facts on the ground that the group and theology that al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote is far from defeated in Iraq and Syria and the media production, through which they pursue their missionary work, has not collapsed.

In 2019 there was an unseasonal two month increase in attacks in Iraq by IS, with sharp increases in both Baghdad and Ninewa. In addition, since the so-called ‘defeat’ of IS the US military spent over $1 million dropping 40 tonnes of explosive on a single island in Iraq, and IS attacks continue across Iraq and Syria, not to mention Egypt or it’s operations in Africa in general. The New York Times has noted ISIS Is Regaining Strength in Iraq and Syria, a view also shared by a report of the Pentagon inspector general. Furthermore, the US Special Representative for Syria and the Coalition to Defeat Daesh, Jim Jeffrey, has stated there were somewhere between 14,000-18,000 ISIS fighters “active between Syria and Iraq.” UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.

A series of videos from IS showed groups around the world pledging allegiance (bay’a) to their Caliph al-Baghdadi, which then sparked over 200 individuals to also post images of their bay’a or post videos showing them listening to pro-IS Nashid in public claiming to be in locations ranging from the UK, to Turkey and the Middle East. This has since been repeated with bay’a to IS’ new Caliph.  

Claims of defeat may give policymakers a feeling of success and reassurance, perhaps even allow some to withdraw troops from key locations in the region, but the study of the Salafi-Jihadi movement needs a progressive approach based on evidence-based research and a strong data culture. When such evidence-based methods are applied, as we have shown here, the Jihadi worldview is a much better predictor of continued fighting than attempts within orthodox Terrorism Studies to find a definition that will allow claims of ‘defeat’.  As such while orthodox Terrorism Studies, with systemic problems with data and evidence based analysis, announces defeat, from a progressive approach it is entirely predictable that IS continues to fight. 

Artefacts of Western Habitus

Inserting Western artefacts such as the focus on crime, rap music, jihadi cool and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’, say more about the western-centric and neo-colonialist perspective of the researchers than what the material means to the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Where, for example, do you find Salafi-Jihadi groups writing about a physical world utopia? Why is the work of those who posit Salafi-Jihadi material is communicating about ‘Utopia’ not full of quotes showing Salafi-Jihadi groups writing about ‘Utopia’? 

Consider, what would it mean to engage in suicide bombing to enter a physical world Utopia? What use would someone who joined Jihad to continue their life of crime have for a bomb vest?

As with all elements of Salafi-Jihadi theology, nuance and context are important. Some proposing a Terror-Crime Nexus (re-branded as the the Crime-Terror Nexus) have claimed repeatedly “Theft – any form of crime – is equated with ghanimah, which translates as ‘the spoils of war’”. While the transliterated Arabic word makes this claim seem authoritative, ghanimah emphatically does not cover all forms of crime. It focuses primarily on elements of property and wealth (as Salafi-Jihadi theology would define those concepts).

‘All crime’ inserts an artefact of Western habitus into the analysis of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, potentially exacerbating the tendency toward threat inflation and confirmation bias others have previously noted. To neocolonialists within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies the nuance of this distinction between property based crime and all crime may seem the pedantic nitpicking of a pedant. However, the distinction is important to Salafi-Jihadi groups. As such it is a distinction which is of concern to progressive and evidence based research.

These examples highlight how, despite the huge archive of theologically inspired Salafi-Jihadi material available online, researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies have repeatedly chosen to focus on artefacts of their western habitus which they perceive to be part of Salafi-Jihadi material. It is this reliance on western habitus, fueled by confirmation bias, which has led those within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies to repeatedly define Salafi-Jihadi groups as defeated, even when Jihadi theology clearly indicates they will continue to fight.

These neocolonialist notions of defeat owe more to western-centric policy circles’ need for affirmation than to the theology expressed Salafi-Jihadi writing. In doing so these researchers place the interpretation based on their western habitus ahead of the meaning transmitted by Salafi-Jihadi groups and understood by their intended audience.

A Western-centric definition of defeat

It has been a policy imperative in the US and elsewhere to declare ISIS defeated and backed by some researchers. This despite, as highlighted earlier,  al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya maintaining a fighting force which “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment.

The study of the Salafi-Jihadi movement has seen this type of positive endorsement of policy before, only for the stark reality to subsequently intervene. For example, recent document releases relating to lessons learned in Afghanistan have shown:

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers, according to the Post. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

In contrast to the ‘best possible picture’, “enemy-initiated attacks” rose sharply last year, with the fourth quarter seeing a total of 8,204 attacks – up from 6,974 in the same period in 2018”, according to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Just as events in Afghanistan were interpreted in positive light, many have sought ways to represent IS as in decline and have engaged in a race to come up with a definition which will allow researchers to pronounce IS defeated.

We have been in this position many times before. There have been many instances where academics, commentators and policy makers have been keen to take victory laps celebrating the defeat of Jihadi groups. Unfortunately, once the hyperbole infused fanfare has died down, these groups have continued to fight – many continue to this day – with or without sections of territory.

Misunderstanding how Salafi-Jihadi groups derive meaning from events can lead to disastrous misinterpretations. One may recall how al-Qaeda leadership had been cut off from foot soldiers in 2005-2006 only in 2007 for the New York Times to report American officials had “mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan”. 

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in defeating AQI and killing its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed that by 2009-2010 “we had essentially crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)”  Rohan Gunaratna argued that a year before Osama Bin Laden was killed Al Qaeda had “already lost significant public support and was on the path of decline”. The subsequent killing of Bin Laden was hailed as a crushing, but not necessarily lethal, blow. Some terrorism analysts including Paul Cruickshank thought the Arab Spring could be al-Qaeda’s fall. Indeed there were many ways in which the Arab Spring could be presented as bad news for Al-Qaeda as it “appeared to undermine core tenets of the Al-Qaeda doctrine”. Fawaz A. Gerges wrote that “Only a miracle will resuscitate a transnational jihad of the al-Qaeda variety”. Ian Black wrote that “Al-Qaida had already looked marginal and on the back foot for several years. But the dawn of largely peaceful change in the Middle East and North Africa this year rendered it irrelevant.”

In 2012 Peter Bergen argued it was time to declare victory as al Qaeda was defeated. Similarly, many have been keen to proclaim the defeat and collapse of the Islamic State. Jason Burke wrote in October 2017 “a victory is a victory, and there are few reasons for cheer these days. So let us celebrate the defeat of Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate – and keep a wary eye out for the next fight”. He was not alone, many have been keen to claim victory. So many have followed some form of the logic, “Now that ISIS has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, it will become more violent outside this area” as Charlie Winter told the Sun Newspaper.

In 2020 ISIS is defeated because, as a recent CTC Sentinel article claimed;

“territorial loss is defeat for the movement, that is what the authors have decided to call it. By every measure, the group is defeated…”  

This sounds very similar to earlier attempts to define a defeated Taliban and AQ. These definitions have one thing in common. The commentary of a largely male, pale, and stale orthodox Terrorism Studies were unable to find evidence Salafi-Jihadi groups consider themselves defeated, so instead they found ways to define groups as defeated based on their own western habitus – independent of the objectives of the groups in question.

In effect orthodox commentary was not focused on how events were interpreted by the jihadi movement. Instead much of the orthodoxy has focused on what groups of predominantly English-speaking white men define as victory and defeat based on their Western-centric perspectives. As white Western-centric frames of reference have little resonance or relevance to the core of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, it should come as little surprise that the purportedly defeated groups continue fighting – apparently unaware of their defeat.

This image circulating on Salafi-Jihadi Telegram channels shows where the focus of attacks from the so-called ‘defeated’ IS have taken place. Some may quibble with the specific numbers – but the overall perspective significantly tests Western ideas of defeat and shifts to violence elsewhere.

73% of attacks in Syria and Iraq indicates where the movement thinks attention is focused. Furthermore, being more violent elsewhere after the so-called defeat, is difficult to square as the battle for Marawi which occurred prior to claims of ‘defeat’ still outstrips contemporary activities outside Iraq and Syria. 

If it were Europe rather than Syria / Iraq would ISIS still be “defeated”? 

As time has passed it has become increasingly common to find researchers from orthodox Terrorism Studies wrestling with the problem of having claimed a group has collapsed or is defeated, only for it to be increasingly obvious that group is continuing to fight – whether it is IS (with combinations of claims of post-Caliphate and a post-ISIS Iraq/Syria etc.) or earlier iterations which refer to AQ and the Taliban.

For example, even at the point of claiming IS is defeated the authors of the ISIS reader seem acutely aware they have become entangled in this problem. The quote (from above) continues… 

“the group is defeated, but it is not destroyed and it remains active. Defeat is not permanent, as Clausewitz says.”  

In contrast to claims of ‘defeat’, as highlighted earlier, there is evidence of somewhere between 14,000-18,000 ISIS fighters “active between Syria and Iraq.” Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, who puts the number of fighters around 20,000, has argued:

“Yes, they have lost much of their leadership. They have lost many of their capable men. But they’ve also managed to gain more experience and to recruit more people around them”.

UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq. While Christopher Lee has highlighted that

“The biggest concern is Daesh appears to have created a dependency among up to 100,000 civilians in areas they have moved into and in the many displacement camps.”

Those within the orthodox Terrorism Studies who pursue a neo-colonialist agenda seem comfortable claiming that ISIS with thousands of fighters perpetrating hundreds of attacks fits the definition of a ‘defeated’ group.

One wonders if those pushing that perspective would consider ISIS ‘defeated’ if the group was roaming Western Europe rather than Iraq/Syria with thousands of fighters, tens of thousands of followers, and perpetrating hundreds of attacks?

Recall the impact on European countries from comparatively few attacks. The shock of attacks in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, London on 7/7 or Westminster Bridge were profound – internationals politicians flocking to Paris and the UK is seeking to change the law after two knife attacks.

Attacks of a vastly greater scale are virtually a daily occurrence in Iraq and Syria, but some from the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies still claim ISIS is ‘defeated’.  

Conclusion

One of the major distinctions between a progressive and the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies can be encapsulated by this difference in the interpretation of victory and defeat. In light of the continued fighting and estimates of fighters – consider which would be the more accurate predictor of continued violence:

  1. The definition of defeat proposed by some within orthodox Terrorism Studies – that losing territory is defeat – based on Western military theory. 
  2. The Salafi-Jihadi understanding of defeat based on the perspective expressed in theologically inspired material produced by the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the demonstrable willingness to continue to fight.  

A progressive approach to Terrorism Studies insists on option two. By seeking to extend their predominantly white, masculine and Western-centric definitions of defeat and victory, sections of the orthodox Terrorism studies echo the earlier “9/11” temporal narrative. While the temporal narrative was “an extension of US hegemony over world time”, according to Harmonie Toros, the neo-colonialist element of orthodox Terrorism Studies now seeks to claim hegemonic power for their definition of victory and defeat – irrespective of what the participants in the conflict think and whether the conflict continues.


[i] Anwar al-Awlaki, 44 ways to support Jihad, (Victorious Media)

[ii] Nico Prucha, A Look at Suicide Fatwas: The Case of Algeria, RIAS, http://www.rieas.gr/researchareas/2014-07-30-08-58-27/islamic-studies/1331-a-look-at-jihadists-suicide-fatwas- (2010)

[iii] Anwar al Awlaki, State of the Ummah, (Victorious Media 2009)

[iv] This is quoted in:
Abu Mus’ab as-Suri, Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, Part One: The Roots, History and Experiences. December 2004.

[v] Nasheed, Brothers of Marawi, al-Hayyat Media Center, 2017 

[vi] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker. .  

[vii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker.

[viii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker.

[ix] Abu Hamzah al-Muhaiir, Paths to Victory, Jumada al-Akhirah 1438 (Translation by Himmah Productions)

[x] Abu Hamzah al-Muhaiir, Paths to Victory, Jumada al-Akhirah 1438 (Translation by Himmah Productions)

[xi] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words.

[xii] Within a day after losing the Syrian city of Manbij, ISIS issued a document explaining how the physical loss does not mean that the war is lost. After losing the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, ISIS again issued a lengthy statement outlining how they consider themselves in the exact footsteps of early Muslims and that losses are deemed as temporary as “the weapon that can kill belief has yet to be invented” as stated by British hostage John Cantlie in a video released in December 2016.

[xiii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. The video goes on to encourage attacks in Western cities as these would have a greater impact than traveling to Syria or Iraq. This echoes Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, “If one of you wishes and strives to reach the lands of the Islamic State, then each of us wishes to be in your place to make examples of the crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbour fears his neighbour. This message appeared again in  (وحرض المؤمنين) 

 ‘And Inspire the Believers’, al-Taqwa 25th February 2018 and follows the same logic as work by Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, ‘Advice To Those Who Cannot Come To Sham’, 23/12/2015 and the earlier Abu Mus’ab as-Suri. 

[xiv] See for example:

‘Abdul-Qādir Ibn ‘Abdil-‘Azīz, The Obligation Of Holding Steadfast To The Book And The Sunnah (The Manhaj Of Ahl As-Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah),  (Translated edition, al-Tibyan Publications)

A more progressive Terrorism Studies

This I have resolved on … to run when I can, to go when I cannot run, and to creep when I cannot go.

Pilgrim’s Progress – Part 2 Chapter 6.

The role of the Feeble-mind character in Bunyan’s religious allegory Pilgrim’s Progress is to highlight the importance of continuing to make progress towards an identified goal.

A more progressive approach to Terrorism Studies could focus on extending the depth at which the Salafi-Jihadi movement is understood. This would be based on robust data science and human expertise, a focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement – Arabic – and the extensive archive of theologically inspired thought which the movement has produced.

It is the archive of theology as expressed and interpreted by the core of the movement which provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. In contrast, some researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies claim to see artefacts of their western habitus in Salafi-Jihadi material – the focus on crime, rap music, and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’.    

Since the 1980s research has shown that the study of terrorism has struggled with availability, handling and analysis of data. Despite the length of time and frequent observations about the problems with data, rather than making progress, these problems within orthodox Terrorism Studies have remained. In addition, “the dispersed nature of much of the more rigorous, ‘critical’ and conceptually innovative research on ‘terrorism’” means that level of rigor in research is conducted outside the orthodoxy.

Over a decade ago Magnus Ranstrop highlighted the ongoing problem, which Alex Schmid and Berto Jongman originally identified back in 1988; that ‘there are probably few areas in the social science literature in which so much is written on the basis of so little research’. As a result, much of the writing in Terrorism Studies is “impressionistic, superficial, and at the same time often also pretentious, venturing far-reaching generalisations on the basis of episodal evidence”.

Rüdiger Lohlker recently recently continued this theme when he highlighted, the tendency for orthodox Terrorism Studies to contain “an empty fog of words without inner content”. Quoting German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The section quoted by Rüdiger Lohlker continues:

This sort of chatter, though lacking the idea of philosophy, gains for itself a kind of authority through its very prolixity and arrogance. Partly this is because it seems almost incredible that such a big shell should be without a kernel…

 G. W. F. Hegel

Such is the coagulation of mediocrity within a section of orthodox Terrorism Studies that unscientific, methodologically flawed and statistically unsound commentary is talked up as ‘data science’ and ‘groundbreaking research’, while the evidentiary basis goes unquestioned within the mainstream scholarship and peer review. Over the last decade – rather than being addressed – these issues have become systemic.

Making progress

As noted in the development of Critical Terrorism Studies, “it is not enough to simply point out what is lacking in current research; a clear and realistic alternative must be provided”. Sections of the orthodox Terrorism Studies, and offshoots in the CVE industry, have an opportunity to break from the contemporary stagnation and develop a strong data culture and emphasis on evidence-based research. A progressive approach to analyzing the complex, theologically driven, Salafi-Jihadi movement, will move away from the contemporary obsession with finding so-called ‘gaps’ in the largely superficial and stagnant orthodox literature.

Many of the criticisms highlighted at the start of CTS remain within sections of the orthodoxy. CTS itself – with a focus on Western policy and Western academia – has struggled to break free from the Western frames of reference, among other challenges. The framing of Terrorism, with 9/11 as a moment of temporal rupture, still dominates CTS. This inhibits the deeper understanding of the Salafi-Jihadi movement which maintains different temporal reference points to those which dominate CTS and traditional approaches to Terrorism Studies, both in relation to time in the physical world and in relation to this world (Dunya) as an abode through which a soul passes.

To address the superficial, orientalist and neocolonialist tendencies of the orthodoxy, and the temporal framing of CTS, a progressive movement within Terrorism Studies would probe the intended meaning of Salafi-Jihadi content in their understanding of the world, rather than in a Western-centric English language dominated habitus. Critique of the orthodox Terrorism Studies has highlighted “its poor methods and theories, its state centricity, its problem-solving orientation and its institutional and intellectual links to state security projects”. Many of these problems have also concerned scholars within terrorism studies “who have long acknowledged the deficiencies and limitations of current research”.

In addition, a progressive Terrorism Studies approach would uphold standards for the appropriate use of statistical data to produce a clear break from the systemic malaise in data handling which have existed within orthodox Terrorism Studies. With a strong data culture and robust research design, a dynamic approach to Terrorism Studies could utilise the changes in the technological environment for research. This is not dissimilar from the way Salafi-Jihadi groups have adapted to the opportunities which evolving technology has created.

The way the object of study, such as the groups who make up the Salafi-Jihadi movement, choose to operate has evolved:

  • The evolving concept of the electronic ribat. Since 2011, members of jihadist forums have issued media strategies that encourage the development of a media mujahideen. This encouragement has been accompanied by the release of guides to using social media platforms, which often include lists of recommended accounts to follow. 
  • By 2013, Jihadists had aggressively expanded their use of Twitter, in addition to Facebook and YouTube, especially since the outbreak of violence in Syria. This propagation effort by the “media mujahideen” was approved and sanctioned by movement leaders and contributed to the interconnected jihadist zeitgeist. 
  • Learning from each interaction on the electronic ribat, the media mujahidin rapidly developed to maintain a persistent presence based on the speed, agility, and resilience of the Swarmcast.
  • In this struggle for survival, the media mujahidin have benefited from collective approaches and emergent behaviors, these have allowed a decentralised network to thrive in the face of increasingly aggressive content removal.
  • The media mujahidin frequently use widely available software for media production – this software would also be easily accessible to researchers to provide a window into the production methods.

In addition the current technological environment provides many opportunities for research:

  • Servers are cheap and easy to access – for example if you use Amazon for shopping, then that is enough to access cloud computing through AWS.
  • Processing power and RAM are cheaper than they have ever been, allowing relatively complex calculations and data analysis to be produced rapidly.
  • Most modern personal laptops and desktops have hardware sufficient to run the analysis required for many data science projects which would extend current research into the use of the internet by Salafi Jihadi groups, or ‘extremist’ groups more broadly. Of note, most contemporary material published by salafi Jihadi groups is produced on the same widely available hardware / software (more on that in a later post).
  • While there are many commercially available and hugely powerful ‘data systems’ which integrate a range of data storage and analytical processes within a single platform, there are also many open source programs which can be used to conduct academic research. These open sources software options may not permit all the analysis to be conducted within one platform, requiring the researcher to use a range of approaches to achieve the desired analysis.   
  • There are many ‘how to’ guides for those aspiring to become better at using python, java, or any of the other popular coding languages. Similarly, resources are freely available which researchers can use to learn more about data science or using specific open source software more generally in their work, whether in the form of walkthroughs or articles packed with quick tips and tricks.

To build a stronger data culture will mean;

  • Acknowledging the problems with evidence and data which have to date beset orthodox Terrorism Studies, 
  • Reviewers and editors robustly enforcing actual standards for statistical analysis, for example,
    • if you are going to claim something such as a correlation or a long-term trend – it will need to be backed up by a statistical calculation using data acquired through a scientifically appropriate method.  
    • if the analysis is based on subjective ‘coding’ of data – is there an appropriate intercoder reliability score. If there is not, there is little reason for readers to be confident that the research presented would be repeatable, that coding remains unchanged over time, and that other researchers would apply the same coding definitions in the same way. Without intercoder reliability there is little reason to have confidence in the resulting ‘analysis’ rendering it largely unpublishable.  
  • Editors and publishers insisting on clear conflict of interest reporting,
  • The Terrorism Studies community putting methodology above attention grabbing headlines and tweetable pseudo-metrics.
    • If the methodology is flawed or the statistical analysis unsound – no matter if the ‘findings’ are appealing or even intuitively correct – the study lacks the necessary basic elements to be considered publishable research.  
      • Sample:
        • If research is claiming to have analysed a sample, to what extent can the sample be considered representative of the whole?
        • Was that sample derived from a consistent methodology, or a hodgepodge of pieces cobbled together?
        • How was the sample identified and collected? In effect research design (architecture) and data collection (acquisition) to use two of Jeffrey Stanton’s four A’s of data science.   
    • If you cannot do the calculation to produce a statistical result, do not use the word related to that calculation e.g. correlation, trend etc.  
      • Correlation:
        • When an author claims correlation – a range of questions should spring to mind; do you mean a positive or negative correlation?
        • how strong a correlation?
        • Did you use Pearson, Spearman, or Kendall?
      • Trend:
        • If a trend / trendline is claimed, what is the R-squared value? Is your line a good representation of the data?
        • A trend requires more than two or three data points.
        • Do you mean one point in time has fewer of ‘x’ than another? This is not a trend, upward or downward, one point just has fewer than the other.

Based on what is currently being published within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies there are a range of issues, including;

  • Journals specifically focused on terrorism research, a range of journals in related disciplines which have hurried to do ‘special issues’ on ISIS, and ‘research centers’ self-publishing special reports, which have published articles as if they are either unaware of the basic scientific and statistical standards or are content to publish material that they know falls short of the minimum acceptable scientific standards.
  • Senior researchers, including Professors, who will cite work that falls short of scientific or statistical standards without commentary or critique, some even talking it up as ‘ground breaking’ or ‘data science’.  

The current state of orthodox Terrorism Studies must be judged on the behaviour of those in the discipline. Such is the coagulation of mediocrity in orthodox Terrorism Studies, senior researchers have not questioned unsound methodologies, and journals through their peer reviewers and editors, have not upheld standards. The previously observed problems of data and data analysis within some sections of orthodox Terrorism Studies have now reached systemic levels.

In a scientific discipline,

  • If the relevant scientific or methodological information is not present in an article submitted to a journal, then that paper is going in the bin because it does not reach minimum standards for undergraduate level work, let alone peer review.
  • When individuals deliver presentations, which make statistical claims about trends or correlation without any calculations, or use substandard / misleading data visualisation to support their argument, they could expect to be laughed out of the building.  

If statistical and data analysis in Terrorism Studies do not adopt the standards adopted by other fields, it cannot take full advantage of the potential offered by increasing integration of data science or forms of statistical analysis into the study of Salafi-Jihadi groups.

The following series of posts examines specific tangible reasons why robust data science and evidence-based analysis is important and offers a critique of contemporary uses of data within orthodox Terrorism Studies.  

  • A progressive focus on what events and material means to Salafi-Jihadi groups – Da’wa As Constant on the Path of Jihad:

The purpose of research is to develop deeper understand the object of study. While Western-centric interpretations of ‘utopia’ and claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are defeated may be easier to produce and more comfortable for policymakers to read, they do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes. The message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump and echoed by researchers including the authors of the ISIS Reader. Yet, while it is possible to produce a definition of ‘defeat’ to back such a claim, that definition is unlikely to be a useful indicator of the current state nor future behaviour of the group. Far from defeated al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.

In addition to expedient notions of ‘defeat’, the focus on concepts such  as ‘Utopia’ are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens. A progressive approach would focus on understanding what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and be able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.

  • Progressive commitment to scientific methods to escape the impressionistic and statistically unsound representations of data in orthodox Terrorism Studies:

The failure to uphold statistical methods in orthodox Terrorism Studies has become systemic. Methodologically flawed, statistically unsound, unpublishable garbage is now talked up within the orthodoxy of Terrorism studies as ‘data science’ by professors and published in journals or circulated as ‘special reports’. This section provides a critique of the unscientific approaches to data and statistics considered acceptable within orthodox Terrorism Studies. The adoption of a progressive approach to Terrorism Studies would demand a clear break from this flawed research, putting robust methodology above tweetable headlines. 

  • Orthodoxy claims decline – time for a reality check:

While production of media content by IS has fluctuated, some commentators have sought to coerce the data into a linear direction – a so-called decline. This section examines how the narrative has been constructed and shows that committing to the decline narrative has meant overlooking some serious methodological flaws and fluctuation in content. The decline narrative was built by shifting the goalposts both in terms of definition and time-periods rather than robust statistical analysis. In fact, while some claimed consensus around the decline narrative – a robust statistical analysis reveals average weekly video output increased in both quantity and longevity of production between 2017 and 2019.

  • Neo-Colonialist tendency to devalue ideas in Arabic:

This section unpacks some of the methods widely accepted within orthodox Terrorism Studies to show how they devalue material in Arabic in favour of English language sources and Western-Centric interpretations. A progressive Terrorism studies would focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement (Arabic).

  • Decline narrative as strategic communication tool:

The so-called decline has been more than a narrative deployed in commentary; it has also been used as a strategic communication tool. This section highlights the need for genuine scientific methodologies, appropriate statistical analyses, and robust conflict of interest reporting to ensure the field can escape the current coagulation of mediocrity and rebuild confidence in the academic output.

  • Progressive commitment to robust statistical analysis; the end to Mc_Data:

Scientific methodologies and robust statistical approaches can lift orthodox Terrorism Studies out of the current malaise of mediocrity, and enable the field to embrace the opportunity available through evidence-based research and a stronger data culture.  

A progressive Terrorism studies, using robust data science and evidence-based analysis, is important because contrary to the dominant narratives of IS having collapsed or been in terminal decline, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) used the time on the open front in Iraq and Syria as an educational opportunity, to build a base of supporters running into the thousands. This is why al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”.

As such, the theology which groups such as al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote, will remain, will endure and, when given the opportunity of fertile soil, it will expand visibly when it suits their strategic cause.

Dawn is coming.

Jihad on the Internet – The Anomalous Case of Abu Jandal al-Azdi

alt - voice-ofjihad

Note: A version of this article was originally published in 2007 by the Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies. Due to the up-to-date nature of what type of content jihadists create, curate, disseminate and of course share via online (and offline networks), the article is slightly reworked republished here. The work by Faris al-Zahrani, a core member of the first generation of AQAP and it’s electronic da’wa networks that serve as a theological-activist legacy foundation for both AQ and IS, is a valuable cornerstorne in understanding jihadism in their own (Arabic) words. His work is shared on Telegram, sometimes in it’s original release format, sometimes in a more timely package, and his interview for the Sawt al-Jihad is a legend within jihadist circles online. Abu Jandal al-Azdi, as he was known by his nom de guerre, was al-Qa’ida’s editor and a muscle of online jihadi activism as coined by the marvelous Joas Wagemakers, one of the few scholars in the field of jihadism who actively reads Arabic content to make sense of the vast content released by extremist actors & groups.

 Zahrani

(above: 2018 Telegram screenshot of a group conveying English materials to provide da’wa to non-Arabic speakers in the jihadist understanding of pedagogy; this group shared old-AQ and – at the time – new IS materials)

2007: The Internet has become the medium of communication and exchange of information for the Jihadis. In the past years, the Internet has been increasingly used on a very efficient and professional basis. Countless online Jihad communities have come into existence. Not only have a number of online forums been established[1], but there are countless blogs and traditional websites available, which spread and share a broad variety of documents and data in general. Jihadis often refer to the Arabic term isdarat for data, that consists of general publications, videos (suicide bombings and last testimonies, roadside bomb attacks etc.), sermons or general statements and declarations – but also technical information such as bomb-making, weapons guides or chemical crash courses[2]. Over the years the Internet has become a 24-hour online database, where any user with sufficient knowledge of the Web (and some Arabic[3]) is able to access and/or download these isdarat. In an interview with al-Qa’ida’s first online magazine (2003), Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), Abu Jandal al-Azdi explains the reasons for these isdarat and states that „these [isdarat] guide the youth of Islam and they [the Mujahidin and their leaders] have published books, statements, audio-files, and videos.”[4] Today the users exchange useful tips and practical hints, discuss ideological and theological issues and allow an insight into their tactics and strategies within the online forums. The usage of the Web has been systematically funneled by the al-Qa’ida cells on the Arabian Peninsula.[5] To provide a short overview on what kind of isdarat are being spread over the Internet here are several categories (letzter Halbsatz unklar-passt es so?)[6], roughly comprising, what I would call world-wide Online Jihad:

  1. Handbooks: Explosives – how to fabricate, how to use (for example RDX, TNT or IED’s and practical tips from battle-tested Mujahidin); Weapon handbooks – nearly all weapons categories are described, such as anti-tank cannons, assault rifles, rockets; ABC weapons – explanations and theoretical discourses; Military handbooks – translated U.S. Army material as well as handbooks designed for urban and guerrilla warfare; Toxins, Assassinations, Intelligence and counterintelligence, etc.
  2. Technical assistance (hard-, and software), using the Internet – essential information such as how to program, design and maintain a web page, how to make videos and what file-hosting-sites are best used (and porn-free) to host these sometimes 1 or 2 GB-size files; Programs, what programs should be used to protect oneself, to conceal the IP address, Firewall, Anti-Virus etc.; another important aspect is the use of PGP, the encryption software, that has led to the development of „ the first Islamic program to communicate secure over networks.”[7]
  3. Ideology – Ranging from statements, letters, books and comments from Osama bin Laden, to very detailed and thoroughly described would-be legal documents (fatwa’s) [8] and documents in general that deal with all kinds of religious or practical justifications and explanations. These sometimes several hundred pages long WORD and/or PDF documents include topics such as „Guiding the Confused on the Permissibility of Killing the Prisoners”[9], referring to the capture of seven Russian police officers in Chechnya who were later executed; the call to join, or a call for Jihad, as written by Abdullah ‘Azzam in his prominent document entitled „ Join the Caravan!”[10] or the writings of al-Maqdisi, who is currently imprisoned in Jordan and who regularly denounces democracy and democratic elections as being un-Islamic and therefore kufr (disbelief)[11], are circulating on the Internet and are being read by mostly those who also are participants (active and passive) in the numerous online forums.

picture 1

Shared by AQ groups online 2000s

The Internet has become essential to understand (and identify) the ideology of al-Qa’ida and other radical islamic currents. With the creation of online databases, the ideological documents are now available for everybody. The Jihadis have undertaken the endeavour of digitalising a great deal of writings that played a major role in the 1980s Jihad against the Soviets (Abdullah Azzam) and have influenced a generation of radicalized youth, who then continued this tradition – only this time using laptops and the Internet.

Most authors of ideological documents – as listed above – usually entitle themselves as being a Shaykh, a respected and knowledgeable man, who has either studied at a Islamic university and specialized in sharia law or other fields of Islam, or is being called a Shaykh because of his understanding of Islam. Take Yusuf al-‘Ayiri, the ideological predecessor of Faris az-Zahrani (also known as Abu Jandal al-Azdi) and the first leader of the al-Qa’ida organization in Saudi Arabia. Although he never completed secondary school, he has become one of the best-known and famous authors of Jihad literature. He was killed during a clash with Saudi security forces in 2003, but has since his death attained an even more important role and his writings are influencing those, who are interested to find out more about Jihad through the Internet. His writings consist of works such as „The Ruling on Jihad and its [varying] Classes“, „The Truth about the New Crusader War”, or „The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Self-Sacrificial Operations.“ After his death al-Qa’ida started to publish its second online magazine to commemorate al-‘Ayiri, it was called mu’askar al-battar (the Camp of the Sabre), whose nom du guerre had been al-Battar.

alternative picture 1

The Case of Abu Jandal al-Azdi

 

Faris az-Zahrani, known by his alias Abu Jandal al-Azdi is an ideologue whose importance and meaning is not much inferior to al-’Ayiri’s. Both ‘scholars’ have added many important documents that are vital for ideological purposes of al-Qa’ida and are crucial for its survival and propaganda. While al-‘Ayiri reappears regularly on the Internet[12], Faris az-Zahrani is a special case even though he has not been as popular as al-‘Ayiri. Az-Zahrani was arrested in Saudi Arabia in August 2004, „while he was preparing a bomb attack on a cultural centre in the town of Abha, in the south of the Kingdom.“[13] Unlike al-‘Ayiri or most of the wanted Mujahidin and ideologues, az-Zahrani, the number 8 on the list of the 26 most wanted jihadis, is alive, serving a prison sentence and has a university degree[14]. He has become known for having written books and essays such as „Bin Laden: The Reformer of our Times and Defeater of the Americans”[15], his book referring to 9/11 „Allahu akbar – America has been devastated”, or „the Dispute [between] the Sword and the Pen”[16] and for his articles in the Voice of Jihad (such as „Pledge them Loyalty until Death”[17]). Az-Zahrani, whose real name was unknown until the release of the „List of the 26 Most Wanted”[18] by Saudi authorities explains in an interview with the Voice of Jihad his reasons for publishing under the alias Abu Jandal al-Azdi, as he compares himself with other prominent ideologues. Beginning with Osama bin Laden (also known as Abu ‘Abdallah, or Abu Qa’qaa’), he refers to other scholars that publish their work using an alias, „since the Mujahidin and their leaders are at war with the Crusaders, the Jews (America and Britain […]) and their agents, the heretics, who are present in our country.”[19] He goes on by mentioning the works of writers and scholars that are available online and it seems that az-Zahrani has read most, if not all, of their work and concludes „the day will come, you will know who is Abu Jandal al-Azdi – I am begging God for firmness until death.”[20].

al-azdi america has been devastated Cover

Unlike the older scholars, the new generation of radical writers are roaming freely on the Internet, having adapted themselves to modern technology, being able not only to read the huge amounts of must-read Jihad literature, but they do not have to fear being arrested while secretly printing or distributing their writings. In an interview with the Voice of Jihad, az-Zahrani reveals how he used the Internet to publish his work and explains the advantage of the Web. Being asked „well known on the Internet is your beneficial book ‘the Scholar on the Ruling of Killing Individuals and Officers of the Secret Police’, could you briefly tell us about the judicial sharia-ruling [that allows] to target the secret police?”[21], Az-Zahrani informs the reader about the second edition of this „most famous book, that is circulating on the Internet, (…) this book provoked [lots of] good reactions among those seeking knowledge and the youth of Islam, and it also provoked severe reactions from the supporters of the idols [the ruling Saudi family].”[22] Books like these and articles of the Voice of Jihad, as for example „the Urgent Letter to the Soldiers in the Land of the Two Holy Places”[23] led to reactions by Saudi counter-terrorist units. Furthermore az-Zahrani delivers a detailed description how his work stirred up the establishment ‘ulama’, the religious scholars of Saudi Arabia who are loyal to the Saudi ruling family, and reflects about the reaction of several Arabic newspapers after one of his students confronted his professor with this work – and was banned from university. „After five days I met the young man, the agonized innocent, and I asked him whether or not he has returned to his studies, he said no. I told him that I will take his matter to the Minister of Education […]., I withdrew the book from the Internet and gave the Minister of wakf (endowment) a copy […], but we never saw any reaction.”[24] Az-Zahrani concludes the first part of the interview by drawing a direct parallel to al-Maqdisi, who wrote the book „Obvious Disclosures of the Disbelief of the Saudi State”[25]. What had been the case with al-Maqdisi happened to az-Zahrani: both had published books using an alias, both attacked the Saudi system and the ruling family, denouncing them as being unbelievers, heretics, stressing that it is the fault of the Saudis, that Americans and Westerners are in the holiest country of Islam and both sparked public debates lead by the establishment ‘ulama’ on national TV.

The capture of az-Zahrani has been a vital blow against al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia, just a few months after the death of the newly appointed third leader ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Muqrin; the organization lost their leading ideologue as well. Immediately after his arrest, the Voice of Jihad published a „Statement regarding the Capture of Abu Salman Faris az-Zahrani,”[26] clearly defining what may best be termed as re-enacting prophecy.

Re-enacting Prophecy – re-enacting Moses and the Game of the Pharaohs”

 

00_05_13

For Jihadis life is full of temptation (fitna) and trials (ibtila’) set by God and only those who are true believers can resist these temptations, remain focused and concentrated on the main objective of human existence – the service of God, Him alone (‘tawhid’). The battle is on against a system of disbelief and heresy, notably led by the U.S. with the help of their agents within the Islamic world, whereas the members of the ruling clan of the Saud family are nothing less than agents of the West. This notion is part of a widespread rhetoric in Jihad literature. Therefore the perception of being imprisoned by Saudi authorities means to be imprisoned by the worldwide system of disbelief, whereas the God fearing, righteous Muslim is suddenly subdued, his belief is endangered and will be tested. The „Statement regarding the Capture” starts with the declaration that „captivity is a milestone of the marks of the path”[27] and „a form of the test, by which God wants to trial the believers and is a ruse of the unbelievers, just as God says: “And when those who disbelieve plot against thee (O Muhammad) to wound thee fatally, or to kill thee or to drive thee forth; they plot, but Allah (also) plotteth; and Allah is the best of plotters.”[28] The statement continues by directly comparing the situation of the Muhjahidin today with Moses, who was sent by God to the Pharaoh and who was – just like the Mujahidin in their perception – persecuted and imprisoned by the infidel ruler. To underline their argument, several verses of the Quran are being cited. Unusual is the fact that most of these verses are taken from the surat ash-shu’ara’ (the Poets), that narrates the stories of the Prophets Moses, Abraham, Noah, Hud, Salih and others. Just like the Mujahidin, Moses was first tempted in prison, then later publicly contested – and beat the Pharaoh by his unique arguments and his ability to counter the magic deployed by the magicians summoned by the Pharaoh.[29] By this he won over the people and the magicians , who subsequently recognized that Moses was sent by God and recognized that Pharaoh is not their Lord and his Gods have proven wrong.[30] This notion probably prospered when the Saudi „government, under pressure because of the violence[31], apparently tried to appease the Jihadis by offering an amnesty period of one month (June – July 2004).”[32] Now, just like the interaction of Pharaoh and Moses, the ruling system, deemed infidel, invited the opponents, the Mujahidin, fighting on the „path of God” to – just like Moses – be opposed by the rulers who activated „specific heraldries, having been able to mobilize armies from their available soldiers (magicians, scholars, authors, journalists and the general media).”[33] If the majority of the Mujahidin and their scholars accepted this amnesty, then they would have been imprisoned because the ruler is aware that he cannot defeat the „arguments of truth” and would thus publicly display his flaws. Since the rulers are aware of that, according to az-Zahrani, there cannot „be a true dialogue with the People of the Truth (= the Mujahidin),” for they, the Saudi government, are „incapable to give answers to the questions by the free Mujahidin […] published on their websites and elsewhere.” The questions are for example:

„What is the ruling on the rulers who do not judge based on what God has revealed (…); what is the ruling on the rulers who decide, based on the laws of disbelief and idolatry, instead of what God has ruled; what is the ruling on the rulers, who permit the inviolable and have forbidden the permissible; what is the ruling on the rulers that wage war on God, His messenger and the believers, using different kinds of techniques, [such means as] enticement and terror; what is the ruling on the rulers that keep the peoples away from the religion of God?”

These questions have not been answered by the Saudi regime. Radical ideologues like az-Zahrani claim to be the bearer of truth with their attacks on the regime, stating that „whoever does not do what they [the Saud family] want, then they will place him in their prisons, and they will torture him, and they will say there is no dialogue with such people except with the rifle and the sword.” The question is not co-existence, but to remove the ungodly ruler and (re-) establish an Islamic caliphate on the Arabian Peninsula, implying the rule of God, the sharia and thus allowing all Muslims, all believers the right path, defined by the strict exegesis of Quran and Sunna. The constant comparison to Moses and the Pharaoh is an ancient comparison to modern times – obeying the ruler and denouncing belief, or resisting the ruler and be imprisoned. And just as Pharaoh had assembled his „magicians”, so will the rulers of Saudi Arabia gather their „magicians” to fight an inevitable battle with the Mujahidin, who will like Moses remain steadfast and resolve this battle victorious.

Quranic verses, taken out of their context and placed to underline the arguments such as 26:29: [Pharao said] „If thou choosest a god other than me, I assuredly shall place thee among the prisoners”, re-affirm the reader (and the writer) of their holy mission, that they cannot be misguided and are struggling not only for the truth but a greater good, namely the Islamic umma. According to al-Zahrani, the „phenomenon of the Pharaoh” is present at all times, throughout history of mankind – manifested by the rule of the Al Saud (Saudi family) on the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. With their writings, ideologues such as Faris az-Zahrani consolidate the conviction of certain circles, that the near enemies, the governments in the Arabic countries are kept alive by the West, if it serves the interest of the West and rule their people not only in a un-Islamic manner but do not tolerate any form of freedom.[34] And freedom for hard-core ideologues like az-Zahrani and others means that their interpretation of the religion of God must be applied.

What has been written about imprisonment, torture, arbitrary use of power, etc, by certain regimes in the Middle East may be true; the mixture of frustration and the obligatory identification of a scapegoat combined with the Islamists conviction that their understanding of Islam is the only permissible school of thought (for all of mankind) has become an attractive alternative to many younger people, not only living in the Middle East.

2020 Does the writings by al-Zahrani / al-Azdi still matter?

Untitled-1

Writings released 2014/5 featured in the context of writings by al-Azdi, having penned “advice to the soldier” whereas 2014/5 IS took this right up to issue a clear (based on AQAP generation output) “ruling in regards of the soldier of the taghut”;

تعليق توضيحي 2020-01-06 161421

and al-Azdi’s scholarly framed “ruling on killing individuals and soldiers of the secret police”;

تعليق توضيحي 2020-01-06 164849

and of course the now intensified cross-platform use: IS January 2020 advising to get know al-Azdi using old links (up since 2015) via TamTam.

—-

[1] Most of these forums, which are sometimes falsely described as chat-rooms, are online for several years now. Some of these forums have vanished, others have always been re-established after having been shut down by either authorities, or, as we can observe these days, by individuals who undertake counter-cyberjihadist measures. See for example: http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20071010/NATION/110100083.

[2] There is countless data on the web – especially in the forums issues such as bomb-making or tips for snipers are being discussed. Sometimes Mujahidin share their field knowledge and sometimes users simply seek the know-how.

[3] The main forums are all Arabic, but forums in other languages (English, Turkish, Russian etc.) are available. The Jihad videos are also sometimes subtitled and quite a few documents have been translated by „brothers of the translation department” into English.

[4] sawt al-jihad number 11, 17.

[5] Al-Qa’ida is subdivided in several organizations (tanzim), each having a specific name, identifying the area of operation; tanzim al-Qa’ida fi-jazirat al-‘arab is the official name for those cells operating on the Arabian Peninsula. Commented translations of all statements and memoranda made by al-Qa’ida on the Arabian Peninsula: Nico Prucha, Die Stimme des Dschihad – al-Qa’ida’s erstes online Magazin (thesis soon to be published).

[6] These few categories shown here as an example, serve to manage and keep track of the loads of growing downloadable data.

[7] This program, called „the Secrets of the Mujahiden” (asrar al-mujahidin), was published online in the forums and has received some attention on the Internet. This program, written by the „Technical Squadron” of the GIMF, the Global Islamic Media Front, is designed to be a secure method of communicating over the Internet, for „al-Qa’ida worldwide, for the Islamic State Iraq, Ansar as-Sunna (…)”, even for the „Islamic Army of Palestine” and the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat – the GSPC that officially became the Organization al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb. More prominent is a handbook called „the technical mujahid” (al-mujahid at-tiqqani), that gives a detailed description how to use PGP encryption software (chapter 4), how to hide data within JPEG pictures (chapter 1) and how to fire smart weapons, shoulder-fired rockets at U.S. Army helicopters (chapter 3). For a good insight on the manual: Abdul Hameed Bakier, The New Issue of Technical Mujahid, a Training Manual for Jihadis, Terrorism Monitor, March 29, 2007, http://jamestown.org/news_details.php?news_id=232 (09.10.2007).

[8] Islamic legal documents, issued by the ‘ulama’ (religious scholars). Since al-Qa’ida doesn’t recognize the Saudi ‘ulama’, al-Qa’ida ideologues issue their own fatwa’s, denouncing the Saudi ‘ulama’ as ungodly and therefore claiming to be responsible for the guidance of the Islamic community.

[9] Yusuf Al-Ayiri, Al-hadayat al-hiyara fi-juwaz qatl al-asara – for a description of the writings of this prominent al-Qa’ida ideologue: Roel Meijer, „Re-Reading al-Qaeda Writings of Yusuf al-Ayiri, http://www.isim.nl/files/Review_18/Review_18-16.pdf.

[10] Abdallah Azzam, Ilhaq al-qafila, http://tawhed.ws/r?i=1600 – a detailed commented translation of his article „ Join the Caravan” is provided by Thomas Hegghammer in Al-Qaida Texte des Terrors, ed. Gilles Kepel and Jean P. Milelli (Munich: Piper, 2006), 193-212.

[11] For example: „Useful answers regarding parliamentary participation and it’s election [that are] contradicting the unity of God” (p.10-25) – taken from the „ Fatwa-Collection by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.”

[12] In most forums a new file (19.10.2007) had been posted and ready to be downloaded – a 440 MB-data compilation that comprises al-Ayiri’s writings and speeches, as well the writings of other prominent al-Qa’ida activists (e.g. al-Muqrin) that had been killed by Saudi security forces.

[13] Roel Meijer, The ‘Cycle of Contention’ and the Limits of Terrorism in Saudi Arabia, in Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs, ed. Paul Aarts and Gerd Nonneman (London: Hurst and Company, 2005), 271-314.

[14] According to Stephen Ulph, „ he was highly trained in fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and was a graduate of the Shari’ah College of Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University’s Abha branch.” Stephen Ulph,  Al-Qaeda’s Ideological Hemorrhage, The Jamestown Foundation, http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2368409.

[15] For a description of this work: Reuven Paz, Sawt al-Jihad: New Indoctrination of Qa’idat al-jihad, PRISM Series of Global Jihad, No. 8, http://www.e-prism.org/images/PRISM_no_8.doc.

[16] http://tawhed.ws/a?i=9 – a list of most of his publications.

[17] Sawt al-Jihad Number 13, 16-18.

[18] http://www.saudiembassy.net/documents/Wanted%20Poster.pdf.

[19] Sawt al-Jihad number 10, 23.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The intention is of the interviewer is the receive a clear statement by the scholar az-Zahrani, based on the Islamic corpus juris, that allows to actively combat the Saudi authorities, especially it’s agents of the secret police and also the common soldier.

[22] Sawt al-Jihad number 10, 26.

[23] Sawt al-Jihad number 16, 21-26 defines the soldiers in the service of the authorities as being apostates (murtadin), who are being used by the Saudi government and the Crusaders as executioners. „ If you do not obey those [Saudi] ‘ulama in resisting God, there is no doubt that you are not just guilty of disobedience [to God], but of apostasy from Islam (…). You are not assisting the Crusaders in a few words, you have assisted them by yourselves (…), why don’t the Crusaders come by themselves to kill the Mujahidin!!!”

[24] Sawt al-Jihad number 10, 26.

[25] http://tawhed.ws/r?i=2

[26] Sawt al-Jihad number 22, 5-6.

[27] Referring to the work Milestones by Sayyid Qutb (ma’alim fi-t tariq).

[28] Quran 8:30, translation by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/pick/index.htm.

[29] Quran 26:30-38 (Pickthall).

[30] Quran 8:50(Pickthall).

[31] In 2004 the Jihadis had targeted several Western oil companies and killed five Western workers in the Red Sea city of Yanbu.

[32] Al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 190.

[33] Abu Jandal Al-Azdi, A Program We won’t show you except what the Al Sa’ud perceives and the Al Sa’ud doesn’t Guide you to anything else than to the Path of Reason, http://tawhed.ws/r?i=1823. This document is also known by the title the Game of the Pharaohs.

[34] A common theme in the jihadi literature, and thoroughly described in “The Statement of the Mujahidin on the Arabian Peninsula concerning the last declarations of the [Saudi] Ministry of the Interior” that calls for the fight against the rulers as being a jihad for freedom, against tyranny and oppression; Sawt al-Jihad number 2, 33-35.

Back to the Nashir – Total Decentralization and Enhanced Resilience

Much has been written – and claimed – about the importance of the “Nashir” setup for the online presence of IS. By its logo, most times despite some variations, Nashir is easy to identify, even for non-Arabic speakers. As outlined before, Nashir is part of the IS ecosystem of online operations, but by no means “the” core spine or the central hub. From the start of jihadist online operations in the pre-9/11 2001 era, they have been resourceful, creative, highly adaptive and keen to adapt to new possibilities showcasing a high degree of innovation of ensuring to fulfilling – in jihadist mindset – the divine command of militant actions in real-life and a coherent flow of content framed as da’wa for the electronic and non-electronic realms.

In short, whatever is possible online, jihadists have been keen and adventurous from start to tamper with and follow a best-practice use that develops from a user perspective to ensure their wide range of violent, pro-violent, non-violent content stays up for as long as possible. The same habitus accounts for jihadist battlefield experiments and making use of scarce resources – as in early of the Iraq war who remembers the handles of shovels re-used as butts for pieced-together Dragunov sniper rifles?

“For the time being, for as far as we know, IS is not present on the internet anymore and we will see how fast, if ever, they will regain service”, according to Belgian Federal Prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt after a massive takedown of IS accounts and networks on Telegram, IS was quick to kick back into action within about twelve hours. As the Nashir accounts had been culled, a big fuss was being made of the importance of IS having lost its core network.

IS creates content and pushes it out via dispersed networks. While this was centered on Telegram as the main dissemination hub, the Europol-led takedown of IS networks on that platform had the consequence that the networks formerly confined to Telegram are now on over a dozen of platforms and services similar to Telegram. Needles to write, the use of ‘outside’ links to/for the ‘surface’ web continues uninterrupted – but you need to monitor a lot of platforms now to ensure collecting as much as possible IS hubs (from Telegram, yes IS was back quick, to TamTam, Hoop, BCM, etc. etc.).

Cross platform use furthermore has a higher level of resilience as links to respective platforms are exchanged and increasingly a need for a exchange of quick private messages is required to receive ‘trusted’ links, including selected Nashir channels to avoid further takedown (including a Facebook messenger link).

tg-coms

Back to the Nashir

With Nashir alive and kicking on over a dozen of platforms, posting/reposting ‘Amaq content, new videos, new written releases (al-Naba’, collected statement of Abu Bakr etc.), Nashir has regained a presence in the blogging sphere.

bitly-19k

Sharing a bit.ly link, first on December 18 within Tamtam and also within Telegram, this particular link was clicked over 19,000 times since its creation on December 10, 2019.

frontpage

up-to-date content, ‘Amaq statements claming various attacks in MENA, the Sahel, West Africa, the current al-Naba’ edition, martyr poster – screengrab of the Nashir site.

country

Where are consumers most likely located – VPN use distorts yet nobody uses a VPN to switch to a restricted country.

source

and another example of diversification – the problem with the very temporary inconvenience as an “IS user” on Telegram due to the end of November Europol cull has enabled to re-enable the Telegram network and over a dozen other platforms as back/ups / parallel use to decentralized da’wa operations online to ensure a persistent presence of up-to-date and ‘historical’ content of primarily Arabic sources that matter gravely to IS.

 “What if the Caliphate Falls?” The IS Outlook in Early 2019

التقاط

By Seth Cantey and Nico Prucha

As outlined in our last post, around the time that al-Kuwaiti ended his life, a document written by an author using the pseudonym Abu Mawadda emerged. Titled “What if the caliphate were to fall?”[1] the article featured a banner showing a mighty tree, weathered by what appears to be a storm, yet firmly rooted to the ground. As IS has emphasized in several propaganda releases, physical territory is not required in order to act on behalf of “prophetic methodology,” which includes losses and defeat.[2] The relationship to physical territory is relative and fluctuates as jihadists are tested by God, and where only pure and true believers succeed either in this life or the afterlife.[3] What matters is the struggle and overcoming any tribulation (ibtila’) and strife (fitna). These stages clarify who is a true believer and steadfast and who is a hypocrite (munafiq) or weak in his/her belief. For Sunni extremists, steadfastness, in Arabic thibat, is detailed within a strict theological framework. No true believer can have thibat without physically proving so, and only those who are steadfast can overcome fitna or deviation. Fitna is part of creation and a means to separate humans into groups, ranging from true believers to various stages of disbelievers, hypocrites etc. Thus, fitna is a tool to ensure human purity and sincere intention to be in the service of God, and therefore to act on God’s behalf to implement, safeguard, and spread divine laws. “For God, high and exalted he is, crafted fitna in his creation to separate the sincere believers from the hypocritical liars.”[4]

Following classical jihadist literature, this claim is backed by holy scripture, the Qur’an, which is cited as proof and confirmation. “For us, we have been instructed on how to learn about those who are sincere, who are mentioned and brought to attention in the noble verses [of the Qur’an] (…), proof for those who are sincere is clearly stated. God, all praise is his, said, “The true believers are the ones who have faith in God and His Messenger and leave all doubt behind, the ones who have struggled with their possessions and their persons in God’s way. They are the ones who are true.”[5]

The 2016 document, foreseeing the obvious, that the height of IS territorial conquest cannot be sustained for the foreseeable future, highlights the main achievement of “the state.” “As God – high and exalted he is – declared you as those who believe in God and his messenger. Having realized the conditions of faith (shurud al-iman) to establish the religion of God, with the enabling by God of those who firmly believe [in the conquering of] territory.”[6] The document continues on the topic of the conquest of territory: “They [IS] have enforced obligatory prayers, the giving of alms (zakat), and are those who are commandeering good and forbidding what is wrong.”[7] The last part is a direct reference to the principle of ‘Al-amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa-nahiyy ‘an al-munkar’, with the important difference that IS uses the active verb, implying they are the ones who actively and by human effort command good (amirun) and actively forbid evil (nahun).  In this claim, the group seeks to draw on the authority of Qur’an 3:104: “Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong. Those who do this are the successful ones.”[8]

The current legacy of IS, which is of dire importance to the group as it loses territory, is at least twofold. First, IS was able to reformat physical territory based on its understanding of annihilating people and cultural heritage, vindicating (from the group’s perspective) its theology of violence. Second, its actions were documented in full HD videos, and these images are being re-shared in a context of nostalgia. Thus, IS asks “how can the disbelievers and hypocrites claim that the Mujahideen are dissuaded when losing a city or province, or when an amir or minister is killed? (…) By God, certainly not. The loss of Raqqa, Mosul, al-Khayr, Homs, even losing all provinces of the caliphate in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, East Africa and elsewhere [won’t affect us], God is in command of what has been and what is to come. (…) [Territorial losses] are only going to mislead the hypocrites (…) not the sincere muwahhideen. They are the ones continuing the insurgency, unimpressed by the killings of their leaders or losing their cities.”[9] The legacy of the first generation of leaders, ministers, and key theological figures endures in the form of their writings, audio-speeches, videos, and pictures online, where jihadist media supporters continue to (re-) post and (re-) share content across a wide range of platforms. “They suspect and imagine that the death of our leaders is the end of the caliphate. If this umma were to die with the death of the caliph, it would have died with the death of Prophet Muhammad.”[10]

This sentiment was reinforced in a document published in April 2018 that mocked the global coalition against Daesh as “having amassed many states, yet the Islamic State stays on top.”[11] It further mocked “the continued declared victory by this campaign here and there, claiming that the state of Islam has collapsed and is eliminated.” The mindset for IS is that their adversaries have lost the desire to fight. The group claims to find this unsurprising, as reflected in the quote: “How can they be patient in a war against those who love death on the path of God, just as they love life? They are fighting men who are dedicated to paradise, seeking to satisfy their lord.” For jihadist supporters and actual fighters, one key slogan is that the Islamic State will remain (baqiyya). Proof that this is the case for over a decade is expressed in comparing the coming and going of U.S. administrations over time. “The Bush administration claimed victory. The administration left, and the Islamic state remained. Obama came to power and did the same thing, yet the Islamic State remained. Now the old man Trump came and wants the same thing, and as before him, he will be unable to achieve victory.”[12]

Sunni extremists continue operating freely online, expanding existing databases of texts (theory) and videos (practice) for future generations. Organization on platforms like Telegram allows for a swarming to other platforms, social media sites, and the internet in general. Jihadists believe in the divine obligation of da’wa (proselytizing) to indoctrinate future generations for their cause. Groups such as IS operate conveniently online, their clandestine networks protected by, as outlined before on this blog:

  • A linguistic firewall: Arabic language skills are required to access clandestine networks. (The ongoing paucity of these language skills among researchers is appalling.)
  • An initiation firewall: knowledge of the coherent use of coded religious language and keywords, which few researchers, even those who do speak and read Arabic, can demonstrate in their writing.
  • The challenges of Telegram, where IS succeeded in shifting and re-adapting its modus operandi of in-group discussions and designated curated content intended for both public and private audiences (as part of a wider da’wa).

Media raids ensure that dedicated content gets pumped to the surface web, ranging from Twitter to Facebook, while the IS-swarm can (re-)configure and organize content related to what is happening offline on the ground. This ensures that the cycle of offline events influencing online materials is uninterrupted. Theological motivation, coherently repacked and put in practice, based on 300,000 pages of writings and over 2,000 videos by IS alone, must be addressed. Yet, “without deconstructing the theology of violence inherent in jihadi communications and practice, these religious ideas will continue to inspire others to act, long after any given organized force, such as the Islamic State, may be destroyed on the ground.”[13]

[1] Abu Mawadda (Al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa(tu)?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[2] Samih ‘Umar, “Khasarna Manbij wa-rabihna al-ma’raka,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, August 17, 2017.

[3] This relates to the notion of seeking ihda al-husayn, victory (nasr) or martyrdom (shahada).

[4] Abu Mawadda (al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[5] Ibid, citing Qur’an 49:15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Embedded in this citation of the Qur’an is the deeper meaning of applied theology – referenced in the Qur’an in Arabic as ya’murun bi-l-ma’ruf wa-yanhun bi-l-munkir.

[9] Abu Mawadda (al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Nasif al-Shabahat, “Dawla satunsar wa-hamla satuksar,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, April 2018.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rüdiger Lohlker, “Theology Matters: The Case of Jihadi Islam.” Strategic Review. July/September 2016. http://sr-indonesia.com/in-the-journal/view/europe-s-misunderstanding-of-islam-and-isis

The Era of Recruitment via Twitter. Online Initiation into the Ranks of IS: the Tale of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti

3

By Seth Cantey and Nico Prucha

In December 2015, the, at the time, IS media outlet Al-Wafa’ released a document titled “Story of the call to arms of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti.” Penned under the pseudonym Hafid al-Khattabi, the author details Abu Anwar’s journey from Kuwait to the ranks of the Islamic State. According to the account, Abu Anwar studied engineering in the U.S., where he followed a liberal lifestyle of sin. Later, “he chose the path of repentance.” He learned about IS when he was asked about the group by a journalist on the street after leaving a mosque. The reporter was shocked to learn that Abu Anwar did not know anything about IS.[1] The article suggests that an ignorant Western reporter who bumped into a Muslim leaving a mosque lit the spark for Abu Anwar that led him to the Islamic State. After searching for “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” online and learning more, he wondered why he had only known about the “Islamic State” from history books. He continued his search for hours and come across many electronic sources.”[2] This hours-long quest to find out about IS online enabled him “to see and listen for himself about the Islamic State that some people had claimed was nothing but a criminal group, an aggressor, that had no room for mercy or compassion.”[3] He started to follow the “electronic releases of the Islamic State and was overwhelmed by the refutations and revelations of doubt disseminated against IS.[4]  He continued to read the noble Qur’an and the hadith of the prophet – God’s blessings upon him – and was entangled by the verses related to jihad, istishhad,[5] hijra, and combat. Especially the hadith relating to Sham [historical Syria][6] fascinated him, exerting himself in the study of tawhid, al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, ahkam al-diyyar, the obligations to migrate from the abode of disbelief to the abode of Islam, the obligation for disbelief in the tawaghit, the excommunication (takfir) of the soldiers of the tyrants, absolute dissociation from them and any disbeliever, [and] loyalty to Muslims and [the obligation] to support them by worldly and bodily means.”[7] The process of studying online resources by IS and becoming radicalized, in the sense that Abu Anwar considers the theological content by IS online as more authoritative than his understanding of religious matters prior, took about eight months.

In most Muslim-majority societies, just as in most Christian and other religious communities, religious scripture that enables violence or dehumanization of the “other” only plays a marginal role. Sunni extremists always project themselves as being ‘true’ Muslims, their focus to theologically explain the obligation to be a ‘100 % Muslim,’ which they argue requires enforcing and explaining otherwise neglected elements that relate to violence. This authoritative perspective, as pitched theoretical writings and especially in videos, show the direct application of religion and led Abu Anwar to “question God whether or not he should heed to the call of arms and migrate for jihad… Every day his heart burned with bitterness and full of fear to heed to the call to arms, desiring to join the battles to raise the banner of God, for victory for God’s religion.”[8]

When Abu Anwar finally bought his plane ticket, he flew to Turkey and encountered a new problem: how to connect with individuals of the Islamic State? He tried by “calling a hotel in Irbil to inquire about the possibility of travel to Mosul and the status of “terrorism” in the region, claiming his Iraqi mother required financial support and help.”[9] Going to Mosul would be impossible, but he was advised to “hire a driver to take him from Turkey to Raqqa for about 150 US dollars.”[10]

When Abu Anwar’s initial attempts failed,[11] he gave himself an ultimatum: either he would join IS or return to America. The night before his return flight, he sought out supporters of the Islamic State on Twitter,[12] writing that he was in Turkey, coming from the United States, and that he “was confronted by people telling me that you are seeking those who seek to migrate to the Islamic State.” He then went to sleep and awoke in the middle of the night to find a notification on his phone that one of the supporters had replied, wanting to speak to him. Abu Anwar shared his story and that his return flight to America would leave in eight hours, and he asked whether one of the brothers could help him enter the caliphate.[13] The ensuing arrangement was that Abu Anwar would be picked up “in Turkey to enter together the territory of the khilafa.

In early 2016, after IS had largely migrated from Twitter to Telegram, [14] a picture of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti surfaced on the internet. Below is the photograph of a young man standing in front of a makeshift armored vehicle, one that has been a signature image for IS in much the same way as for the A-Team in the popular TV series.  Abu Anwar had volunteered for a suicide mission using the makeshift vehicle. The accompanying graphic included poetic text which read:

“While on his way bidding farewell, he said:

He aborted his studies;

Packed his bags;

Bade his loved ones farewell;

Cancelled his accounts;

Wrote his testimonial;

Wiped his tears;

Craving for his lord,

He realized [his istishhadiyya operation] and advanced [to be accepted by God]…

Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti. A success story.”

[1] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Radd/ruddud wa-shubuhat is a category in the literature of jihadism, providing space for jihadist theologians to selectively argue on theological grounds against mainstream, moderate, or opposing (i.e., AQ), theologians.

[5] Istishhad refers to the attainment of the shahada, i.e., martyrdom, either dying during combat as a regular mujahid or being a suicide bomber, an istishhadi operative.

[6] Most likely a reference to the hadith: Musnad Ahmad (21096), which states, “Narrated by Zayyid bin Thabit al-Ansari – may God be satisfied with him – said, “The messenger of God, peace and blessing be upon him, was heard saying: “My blessings for Sham [Greater historical Syria]! My blessings for Sham! My blessings for Sham!” They said: “O messenger of God, what is the meaning of this?” He said: “These angels of God have spread their wings over Sham.””

[7] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The story includes an Arabic-speaking guard at a mosque in Turkey that Abu Anwar attended, who asked if he was really sure that he wanted join Daesh. Separately, an imam inquired, “Why does the [Islamic] State kill those who they refer to as disbelievers?” and went on to claim that IS was “nothing but a Jewish project.” Abu Anwar also tried to hire a driver to take him from Turkey to Raqqa. When the driver called a friend who spoke Arabic, that friend shouted at Abu Anwar over the phone: “Are you crazy? Pay what you owe the driver and get lost!”

[12] Although Twitter is not mentioned by name, the description of private messaging, the supporters of IS, the response hours later, and the fact that this story is from 2015, all point to the social-media platform.

[13] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[14] Nico Prucha, “IS and the Jihadist Information Highway – Projecting Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 10, No. 6 (2016). http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/556

Media Mujahidin on Telegram: Overview of 2019

Many column inches of commentary have been dedicated in recent months to the purported shift from Telegram to other platforms. We have shown previously that despite efforts to ‘cull’ jihadi channels on Telegram, disruption did not have a meaningful impact on the core network. This core allowed jihadi groups to maintain a persistent presence. The greatest impact of that attempted disruption appears to have been the much tweeted about inconvenience caused to pundits and commentators who had only been able to access the peripheral Jihadi channels and Nashir News network that were deleted in the disruption effort.  

In this post we look at the content sharing network between January and May 2019. This produces a strategic overview of the network, to assess whether the network has been forced to evolve how they use the platform.

The analysis shows that at present the Jihadi network on Telegram is vast and remains functional. The URL sharing in core groups indicates core users are not currently preparing to make the jump to another platform. 

Overview:

  • The primarily Arabic Jihadi Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has produced over 1.7 million updates.
  • al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ, Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network which also draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
  • This network has shared over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between January and May 2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface web, despite punditry to the contrary.
  • By contrast there are very few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the surface web is for the Jihadi movement. 
  • The most frequently used domains do not offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram of mass link sharing to the accounts on the new platform is not currently being repeated.   
  • A model of the information flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem continues to exhibit a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and aggregators. 
  • Tech resources, such as apps, disposable phone numbers, encrypted email, and VPN are an important part of both the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem.  

Data

Using the curated feed of human verified jihadi channels and groups archived by BlackLight between January and May. This dataset contains 1.7 million updates of which 878,795 (approximately 50%) were forwarded from other channels and groups.

Analysis of these messages produced a network of over 85,000 connections (content sharing or cross posting). The network is made up of 9,000 accounts and groups. The connections between nodes show that groups of channels form specific clusters, each of which containing some common theme or allegiance to a Jihadi group. 

As discussed in previous posts there is a dispersed network with many accounts that have some importance to the network (rather than one or two very important accounts – which would make the network vulnerable to disruption).

As in previous analyses, ISIS, AQ, and Taliban channels all appear in the same interconnected network. This is often because:

  • they draw on similar other channels (those with a specific historical or theological focus for example) or
  • pro-Jihadi channels / groups who share the overarching theology and purpose, but do not have specific organizational allegiance, aggregate material from both al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya and AQ.   

The network structure and emergent communication architecture of the clusters indicates that they will likely remain resilient to the removal of even a large proportion of the channels and groups. Of the different clusters, those closest to the al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya have the most dispersed network architecture – providing the greatest resilience, while Taliban appear to have adopted the distributed structure to a lesser extent.

External Links.

This section examines over 1 million (1,048,575) URL identified in messages and captions. Within this million URL sample the research found 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains.

Calculating the number of times URL representing content on specific domains had been observed, Telegram links appeared most frequently in posts.  It is a common observation that the domain on which data is being collected is also the most frequently linked to domain in the dataset, as users often include the link for a channel or chat in their posts.  

Domains as proportion of total observations

Looking at the number of unique URL gives an alternative perspective. It shows that while Telegram links appear frequently, they are a relatively small number of URL appearing frequently. In contrast, there are relatively higher numbers of URL from other domains, each of which appear relatively infrequently. This is logical, as many URL outside Telegram host a specific piece of content, and hence it is shared when it is released and subsequently falls out of use.

Number of different URL per domain

Examining the URL from outside Telegram provides an overview of the other locations within the Jihadi information ecosystem. This shows the number of times domains were observed in posts.    

Similarly, analysing the domains by the number of different URL shared from that domain, shows how the information ecosystem combines branded content from jihadi groups, located on content stores and aggregators, with a wide range of other material including mainstream news sites.

From this we find:

  • Despite the claims Jihadi groups have not been driven off the surface web, sites such as archive.org, telegra.ph, and justpaste.it are frequently used as Jihadi content stores and aggregators.
  • None of the most observed domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period of adjustment, which occurred in the autumn of 2015 and Spring 2016, Jihadi twitter accounts regularly shared links to Telegram channels to allow sympathisers to maintain access to the Jihadi information ecosystem. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not currently being repeated.   

Flow across the Ecosystem.

In examining the flow of users across the ecosystem in 2019 we find there are two distinct clusters, one focused on tech and the other on Jihadi content and related news. This uses the same method as was discussed during the GRNTT conference at Brookings.  

The tech cluster on the lower portion of the graph fulfils an important role for the movement, as it provides access to services such as VPN, disposable / free phone numbers and a range of communication programmes distributed as .apk files (Andriod Package File).

Overview of network graph showing traffic across Jihadi Information Ecosystem

The content cluster features platforms from the three main roles in the Jihadist information ecosystem:

  • The signposts including Telegram and Facebook,
  • Content stores such as Archive.org, Google Drive, imgur, and Files.fm
  • Aggregators such as Justpaste.it and Telegra.ph
Annotated network image

Other findings of note;

  • Obedient Supporters and Nashir 1440 are content aggregators which provide content downloads on the surface web.
  • Tgho.st – is a file sharing system native to Telegram. Tgho.st operates by users sending the file to a Telegram Bot, the bot subsequently returns a URL where that file can be downloaded by anyone using the download link in a browser. The service advertises that “These files are not deleted and will always be available for download”.
  • Videopress – URL to Videopress were frequently extracted from videos posted on the earlier version of Jihadology, although without the full Jihadology page / URL. Such a finding illustrates the importance of focusing on the Jihadi primary language, Arabic, rather than drawing conclusions from fringe languages, particularly English. However, this is likely to fall out of use following the recent update to the site.  

Conclusion

  • The primarily Arabic Jihadi Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has produced over 1.7 million updates.
  • al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ, Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network which also draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
  • This network has shared over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between January and May 2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface web, despite punditry to the contrary.
  • By contrast there are very few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the surface web is for the Jihadi movement. 
  • None of the most observed domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not currently being repeated.   
  • A model of the information flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem highlights a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and aggregators. 
  • Tech resources, such as apps, disposable phone numbers and email, and VPN are an important part of both the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem.