ISIS: Sunset on the ‘decline narrative’

Posted June 1, 2018 by humanshuddle
Categories: da'wa, Data Science, Social Media Sunni Extremist Activism, Uncategorized

In 2017 the ‘decline narrative’ had become widely accepted by Western researchers focused on the Jihadist movement. In contrast, in November 2017 we predicted that ISIS media would continue to fluctuate in 2018. This was based on an archive of digital and digitized content. The digital Jihadist content which stretches across more than two decades, 300,000 pages of Arabic text, 6,000 videos, hundreds of hours of audio (including 600 hours of ISIS radio programs). The archive of digitized content stretches even further back, given the nature of content of the 1980s, for example, that was later digitalized and is part of what the Sunni extremist movement shares.

During 2017 much was being written about the ‘sharp decline’ of ISIS media and even demise of a physical Caliphate. Our prediction faced opposition from those who were pushing the ‘post-Caliphate’ decline ‘narrative’ and particularly those who seemed to be staking their reputation on the continued decline correlated to territorial loss.

In January 2018 Jade Parker and Charlie Winter announced “a full-fledged collapse” of ISIS media.[i] Only days later, it became clear January 2018 had also witnessed a 48% month-on-month increase in ISIS content production.[ii] In addition, rather than a full-fledged collapse, in March 2018 ISIS were still able to drive traffic to their content, with some videos getting over 12,000 views on Twitter.

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As we have said before, just because non-Arabic and faux-Arabic speaking researchers cannot find it, does not mean the content does not exist – nor does it mean the target population for the content cannot find it.

It is clear today that rather than moving from media decline to “full-fledged collapse”, ISIS media continued to fluctuate as we predicted. This more complex representation relies on differentiating decline and degradation from a period of reconfiguration – as we have been saying since 2014.

This post shows that the Jihadist movement is much more complex than those pushing the ‘decline narrative’ suggest. It shows why counting the number of videos has little bearing on the amount being communicated – which after all is the purpose of producing the videos.

Recognising the limits of the contemporary ‘metrification’ approaches, along with the cherry-picking of timepoints and the overemphasis of pictures on which the decline narrative relies, we focused on in-depth analysis of strategy, Arabic documents, audio and video to produce an authentic representation of the movement.

 

So, how did we know?

Based on a genuine collaboration between subject matter expertise and data analysis, we uncovered the answer as a combination of two factors;

  • The jihadist movement operates on a much longer timeline than appreciated by pundits looking to produce tweet-ready metrics.
  • While many western commentators were pushing the ‘decline’ narrative, based on the over-representation of pictures, video production which had been low over the summer had already begun to increase again during the autumn.

These elements and in-depth analysis of the movement allowed us to make the prediction before the event, in contrast to the many ad-hoc descriptive responses after the event.

 

How did we do it?

After building an archive of over 300,000 pages of Arabic text, and 6,000 videos, and hundreds of hours of audio produced since the 1990s, it was clear that long form matters to the core of the Jihadist movement. And this does not even touch on the wealth of magazines created in the 1980s by Sunni extremist groups.

In the thousands of pages of Arabic text, strategy was clearly articulated for those able to read Arabic and willing to invest the time to understand the references, context and encoded meaning. Getting past what Nico Prucha refers to as the “Initiation firewall”, means you need to have read and consumed the content in Arabic to understand the depth of theology which is used as coded communication. Yet, in most research not even transliterated Arabic keywords that matter for the Sunni extremist movement and are used as codes in English-language publications matter and are properly analysed.

Content, especially Arabic language content, is fundamental to the movement, yet the lingual & theological expertise to understand it is almost constantly neglected and lacking in research. This blind spot allows the jihadist movement to reorganize and recuperate out of view of contemporary research and commentary. This allows the movement to develop strategy and tactics by leveraging a wealth of material shared online – and re-organize and develop new outreach strategy. These online spaces provide a safe-haven of coherent theological framework and invites individuals – based on their individual degree of initiation – into more and more clandestine networks, involving layers of online vetting processes.

These clandestine networks are protected by:

  • Arabic language required to access clandestine networks, the ongoing paucity of these language skills amongst researchers is appalling (lingual firewall),
  • Knowledge of the coherent use of coded religious language and keywords, which few researchers can demonstrate in their writing (initiation firewall),
  • With the migration to Telegram, ISIS succeeded in shifting and re-adapting their modus operandi of in-group discussions & designated curated content intended for the public (as part of da’wa).

Passing these firewalls provided access to what ISIS – and the Jihadist movement more broadly – are trying to achieve. [Spoiler alert] What they seek has nothing to do with ‘Utopia’.

Unfortunately, a rigorous understanding of Arabic and deep appreciation for the theological references that Jihadists use simply do not seem to matter to commentators who have become pre-occupied with the few English items and pictures that they have found (though even these are not necessarily understood).

Using the strategic approach adopted by ISIS, and the Jihadist movement, as a point of departure, we examined the amount of video being produced since ISI transitioned to ISIS.

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Using the longer timeline and rolling mean of the number of videos produced, it is easy to see that the most likely outcome would be that ISIS media would continue to fluctuate rather than follow the linear ‘direction’ of decline.

Two points provide an important book-ends that further disrupt the decline narrative. First, the highest peak falls before the much talked-up ‘high-point’ in content production. Second, the next highest period of video production fell at the end of 2016 and is much higher than the rest of 2016, exceeding almost the entire history of ISIS video production. This repeats the finding of earlier research which also highlighted the fluctuation in content.

Just as magazine production going back to the 1980s and 1990s fluctuated, so all forms of media production fluctuates.

Equally, as the end of 2017 approached and many western commentators were pushing the ‘decline’ narrative, video production which had been low over the summer had already begun to increase again.

These findings are in sharp contrast to the massive overemphasis on pictures and tweet-ready metrics, by western researchers.

[Another spoiler alert] those who are able and inclined to read the Arabic magazines of the 1980s and 1990s will recognise all the theological themes, articles on mujahidat, defining wilaya etc. currently being passed off as new or unprecedented by Western commentary about ISIS.

Not all content is created equal.

We have written before about the methodological flaw that results from counting pictures, video, newspaper all equally in the attempt to produce a linear metric. To examine the differences in content we looked at the length of videos measured in minutes.

Three hugely important points emerge. First, the direction of the trendline, second that measured in minutes video production peaked at the end of 2016, and third, the volume of video during late 2017 and early 2018 was higher than it had been earlier in the year.

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If you take a view of ISIS from 2013 to present the trend in production is up, not sharp decline.

While picture-centric counting was hailed as showing ‘total collapse’ – the longer, more complex, and arguably much more resource intensive / important videos, were not following that pattern.

Video production in minutes during the second half of 2017 was not in decline but had been increasing.  This allowed us to predict that overall production would continue to fluctuate in the face of howls of protest and decliners insisting we were ‘wrong on direction’.

Five months into 2018, the band of committed decliners has thinned significantly. Some are now even trying to sweep under the carpet the earlier claims of collapse, single downward direction, linear / steady decline, or a strong correlation with territory.

Furthermore, the assumed correlation with territory is problematic as the publications from the pre-ISIS era highlights. AQ derived great value from curated videos and writings that spanned from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen etc. where little to no territory was held at the time.

 

Authenticity

We covered before why basing analysis on a cherry picked high point produces a nice narrative, but not an authentic result.

Contrasting the number of videos produced with the average length of production we find further startling results. The high point of video production comes at one of the lowest points for average length. This means that the high point was produced because ISIS published a higher number of shorter videos. While at other points, such as now, they produced fewer longer videos.

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This highlights that counting the number of videos has little bearing on the amount being communicated – which after all is the purpose of producing the videos. Here we see one of the flaws in drawing conclusions from counting the amount of content produced. Producing one long video does not communicate half as much as two short videos so cannot support conclusions of ‘decline’ and collapse.  Equally worth noting, the linear trend lines both show a rising trend rather than a decline in number and average length over the entire period.[iii]

Metrification:

Tweet-ready punditry has led commentary to focus on finding and tracking a magic metric rather than developing an authentic understanding of the movement (a trend policy has, to an extent, followed). However, there can be no doubt now that magic metrics pushing decline and full-fledged collapse have failed to provide an authentic representation of the movement.

These metrics have been used to justify pronouncements of decline and ‘total collapse’ in ISIS media and claims production is strongly correlated with territory – which, while headline grabbing, have failed to hold up to scrutiny in 2018, just as the passage of time has shown previous claims of decline and degradation to be more wishful thinking than evidence based conclusions.

Three elements, previously highlighted by Richard Jackson, are particularly prescient when reflecting on the recent metrification of research into the Jihadist movement.

Specifically, the tendency toward:

  1. treating the current problem as unprecedented and exceptional
  2. descriptive over-generalisation,
  3. problem solving approaches that risk reducing research to ‘an uncritical mouthpiece of state interests’

 

Unprecedented and exceptional

Richard Jackson observed that there has been a “persistent tendency to treat the current terrorist threat as unprecedented and exceptional”.[iv] Representing the current threat as unprecedented and exceptional in nature, is a helpful tool if one were to want to start analysis at a preferred point – rather than account for what came before – or account for any relationship between previous iterations of the movement and the contemporary situation. This is important not least because ISIS draw extensively on content and experiences from previous iterations of the movement.

There have been a rash of studies over recent years focusing on ‘official’ social media accounts or what is often termed ISIS ‘official’ media. They use data which starts in 2014 (or strangely 2015) and occasionally – the totally bizarre approach of drawing conclusions using only a single time point before 2017. This approach enables a simple metrification – but undermines authenticity by separating the analysis of the movement from its historical roots. The cherry picking of time points allows everything to be boiled down to a magic number without reference to what came before thereby providing a  policy friendly ‘narrative’.

However, the Media Mujahidin did not appear one day out of nowhere. It evolved over two decades of online activity – tied into the jihadist tradition of producing media since the 1980s during the jihad against the Red Army in Afghanistan.

A previous post demonstrated that once we get away from the narrow discussion of ‘core’ nashir channels we can escape the over-generalisation based on a tiny sample of channels. Taking a wider perspective shows that rather than being a few disconnected channels, the network structure allows Jihadist groups to maintain their resilience and distribute the full range of content. Jihadists groups have been observed using these structures since 2013, and building on these observations, it is clear that this current iteration, like the movement in general, is neither unprecedented nor exceptional.

 

Descriptive over-generalisation

Reviewing the articles published since 9/11, Richard Jackson observed “the vast majority of this literature can be criticised for its orientalist outlook, its political biases and its descriptive over-generalisations, misconceptions and lack of empirically grounded knowledge”.[v]

Over the years, metrification and over-generalisation have resulted in numerous claims of degradation and decline, culminating in recent pronouncements of ‘total collapse’. In time, all these claims have been shown to be misplaced. This is because, as noted in 2014, “the nature of the mobile-enabled swarmcast means it can appear to be degraded, but it has really only reconfigured”.

The level of over-generalisation from a few limited observations and ongoing metrification have been key parts of the decline ‘narrative’. Unfortunately, it risks peering down a soda straw at a large-scale complex problem , to borrow an analogy from Kill Chain. For example, the VOX-Pol study Disrupting Daesh concluded “IS’s ability to facilitate and maintain strong and influential communities on Twitter was found to be significantly diminished” and that “pro-IS accounts are being significantly disrupted and this has effectively eliminated IS’s once vibrant Twitter community”.[vi]

These findings are an overgeneralisation, just like previous claims, based on extrapolating from the soda straw perspective of researcher’s inability to find twitter accounts. The evidence from beyond the soda straw shows ISIS continued to drive traffic to their content. Twitter represented 40% of known referrals to ISIS content during the time period of the VOX-Pol study.[vii] If ISIS had been significantly disrupted – where was the traffic coming from?

This type of over-generalisation has been key to the decline narrative. In another example, Peter Neuman claimed:

Instead of populating mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, Islamic State supporters have been pushed into the darker corners of the internet, especially the private messaging app Telegram, where reaching out to new supporters is more difficult.

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Directly contradicting that claim, in addition to the 12,000 views on a video in March, shown earlier, a sample from consecutive days in May 2018 shows ISIS videos still being watched thousands of times on Twitter – 7,351 views, 9,192 views and 8,699 views on 12th, 13th and 14th May respectively. A clear indication that outreach is ongoing via Ghazwa, as core members access content via Telegram.  The success of this uninterrupted outreach process adds to the coherency that ISIS texts and videos offer to their target audiences.

 

Risks of being an uncritical mouthpiece

A third observation central to the development of Critical Terrorism Studies equally highlights the limitation of an approach based on problem-solving metrification;

“It is fair to say that the vast majority of terrorism research attempts to provide policy-makers with useful advice for controlling and eradicating terrorism as a threat to Western interests”. This problem-solving approach can “be a real problem when it distorts research priorities, co-opts the field and turns scholars into ‘an uncritical mouthpiece of state interests’”.[viii]

The narrative of ISIS in decline, in addition to undermining what they claim as a “utopian picture of life under Daesh rule”, or what Rex Tillerson referred to as the “false utopian vision”,  have been parts of the strategy adopted by the Global Coalition against Daesh.

That the decline ‘narrative’ has been pushed so hard by some commentators insisting on their being a ‘direction’ – there has been a growing risk of some becoming uncritical mouthpieces.[ix] For example, the idea of ISIS seeking to project a utopian vision is uncritically accepted by many Western commentators. This subsequently distorts the interpretation of ISIS media. For Jihadist groups Utopia is not a concept to which they aspire. This is due to the theology which draws a clear distinction between the worldly concerns or the temporal world (dunya) and paradise (janna). Even so, academic references connecting ISIS to Utopia proliferate, without reference to original jihadist content that discuss ‘Utopia’ as a goal for their activity.

More troubling than the lack of critical thinking about the core concepts of the jihadist movement are the whispers of researchers working with / for Coalition members and their contractors one day, and the next day representing themselves as independent journalists writing about ISIS decline or Coalition success.

Clear disclosures of potential conflicts of interest between journalism, research, and Government interests are fundamental parts of producing credible academic findings.

If these whispers are confirmed, it would realise one of the objectives outlined by Jihadists including Abu Mus’ab as-Suri, to show Western society contradicting the values to which they claim to adhere. It would be a completely ridiculous and entirely avoidable own goal.

It would also be a breach of journalistic ethics akin to Sean Hannity’s less than full disclosure and represent one of the most profound breaches of trust in the publication of research since the CIA was found to be covertly channelling money to Encounter Magazine and the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Conclusion

Problem-solving punditry, metrification, and the ‘decline narrative’ have become widely accepted by Western researchers focused on the Jihadist movement. However, as this post has shown the Jihadist movement is much more complex than those pushing the ‘decline narrative’ suggest.

Recognising the limits of metrification, the cherry picking of time points and decliner emphasis on pictures rather than in-depth analysis of documents and video, will allow researchers to produce a more authentic understanding of the movement than is possible from simple linear metrics.

As Rüdiger Lohlker wrote in September 2016,

“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;”[x]

ISIS has the upper hand by inhabiting places that are blind spots for outsiders. They use these blind spots to their advantage. Rather than collapse, ISIS continue to produce coherent content in Arabic – content of which hardly seems to matter to most policy makers and researchers. They build resilient, regenerative online networks – that are now completely in the dark for outsiders. They have battle-hardened fighters on the ground, and the intellectual capital— “their weapon designs, the engineering challenges they’ve solved, their industrial processes, blueprints, and schematics” – from what Damien Spleeters calls “the industrial revolution of terrorism“.

With the commitment, knowledge and ongoing access to resilient networks, ISIS continue to publish new content (videos, articles, newspapers, radio programs etc.) from locations across MENA and ‘East Asia’.

 

Notes

[i]               https://www.lawfareblog.com/virtual-caliphate-rebooted-islamic-states-evolving-online-strategy

[ii]               Analysis: IS media show signs of recovery after sharp decline, BBC Monitoring, (23rd February 2018)

https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c1dov471#top

[iii] Worth note here, the R2 values are very low – suggesting polynomial or a longer window rolling mean might give better representations, but as we are discussing linear metrics we show it here.

[iv]              Richard Jackson, The Study of Terrorism after 11 September 2001: Problems, Challenges and Future Developments, Political Studies Review7, 2, (171-184), (2009)

[v]               Jackson, Richard. “The Study of Terrorism 10 Years after 9/11: Successes, Issues, Challenges.” Uluslararası İlişkiler 8.32 (2012): 1-16.

Jackson, R. ‘Constructing Enemies: “Islamic Terrorism” in Political and Academic Discourse’, Government and Opposition, 42, 394–426 (2007)

[vi]              Conway, Maura, et al. “Disrupting Daesh: measuring takedown of online terrorist material and it’s impacts.” (2017): 1-45. http://doras.dcu.ie/21961/1/Disrupting_DAESH_FINAL_WEB_VERSION.pdf

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

[viii]             Jackson, Richard, “The Study of Terrorism 10 Years After 9/11: Successes, Issues, Challenges”, Uluslararası İlişkiler, Volume 8, No 32 (Winter 2012), p. 1-16 quoting,  Ranstorp, “Mapping Terrorism Studies after 9/11”, p.25

[ix]              Here ‘uncritical’ refers to critical thought, rather than being negative.

[x]               Rüdiger Lohlker, Why Theology Matters – The Case of ISIS, Strategic Review July –September 2016, http://sr-indonesia.com/in-the-journal/view/europe-s-misunderstanding-of-islam-and-isis

 

The Clashes of the Swords – Nashid as Pop-Culture & Translation of the nashid salil al-sawarim

Posted May 1, 2018 by Nico Prucha
Categories: ISIS

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Don’t mind the few times these particular nashid had been downloaded within Telegram, part of the normal traffic of IS networks there. While this may be a paradox given the constant drum beat that IS is in decline, or as recently claimed, their ‘play book’ was disrupted online (for the third time?), the IS networks on Telegram did not get that memo, as BBC Monitoring confirmed. Neither had IS been hempered to either release their weekly al-Naba’ 129 or the w. Damascus video. And neither did the IS members and sympathizers who conduct media raid operations bringing content to the non-/less initiated on Facebook, Twitter, and everywhere else see a disturbance, so dropping “dark web” as a buzz word isn’t a excuse.

Three reasons for online network resilience and continued existence in the offline realms:

  1. Lingual firewall: Arabic content that hardly echoes into the academic realm or within analysis (with few exceptions),
  2. Initiation firewall: you need to have read and consumed the content in Arabic to understand the depth of theology which is used as coded communication;
  3. comittment, coherent messages and applying what was penned on paper as state policy with the uninterrupted documentation of bringing shari’a rule in their understanding to the few territorial zones that are held or reclaimed by IS. This combination gives credibility. The coherency in the media output is based on tens of thousands of – mainly Arabic – penned pages where jihadis clearly state why they fight. But without Arabic and understanding the religious depth exercised here, it simply does not matter to the outside who are pre-occupied with the few English items that are found (not neccesarily understood).

So nashid and warning – a reference to the 1980s... again…:

Nashid (or nasheed if you will / pl. anashid) are jihad-hymns. These religious songs are exclusively acapella-styled and oftentimes enhanced by sound effects such as the “clash” or “clang” of a sword, a machinegun, an explosion or the neigh of a horse – suggesting the Mujahid embarked on a horse following the historical role models steering into combat.

Since the 1980s, the nashid has been a genre of its own, enriching sermons and the videos of jihad in general, conveying elemental and key themes of Sunni extremist ideology in a playful style to a wider audience. The use of the Internet was key in popularizing the nashid, some of which have entered mainstream pop-culture, such as the song salil al-sawarim. Generally, nashid acoustically convey rhythmic and easy to comprehend texts featuring religious key words in Arabic. This holds true for both Arabic and non-Arabic nashid, where likewise Arabic key words full of Sunni extremist meaning are broadcast outlining theological concepts and a general Muslim identity. Such key concepts are enhanced by visual means, either pictures or short video sequences – or the nashid serves as the theme for segments within jihadist videos.

The nashid salil al-sawarim has become one of the main IS theme songs, often used to enhance videos, including non-jihadist content, such as a video showing a belly dancer with over 1 million views,[1] a “Shiite version” with drums and about 875 000 views,[2] Egyptians mocking IS[3] or a heavily modified “Skrillex” version thereof with over 430 000 views.[4]  When searching for this nashid in Latin transliteration salil al-sawarim, the ‘original’, unmodified version appears by Abu Yasir with over 640 000 views and about 4 500 likes.[5] Most of the comments are in English with the seeming majority in favour. Of the nearly 2,000 comments, statements such as “this song rocked so hard the twin tower collapsed” (25 likes) appear as often as references to first-person-shooter games where two teams fight each other to death:

“Played this over mic in a csgo [Counter Strike Global Offensive, a first-person-shooter] match while yelling Allahu Akbar. Everyone else started yelling with me. The bomb got detonated and we all went totally crazy. 10/10 would jihad again,” (742 likes)

or a top comment:

“My speakers just exploded for like no reason.” (957 likes)

Other commentators criticize the popularity of the IS nashid, claiming that:

“Thanks to 4chan & Reddit, metadata won’t be able to tell the difference between legit radicalized Westerners and teenagers with really weird senses of humor.” (47 likes)

The nashid tends to accompany action-related content released by IS, such as in-combat footage or sniper videos, including a video released January 13, 2016 by the wilaya Halab (“province of Aleppo”). The 7-minute video entitled “Deadly Arrows” (sahm al-qatil) highlights the professional training of IS snipers, with one sniper speaking to the audience about the necessity to fight. Footage showing the shooting of Syrian soldiers through the sniper scope is enhanced by the nashid salil al-sawarim.

As stated, the nashid in general is a genre of jihadist media productions that is meticulously and professionally produced and serves the strategy of conveying ideological parameters and popularizing key words with in-depth meaning to a wide target audience.

 

A Translation of the nashid salil al-sawarim

Clashing of the swords,[6] hymn[7] of the reluctant

while the passageway of fighting is the way of life

so amidst an assault, tyranny[8] perishes

the most beautiful echo is silence[9]

concealment of the voice[10] results in the beauty of the echo

By it my religion is exalted[11] and tyranny is laid low

Therefore, my people, awake on the path of the brave

For either being alive delights leaders

Or being dead vexes the enemy

So arise brother get up on the path of salvation

So we may march together, resist the aggressors

Raise our glory and raise the foreheads

That have refused to bow before any besides God

Come on to righteousness

The banner has called us

To brighten the path of destiny

To wage war on the enemy

Whosoever among us dies

In sacrifice for defense

Will enjoy eternity

Mourning will depart

Will enjoy eternity

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exMS5HkfCFA

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZCT6013Skg

[3] A news report on mock executions and Egyptians dancing in a funny manner to offend IS, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFR1AUA_RPo. About a quarter million views with some strong language in favor of IS in the comments.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg_mZv_SdZw

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQoJvI8XUa0

[6] Salil al-sawarim

[7] nashid

[8] This refers to local tyrants (local Arab regimes) and the ‘far enemy’ (Western nations, supporting regimes in the Arab countries to suppress Islamist and jihadist movements).

[9] Lit.: the silencing of the voice is a beautiful echo.

[10] Lit.: the silencer is a means of a beautiful resistance [to assassinate enemies in secret].

[11] In the meaning of “my religion is honored” (‘izza), a term frequently used to re-instate lost pride and respect to incite the consumers of jihadist media to get active and participate in an empowering movement. La ‘izza ila bi jihad, “there is no honor except by jihad” was a popular slogan for the first generation of AQAP and often used within the electronic magazine “The Voice of Jihad.”

 

The Echo of the “Deep State” – Salil al-Sawarim (4)

Posted May 1, 2018 by Nico Prucha
Categories: Iraq, ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)

jihad mediatique motif du combat

The four Salil al-sawarim (SAS) video series by ISI(S), as outlined in earlier posts, are a groundbreaking installment that echo well into the contemporary Sunni extremist ecosystem. Although being repetitive, it has to emphasized time and again that this ecosystem communicates above all other languages in Arabic and hence the messages – openly and subtly – projected in videos such as SAS target a global Arab audience. The codes submitted in these Arabic language materials, which are shared across networks from Telegram outwardly, are religious motifs and references, such as salil al-sawarim. This is the norm of Arabic language materials which have been pushed in writing and videos on the Internet since the Balkan war, where in the process the value of non-Arabic language materials, crafted by foreign fighters in their language of choice, became more promiment – yet while the wealth of Arabic sources are the absolute majority. Yet the majority of analysis and academia seems to be pre-occupied with the few English-language items and even then not take the texts in magazines such as Rumiyya, Dabiq and before that Inspire into account. The actual ‘narrative(s)’ don’t seem to matter while energy is wasted on another ‘analysis’ on Rumiyya. Congratulations. In the meantime from the wealth of excisting Arabic sources jihadis manage(d) to build their own frames of reference using Latinized key words from Arabic for non-Arabic target audiences. Salil al-sawarim is not only a four video series but also features a popular nasheed that managed to penetrate across languages due to its mesmerizing effect. Most important, understanding what the extend of SAS means, it re-echoes within the contemporary channels, groups and general communication on Telegram, where role models such as Abu Wahib are mingled with the hopes of re-newed SAS videos. In particular the fourth video demonstrated at the time of its release the sweeping of territory and establishment of the dawla and hence remains a integral media item that is referenced and reflected in current IS releases as well.

A recent example is the wilaya Sinai release on February 11, 2018, Safeguarding the shari’a. The video follows the 2014 IS video style of “the clanging of the swords, part 4.” Control of territory and purging of Egyptian state soldiers caught and killed on the street. The video starts with a detailed – extremist typical – explanation of Sunni Muslim identity and theological outlining non-Muslims and Muslims who are violating the extremist identity as legitimate enemies. Any Muslim participating in the upcoming Egyptian elections is an apostate. Professional carried out hit and run and guerilla warfare styled operations on Sinai as well as executions of Egyptian agents conclude the video that focused on a young Egyptian IS recruit who attained “martyrdom”. The fight for Sunni extremists is about applied theology that leads to the destruction of graveyards sanctioned as places of shirk, obliteration of mummies as in Palmyra and the execution of Shiites who are defined along theological lines as legitimate targets etc.

Salil al-Sawarim, part 4 

As is typical of jihadist videos, Salil al-sawarim, part 4 begins with the basmala[1]: “in the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.”

The opening sequences of the film are set within the overarching notion of the 37th sura of the Qur’an (sura al-saffat)[2], Verses 172-173:

“Our word has already been given to Our servants the messengers: it is they who will be helped, and the ones who support (jund) Our cause will be the winners.”[3]

As M.A.S. Abdel Haleem notes, “in classical Arabic jund means ‘supporters’, not just ‘armies’.” IS, however, implies the meaning of jund is “soldiers”, hence defining every true legitimate supporter of the “Islamic State” as a soldier. This enhances the Sunni Muslim identity IS stands for, as any physical member of their group is presented as a soldier of God (jund allah), or soldier of the caliphate (jund al-khilafa) with a reference to the above cited passage of the Qur’an.

The video shows a satellite map of the greater Middle East to visually . Clearly visible are the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, which are according to jihadist doctrine the god-given boundaries of what should be referred to as the “Arab Peninsula.”[4] This drive to liberate the Arab Peninsula is focused on Mecca and Medina as much as Jerusalem, where the Sunni extremists position themselves as the only Muslim Arabs – in contrast to all Arab regimes – willing to take Jerusalem back while enforcing the “true” Islam in the birthplace of Islam in contemporary Saudi Arabia.

Syria and Iraq are part of the Arab Peninsula in jihadist understanding, and defined as the cradle of Islam, including by Ayman al-Zawahiri in a 2012 speech commemorating and acknowledging martyred al-Qaeda ideologues and leaders.[5]

The camera zooms into Iraq and takes the audience into the full HD perspective of a drone, hovering over the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where the most severe attacks against the U.S. occupational forces occurred. As a result, Fallujah has been at the center of jihadist narratives in writing and on video since 2003. The U.S. Army suffered many losses in the Iraqi province of al-Anbar, and was only able to retake the city of Fallujah after two intensive campaigns consisting of house-to-house fighting. Drones, operated by handheld tablets such as the iPad or Android powered, are in part revolutionizing the landscape of jihadist videos. On December 17, 2015, the IS-province of al-Anbar, Iraq, published a video message for the Saudi government titled “expel the mushrikeen from the Arab Peninsula”, a phrase popularized by the first generation of al-Qaeda  in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) At the end of the video, a suicide bomber’s farewell ceremony is documented and his advance towards a remote Iraqi Army outpost is filmed by a drone, showing the long drive through the desert plains and the massive explosion at the Army site.

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Death on the ground – filmed from above by an IS operated full HD camera drone

The remote controlled drone, possibly the iPad controlled AR Parrot drone, provides an overview of the city of Fallujah, suggesting calmness and peace after the takeover by IS in January 2014. The drone perspective suggests power and projects the “Islamic State” as functioning and operational in Fallujah, presenting itself as the only force able and willing to protect the Sunni population – a strategic message in the light of the bloody sectarian war in Iraq and the recent history of grievances of the city itself. The images of the drone are termed “Fallujah bi-adsa al-furqan”, “by the lens of al-Furqan [media]”, the main official media outlet of IS, founded in the days of al-Zarqawi and now used as one of the main media stations in the sense of a Caliphate-wide broadcasting company.

From the “lens of al-Furqan” the sequence shifts to mainly convoys of Toyota pick-up trucks with armed fighters and .50 caliber guns from various IS controlled cities to underline the fight for territory within the Sunni Arab heartlands of Syria and Iraq. IS attempts to project the notion that the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” is indeed in the phase of consolidation when the video was published in May 2014 and takes the audience from the city of Fallujah to cities across Syria and Iraq showing columns of IS-cars and fighters parading in various cities.

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The “al-Furqan drone” documenting the IS convoy from above and cameramen on the ground in Fallujah

From Homs and al-Raqqa (Syria) to Ramadi that fell to IS in May 2015 and was liberated by Iraqi forces in February 2016[6], and Fallujah the scene ends with the black flag of the Islamic State while the narrator sets the tone of divine guidance for IS:

“by the voice of truth (haqq) and the conquest of the millat Ibrahim prying open the true conflict between the opposing military camps and those who fight for al-haqq and falsehood (al-batil).[7] For jihad is set to establish the din (bond to god etc), this is a shari’a obligation, a duty that can only be achieved by holding fast (i’tisam) on to God and by adhering to the jama’a.[8] This endeavor entails sacrifice and humbleness until the judicial rulings prescribed by shari’a[9] are retained and safeguarded, the divine physical punishment (hadd) are implemented and carried out without any fear of God.[10]

The focus of the video is Syria and Iraq, where at the time of the video release, “vast territories” had recently been conquered and ingested into the entity of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. The target audience consists of Arabic native speakers who understand the dynamic in Iraq, where IS was able to establish itself as the only lobby for the marginalized Sunni population, particularly in al-Anbar.[11] The conquest and subsequent consolidation of territory, as allegedly shown in the video, is framed within the grand dream of liberating Jerusalem, a repetition echoed by jihadist groups since the 1980s,[12] stating that “the Mosque of al-Aqsa is just a stone hurl away” from the newly (re-) established Islamic State that seeks to liberate and integrate all parts of the once blossoming caliphate. Hence, IS is “building firm towers to bring down conspiracies that collapse within and break at the walls of the Islamic State”.

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The introduction is concluded by a lengthy talk given by a foreign fighter from Kosovo who is fluent in Arabic and holds his passport into the camera like most of his comrades. The group of men waiving black flags and flashing their weapons and passports are framed as sincere believers who “fulfill their covenant to God”[13]  and are as such presented to the audience as ultimate role models.

[1] Bi-smi l-llahi l-rahmani l-rahim is a common saying for Muslims worldwide; during prayer; when entering a house, when thanking god for their food etc. Every Sura of the Qur’ an with two exceptions (surat al-anfal (“spoils of war”) and surat al-tawba (“repentance”), start with the basmala

[2] “Those who set the ranks”. The term “saff” (row) is reference to the rows of believers during prayer and is used in jihadist slang likewise to project unity in their war against non-Muslims worldwide.

[3] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Qurʾan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[4] In Jihadist definition the Arab Peninsula (al-jazirat al-‘Arab) comprises an area that includes Iraq. According to the first generation of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, the Arab Peninsula must be cleansed of all polytheists (mushrikin) as detailed in AQAP’s electronic magazine “the voice of jihad”, vol. 6 & 7. Discussed in: Nico Prucha, Die Stimme des Dschihad “Sawt al-gihad”: al-Qaedas erstes Online-Magazin, Hamburg: Verlag Dr.Kovač, 2010

[5] Ayman al-Zawahiri, li-ahlina fi manzal al-wahi wa-mahad al-Islam, al-Sahab, May 16, 2012.

[6] Iraq liberates city of Ramadi from Islamic State, Chicago Tribune, February 9, 2016,  http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-iraq-ramadi-islamic-state-20160209-story.html,

[7] For a description of the terms haqq / batil: Nico Prucha, Notes on the Jihadists’ Motivation for Suicide-Operations, Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies (JIPSS), vol. 4, no. 1, 2010, 57-68.

[8] A religious reference to the ahl al-Sunna wa-l jama’a, meaning the Sunni Muslims who are acting on behalf of the prophetic tradition (Sunna), exemplified by prophet Muhammad and his companions. Sunni extremists claim to be in the closest proximity to God by re-enacting the example and guidance as set by the Sunna of prophet Muhammad and his companions (sahaba). The “Islamic State” has taken this AQ penned concept to a new level by popularizing their slogan “upon the prophetic methodology” (ala minhaj al-nubuwwa), framing every action, ranging from the destruction of Shiite mosques to the execution of non-Sunni Muslims, as the only valid model of pieces of divine scripture as well as the alleged prophetic conduct.

[9] In Arabic: ahkam al-shari’a. The term ahkam, singular: hukm, refers to the judicial findings based on the interpretations of religious scripture and is often equated to a specific “ruling” or “jurisprudential decree” issued by a religious authoritative scholar (shaykh).

[10] A frequent issued sentiment and a core theme for the jihadist literature. In particular the first generation of al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) who published a great deal of writings online referred to the fifth verse (al-Ma’ida) of the Qur’an in defining themselves as the only proper Muslims favored by God. “[God] loves and who love Him, people who are humble towards the believers, hard on the disbelievers, and who strive in God’s way without fearing anyone’s reproach. Such is God’s favour.” A true believer adhering to the jihadist corpus of writings and videos only fears God and accepts or gives guidance channeled through the formalization of religion and thus enforced as “shari’a law”, ahkam, or defined as part of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

[11] Emma Sky, The Unravelling. High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, Atlantic Books: London 2015.

Also: Patrick Cockburn. The Rise of the Islamic State. ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, Verso: London, New York, 2014.

[12] The importance to liberate Jerusalem by fighting within the Arab countries is discussed in: Nico Prucha, ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s Outlook for Jihad in 1988 – “al-Jihad between Kabul and Jerusalem”, RIEAS, December 2010, http://rieas.gr/images/nicos2.pdf

[13] The contract, or ‘ahd, is a central theme throughout the ideology of Sunni extremist groups. In jihadist mindset, only the ‘true’ Muslim is the one who understands and acts on behalf of the “contract [or: covenant] with god”, affirming that god in return will recompense the bloodshed and deeds invested by the believer in the afterlife, as based on the extremist reading of verses such as 3:169 or 8:60 to briefly reference two samples.

 

 

How well established is the Jihadist movement on Telegram?

Posted March 15, 2018 by humanshuddle
Categories: da'wa, Data Science, ISIS, online jihad

This post looks at a network of 462 human verified Jihadist channels on Telegram and over 6,000 additional Telegram channels and groups on which they draw. It demonstrates that the network is much bigger and exhibits a greater level of interconnection than indicated by recent references to munasir and supposed Core Nashir Channels Telegram. The post then highlights the ‘veil of silence’ that has been cast over the majority of activity conducted by the Jihadist movement on Telegram – activity which is primarily in Arabic, focuses on applied theology, and references a vast library of earlier writing, audio and video.

The use of Telegram by the Jihadist movement has attracted the attention of politicians, who have called on platform owners to deny the movement ‘safe spaces‘ – with inevitable push-back from others including Telegram CEO Pavel Durov. At the same time, rumors circulate of Silicon Valley VCs looking to invest in Telegram, while many column inches have been filled with the usual punditry and superficial commentary about ISIS and social media.

Nashir / News

The often referenced Nashir and other news related channels are a natural starting point for analysing Jihadist groups. Many of this type of channel allows users to see the other followers who are also members of that channel. Network Analysis shows the real number of users in the network (6,266 users) and the clusters of users (blue dots) who make similar combinations of choices about the channels to follow (orange dots).

 

Channel_Network_2a

Channels on the right of the network focus on the formally branded content distributed via Nashir and Amaq channels. Those channels on the left tend to blend the formally branded content with a greater level of supporter generated and affiliated media foundation content. Far from being less important, due to being ‘unofficial’ as is often presented, this blending of content reflects the shared purpose, rather than shared organisational structure, as had been outlined by Abu Mus’ab as-Suri over a decade ago.

BlackLight_picsThe BlackLight image feed (which updates with newly posted content from Jihadist Channels every 90 seconds) frequently shows a wide variety of content which ranges from branded content to pictures of former ideologues and leaders, to imagery which conveys concepts which will resonate with sympathizers versed in Jihadist theology, that of course is distributed primarily in Arabic.

Wider Telegram Network

This range of content is inline with what we expected to find. Nico Prucha has taken “a closer look at what Telegram is, and how IS uses it for different purposes: not only operationally, but also for identity building“. More than just narrowly defined ISIS branded content, the range of content “conveys a coherent jihadist worldview, based on theological texts written by AQ ideologues and affiliates as far back as the 1980s”.

To break away from the narrow discussion of ISIS content, we analysed the wide ecosystem of Jihadist channels. This ecosystem allows the Jihadist groups to maintain their resilience and distribute the full range of content out of view from those focused on Nashir / News content.

ISIS_NPTG_network2a

The graph is based on 290,000 posts and shows the content sharing behaviour of 462 human verified Jihadist Telegram channels, and over 6,000 channels from which they share content. Initial observations:

  • The graph shows that Jihadist Telegram Channels form a series of interconnected clusters.
  • Despite attracting the greatest attention from Western commentators, the Nashir News cluster is a tiny part of the overall ecosystem.
  • AQ and ISIS clusters are distantly connected.
  • There is a cluster of Jihadist sympathisers and supporters which align closely with neither ISIS nor AQ.
  • The creation of content archives on Telegram ensures users who see themselves as murabiteen (horse backed warriors) are able to access the content needed to conduct Ghazwa (raids) onto other platforms.

While the Nashir gain the attention of commentators and pundits, there is a large number of channels and huge amount of content going undetected. This content is also reaching large numbers of people, given that the content in the 293,000 posts has been viewed over 460 million times. (This is the number once the duplicate views have been removed). Below, for example, has been viewed over 309,000 times.

nashir stats sample

A subordinating silence

Caron E. Gentry and Katherine E. Brown have both shown how particular approaches, including cultural essentialism and neo-Orientalism, can cause a ‘subordinating silence’  which veils particular groups or perspectives from view.(1) These, like many of insights derived from the work on subordinating gendered narratives about terrorists who are female, provide valuable perspectives and parallels closely the issue of which parts of Jihadist ideational content matter to, or get attention from, Western researchers and policymakers.

As Caron E. Gentry has shown, the women who gain media attention are those “that present threats to the Western ‘us’ and not the Middle Eastern ‘other’.” Specifically highlighting coverage of women who either left the west to fight in Iraq, or with ties to AQ and as such threatened to attack Western interests elsewhere. By contrast, for ‘women who did not (yet) pose a threat to Western interests…, virtually no image exists in the public eye. They almost do not exist’.(2) Similarly one finds many studies of English language sources, with significantly fewer studies of the Arabic sources – despite Arabic being the primary and vastly more heavily used language of the Jihadist movement.

As the late Reuvan Paz noted, the movement is “almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world”.(3) Yet the vast majority of research focuses on English sources. Perhaps this is the content Western researchers are able to find, or because so few researchers are able to listen to and understand the nuances of spoken Arabic nor read Arabic quickly enough to digest the volume of content which circulates in Arabic each week. It is hard to tell definitively which of these two interrelated problems cause the phenomena, but the result is a vast overexposure of sources in English compared to those texts meaningful to the core of the movement – written in Arabic.

naba 117 stats with banner.jpg

Above, the pdf version of issue 117 of al-Naba has been viewed over 7,000 times. Yet analysis of 12-16 pages of Arabic text by al-Naba’ warrants barely a mention, and is erroneously given the same weight as a single picture. Equally, text and images such as those below are often excluded from ‘analysis’ because they come from Amaq, despite being viewed over 9000 times on Telegram alone.

Both items are from the notorious Nashir channel, which is often cited and referred to in the context of IS’ media decline. One may wonder though, why the number of times for instance the al-Naba’ edition has been downloaded in the Telegram application never gets a mention. Perhaps letting slip that this newspaper usually gets around 7000 – 8000 downloads in just the Nashir channel, Amaq posts can get 10,000 views and some Nashir content has been viewed over 300,000 times, contradicts the drum beat that ISIS media is in decline?

Amaq view number sample

Here the study of rhetoric in gender subordination provides a valuable explanation of how such a process can cause a ‘veil of silence’ to descend over an entire area of study.

As Caron E. Gentry wrote:

Across time and place in global politics, rhetoric has often been used to perpetuate certain social ‘truths’ and norms. A speaker or author uses language to direct an audience toward a manufactured truth, one in which some information is emphasized while other information is concealed. In this way, the speaker designates certain ideas, norms, and events superior to others and ignores actions or events that might challenge them.(4)

With a particular focus on neo-Orientalist Narratives, Gentry highlights:

The othering so intrinsic to neo-Orientalism is deeply troubling because it blinds scholars, researchers, and law enforcers to any deeper realities or nuances in people’s lives.(5)

Whether caused by neo-Orientalist perspectives or other reasons, the veiling of particular aspects of the Jihadist movement through ‘terministic screens’ proposed by Kenneth Burke, means ‘the rhetor uses terminology that leads an audience to a specific figurative location (reflection) rather than to an unwanted place (deflection)’.(6)

Focusing only on a few munasir and supposed Core Nashir Channels is particularly dangerous as these are only the channels most readily findable by those in Western and predominantly English language dominated habitus. While much has been made of alleged access to a few secretive ISIS Telegram Channels, the data presented here highlights that approach risks becoming a terministic screen reflecting only a particular part of the Jihadist movement. See, for example, the announcement of a ‘total collapse’ of ISIS media. A month later, the initial fanfare had become ‘Total Collapse … Postponed‘ as the same commentators struggled to explain why ISIS media was on the rise again.

The narrow focus on ISIS branded content analysed from a Western habitus is, as Katherine E. Brown wrote in her discussion of  istishhadiyyat (female martyrdom operatives), further compounded by the security frame in which it is set:

in this mainstream view in which the principal frame of reference is the state, and in particular Western states, female suicide terrorism simply becomes a variant of an already known threat to the state. This security approach consequently leads to homogenization based on method of attack and its security impact rather than a recognition of the politics of those involved…. Research that adopts the security approach is thus blinded by the glare of the explosion: the corporality and immediacy of the violence and state responses are overexposed at the expense of other features of the phenomenon.(7)

There are striking parallels between the subordination of gendered narratives and subordination of Arabic sources, by the prioritization of sources accessible to a Western and English speaking audience. In the study of the current movement, scouring ISIS English language magazines for European locations, repeats the overexposure of Western State responses.

nashir execution stats 14032018

Prioritising the impact on Western countries means the underexposure of the Arabic theologically driven core of the movement. Likewise interpreting the theologically driven, primarily Arabic content using Western terms and solely English language publications risks creating a ‘subordinating silence’ around the intentions and strategy of the Jihadist movement. Particularly if commentators are still fast forwarding through videos showing violence and wondering to whom ISIS might be speaking.

 

Notes:

  1. Brown, Katherine E. 2011. “Blinded by the Explosion? Security and Resistance in Muslim Women’s Suicide Terrorism,” in Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry, eds. Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 194-226.
  2. Gentry, Caron E. 2011. “The Neo-Orientalist Narratives of Women’s Involvement in al-Qaeda.” In Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry, eds. Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 176-193
  3. Paz, Reuven. “Reading Their Lips: The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites as ‘Soft Power’ in the War of the Minds.” (2007)
  4. Gentry, Caron E. 2011. “The Neo-Orientalist Narratives of Women’s Involvement in al-Qaeda.” In Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry, eds. Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 176-193
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. Brown, Katherine E. 2011. “Blinded by the Explosion? Security and Resistance in Muslim Women’s Suicide Terrorism,” in Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry, eds. Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 194-226

 

How 6th Graders would see through decliner logic and Coalition Information Operations

Posted January 26, 2018 by humanshuddle
Categories: Arabic Media, ISIS, Jihadist Ideology

The nature of the mobile-enabled swarmcast means it may appear to be degraded, but it has really only reconfigured. 

This observation made in 2014 was based on earlier studies of Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and the online activity of the wider Jihadist movement – produced at a time when some commentators already claimed ISIS capacity on social media had been ‘degraded’.

The ‘bluckling’ of the ISIS media system, much talked up by decliners at the end of 2017, and presented as “not just a media decline—it is a full-fledged collapse” will, in 2018, turn out to be to have been a lull as the swarmcast reconfigured, rather than signs of collapse. 

This post shows:

  • How 6th grader math class could explain what is wrong with the current decliner logic and their approaches to quantifying output.
  • Why decliners ignore 2016 – and why 2016 destroys the claim of a pseudo-correlation between content production and area controlled.
  • What about 2014? – how 2014 further disrupts decliner logic.
  • A thought experiment – what would decliner logic predict about the direction in volume of social media Global Coalition?

War by the numbers

Wars often turn on numbers, data, and the real-life experiences of the individuals represented by those numbers. The habitus of those interpretting information about the war also influences how it is understood. This includes the lived experience of target audiences in the physical world and virtual domains. As Douglas Rushkoff predicted, the battle for reality continues online.[i]

In this vein the Global Coalition information operations have long sought to present ISIS or Islamic State as being in ‘decline’ or weak. This has included tweeting images which question the ability of ISIS to produce media content and presenting this as a measure of their decline.

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While the tactic is not new – it is currently recognised by ISIS and earlier versions were discussed in depth by Anwar al-Awlaki – there is risk in confusing wishful thinking, the Information War, and academic study.

For example, ISIS has launched a new magazine al-Anfal, now on the 7th issue and the newspaper al-Naba is now on issue 116. It is noteworthy that al-Anfal is vastly better known by those in an Arabic habitus than by English and faux-Arabic language commentators – for whom it has barely warranted a mention.[ii]

6th grade math class – A holiday anecdote

The holiday season is often a time when people encounter others with different perspectives and experience. A maths teacher I spoke with highlighted why, the even in an information war, accurate data work is important to avoid becoming transparent propaganda.

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In response to hearing that claims of decline are often calculated by counting the pieces of content irrespective of type, content, or length, the maths teacher originally responded; “that’s just stupid”. He was ready to dismiss the premise that anyone would count an hour-long video, a newspaper, a speech from the leader, an infographic and a picture as if they are all the same.

His reasoning was persuasive, he said;

If I set five assignments, then ask two students to hand in their homework

  • Student A hands in two of the assignments each on a separate sheet of paper
  • Student B has done all five assignments in his book & hands in the book

Student A has not done twice as much work as Student B because they handed in two sheets while Student B only handed in one book. The maths teacher concluded, I’ve taught a number of 6th graders that would have a problem with that logic.

Anecdote aside, there is a problem trying to build credibility with an audience using an approach which infantilises the intended audience with an argument which 6th graders can see through. This is the 6th grader problem.

Despite the clear limitations in the data, (for example, previous research has proven ISIS weekly production exceeded the CTC estimate of monthly production. (New Netwar p. 38) ) some have claimed that “the destabilization of the Islamic State’s territorial strongholds is correlated to a decrease in the volume of media production”.[iii] The problems with this way of thinking are numerous, of which the two most prominent are;

  • There is no calculation of correlation in the published research, so it is an assumed pseudo-correlation which is not based on any demonstrable relationship in the data.
  • The apparent relationship between territory and production can only be maintained by cherry picking certain points in time – entirely ignoring 2016. In fact, the entire decliner ‘narrative’ relies on ignoring the fluctuations in content during 2016.

Research has already shown why the summer of 2015 is convenient to cherry pick as a start point if your goal is to claim decline. As discussed in depth elsewhere, picking a time which logic dictates is most likely to be an outlier can make for a nice soundbite for coalition propaganda, and may even sound smart in 20 seconds of air time, but does not work for an authentic understanding of the movement.

The root of the problem, as Reuven Paz 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.[iv]

People who live in that socio-political context, or habitus, easily pick up on the factors likely to play into the spike in content over the summer 2015.[v] This is because;

the habitus is itself a generative dynamic structure that adapts and accommodates itself to another dynamic mesolevel structure composed primarily of other actors, situated practices and durable institutions (fields).[vi]

And because habitus allowed Bourdieu;

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.[vii]

While it is tempting to focus on Western interpretations of Jihadist content, particularly if you can only draw on faux-Arabic, the habitus of the intended audience has to be foremost when analysing the meaning of the content.[viii]

p3

Why decliners ignore 2016

Most of the recent claims of decline, including those by the Global Coalition, pick 2015 as the start point, then jump over the awkward hurdle of 2016 and head straight for 2017. This allows them to get past the fluctuations in 2016 and present “huge and steady decrease”.

To understand how this works, first it is important to understand the 2015 ‘highpoint’, from one of the often-referenced studies about 2015.

Journalists writing about the 2015 ‘highpoint’ have claimed ISIS “was producing more than 200 videos, radio programmes, magazines and photo reports each week” resulting in “just under a thousand unique data points, ranging from radio bulletins and electronic magazines to videos and photographic essays”[ix]

Perhaps not immediately clear to the reader;

  • “Just under 1000 unique data points” is in reality 892. This makes the ‘highpoint’ sound 10% higher than the reality. 892 could be described as just under 900 … but it is just under 1,000 like I’m just under 8 feet tall.
  • Composition of the content is around 80% pictures (just under 700 of 892 data points).

Problem 1:

Even for the astute reader it can be hard to tell what is being counted. As best as can be ascertained from the terms ‘events’, ‘photo reports’, ‘photographs’ and ‘photos’ being used interchangeably, this is unlikely to be 700 photo-essays (one every hour for a month) as the description of “200 videos, radio programmes, magazines and photo reports each week” would require.

Alternatively, if one differentiates a photo report from a photo by assuming a minimum of two pictures, and the graph showing approximately 700 ‘photos’ accurately reflects the data, then 700 / 2 = 350 reports. ISIS photo reports regularly have more than two images, but this is just a theoretical minimum.

p4

If the non-photos account for the remaining 200 pieces (approx.) of content, which recent articles suggest, and this is added to the maximum number of photo reports it would be around 550 pieces.[x]

This is still a lot, but would still eliminate the claim of “200 videos, radio programmes, magazines and photo reports each week”.  Let alone the claim made in September 2017 of “hundreds and hundreds of unique media products, videos, magazines, radio bulletins, in lots of different languages coming out every single day.”

Problem 2:

As noted in a previous post, just counting a photo, speech, and video as the same makes little sense;

“It should be needless to write, this audio-release [of ISIS leader’s speech] by al-Furqan is of much greater importance than a single image, or photo report – at least for IS sympathizers and operatives. Although currently we still find ourselves having to write it”.

How the 2015 data is compared to 2017 production is illustrative of the way the decliner narrative is constructed. Recent journalism around ISIS decline, (which has since been publicised by UK government on Twitter) has used some creative ways to display longitudinal data, which fall well short of what would be required to pass 6th grade math class.

Edward Tufte, has “set out a detailed analysis of how to display data for precise, effective, quick analysis” in his Visual Display of Quantitative Information. This includes demonstrating that inappropriate use of data can lead to an apparent, but entirely spurious, connection between the fortunes of the New York Stock Exchange and the level of Solar Radiation.

Contrary to the ideas set out by Edward Tufte, the chart featured in a recent wired article gives the impression of a steep, linear decline by evenly spacing the bars, even though the chronological space between data points varies significantly. Two of the time points are only a single month apart while the other gaps are 6 and 17 months respectively.[xi]

p5

When the image is quickly resketched, so all months are represented equally – both months with and without data – the problems become evident.

  • First, the impression of sharp decline is reduced.
  • Second, what happened to 2016?

Why does recent decliner narrative rely on ignoring 2016 and compressing these 17 months in the graph? Was there nothing to report in 2016?

Genuinely longitudinal data, rather than cherry-picked points, show there is much more to the story than drawing an imaginary line across that 17-month gap and claiming correlation.[xii]

p6

Data from February 2016 to March 2017 shows production actually fluctuated, despite research claiming a “huge and steady decrease” or 30% to 40 % reduction.[xiii] At times in 2016 content was rising, at others falling. This nuance is entirely missing from decliner logic (whether from Coalition Information Operations or recent journalism).

Decliner logic insists on there being a single direction and that direction being decline – this despite decliner commentary also claiming to have identified recently a 25% increase in content – (barely 20 pieces per week in November and 25 pieces for week in December).

Using rolling mean to examine how production changed over 2016 uncovers some important results. For example, there was an increase of 132% in content production between low points in September / October 2016 and the decliner cherry-picked month of February 2017. This means, February 2017 occurred during a period of rising content production, rather than production heading in the single downward direction, as the Global Coalition imply and decliners explicity claim.

Equally, despite the counting of photos being used to show decline between 2015 and February 2017, video production increased. By adding all media types together, a decrease in easily produced photographs hides an increase in the higher resource requirement and greater impact of video production.

What about 2014?

Analysis which uses no-Arabic, faux-Arabic or google translate is no substitute for being able to read and listen fluently in Arabic. It is essential researchers are genuinely able to recognise the encoded references, historical precedents, and understand the habitus of the intended audience. 

Recent commentary has suggested:

“there can be no questioning the fact that the Islamic State’s media capabilities largely relied on its territorial clout between 2014 and 2017”.

However, a different picture emerges once the flaw in decliner logic and fluctuations in content have been exposed by genuine data science. This different picture is one which has long been evident to anyone embedded in an Arabic context and “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”.[xiv]

Unfortunately, it is a picture which is too often obscured from view by commentators writing from the perspective of a Western, English language dominated, habitus. These commentators often exhibit masculinist understandings of power, success, and victory and rely on faux-Arabic or google translate.[xv]

Just as genuinely longitudinal data disrupts the narrative of a consistent downward direction in content production, analysis of the territory held alongside the media production also shatters the illusion of a pseudo-correlation between the territory held and content production.

The Global Coalition has reported on the reduction in ISIS territory as a percentage area held at the territorial highpoint of August 2014. Yet, decliners claim summer 2015 as the media highpoint, which occurs while ISIS was losing ground, including parts of Sinjar and Kobane (14% in total during 2015).  Put simply, the count of content was increasing toward the claimed ‘highpoint’ while territory was decreasing.

Furthermore, the claims of a relationship between territory and media production after the 2015 media ‘highpoint’ are problematic because content production went up 132% between October 2016 and February 2017, yet territory held by ISIS went down. The Coalition territorial estimate for October 2016 shows that the territory ISIS had lost was 56% Iraq 27% Syria, by February 2017 this had become 63% and 35% respectively.

Contrary to what they expect, decliners asking ‘what about 2014?’ reminds us that the claimed media and territorial ‘highpoints’ occur a year apart and that the pseudo-correlation between the two evaporates when the change in production and territory are compared with genuinely longitudinal data rather than cherry-picking.

Conclusion: Appropriate use of Data Science emphatically destroys claims of pseudo-correlation between content production and area controlled. Saying ‘what about 2014’ just makes this clearer.

A supplemental thought experiment:

For the sake of a thought experiment, as the Global Coalition has been claiming success and territorial gains against ISIS – what would decliner logic predict about the volume of social media produced by the Global Coalition? So has the Coalition social media increased or decreased?

Using the last 3,000 tweets from each of the accounts run by the Global Coalition Against Daesh (Arabic, English and French respectively) all could be described as ‘in decline’ from an earlier highpoint. For Arabic and English, the ‘highpoint’ is in 2017, for French it is in 2016. If production is linked to battlefield success – Arabic and French speaking forces are in deep trouble – as production is down (over 90% for Arabic) from their social media height.

p7

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No doubt you are reaching for alternative explanations other than the collapse of coalition forces. If so you have understood the problem with decliner logic perfectly.

It is perhaps telling that the logic when applied to anything else is utterly transparent. The coalition propaganda even trips over its own logic, seeking to claim decline and how gaps in the production of magazines should be interpreted.

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The above images show the Global Coalition has highlighted the time since the last issue of Rumiyya, but those with a longer memory will recall that before Rumiyya there was another now discontinued magazine, Dabiq. Both magazines are examples of communicating to the secondary – at best – target audience, namely English speakers. However, it is instructive as, in this case as Dabiq, there was a gap in production which began in September 2015 and lasted over 100 days (second longest gap between Dabiq issues). This, it should be noted, came the month after the claimed peak in ISIS content production, which decliners present as the zenith of the Caliphate.

If gaps in production of a prominent magazine (available in English) indicates weakness and territorial losses, as the Coalition implies, how was it Dabiq exhibited this ‘weakness’ during the period the Coalition refers to as the ‘high point’ of ISIS media production?

Indeed, as the Coalition and decliner journalists focus on a masculinist, post-Westphalian measure of victory, ISIS engage with their intended audience on a different plane. As narrated in a recent video اهل الثبات (The people who are steadfast) from ولاية كركوك (Kirkuk):

Morale is not something you can buy with money, and 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.

Praise be to Allah that the mere existence of the Khilafah said what no long lectures and books could ever do to the hearts and minds of the Muslims worldwide.

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.

Victory is a complex concept in Jihadist interpretation of Islam.[xvi] Just as there is no meaningful relationship between Solar Radiation and NYSE, so Coalition propaganda, decliner logic, and the claimed pseudo-correlation between media and territory fail to provide an authentic representation of the current fortunes of the jihadist movement, their strategy nor their tactics.

As noted in 2014, the media mujahedeen are constantly reconfiguring and finding new outlets. In 2018, content production will continue to fluctuate.

The much talked up bluckling of the ISIS media system, presented as “not just a media decline—it is a full-fledged collapse” is likely in retrospect to have been a lull as the swarmcast reconfigured, rather than signs of  ongoing decline.  

 

Notes

[i] See for example;

Rushkoff, Douglas. Cyberia: Life in the trenches of hyperspace. Clinamen PressLtd, 2002.

[ii] It is also worthy of note, that in highlighting the gap in Rumiyah production (above) and the ‘high’ point in 2015 (below) the Global Coalition get themselves in a logical tangle. This is because the second longest gap in the production of Dabiq began in September 2015 the month after the claimed peak in content production. Was it strong – as the ‘high point’ would suggest – or weak as the long gap in publication of a magazine would imply in their logic about Rumiyah.

[iii] Mehdi Semati & Piotr M. Szpunar, ISIS beyond the spectacle: communication media, networked publics, terrorism, Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 35 , Iss. 1,2018

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

[v] Lizardo, Omar. “The cognitive origins of Bourdieu’s habitus.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34.4 (2004): 375-401.

[vi] Lizardo, Omar. “The cognitive origins of Bourdieu’s habitus.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34.4 (2004): 375-401.

[vii] Lizardo, Omar. “The cognitive origins of Bourdieu’s habitus.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34.4 (2004): 375-401.

[viii] This is not to say the intended audience is sympathetic to the message, just that the message is intended for their consumption.

[ix] In the following section it is unclear whether the dubious data handling is due to the ignorance of the required skills / methods, or a sleight of hand in the presentation.

[x] The published research lists the titles of only 140 pieces of content

[xi] This trick is also used here: https://twitter.com/charliewinter/status/920651729393389568

[xii] There is a lot wrong with counting content – except where you are comparing total files detected for takedown vs. files released – this section shows what is wrong with decliner logic even in their own terms, rather than because the approach itself is insightful.

[xiii] This data comes from the torrent files released containing a collection of all the content for the ‘week’. These files were not released consistently in a seven-day cycle, but often varyied between a six and ten day cycle. As we have used the torrent file date to produce date of production, there are some periods of seven days without a total. This however, does not effect the total production and rolling mean is used to provide an authentic view of the ongoing levels of production.

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

[xv] From an IR perspective see:

Sjoberg, Laura. Gendering global conflict: toward a feminist theory of war. Columbia University Press, 2013.

For a jihadist perspective see:

Anwar al-Awlaki, State of the Ummah.

[xvi] See for example; Constants of Jihad and the discussion of the contents of the book by Anwar al-Awlaki.

Salil al-Sawarim, parts 2 (2012) and 3 (2013) – making the Islamic state

Posted January 14, 2018 by Nico Prucha
Categories: 1980s jihad vs. Soviets, ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), online jihad

Part of the Salil al-Sawarim mini series – a blast from the past of pre-IS/ISIS materials that are of grave importance to the IS ecosystem and the framework of Sunni extremism.

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Any Sunni jihadist video incorporates elements and theological ‘narratives’ (question of habitus) that are visualized and implemented for their target audience – that target audience is Arabic native speakers who ideally understand substrates of Sunni extremism having been brought up within a Sunni Arab habitus. Sunni extremism has a text rich history and tradition as outlined before that predates IS and goes back to the first organized manifestation of Sunni extremism in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Already in the 1980s, when hand drawn maps and black and white photographs enhanced Arabic type written magazines, within the jihadist mindset Afghanistan was carved out of wilayat – that then became known to a broader audience due to IS media work and non-Arab foreign fighters addressing their target audiences in their native languages. Yet, with the majority of Sunni extremist materials being broadcast to an Arab target audience above all others – as the Sunni extremist movement is dominated by Arab members – the overwhelming majority of (online) releases by Sunni extremists in general are in Arabic and all non-Arabic media items have references to originally Arabic language writings.

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Salil al-Sawarim 2 (SAS2) shows fighters conducting hit-and-run missions, infiltrating Iraqi cities, such as Hit, Ramadi, or Haditha to capture and execute Iraqi counter-terrorist or government officials, and then withdrawing to the remote desert.

This modus operandi was a common theme for AQ in Iraq that morphed into the Islamic State today – with al-Furqan over the past decade and a half regularly releasing videos of hit-and-run missions, IED strikes on US vehicles, sniper attacks and hostages. While the 2012 and 2013 parts of Salil al-Sawarim videos highlighted pre-ISIS capability to undertake hit-and-run strikes disguised as Iraqi SWAT and police units, the 2014 release of the fourth part sought to document.

It is important to understand the full framework of Sunni extremism to comprehend the dynamics at work in the Arab world in particular as of 2018.Major video releases such as the four Salil al-Sawarim are the core of the post-2014 video productions of IS – showing the implementation of the “prophetic methodology”, the systematic execution of Shiites in Iraq (and later Yezides and bringing that mindset to Syria to combat the Alawite dominated Syrian army), the use of stolen Iraqi government police uniforms to infiltrate and kill as many as possible, the systematic intel-styled rooting ouf of high value targets; the coerced repentance of Sunnis in IS “liberated” areas, who have/had not other choice but to join or submit to ISIS – and who are now faced as of 2018 with a new wave of deadly sectarianism by the new forceful rule of Shiite militias driving their own agenda; the visualized concept of theological and historical coherent elements such as inghimas and shuhada’; the personal messages of (foreign) fighters addressing their Arab target audience in modern colloqiual Arabic to project Islamic knowledge in a preacher styled religious-authoritative setting and by thus are far more powerful and convincing than al-Zawahiri reading a script of the screen; all of these examplorary elements are tied to hundreds and hundreds of pages of Arabic text – historical as well as contemporary crafted by Sunni extremist key writers – and resonate within the Arab target audience and allow new members to initiate into this movement.

The second video also introduces footage that would become commonplace in “Islamic State” propaganda: a professionally-laid out shooting range where many masked men are training. The weapons shown include the classic Kalashnikov assault rifle, as well as the much glorified – and often seen in jihadist videos – Pulemyot Kalashnikova (P.K.) heavy machine gun. SAS2 is more sophisticated than its prequel; the attacks by the Mujahidin appear more precise, professional and deadly. SAS2 emphasizes the importance of media work, featuring an IS media operative preparing crates of DVDs to give out to Sunnis in the towns and cities that will be attacked but not immediately occupied.

A Mujahid is interviewed and introduced as a “soldier of the Islamic State”. Iraqi cars, gear and elite police SWAT equipment are handed out to the graduates of the training course.

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A Mujahid in full SWAT gear gives an interview; apparently looted SWAT boots and uniforms being handed out

The video also features action footage in various towns and cities at night. Iraqi soldiers and policemen approach IS fighters disguised in special police uniforms to greet them, believing they are comrades, only to be executed.

Those who IS considers high-value targets, predominantly collaborators and Sahwa officers, are at the centre of the film. The film showcases IS laying the groundwork to eventually take over the territory cleansed of functionaries loyal to the central Iraqi government.

A blog named “Islamic News Agency – da’wa al-haqq” described the second SAS movie as a documentary in Full HD, with 49 minutes of IS fighters in special counter-terrorism vehicles conducting assaults in various cities and killing dozens of Iraqi soldiers.

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The third video of the Salil al-sawarim series was released on January 17, 2013. By this time, the “Islamic State” was seeking to consolidate control of territory in Iraq and the purpose of SAS3 was to document its proclaimed campaign Hadim al-aswar (“take down the walls!”).

The video opens with a band of Mujahidin singing and the film is introduced as:

“a new phase in the conduct of jihadi operations, starting in the beginning of Ramadan, a.H. 1433. The Mujahidin have arisen anew and returned to areas from which they had previously withdrawn. This film is a documentary of some of the military operations in this important and historical phase for jihadist work in Iraq.”

The campaign “take down the walls” consisted of systematic attacks on prisons and had two strategic objectives:

  1. Exacting revenge for Sunnis, perceived as excluded, marginalized and persecuted by the ruling Shiite majority of Iraq;
  2. Replenishing fighter ranks with freed inmates who have little choice but to support and join IS.

The official banner of the al-Furqan release in the light of the campaign “take down the walls!”

SAS3 features freed inmates of the Tasfirat prison in Tikrit who have assumed or resumed leadership roles within IS. These men inform the audience of the hardship and torture endured in prison while relaying theological interpretations framed within the need to act.

The Sunni community is repeatedly portrayed as driven to extinction by Iranian-backed Shiites and Western enmity. In addition, every IS armed operation is framed as an altruistic act for the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

The specific Sunni extremist interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith are put in practice; for example, a Mujahid issues a call to prayer while standing next to slain enemies. Such footage is intended to portray IS as the only Sunni group willing to resist the Shiite takeover of Iraq and Syria.

The 80-minute long SAS3 concludes with a massive suicide bombing attack on an Iraqi army barracks near or in Mosul, undertaken by a Tunisian foreign fighter. He is identified as Abu Ziyyad al-Bahhar “from Tunis, the Muslim city where real men are made.” He describes his emigration (hijra) into Syria and then Iraq in 2013 and claims he did not face any problems while traveling. Using classical Sunni extremist rhetoric, he urges others to follow his example:

“This is not the end of the path – no (…) Many of our brothers have spent many years in prison (…). Hijra, jihad, hardships and combat; being imprisoned, blood, flesh [and sacrifice], this is the path. This is the path of Muhammad.”

The “Islamic State” is the first Islamist movement to make highly professional use of the Internet for “missionary purposes” (da’wa) related to territory seized from sovereign states and having had the ability to control these for a longer time. The control of strategic towns and even huge cities such as Mosul, parts of Ramadi (2014-2015), Fallujah, and Raqqa, the capital of the “Caliphate”, allowed IS media workers to continuously produce new video propaganda from both the ‘hinterland’ as well as the frontlines.

This enabled jihadist media strategists to convey several messages; firstly, they showcase IS members building and maintaining critical infrastructure for civilians, while fighting, bleeding and dying for their altruistic project on the frontlines. They also show IS fighting a rich blend of enemies, including air force raids by the “crusader alliance” and various Shiite, Kurdish and Christian militias on the ground. These sequences are intended to convey a sizeable Islamic state populated by people who have adopted a real Muslim identity.

This is a legacy new and less initiated members can quickly come to terms with: what are we fighting for (as was outlined by al-‘Utaybi in 2006 or Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi in 2005).

The dangerous difference is that a secret and hidden mindset comprising of over thousands of pages written in Arabic by AQ and later enriched by IS “scholars” is available – mostly unchallenged – online that showcases and demonstrates in often times humble and honest words by men who have bled and died for their beliefs, why any “true” Sunni Muslim should follow their path and reclaim violently territory lost by IS and/or attack clearly theologically defined enemies as legitimate to attack worldwide.

IS ecosystem: Salil al-Sawarim (2012)

Posted January 1, 2018 by Nico Prucha
Categories: Iraq, ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)

Part of the Salil al-Sawarim series

The first part of Salil al-sawarim (SAS1) was released by “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) in 2012. After al-Qaeda in Iraq consolidated control over the Sunni province of al-Anbar, it declared the establishment of ISI, al-dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiyya – in October 2006. Al-Anbar province has an extensive border with Syria that includes the Syrian town of Minbaj, which became one of the main hubs for cross-border activity and which was later conquered by IS and lost in late 2016.

SAS1 features a rich blend of “narratives” that have formed an integral part of Sunni extremist identity since the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003/4. SAS1 features several prominent jihadist figures, including IS godfather Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani. The video portrays the Shiites as mere agents and henchmen of the Americans and shows a number of attacks on police posts and individuals accused of apostasy and collaboration – a signpost of what would increase in scale and pace leading to 2014, the declaration of the caliphate – as well as to mid-2017 with the increasing loss of territory and the return to the old tactics.

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Salil al-Sawarim 1 fostering sectarian tensions and praising the “Islamic State” Godfather Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi

The first film features two sequences that would later become “Islamic State” modus operandi, and appear prominently in SAS4. The first type of sequence depicts well-planned, well-organized and well-executed rapid attacks on police and army checkpoints in urban and remote areas of the country. For example, the film shows fighters killing uniformed officers in Baghdad in hit-and-run and execution-style shootings. The film uses audio recordings of Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani or Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi to justify these killings – a common example of how speeches of even long deceased figures of influence matter to the movement to date. The second type of sequence shows fighters raiding army outposts in remote areas. The aftermath of these attacks is also shown, including close-ups of dead Iraqi soldiers as proof of the success of the Sunni extremists – something that has in the second half of 2017 intensified again with the loss of territory and the systematic attacks on remote and undermanned outposts in the Iraqi desert.

In other parts of SAS1, suicide bombers give their testimony (wasiyya) while crude bombs and handgun silencers are proudly shown as “industrial produce of the State for the oppressed,” whom IS claims to be fighting for. Sniper scenes are an integral part of the first SAS movie, as in SAS4.

The post 2014 IS weapons workshops as a game changer on the battlefields is outlined in this article here.

SAS1 features a coherent blend of elements of Iraqi-based Sunni extremist theology, notably the theoretical offer to fellow Sunni Muslims, including those in the ranks and service of the Iraqi army, police and government, to repent (tawba) and become “true” Muslims again. This form of repentance and inclusion is important throughout the series, but reaches a climax in the fourth SAS video, which shows the mass repentance of Sunnis in areas that IS conquered in Iraq in early 2014.

This is a form of applied theology, an idea that originated with AQ, though it lacked the territory to fulfil its implementation. By contrast, SAS1 features former Sahwa (“Awakening Council”) soldiers repenting and joining IS while its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, calls on all Sunnis to renounce their loyalty to the Iraqi Shiite-led government of al-Maliki.

A targeted assassination in SAS1 set the precursor for what was about to hit Iraq, in particular the region of al-Anbar and the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and smaller towns such as Hit. And it is this exact modus operandi that IS has, as of 2018, reverted to with the strategy of denying their enemies a long-term prospect of controlling the terrority that was lost by IS according the the themes of the video and written propaganda released since August 2016.

SAS1 also features a speech by Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani entitled “we renew our invitation (da’wa) to every apostate, traitor and deviant to repent and to return [to the state of being a Sunni Muslim.” This offer is especially directed at “policemen and Sahwa members” and ceases to be valid when IS overpowers or captures them. According to jihadist reasoning, repentance can only be considered sincere and potentially accepted if the individual does so without coercion – so as not to violate the jihadist interpretation of Qur’an verse 5:34:

“unless they repent before you overpower them – in that case bear in mind that God is forgiving and merciful.”

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A speech by IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani and the direct application in the video

The first Salil al-sawarim video ends with a slogan that has since become commonplace in IS propaganda: “the Islamic State will remain” (baqiyya). The conclusion of SAS1 also makes clear the ambition of the “Islamic State in Iraq” to expand into Sham (Syria) and liberate Sunni Muslims from the regime of al-Asad.