Archive for July 2017

“Islamic State” Briefing

July 16, 2017

This is a mini-series on the “Islamic State” – from the perspective of the Arabic language materials. Often times, the Arabic language output of Sunni extremist groups is not reflected sufficiently. Analysts are quick to claim that IS is in decline, yet do not acknowledge the continuous output of Arabic materials, no matter if in writing or videos. These aspects will be briefly addressed as well in this short series entitled “Islamic State” Briefing.

Part 1: The “Islamic State” & Social Media – from Theory to Implementation

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Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida (AQ) and the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) use the Internet as a communication hub to broadcast their messages. Online jihad is a phenomenon that has spread on a massive scale and at fast pace over the past sixteen years. IS in particular, puts much effort into its online operation, including maintaining and re-establishing accounts and networks on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram. Huge amounts of jihadist audio, video and written content can be found on these networks, mostly in Arabic.

IS has moved from Twitter to Telegram, after a mass amount of account suspensions and more effective spam filters limited the group’s appearance on Twitter. However, the move to Telegram allows IS to operate from the “dark web”[1] and orchestrate media raids and sting attacks into the “surface web”, such as Twitter and Facebook. Several hundred IS channels on Telegram ensure that the content, the videos and writings, of IS are disseminated without much interruption.

This content conveys a coherent jihadist worldview, based on theological texts penned by AQ ideologues as far back as the 1980s. The jihadists’ need for spreading theological writings has driven the development of audio-visual productions as far back as the 1980s. The purpose, back then as today, is to document who the “mujahidin” are, what they are fighting for, and who they are fighting against. It is important to stress, that no single political narrative and enemy perception exists among the militants. Rather, groups such as IS and AQ enforce a coherent theology, that makes up the foundation of what is often referred to as “ideology” in Western discourse, as outlined by Rüdiger Lohlker: “Indeed, it is crystal clear—to virtually anyone who has the linguistic capacity to grasp and the opportunity to witness what jihadists are actually saying, writing and doing, both online and offline—that religion matters.”[2]

Following 9/11, the Internet became the general platform for AQ to spread its brand of Sunni extremist theology. This theology, carved out by AQ in the 1980s, entered a new evolutionary phase in 2014 when ISIS declared a “Caliphate.”[3] This AQ offshoot then became the central organization’s primary rival, developing a massive foothold on social media sites, first Twitter[4], now Telegram, while AQ lost significant support, both online and offline.[5] AQ has the ideological seniority, projected by senior jihadist scholars (shuyukh al-jihad) such as Abu Qatada al-Filistini or Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisis, who criticized IS’ declaration of an Islamic state and disagreed with the killing of the captured Jordanian combat pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba. IS has proven time and again practicality, having managed to translate territorial control and alleged governance into a coherent and highly professional structured online output. IS uses AQ’s theology on two ends: (i) applied theology documented by the massive amount of videos released throughout the past three years. What AQ theorized IS puts into practice and films it, while (ii) either re-publishing AQ theological writings (lengthy books, articles, religious guidelines, legal binding documents (fatwas), military handbooks etc.) or by simply releasing a second, third edition of an AQ book.

Jihadist videos are a powerful tool – even more so when echoing from within territory that is defined as “Islamic”. Such definition is proven by IS videos by, for example, claiming to document the application of sharia law and enforcing upon society to abide to a lifestyle romanticized in salafi/ salafi-jihadist writings. The massive production and release of videos on Twitter (2013-2015) was a game changer acknowledged by a Ahrar al-Sham sympathizer on Twitter: “#dangers on the path of jihad; my knowledge on jihad is based on professional produced jihadist videos affecting the youth more than a thousand books or [religious] sermons.”[6]

Under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS[7] adopted al-Qaida’s iconography and doctrine, without being subject to its formal leadership.[8] The Internet served as a powerful tool that allowed the jihadist network to morph and spread in many directions. IS dedicates time and resources to maintain a persistent output of videos and other items – with Telegram being the primary hub to strategically dispatch new content since early 2016.

[1] The name “dark web” is often used to refer to the part of the Internet which is neither indexed nor visible by search engines such as Google and not accessible by using standard browsers such as Microsoft Edge or Apple’s Safari. Most dark websites are part of the onion network, can only be accessed using the Tor Browser which provides a high degree of anonymity to users to access websites in general. Andy Greenberg, Hacker Lexicon: What is the Dark Web? Wired, September 19, 2014,

https://www.wired.com/2014/11/hacker-lexicon-whats-dark-web/

[2] 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

[3] “Statement regarding the Relationship of the Qa’idat al-Jihad group to ISIS” (in Arabic) Markaz al-Fajr li-l I’lam, https://alfidaa.info/vb/showthread.php?t=92927. Accessed February 2, 2014. Al-Qaeda Central issued this statement distancing themselves from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham with the refusal of ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to pledge allegiance (bay’a) to AQ-amir Ayman al-Zawahiri. As a consequence, the Syrian revolution against al-Assad was further divided with various ‘rebel’ factions turning on each other – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the official branch of AQ turning on ISIS and vice versa. The clash – or fitna (tribulation) – between ISIS and JN as well as other factions is the manifestation of two torrents: the claim of seniority posed by AQ and its Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra versus the practicality of theIslamic State” which advanced what AQ pledged to fight for: the establishment of a Caliphate. Joas Wagemakers refers to ISIS as the Zarqawiyyun, practical military orientated individuals who seek to implement their principles of faith by brute force versus the Maqdisiyyun, adherents of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who criticized the “Islamic State” for its apparent rapid move in declaring a Caliphate. For further reading: Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi – The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, 2012.

Cole Bunzel referred to this rift as “two tendencies predominate among jihadis insofar as the Syrian war is concerned: one favoring the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and cooperation with all rebel groups, and another favoring ISIS and its exclusionary political designs as the reborn Islamic state, or proto-caliphate.” Cole Bunzel. “The Islamic State of Disunity: Jihadsim Divided.” Jihadica, January 30, 2014, http://www.jihadica.com/the-islamic-state-of-disunity-jihadism-divided/.

See also: Khalil Ezzeldeen and Nico Prucha. “Relationship between ISIL and local Syrian rebels break down, IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Islamic World Web Watch, April 2014.

[4] Ali Fisher. “How Jihadist Networks Maintain a Persistent Presence Online.” Perspectives on Terrorism, July 2015. http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/426. Accesed August 1, 2015.

[5] Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the Syrian AQ affiliate was first to use Twitter on a noticeable scale and facilitated the social media platform to disseminate propaganda videos and writings. The JN-IS divide caused JN to lose members, fighters, and media activists to the “Islamic State”. Further reading: Nico Prucha and Ali Fisher. “Tweeting for the Caliphate – Twitter as the New Frontier for Jihadist Propaganda.” CTC Sentinel (Westpoint), June 2013, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/tweeting-for-the-caliphate-twitter-as-the-new-frontier-for-jihadist-propaganda

[6] Khalid Abu Anas (@khaled852111), October 10, 2015. All Arabic translations by author.

[7] At the time the “Islamic State” referred to itself as dawlat al-Islamiyya fi l-‘Iraq wa-l Sham (ISIS), then shortened its name after the declaration of the Caliphate to IS or dawlat al-khilafa.

[8] See Cole Bunzel, The Islamic State of Disobedience: al-Baghdadi Triumphant, Jihadica, October 5, 2013, http://www.jihadica.com/the-islamic-state-of-disobedience-al-baghdadis-defiance/