“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

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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. 

Come Home: Jihad in Arabia

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The Islamic State, which is oftentimes referred by its Arabic acronym Daesh, proclaimed the re-establishment of the Caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph. Daesh stands for al-dawlat al-Islamiyya fi l-‘Iraq wa-sh Sham. The name change reflected the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq into Syria and since 2014 often refers to itself as the Islamic State or the Islamic Caliphate State. It had been groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ) that theorized about restoring a Islamic State[1] with partially having been able to establish proto-states,[2] but never to the extent of having been able to assert control over a greater population within traditional core Arab Sunni territory. Jihadists had fantasized about being able to combat Arab regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, urging in their rhetoric to be empowered to liberate Palestine, as in their perspective, they had just defeated the Soviet Union with the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan.[3] Not seeing, yet hoping, in 1989 that one day jihad can be waged inside Arab countries, ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam  wrote: “From the morning into the middle of the night, and we are like this, if we have liberated Afghanistan tomorrow, what will we work on? (…) Or God will open a new front for us somewhere in the Islamic world and we will go, wage a jihad there. Or will I finish my sharia studies at the Islamic University in Kabul? Yes, a lot of the Mujahideen are thinking about what to work on after the jihad ends in Afghanistan.”[4] Jihad further internationalized as the zones of conflict diversified. In the 1990s conflicts arose featuring jihadist groups in Bosnia, the Caucasus, prominently Chechnya with jihadist revenge operations throughout Russia, Somalia, it continued in Afghanistan with the Taliban taking over the country and time and again Kashmir. None of these regions of conflict are part of the Arab world, yet from all of these conflicts Arabic-language media items originated, featuring a range of languages, yet dominated by Arabic. Non-Arabic fighters and tales had been subtitled in videos or released as translations, and Arabic native speaking foreigners had been either in key positions (i.e. Khattab) or Arabic affluent local fighters gave their testimony. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that AQ was able to manifest in Saudi Arabia (AQAP) for a few years but the game-changer for Sunni jihadis had been the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. Even when the first generation of AQAP failed, and was forced to re-establish itself in Yemen, jihad was finally able to gradually establish itself in Iraq in the chaotic aftermath of 2003 – giving birth over time what would be known as ISIS. Finally, after the AQAP 1.0 phase where jihadis fought inside Saudi Arabia, referred to as the land of the two holy sanctuaries, and where Arabic was the common language with few exceptions, a Sunni jihadist arm was able to persist in Iraq and produce almost exclusively materials in Arabic featuring Arabic native speakers – to seek to attract more recruits to their cause.

As the late Reuven Paz wrote in 2005, “viewing the struggle in Iraq as “return home” to the heart of the Arab world for Muslim fighters after years of struggle in “exile” in places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Central Asia.”[5] Building a media heritage and tradition, Muslim fighters, referring to the first and early foreign fighter generation had been keen to write about their experiences in “exile” and document their “struggle” by releasing writings, martyr stories, audio-recordings and most important – and on a more regular basis – videos. Especially written accounts of the shuhada’, the martyrs, had been a popular and a unifying element of all conflict zones where foreign and local fighters presented their struggle as a fight for justice and their cause as decreed by God on his path. Increasingly – and as early as the early to mid-1990s – this form of documented “struggle” in “exile” entered the Internet where it is meant to stay and continues to inspire individuals to this day.[6] The martyr-stories are an integral part of the jihadist literature. Documents in Arabic outline individual biographies from 1980s Afghanistan[7] to the 1990s Chechnya[8], Bosnia[9], Somalia, to the 2000s with Afghanistan[10], the Caucasus, Somalia, Saudi Arabia[11] and Iraq[12]. From every region, from throughout the 1980s (Afghanistan) to the 2000s, Sunni extremist militant groups used the media as a tool to report to fellow Muslims (mainly in Arabic but not exclusively) about their – in their view – pious acts and deeds in fighting against injustice and oppression. Arabic is the lingua jihadica while only parts of the literature, including selected martyr biographies, are specifically translated into other languages. In cases where the martyr is not a native Arabic speaker, his account usually is translated into Arabic and the original language biography is published as well – within the respective lingual networks. The power and the value of jihadist video productions from a lingual outreach perspective in this regard is strategic: any non-native Arabic speaker issues his filmed farewell testimonial, in Arabic referenced as wasiyya, in his native language – Arabic subtitles are added. Only a portion of Arabic native speaker videos, however, are released at a later point with non-Arabic subtitles.

The theology of IS, AQ and any other Sunni extremist groups, however, is based on Arabic-language religious scriptures, not just Qur’an and Sunna, but also references elements of the rich 1,400-year long tradition of Islamic writings. The “Islamic State” applied the theology of AQ in full within its territory – and manages to post videos from other regions of the world as of 2019 where the group manages to control or at times dominate parts of territory.[13] ‘Amaq statements with claims of IS attacks in Congo und Uganda surfaced the past days as well, with pictures showing looted assault rifles and cell phones – and looted tanks and burning village homes in Nigeria. These media items, videos, pictures, writings justifying the occupation of Marawi and the outlook of jihad in South East Asia etc. are ALL in Arabic. In regions where Sunni jihadist groups pop up, Arabic language emerges within the group projected to the outside – core target audience – for native Arabic speakers. Local fighters, as is the case since the existence of VHS tapes featuring local fighters in the 1980s Afghanistan, 1990s Bosnia, Chechnya etc. speak in their local language – with Arabic substitles for the core target audience.

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Whereas past AQ generations, in particular in Saudi Arabia[14], had to theologically justify their specific targeting of non-Muslims, IS enforces these theological decrees and legal rulings, in Arabic referred to in the authoritative use of language as fatawa[15] and ahkam: judicial rulings and religious conditions based on chains of arguments allowing or ban i.e. certain behavior or acts.

Jihadist online materials is a rich blend of various media, never short of content, ranging from simple homepages, discussion forums, blogs, various online libraries for texts and videos, to every single social media platform as of writing.[16] The online media footprint today is the development of nearly three decades of committed media work by jihadist actors – with two decades of online cyberpunk styled activism, ensuring that content once uploaded will stay online – and thus findable – somewhere in the rich online ecosystem. This dedicated work has been and is the expression of a strategic discourse on how to conduct jihadist warfare online and has been penned in a highly coherent manner by leading jihadist theoreticians such as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.[17]

As Reuven Paz, a fluent Arabic speaker (and reader of Arabic language extremist materials) noted in 2007, “Jihadi militancy is … almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world.”[18] As Ali Fisher notes: “People who live in that socio-political context, or habitus, easily pick up on the factors that make up the ‘narratives’”, and furthermore: “The habitus is itself a generative dynamic structure that adapts and accommodates itself to another dynamic meso level structure composed primarily of other actors, situated practices and durable institutions (fields).” And because habitus allowed Bourdieu, Fisher concludes;

“to analyze the social agent as a physical, embodied actor, subject to developmental, cognitive and emotive constraints and affected by the very real physical and institutional configurations of the field.[19]

In their habitus and manifestation, jihadist media discourses refer to certain principles of belief, or define norms, issue symbols, introduce and enforce wordings, and sources with the intention of having resonance within their target audience. As members of their respective societies, or religiously influenced cultures, they operate from “within” in crafting public messages and framing their narratives, sanctioning violence and defining “justice” and “values” – conveyed by jihadist media groups in a pedagogical fashion, using a highly coded religious language, first and foremost for their target audience: native Arabic speakers, born as Sunni Muslims. It is as if

“the form in which the significant symbols are embodied to reach the public may be spoken, written, pictorial, or musical, and the number of stimulus carriers is indefinite. If the propagandist identifies himself imaginatively with the lives of the subjects in a particular situation, he is able to explore several channels of approach.”[20]

Jihadist media groups operating in Arabic and to a much lesser degree in western languages have perhaps taken note of al-Suri’s “Message to the British and European Peoples and Governments regarding the Explosions in London”, July 2005, where he outlined the Internet as the most important medium to propagate and spread the jihadists demands and frame of reference in general.[21] He referred to “the jihadi elite” residing in Europe to partake in this venture.

With the rise of the Islamic State and their declaration of the caliphate in mid-2014, the propaganda and the interspersed media strategies to fan-out such content had reached an unprecedented peak. The move by IS to shift to social media (first Twitter 2012 until late 2015, then Telegram 2016 to as of writing (2019)[22], with a change of modus-operandi)[23], their supporters, like other Jihadist groups, have become increasingly adept at integrating operations on the physical battlefield with the online effort to propagate their ideology (=theology) and celebrate their ‘martyrs’, being able to echo contemporary stories to the rich literal corpus that exists since the 1980s.

 

 

[1] For example referred by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam in his 1989 sermon in Seattle, USA, telling the stories of the war against the Soviets and why the ultimate goal can only be to re-establish a Islamic State. ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam,

[2] Yemen / Mali source

[3] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, al-jihad bayna Kabul wa-l Bayt al-Maqdis, Seattle, 1988.

For a contextual reading, Nico Prucha, “Abdallah ‘Azzam’s outlook for Jihad in 1988 – “Al-Jihad between Kabul and Jerusalem””, Research Institute for European and American Studies (2010), http://www.rieas.gr/images/nicos2.pdf.

[4] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, Muqaddima fi-l hijra wa-l ‘idad, 85.

[5] Reuven Paz, The Impact of the War in Iraq on the Global Jihad, in: Fradkin, Haqqani, Brown (eds.); Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol 1, The Hudson Institute, 2005, 40.

[6] Nico Prucha, “Die Vermittlung arabischer Jihadisten-Ideologie: Zur Rolle deutscher Aktivisten,” In: Guido Steinberg (ed.), Jihadismus und Internet: Eine deutsche Perspektive, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, October 2012, 45-56, http://www.swp-berlin.org/de/publikationen/swp-studien-de/swp-studien-detail/article/jihadismus_und_internet.html.

[7] Of the many works from this time, the accounts of martyrs by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam are popular to this day: ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam: ’Ashaq al-hur” martyr biography collection, http://tawhed.ws/dl?i=pwtico4g, accessed August 29, 2013. To give readers an impression, this book by ‘Azzam is

[8] The al-Ansar mailing list, a branch of the al-Ansar online forum, released a collection of martyrs who died in Chechnya: al-Ansar (ed.): qissas shuhada’ al-shishan, 2007; 113 pages.

[9] This tradition was continued in the 1990s with the influx of Arab foreign fighters in Bosnia, see for example the 218 page long collection by: Majid al-Madani / Hamd al-Qatari (2002), Min qissas al-shuhada al-Arab fi l-Busna wa-l Hirsik, www.saaid.net

[10] Abu ‘Ubayda al-Maqdisi and ‘Abdallah bin Khalid al-‘Adam. Shuhada fi zaman al-ghurba. The document was published as a PDF- and WORD format in the main jihadist forums in 2008, although the 350-page strong book was completed in 2005.

[11] With al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) active, a bi-monthly electronic magazine, the Voice of Jihad, was featured and martyr stories had been released online as well. The most prominent martyrs are featured in a special “the Voice of Jihad” electronic book (112 pages): Sayyar a’lam al-shuhada’, al-Qa’idun website, 2006.

[12] Sayyar a’lam al-shuhada‘ was a series that featured the martyr biographies in 2004-2006; the collected martyr biographies (in sum 212 pages) had been re-released by al-Turath media, a media organization that is part of IS in 2018. Since the launch of IS’ weekly newspaper al-Naba’, prominent martyr stories have been featured there.

[13] As displayed in  IS videos, i.e. Hijra wa-l qital, Wilayat Gharb Afriqa (January 15, 2019) or Radd al-Wa’id, Wilaya Diyala (January 29, 2019).

[14] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi-Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[15] Plural for fatwa.

[16] For a discussion on how Twitter was used by jihadist actors: Nico Prucha and Ali Fisher. “Tweeting for the Caliphate – Twitter as the New Frontier for Jihadist Propaganda.” CTC Sentinel (Westpoint), June 2013, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/tweeting-for-the-caliphate-twitter-as-the-new-frontier-for-jihadist-propaganda

[17] Lia, Brynjar, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

[18] Paz, Reuven. “Reading Their Lips: The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites as ‘Soft Power’ in the War of the Minds.” (2007).

[19] Ali Fisher, How 6th Graders Would See Through Decliner Logic and Coalition Information Operations, Onlinejihad, January 2018,  https://onlinejihad.net/2018/01/26/how-6th-graders-would-see-through-decliner-logic-and-coalition-information-operations/

[20] Harold D. Lasswell, The Theory of Political Propaganda, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 21, No. 3. (Aug., 1927), 627-631, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0554%28192708%2921%3A3%3C627%3ATTOPP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-L.

[21] Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, ila Britaniyyin wa-l Eurupiyyin bi sha’n tafjirat London July 2007 wa-mumarissat al-hukuma al-Britaniyya

[22] Although

[23] Martyn Frampton with Ali Fisher, and Nico Prucha. “The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online (London: Policy Exchange, 2017).

As of 2019, the Islamic State, but also AQ or the Taliban continue to operate on Telegram and from this protected realm newly produced propaganda is injected into online spaces that are (more) accessible than the closed and hard to find groups on Telegram.

Making of a Jihadi image

A thousand men who fear not for their lives are more to be dreaded than ten thousand who fear for their fortunes.

Denis Diderot

The evidence based approach to analysing the Jihadi movement includes how the movement creates their visual images. Deconstructing these images into their components demonstrates that many of the different elements are included deliberately to communicate specific things. These elements must be interpreted within the appropriate habitus.

In part, as the late Reuven Paz noted, this means recognising that;

The Jihadi militancy is … almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world.


Reuven Paz, Reading Their Lips: The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites as ‘Soft Power’ in the War of the Minds

The other part of interpreting images within the appropriate habitus, is an appreciation of the Jihadi culture, in the sense as-Suri used “the cultural level of the mujahidin“.

At times, it is possible to heighten the cultural level of the mujahidin, and it is also possible to heighten the level of preparation and acquired skills, and this will contribute to refining the talent …

The trainers and those supervising the foundation of Resistance cells must discover those talents and refine them with culture and training so that they find their place in leading terrorist operations in this type of blessed jihad…

Later in the text as-Suri notes:

..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.

as-Suri, Global Islamic Resistance Call

The socio-political and cultural elements of the habitus in which Jihadi media is created are fundamental to evidence based research into what this material intended to communicate. When this evidence based approach is applied, notions of “jihadi cool”, going from zero-to-hero, crime and gangsta rap, along with claims of utopia and ‘utopian narratives’ all become unsustainable as interpretations of what Jihadi groups intend to communicate.

Jihadi culture has drawn influences from theology, the history of muslims, history of Jihadi groups and draws on experiences from earlier iterations of the movement. Jihadi culture is inextricably linked to their understanding of evidence and scholarship, specifically the vast archive of text, audio, and video which precedes the emergence of the contemporary al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya.

Evidence based approach

Image by sawa’iq media

This image has been part of the Jihadi information ecosystem and is part of a wider genre of images.

Collection of images produced by Furat posted together in a single Telegram post.

These images are composites of numerous elements, the inclusion of which are intended to communicate concepts which have also been referenced in earlier jihadi material.

Deconstructing the image

The original image ‘training the brothers in street fighting’ was produced by hadrawmawt Yemen. This training session depicts the practical application of theology in meeting the obligation to prepare for Jihad and life on ribat. This obligation is emphasized by the quote from Surah al-Anfal (Quran 8:60) which features in the final sawa’iq media image.

And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged.

Surah al-Anfal 8:60

Like the interconnection between contemporary jihadi material and historic precursors, the original image of the training session also appears in other content. Here it is used in combination with another image of training, also referring to Quran 8:60, emphasizing the mujahidin are obligated to prepare for combat.

The importance of preparing (training) appears frequently in documents from previous iterations of the Jihadi movement, including those by as-Suri (quoted above) and discussed in detail in Zaad e Mujahidin. For example;

Generally the military training ought to be acquired by every healthy Muslim. Even the disabled Muslim could perform various military duties, due to the modern method of warfare….

After the compulsory requirement of the Imaan and the Taqwa, the Mujahid ought to pay careful attention to the following three points:
– Highest standard of military training.
– Obedience.
– Prudence and Contrivance.

Zaad e Mujahidin
The same image was also used after the al-Furqan release of “In the Hospitality of Amirul-Muminin”

Our battle today is a battle of attrition – prolonged for the enemies. They must come to terms that jihad will last until judgement day. And that god commanded for us jihad while not decreeing for us to win. Therefore, we ask god for steadfastness, determination, guidance, righteousness, and success for us and for our brothers.

The Jihadi movement is clear about their aim and purpose, these are constants in their material not ‘latest trends’. As Reuven Paz quoted Indian scholar, Dr. Om Nagpal,

The Mujahidin do not hide their intentions. They do not use diplomatic or apologetic language. On various occasions they have used aggressive language. Repeatedly from the different corners of the world, they have proclaimed in categorical terms that their mission is Jihad. Jihad inspires them. Jihad invigorates them. Jihad gives them a purpose in life. Jihad for them is a noble cause, a sacred religious duty. Jihad is a mission


quoted in;
Paz, Reuven. “The brotherhood of global jihad.” (October , 2001) http://www.e-prism.org

Conclusion

Once the theological underpinning of the Jihadi movement is recognised, interpretation of the imagery can focus on the framework (or Habitus) within which it is created and the concepts which it is intended to communicate.

The dominant narrative among Western governments, policy experts and the mainstream media has been that Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups embrace a violent “ideology,” rather than specific religious doctrines that pervade and drive their agenda.

Rüdiger Lohlker continues,

It is crystal clear to virtually anyone who has the linguistic capacity to grasp and the opportunity to witness what jihadists are actually saying, writing and doing, both online and offline, that religion matters.

The Jihadi movement interprets waging jihad as a religious duty and they consider innovation in religion unacceptable. As a result, Jihadi culture is based on what they consider evidence; evidence rooted in a long tradition of theological writing, divine comandment and historical human acting (i.e. tales of the sahaba and selective readings of the Sunna).

That evidence is the key to an authentic interpretation of the imagery the movement produces. If commentary and academic interpretations cannot explicitly site the evidence and connect their interpretation to the long history of Jihadi theological writing, it risks becoming significantly more about what Western researchers imagine they see; an interpretation trapped in a western habitus rather than an authentic interpretation of the Jihadi movement.

Documents in Caliphate Library

Many Telegram channels and groups operated by Jihadi groups, distribute lengthy Arabic documents.

An analysis of the content shared by one such channel, ‘The Caliphate Library’ Telegram Channel shows how the Jihadi movement thrives on lengthy documents that sets out their theology, beliefs, and strategy.*

Overview of findings:

  • This individual library contained 908 pdf documents, which collectively contain over 111,000 pages. This is far from what one might expect from a movement which thinks in 140 characters, as some Western commentators suggest.
  • In addition to the material produced by Dawlat al-Islamiyya, the channel;
    • republished earlier writing through Maktabat al-Himma, a theological driven publication house of Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
    • shared earlier work produced by al-Qaeda
    • distributed historical and contemporary Salafi writing which intersects with their theology.
  • ISI era is an important part the identity for Dawlat al-Islamiyya – over 15% of the pages in ‘IS media products’ category originate from that period.
  • While 10% of PDF were encrypted, most documents were produced using tools easily available on most modern laptops.
  • Not one of the texts envisages a ‘Jihadist Utopia’ nor proposes a ‘Utopian narrative’. The idea of a ‘Utopian Narrative’ is an artefact of Western misinterpretation. It is not rooted in the texts of of Dawlat al-Islamiyya nor their predecessors.

The following infographic summerises the analysis of over 1000 documents in this Caliphate Library.

*The Caliphate Library is a loose translation of its actual name, as at time of writing the Channel is still live.

Theological drivers of online ghazwat and the media mujahidin

Exclusive for the supporters (message on Telegram)
Text reads:
#exclusive for the supporters (munasireen) and companions (ashab) of the raids (al-ghazawat) on #platforms of social media: More than 500 links to electronic releases (isdarat) of the Islamic state that are not eligible for #deletion by the will of god, we ask god to anger the kuffar, the apostates, the hypocrites. These links by the will of god do not get deleted all the while these will help the munasireen in their raids of social media platforms. Share and deem the reward (ajr) and we advise you [to place these links] in the comment section on YouTube. We warn you after placing your trust in god to use a VPN and to ensure to enforce technical security measures for the protection for the raiders on the social media sites. (raiders in Arabic is stated as ashab of the raids). We will continuously renew [this collection of links protected from removal] until we have more than 1000 links, god willing Experiment with the links, share them and reap your reward.
The release of this collection of ‘500 links’ through pastethis.to highlights the theological underpinning of the actions taken by the media mujahidin. This includes:
  • The nature of rewards in the Jihadist belief system.
    • Theological underpinning – reaping your reward, ajr
    • Murabitin, Ghazwat and the Ribat.
    • Jihad – Media – Activism – Militancy – Documenting the Struggle Online to Influence Target Audiences
    • Isdarat – the groundwork of Online Jihad by AQAP, first generation
  • The different roles platforms play within the ecosystem.
  • The role of the website jihadology within the jihadist ecosystem.

Rewards in the Jihadist Belief-System

“Conveyed by ‘Ali, may god be pleased with him: “whoever inspires his brother to jihad will be rewarded likewise upon every step of this endeavor of the worship of the Sunna.”
Cited by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, “Join the Caravane”, January 4, 2004, citing in length ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s “Join the Caravane”, referenced furthermore in jihadist literature to historical scholar Ibn Nahhas.
To give readers a deeper nuanced insight into the above statement issued on Telegram, we will decipher a few keywords / concepts that are in most cases absolutely clear and easily understood when issued by Arabic native speakers, born as Sunni Muslims, to their core target audience: Arabic native speakers, born as Sunni Muslims. The message was transmitted across the Jihadi Telegram network. Jihadists are religious people (if we like it or not) who over the past 40 years have been prolific writers to craft a specific theology. The theology of Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (AQ) and any other Sunni extremist groups, is based on Arabic-language religious scriptures, not just Qur’an and Sunna, but also references elements of the rich 1,400-year long tradition of Islamic writings. Yet, as penned by Rüdiger Lohlker, there is a lack of willingness to deal with the writings and motivations of jihadist subcultures and their inherent theology. The term theology is provocative, referring to the specific type of rhetoric and thinking regarding the relationship between humans and god. While it may be comforting for some to describe al-Baghdadi as ‘monstrous’, or a female follower as a ‘witch’, academic study can make greater progress if focusing less on the moral outrage and instead focusing on how Sunni extremists actually articulate, pitch, and project their messages.[i] Within the ecosystem of jihadist writings, including historical authors that matter for modern jihadist groups, many theological concepts are identifiable – if you are able, and so inclined, to read the easy findable electronic PDFs. With the apparent inability to read basic Arabic jihadist texts or fully understand videos (which are 99% in Arabic in the case of IS), the majority of keywords and textual content remains behind a veil. Conversely, for any Arabic reader versed in Arabic-language jihadist writings, the speeches, audios, images and videos they produce clearly contain key theological concepts. Similarly, for those with an understanding of the socio-cultural context of the intended audience, even the non-Arabic language products have a clear theological meaning. Unfortunately, these theological concepts have passed largely unnoticed in the pop-science analysis of English-only magazines such as AQ’s Inspire, Dawlat al-Islamiyah’s Dabiq and the multi-lingual Rumiyya dominates the ‘research’ output have created an absolute win-win situation for Jihadist groups. With the neglect to either treat Arabic language extremist sources as primary data[ii] or entering it into evidence to relate the use of language for non-Arabic IS products, Sunni extremist propaganda (including the pro-jihadist ‘salafist’ materials) targeting a non-Arab(ic) audience, attacking open, inclusive societies, continues without much interruption. Hardcore texts of violence include lengthy citations, textual references and include sources of Qur’an and Sunna used by contemporary ‘Salafist’ text books projected via the Internet in respective languages into European societies. The art of the jihadist pen, or “scholars of jihad”, as extremist scholars of this subculture refer to themselves, is to express a coherent theology, referencing historical authors such as Ibn Taymiyya or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and to embed citations or references to Qur’an and Sunna. With the establishment of over 300,000 pages of Arabic text since the 1980s, all available online if you know where to look يا لغوي, jihadists have developed a specific hermeneutical reading of scripture and project their actions as the active application of what is defined in writing as divine law, the will of god, the commandments, absolute rulings that must be enforced to be a ‘pious believer’ – and be eligible for paradise. Texts authored by the “scholars of jihad” include references and citations of linguist dictionaries such as Lisan al-Arab, tafsir works and sometimes ridicule religious curricula taught in MENA schools claiming the references of jihad (for example) are either omitted or taught in a wrongful way. In order to understand groups such as IS, you must be literate in Arabic and be able to comprehend the propaganda that is often well versed in religious references and sources – this is the habitus that extremist groups exploit to address their primary, single most important key target audience: Arab native speakers.
Religious extremists have no easy, cozy relationship with an intervening deity that to them is real, this is not limited of course to this context. For religious extremists in general, the relationship to god is personal and intimately – while socially re-enforced based on human interpreted divine commandments etc. How most of the intended audience orders their reality is that;
  • an intervening deity is real,
  • articulated in the jihadist framework, this is a world they pass through, referencing an authentic hadith,
  • after this world they hope their actions will be deemed such that the intervening deity permits them entrance to paradise, reference – among many – i.e. Qur’an 3:169.
Hence statements of those either passively ‘martyred’ by air strikes, or during combat when not having actively sought it, as well as the istishhadi operatives, suicide or ‘martyrdom’ bombers who deliver their explosives actively to their targets, are often introduced by Qur’an 3:169:
“Think not of those, who are slain in the path of God, as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, they are bestowed with provision.”[iii]
This mind-set is further sanctioned by citing Qur’an 2:154, to back up the above statement:
“Do not say that those who are killed in God’s cause are dead; they are alive, though you do not realize it.”[iv]
The stories of ‘martyrs’ enable the narrator to present the individual as a ‘true’ Muslim who indeed lived, fought, and sacrificed for implantation of the divine definition as set in Qur’an, 3:146 to widen the conviction of “being alive with God” in the afterlife (akhira):
“Many prophets have fought, with large bands of godly men alongside them who, in the face of their suffering for God’s cause, did not lose heart or weaken or surrender: God loves those who are steadfast.”[v]
The jihadist, in his self-perception, is part of “bands of godly men” and as such have remained steadfast, reluctant of their own physical safety or lives – after all, humans are tested by god in this world to decide who will be rewarded in what way in the next world. Furthermore, the jihadist sources emphasize that individual believers are expected to have “spent” their lives and their wealth “on the path of God”. Qur’an 9:111 is cited to provide an alleged theological and judicial framework:
“God has purchased the persons and possessions of the believers in return for the Garden – they fight in God’s way: they kill and are killed – this is a true promise given by Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an. Who could be more faithful to his promise than God? So be happy with the bargain you have made: that is the supreme triumph.”[vi]
Many of the theological distinctions come in deciding which actions will gain ajr – a form of reward – and which will not, i.e. lead to “sin” or tribulations. A shared broad mental construct, and socio-cultural context is laid out in the religious coded, Arabic language corpus of jihad – the distinction comes from how one must behave to obtain reward, which may subsequently cause you to be permitted entrance to paradise. Thus, from a linguist perspective, the jihadist language is clear and easy to comprehend. Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, most Sunni jihadist groups had been quick to issue statements ensuring that bin Laden was a human (and not a prophet or the like), having invested his life for the worship of god by his actions and sacrifice. Following a classical jihadi-lingual ductus, he was referred to as “the shaykh, the martyr – as we deem him to be – Osama bin Laden.”[vii] In other releases, i.e. the death of Hamud b. ‘Uqla’ al-Shu’aybi, died in late 2001 and having been cited by bin Laden but also having had an important influence on Saudi jihadists of the 2000s, the full reference of the martyr in this framing is expressed: “we deem him to be a martyr, god is the measure of all things” (al-Jarbu’, 2002, shared in AQ forums as word document at the time). This wording was later used throughout the 1500 page strong The Voice of Jihad AQ magazine to refer to their members who had been ‘martyred’. Steadfastness is another way of earning ajr, and is an integral element of jihadist literature and videos. Steadfastness is the expression of maintaining a sincere intention towards god, as your actions of this world in the service for god will be judged to determine your status, reward, in the afterlife.

Theological underpinning – reaping your reward, ajr

“Reward”, or ajr in Arabic, in the mindset of modern jihadist groups and thinkers, however, is based on the ancient understanding thereof and is two-fold:
  • The reward must be earned based on one’s deeds and actions for god in this world to be eligible to enter paradise after death. This is one of the main literal elements of the textual corpus of jihad. As for jihadists, jihad means an active form of worshipping and serving god, with a sincere intention, driven to fight for the protection, revenge or for the security of the jama’a ahl al-sunna; reward is earned along this way in this world with death as the new stage of life in mind. Hence popular slogans of this subculture, expressed in writings and placed in active application in many of its audio-visual releases, embody this with further theological reference points. A popular propaganda-slogan thus states that the Mujahid seeks one of the two most precious things (al-husayn): victory (nasr) or attaining the shahada, exiting this world and dwelling in paradise. This is a citation of Qur’an 9:52 and used by al-Zarqawi in the beheading video of Olin “Jack” Armstrong in 2004. The Chechen hostage takers of the musical Nord Ost in Moscow in 2002 also put up a black banner on the wall, reading in Arabic the Islamic shahada complemented by allahu akbar and ihda l-husnayyin, the reference to Qur’an 9:52. IS used this slogan, for example, in the last videos that had emerged from Mosul before the fall, framing the expected reward despite worldly – or physical loss – as a win for what comes after life in the conviction of humans who see themselves as enablers of divinity.
  • Reward is also a historical reference to the physical world that early Muslims obtained as a result of raiding the caravans of the Quraish. The “spoils” or “booty of war” are filled with Qur’anic references to surat al-Anfal and surat al-Tawba. A physical reward thus is based on receiving a share of the “spoils of war”, often referred to as in Arabic as ghanima. Yet jihadists warn of focusing on the potential to make ghanima through jihad, rather than having a sincere intention.
A 2003 article in “The Voice of Jihad”, the first regular electronic magazine released online by AQ on the Arab Peninsula, warns of prioritizing “taking ghanima as reward of one’s jihad”, thus neglecting a complete understanding of the concept of jihad and the spoils of war by omitting “when raiders take ghanima a third is their reward.” The article continues: “the ahadith provide clear evidence whoever seeks to embark on his jihad solely for the purpose of gaining worldly presentation, will not receive any ajr.”[viii] The reference of ajr in this context is strictly related to what the Mujahid, having a sincere intention, will receive when killed. This hadith is also used by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam in his “Declaration of Jihad” and further contextualized with another hadith sources: “Conveyed by al-Nisa’i based on a stable isnad[ix] by Abu Usama who said: “a man came to the prophet, peace and blessings upon him, he said: “have you [ever] seen a man raiding looking for ajr, thinking about financial gain?” The messenger of god, peace and blessings upon him said: “god will not acknowledge anyone [as a martyr] except those who are pure and sincere in their desire.”[x]
Ajr: Rewards in the afterlife for deeds and actions in this world, a jihadist Telegram channel member asking for reward for his Jaysh al-‘Izza brethren for having slain mercenaries, for their jihad and to receive their martyrs. The reward is also contingent on the context in which action is taken. Anwar al-Awlaki described in Allah is Preparing Us for Victory, when times are hard, the reward for taking action is increased. If it comes at a time when things are easy then the ajr is reduced. But if the time is one of difficulty, then the ajr is increased. Ajr is in accordance to the difficulty. Comprehending the meaning and importance of ajr within the Jihadi understanding, shows that claims in Western commentary that ISIS seeks to pursue a ‘utopian project’ or present a ‘utopian narrative’ are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of jihad. It is life on the ribat that is the life revered by the jihadist movement. The reward they seek is ajr, which, if sufficient, may permit access to janna.
Murabitin In his chapter on the virtues of life on the ribat, Ibn-Nahas highlights why behavior on the ribat is among the best livelihoods. Abu Hurairah narrated, the messenger of god said: “Among the best livelihoods of people is that of a man holding the rein of his horse in the path of Allah, flying on its back whenever he hears the call. He flies in search of killing or being killed. And a man on top of a mountain peak or on the bottom of a deep valley, establishing prayers, paying his zakah, and worshiping his Lord until death visits him. People see nothing from him but good.” Those who spend the night on the ribat are murabitin. The image of murabit on the classical ribat is important to the understanding of the identity and approach of the media mujihidin today, as it is the self-image of those on the electronic ribat. As noted: Murabita, according to the British Orientalist, translator and lexicographer, Edward Lane, “also signifies a company of warriors; or of men warring against an enemy; or a company of men having their horses tied at the frontier in preparation for the enemy; or keeping post on the frontier; and in like manner”.[xi] To translate and conceptualise the Arabic term ribat can be very contentious. The term is frequently referred to in both jihadist videos and in print / online literature in the context of religiously permissible warfare; in a modern meaning it could loosely be translated as “front”. Ribat is prominent due to its reference in the 60th verse of the eight chapter of the Qur’an, the Surat al-Anfal (“the Spoils of War”). It is often used to legitimize acts of war and among others found in bomb making handbooks or as part of purported theological justification in relation to suicide operations – for decades. Extremists consider the clause as a divine command stipulating military preparation to wage jihad as part of a broader understanding of “religious service” on the “path of god.” Ribat as it appears in the Qur’an is referenced in the context of “steeds of war” (ribat al-khayl) that must be kept ready at all times for war and hence remain “tied”, mostly in the Islamic world’s historic border regions or contested areas. In order to “strike terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah”, these “steeds of war” are to be unleashed for military purposes and mounted (murabit – also a sense of being garrisoned) by the Mujahidin. The relevant section reads: “Prepare against them whatever forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses,[xii] to frighten off [these] enemies of God and of your, and warn others unknown to you but known to God. Whatever you give in God’s cause will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged,” Qur’an 8:60. Ribat Ribat has two main aspects in contemporary jihadist thinking. First, the complete 60th verse of the Qur’an is often stated in introductions to various ideological and military handbooks or videos. While some videos issue ribat in connection with various weapons and the alleged divine command in the jihadist reading thereof. As the real-world fighting Mujahidin are considered “strangers” (ghuraba’) in this world fighting at the very edge of worldly perception, thus being ‘mounted’ at the front (ribat) and the borders (thughur), the background networks of the ‘media Mujahidin’ must be accredited likewise. Thus, in the past fifteen years, ribat has migrated and expanded into the virtual “front”, as the murabit who is partaking in the media work has been equated with the actual Mujahid fighting at the frontlines. In a similar understanding, the physical “frontier” or “border” has shifted to the ‘arm-chair jihadists’, the professional media teams embedded with fighting units as well as the global network of media supporters as the value of the media jihad is understood and used on a tactical and strategic level by militants to further their cause.
Ghazwa The advantage exploited by the muribiteen in early Islamic history is the ability to move rapidly, have a heavy impact on the target, and move on. This is encapsulated by the concept of Ghazwa (غزوة), a raid or expedition.[xiii] Jihadist groups around the world have used the word to describe their physical operations such as “ghazwat al-asir”, a campaign by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to avenge the imprisonment of Muslims.[xiv] In 2006, IED attacks in Bouzareh near Algiers, was valorised as “Ghazwa Bushawi” by the “the Media Council of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat” before the group merged with AQIM.[xv] Today these raids occur on online, Channels on Telegram act as coordination points through which these raids are organised. In one approach, Jihadi groups post the time and target for the raid that day. They provide supporters with pre-prepared tweets or URL which supporters can copy and post directly onto platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.[xvi] These raids seek to cause sudden spikes in activity to spread their message broadly, there is no attempt at permanence as they know the accounts they use will be removed. In fact, they plan for it. Just as the self-image of horse backed warrior, the users in the online ghazwa arrive suddenly, have an impact but do not intend to stay around. A longer discussion of these concepts appears in: Ali Fisher, Netwar in Cyberia

Jihad – Media – Activism – Militancy – Documenting the Struggle Online to Influence Target Audiences

Incitement to jihad is well established within the online dominions, where media activism can be achieved from any place, in- or outside of conflict zones. With a ring of decentralized media workers supporting those who are ‘embedded’ with fighting elements, the jihadi media has in the past two decades greatly improved in providing professional made videos and writings from real-life combat zones for computer-, tablet-, smartphone-, and television-screens throughout the world. The ‘media mujahid’ as a role model promotes those ‘embedded’ front-line cameramen in particular, without whom the quality and quantity of jihad groups worldwide would not have a lasting impact or relevance. In the jihadists’ self perception, the;
“media [worker] has become a martyrdom operative without an explosives belt, for they are entitled to these merits [of jihad]. Furthermore, haven’t you seen how the cameramen handle the camera instead of carrying Kalashnikovs, running in front of the soldiers during attacks, defying death by exposing their chests to the hails of bullets!?’[xvii]
Rather, the media worker in the field has turned into a role model of adoration just like any hardcore fighter or martyrdom operative, and is portrayed by the jihadi media likewise and accredited as an istishhadi, as someone who actively has sought out and attained the shahada. The wish to become a martyr, having a “clear intention” (as described above) as proof of their piety and their loyalty to god, being ‘true’ practitioners of Islam expecting compensation in the afterlife. This powerful new role model is backed by the accreditation of the value of the quantitative and qualitative online propaganda:
“Haven’t you seen the cells responsible for expanding the electronic media files (isdarat), how they enter the most dangerous and most fortified areas and how they disseminate the isdarat of the Mujahideen in the heartlands of the hypocrites (munafiqin)!?”[xviii]
Media workers, on the other hand who are not directly embedded with fighting units, are not of lesser importance. For they ensure the process, editing, the layout, translating and subsequent publication.

Isdarat – the groundwork of Online Jihad by AQAP, first generation

Since the early 2000s with the first generation of AQAP being active in Saudi Arabia while ISI used the power vacuum in Iraq, the Internet has become the medium of communication and exchange of information for Jihadis. In that time, the Internet has been increasingly used on a very efficient and professional basis. Countless online Jihad communities had come into existence. Not only have a number of online forums been established, but there had been (and still are to a certain extend) 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. Since the early 2000s the Internet has become a 24-hour online database, where any user with sufficient knowledge of the Web (and Arabic) is able to access, understand 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.”[xix] 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 and provided the framework for extensive online operations as of writing (2019). Isdarat was also the name of one of the most prominent early IS websites. It has been a website and telegram channel where users could access the content. For IS, with the changing circumstances of being able to mainstream “jihad” more due to the acquisition of territory on an unprecedented level, videos are a key element to convey what AQ projected in writings in a more compelling audio-visual format.

The different roles platforms play within the ecosystem.

Websites such as Isdarat, exist within an ecosystem of content stores, aggregators and beacons. Since the emergence of the media mujahidin on social media in 2013, the different elements have formed part of a multi-platform zeitgeist. Likewise, the telegram post (above) shows how the interconnectivity between platforms continues to allow jihadi groups to share information and avoid disruption on social media and the surface web.
The message is shared on Telegram (beacon), directing users to Pastethis.to which functions as the aggregator for the links. The aggregator gives the location of each individual file (or content store). Traffic between platforms can be harder to locate because often all that is visible on the aggregator is the URL rather than the actual content. The PasteThis.to page contained a list of video titles and URL where these are stored. In this case the content store is most often Videopress or WordPress, with many of these originally posted on Jihadology.

Jihadology in the ecosystem of online jihad

Analysis of the URL made available via the Pastethis.to pages, shows a clear tendency toward using particular content stores.
Domains in URL shared on Pastethis.to
Advertised as unlikely to be removed, the most common links lead to Videopress. Videopress is notable for being used by Jihadology to store material. As discussed previously, the videos are not only accessible via the site but via the underlying videopress URL which opens the video in a browser rather than on the site. Having located the underlying videopress URL jihadi sympathizers are able to share the location of the content via the aggregator, benefiting from the stability of content posted on Jihadology, but without the user having to visit the site.
Sub-domains in URL shared on Pastethis.to
Similarly, where subdomains appear in the URL, the most common subdomain is azelin.files, followed by videos.files. This image shows how the videopress link which was shared on pastethis.to can be found in the source code for Jihadology.
URL in Jihadology source code
This is not a one-off example, another aggregator (still available using Google cache) shows an audio file available via the azelin.files subdomain.
Now deleted aggregator accessed via google cache
While the other links are dead (apart from the archive.org) content posted on Jihadology and hosted on WordPress is still available. The Pastethis.to aggregator, features the video No Respite. The shortcode used in the aggregator is the same as the one available via Jihadology.
This video is also notable as Abdul Hamid was arrested … “after he posted a four-minute-long Isis propaganda video called No Respite”, which was viewed more than 400 times on his Facebook page”. Hamid subsequently “pleaded guilty to disseminating a terrorist publication” according to the Evening Standard.

Conclusion

Analysis of this release has shown,
  1. The theological underpinning of the actions taken by the media mujahidin, and the theological aspects cannot be separated from their strategy. They are integral parts of jihadi thought and cannot be treated as window dressing to be stripped away at the whim of Western researchers.
  2. The persistent presence of the Swarmcast is in part due to the agility of the media mujahidin. They use a diverse range of platforms and share the location of specific content stores via beacons and aggregators.
  3. The Jihadology website, as shown previously, is exploited within the jihadist ecosystem as a content store. URL of the videos are extracted from the site to be shared with jihadi sympathizers. These links are shared in such a way that the video plays in the browser rather than on the site – ensuring the individual accesses the content in a Jihadi context.

Notes:

[i] Rüdiger Lohlker, Theologie der Gewalt. Das Beispiel IS, Facultas: Vienna, 2016. [ii] Baart Schuuhrman, Terrorism studies and the struggle for primary data, November 5, 2018, https://www.sv.uio.no/c-rex/english/news-and-events/right-now/terrorism-studies-and-the-struggle-for-primary-dat.html [iii] All following verses of the Quran are quotations of: Muhammad A. S. Abdel-Haleem, The Qurʾan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). [iv] See for example Mu’awiyya al-Qahtani, “The Biography of the Hero Abu Talha al-Ansari”, Mu’assasat al-Mas’ada al-I’lamiyya, 2012. [v] Ibid. [vi] For a contextual reading, Nico Prucha, “Abdallah ‘Azzam’s outlook for Jihad in 1988 – “Al-Jihad between Kabul and Jerusalem””, Research Institute for European and American Studies (2010), http://www.rieas.gr/images/nicos2.pdf. [vii] For example in the as-Sahab video release la tukallafu ila nafsak, June 2011. [viii] This part of the sawt al-jihad (no.3, Ramadan 1424), is the exact same as provided here: https://library.islamweb.net/newlibrary/display_book.php?ID=3&startno=0&idfrom=2&idto=8&bookid=81&Hashiya=3#docu and also referenced by, for example, Yusuf al-Qaradawi: https://www.al-qaradawi.net/node/2072 [ix] Chain of transmission. [x] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, I’lan al-jihad, electronic version, 1997. [xi] Prucha, Nico, “Jihadists‘ use of Quran’s ribat concept”, in: Janes Islamic Affairs Analyst, August 2009 [xii] Ribat al-khayl [xiii] Ghazwa is also the name of a magazine distributed by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. Hanley Jr, John T., et al. The Anatomy of Terrorism and Political Violence in South Asia Proceedings of the First Bi-Annual International Symposium of the Center for Asian Terrorism Research (CATR) October 19-21, 2005, Denpensar, Bali, Indonesia. No. IDA-P-4096. INSTITUTE FOR DEFENSE ANALYSES ALEXANDRIA VA, 2006. [xiv] For discussion of bombings linked to ghazwat al-asir see: https://onlinejihad.net/2010/04/11/isi-embassy-bombings-in-baghdad/ [xv] Nico Prucha, Online territories of terror: how jihadist movements project influence on the Internet and why it matters off-line, PhD Thesis, Universität Wien | Philologisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche Fakultät (2015) (p. 280) [xvi] Prucha, Nico. “IS and the Jihadist Information Highway–Projecting Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram.” Perspectives on Terrorism 10.6 (2016). [xvii] Al-Manhajjiyya fi tahsil al-khibra al-i’lamiyya, first part, 18. This ideological handbook is part of a lengthy series sanctioning the media work in general, published by the media groups Markaz al-Yaqin and al-Furqan in May 2011. [xviii] Ibid. [xix] sawt al-jihad number 11, 17.