Archive for August 2017

Part 4: Understanding the Resilience and Appeal of “Islamic State” Electronic Propaganda and Beyond

August 28, 2017

Resuming the ” Islamic state Briefing”, this week with part four. The depth of the jihadist movement ranges back to the 1980s and ISIS has its history since the 2000s. 

The study of the Jihadist movement has tried to understand it in terms of street criminals, gangsters, individuals obsessed with computer games (particularly first person shooters), and a desire to go from zero-to-hero. It hardly addresses foreign fighters from Arab countries and often lack any attempt to address the theological aspects of the movement, imagery, encoded messages and prominence of scholars within the Jihadist movement’s overall interpretation of theological concepts, including an Islamic State model of governance. Reducing the Sunni extremist cosmos by only focusing on the “Islamic State” after 2013 at best, referring to them as “jihadists” while not even considering the history of IS since the very beginning in the 2000s, leads to a marginal understanding of the group and the motivations behind it. Neglecting the massive quantity of high quality Arabic language writings by ISIS and the Sunni extremist cosmos it stems from is a disaster. Core concepts such as tawhid or shirk are widely unknown and only briefly explained at best. What is missing is a discourse based on thorough, evidence based facts. However, these facts cannot weigh into discourse or echo within academic research, when Arabic sources and the theological universe that drives Sunni extremists remain neglected. Without proper Arabic skills and with no deep-rooted research on Islamic theology, the Sunni extremist movements remains hidden behind a firewall. Without knowing this content by heart and being able to decipher visual codes, uncovering extremist networks online is a challenge and has led to the assumption there is a decline of ISIS media production. This is the case, if researchers only look at superficial English language content on Twitter and do not see the rich blend of materials that are published in Arabic – and since early 2016 to a great extent on Telegram.

Ignoring the huge library of writing by focusing on only the narrow daily announcements, or English language material, leads to dangerous misinterpretations of the movement – even more so, when Latinized Arabic key words in English language propaganda releases are questioned or taken into consideration. Facing the contemporary challenge of the Jihadist movement, policy cannot afford to fall for superficial interpretations, which emphasize memes, general simplifications, infographics, and flashy videos – and generally ignore the deep theological nuanced Arabic publications.

The movement is significantly more complex than these interpretations suggest.

The ideology that is based on theological concepts and framings of al-Qa’ida (AQ) and subsequently the splinter group the Islamic State (ISIS) and its ability to propagate this theological spectrum as a monopoly of truth through professional promotion and marketing material disseminated via modern communication technology has proven to be its most resilient foundation and greatest innovation. This Jihadist media activism is evident and strengthens this resilience on a daily basis with new audio-visual and written propaganda uploaded from a number of conflict zones, in numerous languages, to a wide range of online social platforms and multimedia channels.

Policy makers in the U.S. and the E.U. lack a thorough understanding – for jihadist narratives that are widely based on religious scripture, advocating a cohesive and coherent ideology, that is, to be precise, theology. This theology is based on complex religious principals, offered mainly in Arabic and has its basis in the 1980s to contemporary al-Qa’ida ideologues, whereas ISIS in particular displays the implementation thereof in oftentimes easy to comprehend audio-visual productions. The Sunni extremist writings and videos from back in the 1980s to today refer and cite not only religious scripture, selected ayyat from the Qur’an and hadith – deeds and sayings ascribed to Prophet Muhammad – but also cite and reference historical Sunni Islamic scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Ibn al-Qayyim or Ibn Nahhas, to name a few. This is part of the textual layer that is being pushed out on all channels on the Internet. Historical scholars – overwhelmingly having written in Arabic  – are often quoted “who says there is no distinction to be made between combatants and non-combatants. A Wahhabi scholar from the 19th/20th century is quoted saying that in principle killing unbelievers is allowed. This is another proof for the family resemblance between Wahhabism and Jihadism, easily substantiated by the number of theological tracts republished by IS”, as noted by Rüdiger Lohlker in reference to the Barcelona attacks. Without Arabic and the proper command of knowing who such historical scholars are and under which circumstances their theological treatises were penned and why this matters today and  how this is used by online media savvy activists, most documents and videos by jihadists remain a safe haven. Not to mention the general lack of understanding the scope, pace and depth ISIS has on Telegram, whereas most studies of 2017 solely focus on Twitter, claiming twitter remains the entry point and primary dissemination hub for ISIS. 

Community building takes place on Telegram and twitter is used for media raids – while the content varies between Arabic theological support materials and core graphic materials. Researchers need to focus on both while understanding and the ecosystem and where it all stems from.

The daily content is just the tip of the iceberg. The archive of Sunni extremism represents what the movement is about, lays out the strategy, and justification for actions. Alone ISIS released over 2,000 official videos and much more daily short clips; all in all, from the 1980s to today, over half a million – mainly Arabic – documents exist in digital format, whereas materials before the age of mass digitalization have been digitalized by the first generation of committed electronic media mujahidin in the 2000s.[1] 116 editions of the Arabic language magazine “al-Jihad” were printed and disseminated from 1984-1995, focusing on Afghanistan, Palestine and later the Balkans. The first generation of al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) pioneered the electronic frontier of jihad by releasing two magazines, “The Voice of Jihad” (in sum over 1,500 pages) and “The Military Camp of the Sword.” Nothing about ISIS as of 2017 is new, if such magazines have been read and taken into account when studying jihadism.

The cover of the al-Jihad magazine of June 1985 addresses “our sisters, the Mujahidat”, women who fought alongside males in the war against the Soviet occupation. More telling, however, is the advertisement for ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s book “The Defense of Muslim Lands is the Among the Most Important of an Individual’s Duties”. ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam was a Islamic scholar (shaykh) from Palestine and had been a university lecturer for Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in Amman, Jordan.[2] In 1989, he and his two eldest sons Muhammad and Ibrahim were killed in a car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan.[3] ‘Azzam is until now, decades after he died, one of the most influential theologians, who is being regularly cited, referenced and eulogized by all outlets of jihadist media capacity.[4] In 1988, ‘Azzam travelled to Seattle, USA, and gave a khutba, the Friday prayer. This khutba was filmed and that video is part of the Sunni extremist ecosystem. While he was in Seattle, the conflict in Afghanistan was slowly but surely coming to an end. Dominated by the events of the jihad against the Soviet Red Army, ‘Azzam not only tries to recruit and ‘re-introduce’ Islam to his audience of America-based Muslims but he moves a step ahead and attacks the United States as another major, logical future enemy at a second or third stage of jihad with the victory in Afghanistan in sight for the Mujahideen. ‘Azzam’s khutba provides a usual mix of citations from the Qur’an and sunna, bound to his contemporary tales of the fighting Mujahidin as well as the suffering Muslim population in Afghanistan. While he also includes stories and details of individual Mujahidin who fought and died, who attained the “shahada on the path of God” (i.e. died as ‘martyrs’) and witnessed divine blessings during their service for God, ‘Azzam repeatedly addresses the need to “establish an Islamic state” that can only be realized by jihad, combat (qital) with the potential to enter Paradise (janna) while struggling for this divine aim. ‘Azzam, who was a highly industrious writer and who frequently gave sermons, introduced stories from the Afghan jihad and tales of the shuhada’, killed Mujahideen who as a result attained the shahada for the sake of religion, and has made such stories from the frontlines of jihad popular, accessible and perhaps somewhat mainstream.[5] One of his documents, the 251 page long writing entitled “The Craving for the Women of Paradise” (al-hur)[6], can be considered as a template for contemporary jihadist publications (writings and videos) regarding the shuhada’, glorifying jihad and providing the theological and historical necessity to do so.

For jihadis, the age old question of fard al-‘ayn and fard al-kifayya, pondering whether or not combat is confined to Afghanistan and Palestine at this stage (mid 1980s);

Addressing the theological-operational element of nafir;

And the questions of Muslim unity and disbeliever aggression, etc. all of these elements matter for jihadism and since the Syrian revolution turned extremely bloody and was hijacked by seasoned jihadist fighters and clerics, these elements are of essential value to understand the mess in the Middle East (and attacks/operations elsewhere; besides Europe there are The Philippines, Indonesia, various attacks in Russia, Maldives etc.).

This is just one example of the tradition of Sunni extremist content – online &offline – that forms the basis of materials published by the “Islamic State” as of 2017. Including, materials that are available online and are also handed out within ISIS territories, as has been documented since 2013 by the very media cycle of ISIS. 

This ecosystem contains the answers to questions posed by those who only read the daily updates. For example, the archive of the Jihadist movement contains the rationale stretching back to fighting with the Soviets in Afghanistan for when female suicide bombers are permitted and when they are not, it is no mystery when research takes in the archive of Arabic documents.

The documents and videos produced by Islamic State project what they consider to be a real Sunni Muslim, on the path of God who acts in accordance with divine rule and regulations which the early Muslims had under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad. Any release by IS – as much as by AQ – seeks to inform, educate and convince the consumer that the jihadis are the only “true” Muslims, following the correct “prophetic methodology” This ideational content echoes an earlier prediction about an internet-enabled ideological struggle over the definition of reality. In this vision, warfare would be “conducted on an entirely new battleground; it is a struggle not over territory or boundaries but over the very definitions of these terms”[7] where IS seeks to maintain hegemony over concepts such as the “prophetic methodology” and other theological concepts expressed by key words.

The battle for these definitions occur in the physical landscape and equally on the digital platforms that comprise the information ecosystem.

Neglecting the evidence that jihadi networks online are both agile and unified around coherent theological “narratives”, risks breeding a sense of complacency, which allows the Islamic State (and other jihadi groups) to develop physical and digital locations to which they can retreat and regroup. This is a real risk if the current shift in distribution strategy adopted by the Islamic State is viewed as decline, rather than a reconfiguration and refocusing of effort. Yet acknowledging that the “decline” is based on faulty research, which neither takes the vast amount of Telegram communication into consideration or Arabic language materials (or Arabic words used in non-Arabic propaganda releases).

Islamic State communicates its strategy to supporters predominantly in Arabic and oftentimes uses citations of legitimate mainly Arabic language scriptures, the Holy Qur’an and Hadith (deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad) as well as scholarly religious (historical and contemporary) writings.[8] These citations of historical as well as contemporary Islamic scholars are frequent in writings and are woven into the audio-visual productions of jihadis.[9] This cannon of material which jihadis  have to hand justifies, from their perspective, their acts and seeks to provide a clear identity; of what being a “Sunni Muslim” means to them.

[1] Nico Prucha: Die Stimme des Dschihad – al-Qa’idas erstes Online Magazin, Dr. Kovac: Hamburg, 2010.

[2] Hegghammer, T. (2008) Abdullah Azzam, der Iman des Dschihad in Kepel, G. / Milelli, J. (2008) Al-Qaida – Texte des Terrors (München, Zürich: Piper), pp. 148-157. Hegghammer describes ‘Azzam’s academic development, his “religious studies in Damascus (1963-1966)”, his “Palestinian Jihad (1967-1970)”, his “promotion at the al-Azhar” University, Cairo, (1971-1973) and his “years in Amman (1973-1980)”. He become a professor in Jidda and was able to acquire a position in the Saudi funded new international Islamic University in Islamabad.

[3] He was killed on Friday, 24.11.1989 at about seven o’clock in the morning, on his way to a mosque in Peshawar to preach the Friday sermon. Muhammad was 20 and his brother 15 years old (Hegghammer). Various conspiracy theories exist, who killed ‘Azzam (Hegghammer, pp. 163-164). Ranging from bin Laden who had him removed to gain control over the Arab fighters, to al-Zawahiri, who wanted the Egyptians in charge and who wanted to attack the regimes in the Middle East while ‘Azzam vowed for the Mujahideen to remain in Afghanistan to found a true Islamic state. Or was it a personal revenge, committed by an Afghan splinter group or was it the ISI?

[4] The double-agent Abu Dujana al-Khurasani, aka Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who on 30 December 2009 killed several CIA and Jordanian GID agents in Khost, Afghanistan, by undertaking a suicide-operation claimed in one of “last interviews” also to have revenged ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam. According to al-Balawi, the GID is responsible for his murder. Prucha, N. (2010) Notes on the Jihadists’ Motivation for Suicide-Operations, Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies, 4 (1), pp. 65.

[5] ‘Azzam, ‘A. (1987) Ilhaq bi-l-qafila, http://tawhed.ws/r?i=6nxrvref (25.10.2010). “Join the Caravan” is a classical work of the jihad literature.

[6] ‘Azzam, ‘A. ‘Ushshaq al-Hur, http://tawhed.ws/dl?i=pwtico4g (02.10.2010). “The ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam folder” can be accessed here: http://tawhed.ws/a?a=a82qriko.

[7] Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, Harpercollins Publishers (reprint): New York, 1995.

[8] Among the tens of thousands of writings are prominent items such as “An Abbreviated Biography of the Prophet – Peace and Blessings upon him” by ISIS media foundation Maktabat al-Himma (2015, 335 pages) or the 1106 page long theological tractate by Khalid bin ‘Ali al-Mardi on shirk – ascribing or the establishment of “partners” placed beside God, which is a frequent theological sanctioning used to execute “apostates” and Shiites within ISIS videos.

[9] Linguistic problems are nothing new in the study of terrorism. See for example: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/15/why-we-cant-just-read-english-newspapers-to-understand-terrorism-big-data/

The Context of the Manchester Bombings in the Words of the “Islamic State” onTelegram 

August 27, 2017

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Four days after the Manchester bombing that left 23 dead and 116 wounded, a document was released by an IS affiliated media production house on Telegram, justifying the attack, entitled “Permissibility to attack the British public by explosives”.

This Arabic language text has not played any role, in the media reporting or the wider academia, to understand the motivation behind this terrorist attack – in the words of the terrorists. The same re-occurred when a similar text was released days after the March 2016 Brussels or the August 2017 attack in Barcelona, as discussed by Rüdiger Lohlker. It almost seems that ISIS has the luxury of disseminating their coherent extremist writings well knowing it reaches their target audience and bypasses most of the non-Arabic speaking counter-terrorism, media and academic analysts. Yet, the explanations of the Brussels attack in March 2016 had been published on Twitter in the phase of IS’ migration to Telegram. Apart from exclusive publications on Telegram since the first half of 2016, the target audience is the wider range of ISIS sympathizers mindset who are already initiated into this mindset – and where most speak Arabic. Such texts rarely matter in English and French and convey authority in Arabic, basing justifications of attacks – no matter by which modus operandi – on theological concepts, references, nuances and sentiments. Hence, these texts are intended first and foremost for an audience that is already initiated into the Arabic language universe of Sunni extremism and that, if individuals want, can contribute to “media raid operations” and re-disseminate and broadcast such materials outside of Telegram.

The author of the document used the term “English” instead of “British”, giving way to a greater frame of reference of the need to defend oneself against the “English Empire” and the principles of colonization (protecting cultural identity etc.). The use of “English” instead of “British” in this context furthermore denotes the global jihadist necessity to uproot foreign influence into what the jihadist perceives as “core Islamic” territories and communities.

The document so far has only surfaced on Telegram and does not have the outreach beyond Isis supporting networks on Telegram, where thousands of members and sympathizers of the group conveniently can chat to each other and share media content of the state. The document is in Arabic and thus limiting its outreach to the bunch of non-Arabic speaking sympathizers or non-IS affiliated individuals worldwide who seek to promote themselves by sharing or tweeting about English language terrorist content such as the multi-lingual IS magazine “Rumiyya”.

The document is, as most Sunni extremist content, conveying to its target audience of either already initiated members or those who seek answers based on the actions of Isis – in this case the bombing in Manchester.

The style of the document and the argumentation therein follows a classical Sunni extremist language and Habitus that has been made popular by 1980s ideologue and bin Laden companion Abdallah Azzam and used by theological leaders such as al-Suri in the early 2000s.

The document was penned by Abu Mariya al-Asif and released by the text production media outlet al-Wafa’. The three page long document gives the readership in an Islamic scholarly fatwa styled fashion arguments, based on existent Islamic literature, why the attack against the British public is not only legitimate but also obligatory.

The Document contains three pages of text. The text is structured as a classical orthodox-conservative religious ruling, citing passages of the Quran and Sunna as well as historical scholars, to enforce and back arguments. IS claimed in their statement to have attacked the mushrikin, a reference, used for “polytheists” in the wider sense. The first line of the text cites Quran 9:36 as the divine commandment to do so – while the term mushrikin is applied mainly to Muslims in violation of the “oneness of God”, yet applied here in the reading of AQ’s Abu Yahya al-Libi[1], defining any Christian as a muskrik. A mushrik is someone who associates partners next to god – hence violating the monotheistic hegemony of god – and thus being a legitimate target for IS who claim to embody the absolute hegemony of god. Christians, following the work of Abu Yahya al-Libi, in most cases adhere to the trinity principle (father, son, holy spirit), are defined as mushrikin.  Furthermore, as the target has been a pop-concert of a famous singer, attracting and appealing to in particular young fans, who indeed oftentimes look up to their idols in an almost religious-glorifying style, the deeper meaning of the theological principle of mushrik was clearly conveyed to the followers, sympathizers and members of IS.

The author of the document, Abu Mariya al-Asif, equates the attack in Manchester by “the soldiers of tawhid”, the “oneness of god”, to the actions of “the English within Islamic territories and the countries of Muslims in general. [British] bombs and death [of Muslims], for none of the [British] bombs or their allies discriminate our women, our children, our livestock or our agriculture; for the Christian tyrants are keen to enforce a policy of scorched earth upon Muslims. Just as the Germans enforced it before [during WWII], as we can read in the books of contemporary history.”

“My brother by god: anyone who relates oneself to Islam feels great joy regarding the attack that one of the soldiers of the caliphate undertook in the city of Manchester. Only those who are ignorant of the Islamic shari’a protest attacks such as this one within the abode of the disbelieving crusaders. Or agents who serve their Christian and Jewish masters, and in the land of the English there are plenty of these.”

The author seeks to give shari’a knowledge, which is relevant to the Islamic jurisprudence used by IS for such attacks to his readers, stating: “we will give you shari’a proof regarding the permissibility to strike the countries of the disbelieving crusaders.”

Al-Asif cites two verses of the Quran, Surat al-Nahl: 126 and al-Baqara: 194 as proof of concept to exercise an-eye-for-an-eye:

“If you [believers] have to respond to an attack, make your response proportionate”, Surat al-Nahl (“the Bee”), 126;[2]

“So if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you”, Sural al-Baqara (“the Cow”), 194.[3]

These two verses have been frequently used by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (2004/5) to behead western hostages as revenge for the US occupation of Iraq or the beheading of seven captured Russian special police officers in Chechnya whereas Yusuf al-‘Uyairi (2003) – former bin Laden bodyguard and leader of the first generation of AQAP in Saudi Arabia – provided the shari’a relevant sanctioning. With the British engagement to combat IS military, the author argues, the need to react is now even more pressing than before. “It is obligatory to act against these disbelievers and to kill anyone of them according to the ability of any individual Muslim. In our religion, there is no discrimination between [killing] their civilians or soldiers; the only discrimination relevant is between the disbeliever who has any form of contract with Muslims and he who is a war faring disbeliever.[4] Yet those societies we speak of here are disbelievers who are active at war against us and have ruled upon us death.”

Al-Asif then continues defining in a short paragraph the impermissibility for a Muslim to be harmful to any other Muslim, referencing the Quran and prophet Muhammad for “the believers are brothers”. The principle of mercy and compassion has to be weighed for the disbelievers drive a relentless campaign against Muslims. The above mentioned term mushrik refers to Muslims likewise who can fall victim to IS operations – just as was the case in the IS statement regarding the November 2015 Paris attack – refers to “westernized” or “Christianized / Judaized” Muslims who therefore are no longer “real Muslims” but mushrikin.

Closing with the citation of Quran al-Tawba: 36:

“kill the mushrikin at any time, if they first fight you – remember that god is with those who are mindful of him”, Surat al-Tawba (“the Repentance”), 36.

Al-Asif relates historical scholar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari and his work of the hermeneutical reading and interpretation of the Quran. Any “transgressor” of the theological principles referred to by key words such as mushrik and the opposing “profession of the oneness of God” (muwahhid) IS claims to embody, is a legitimate target, while the divine commandment extends to “supporting your Muslim siblings and assisting them against the enemy of god and their enemies in their home countries”. Part of this support, al-Asif explicitly states, consists of media work.

[1] Abu Yahya al-Libi, Daf ’ ar-rayn ’an asiri ’asabat al-kureen : Mabhath  mukhtasar hawl al-kureen al-ladhina ukhtadifuhum al-mujahidun fi Afghanistan,  Global Islamic Media Front, 2007.

The document – another Islamic jurisprudential analysis – was penned by al-Libi to justify online the release of South-Korean Christian missionaries kidnapped by the Taliban.

[2] The extremists omit the second part of 16:126 reading: “but it is best to stand fast.”

[3] This verse in particular refers to the holy month of Ramadan which omitted by the author here; the reference, however, is clear to any Sunni extremist who masters Arabic.

[4] This is a historical reference, defining the “abode of war” (dar al-harb) and the general dar al-kuffar, the “abode of the disbelievers.” Some kuffar naturally are permissible to travel to and maintain economic ties with the caliphate, if respective contracts have been issued by Islamic authorities. The second generation of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula in Yemen in the late 2000s called for the implementation of this concept, to keep foreign spies out while denying establishing military bases and wiping out any non-Islamic form of governance.

Part 3: Controlling territory – applying theology as absolute public and private governance

August 15, 2017

Header IS Briefing Part 3

Unlike AQ, IS controls swathes of territory in the Sunni Arab heartlands, primary in Iraq and Syria; despite loss thereof after its power peak. The theology which was largely theoretical in the case of AQ is now applied in full by IS – making the “state” a real and attractive alternative where the imaginative “real-Islam” promoted by AQ has now become a reality with IS and embodied by the “caliphate upon the prophetic methodology”. Sunni extremism – as much as any religious form of extremism or orthodoxy – is driven by an absolute belief in God whereas the application of absolute formalized religious rule is the desired final objective (and the only solution to minimize the threat of living in a state of sin, which would send you to hellfire). For over three decades, jihadists in their own words, both in writing and on film, have been yearning for the creation of an Islamic State and, ultimately, the return of the Caliphate. The power of the self-designated “Islamic State” nurtures on this desire, and the extremist tradition of calling for this restoration of power, as a driving force and an identity marker.

The application of theological concepts written since the 1980s gives IS the power to claim to have restored the “abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam) and clearly demarcate who is a Sunni Muslim and part of the Sunni community – and who is not. Apostates or traitors, who thus are excommunicated (takfir) and executed as alleged spies[1] or “wizards” who conduct black magic[2], homosexuals who are dealt with as “the people of Lot” and pushed from rooftops to death[3] signify a clearly implemented theology IS openly advocates online – and enforces offline.

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“Islam” has been restored and is now embodied by the “state”. In their own words, responding in September 2015 to the refugee crises, IS presents itself as the only legitimate zone where Sunni Muslims can exercise their duties to God accordingly as,

“the whole world, from east to west, became dar al-kufr, the “abode of the disbelievers”. Therefore God set in motion the establishment of the Islamic State. This state consists of numerous elements that make it dar al-Islam. Therefore, the rule of shari’a law returned as well as the implementation of physical punishment (al-hudud),[4] cutting off the hands of thieves, punishing adultery by stoning to death and beheading wizards. The establishment of the Islamic State as a reaction to those who commit injustice, governed by “commanding right and forbidding wrong”[5] while driving a jihad against the disbelievers – thus the might of the Islamic community has been restored. Muslims living in the state openly manifest the rituals of their religion[6], not fearing anything apart from God – therefore the state of Islam is the abode of Islam in this era. It is obligatory for every Muslim to support and protect it, to openly display dissociation and enmity to the enemies of the Islamic State.”[7]

For IS this means there is only one Islamic state in the world and it is every Muslims’ obligation to support this project. The element of applied theology, however, is often expressed in IS videos where the filmed executions or applied punishments are backed by writings. An execution video released on October 18, 2015 from the IS-province (wilaya)[8] Nineveh shows a mujahid armed with a sword mounted on a horse chasing towards a prisoner kneeling on the desert ground. The executioner arrives in a setting deliberately re-enacting the early Muslims on a raid, being a murabit, a horseman ready for war while spiritually tuned to defend his territory and being willing to enter paradise.[9]

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A 13-page-document released about a year later by the Ashhad Media foundation took a screenshot of the October 2015 video to project visual coherence[10] to those who have seen the movie: this is a theological booklet justifying and explaining “the ruling on those who support the rafida [derogatory for Shiites] against the Ahl al-Sunna”, written by Abu ‘Ali al-‘Iraqi.

Al-‘Iraqi alludes to what is generally applied in such IS execution videos – the Sunni jihadist argumentation concerning who has pledged loyalty to God and who has violated this pledge. It engulfs the concept of “dissociation” (al-bara’) from disbelievers and the absolute loyalty (wala’) to God that was made popular by AQ ideologues, including writings by Osama bin Laden.[11] In the video, several men are beheaded for their betrayal of the ahl al-Sunna (as embodied by IS) as they are accused of having conducted espionage against Shiite militias and the Iraqi government, considered a Iranian-Shiite proxy by IS. As the “caliphate” has been re-established, the obligatory pledge of allegiance (bay’a) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi means per definition that all loyalty is to God, via al-Baghdadi, as the human representative (khilaf) in the “state” (dawla).

As second sample of applied theology spread via Telegram are the hundreds of IS videos showing the amputations of hands.

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On the left, a cover of a 20-page- book gives the readers a detailed analysis on the permission to exercise physical punishments against transgressors.[12] The arguments are exclusively referring to historical scholars, selected passages from Qur’an and Sunna as well as precedents from historical role models.

On the right side are two screenshots from the video “the ruling of the creator (God) upon the thief”, released by the IS province Nineveh in mid-2015.[13] They show, prior to the act of amputating the two thieves hands in public, religious references appearing as texts to sanction and fully validate this act of punishment according to sharia law. This is a highly appealing message that IS wants to exploit in its videos: the “Islamic State” is based on religious scripture and thus is the only true community of Sunni Muslims, and: IS is acting on behalf of God.

[1] For example: Tahalafuhum wa-irhabana, wilayat Nineveh, July 20, 2016 shows the execution of alleged Kurdish spies by French foreign fighters who avenge killed civilians resulting from airstrikes and praise the lone wolf attack in Nice. The attack on Bastille Day by a lone wolf driving a truck into crowds on the Promenade des Anglais resulted in the death of 86 people.

[2] La yuflih al-sahir haythu ati, wilayat Barqa, December 5, 2016

[3] ‘Am ‘ala l-fath, wilayat Nineveh, June 11, 2015.

[4] i.e. the amputation of hand and/or feet as punishment for crimes. This form of jurisdiction is also documented by IS videos to showcase being a functioning state: iqama hadd ‘ala sariqayn, wilayat gharb Ifriqiyya, November 2, 2015.

[5] IS has released several documents and videos, sanctioning and showing the destruction of, for example, Shiite mosques, churches, Yazidi shrines, graveyards, or the total obliteration of pre-Islamic statues as well as museums housing these artifacts. “Commanding good and forbidding evil” is the theological legitimacy for the Islamic police, who apart from safeguarding the Sunni integrity by systematically removing sites of veneration that violate the Sunni extremist theology also police communities and, for example, ensure the illicit trade and consumption of tobacco is persecuted. For details: Nico Prucha, Reformatting Space: The Self-Proclaimed “Islamic State’s” Strategy of Destroying Cultural Heritage and Committing Genocide, European Union National Institutes for Culture, http://washington-dc.eunic-online.eu/?q=content/reformatting-space-0, November 2015.

[6] Which had been previously banned or could only be taken care of in secrecy under secular Arab regimes to avoid being arrested for possible Islamist oppositional work.

[7] Suhayl al-Najdi, Luju’ al-Muslimin ila ard al-salibiyyin wa-l iqama fiha, Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, September 2015.

[8] Wa-in ‘uddatum ‘uddna, 2, wilaya Nineveh, October 18, 2015.

[9] The comprising theological concept of ribat is discussed in: Nico Prucha,  Jihadists’ Use of Quran’s ribat concept,” Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, August 2009.

[10] Abu ‘Ali al-Iraqi, hukm a’an al-rafida ‘ala ahl al-Sunna, Mu’assassat Ashhad li-l ‘ilami, October 9, 2016.

[11] Osama bin Laden, tawjihat al-minhajiyya, Minbar al-Tawhed wa-l Jihad, 2006.

[12] Abu Bakr Khalid bin Muhammad al-Shami, Daf’u iham al-tadarruj bi l-tadbiq, Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, 2016.

[13] Hukm al-khaliq bi haqq al-sariq, wilaya Nineveh, June 4, 2015.

 

 

 

Part 2: “Upon the prophetic methodology” and the media universe

August 1, 2017

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IS publishes a rich blend of propaganda on a daily basis, ranging from text documents to professionally produced videos. Any release by IS – as much as the intention of AQ media – seeks to inform, educate and convince the consumer that the jihadists are the only “true” Muslims, following the correct “prophetic methodology.” For jihadists, the heavy use of the media is part of their war for the “hearts and minds” – and the quest for authority, to be acknowledged as the only sincere representatives of ‘true’ Sunni Islam.

Among the major successes IS was able to reclaim for itself was the tearing down of the border between Syria and Iraq. While AQ has been theorizing about liberating and re-uniting Islamic territory for years without end, it was the “Islamic State” in 2014 that was physically able to implement what AQ claimed to fight for. The texts, published in classical print magazines of the 1980s and 1990s and later on the Internet have been enriched by Sunni extremist videos – with the same modus operandi (from off-line media to digital since the early 2000s). Anyone who knows the Sunni extremist literature, can read the videos in full, understanding all embedded codes, visual language, the habitus of the propagated Sunni Muslim identity etc.

evolution of jihadist magazines

IS turned the tables. By applying a great deal of Sunni extremist literature upon real territory, a population and having the space to document what was unprecedented (such as the execution of alleged homosexuals by plunging to death from roof tops), IS was able to establish a repository of videos in mainly Arabic but also other languages, where theology has been applied – and where the lesser initiated can become followers even without reading the massive amount of Sunni extremist materials available online. The videos bridge the language gap and serve as a pull factor into the mindset of Sunni extremism: those who do not speak Arabic and have questions about the Sunni Muslim identity offered by IS can find answers themselves by tuning into – for example – English language explanations of shirk (loosely translated as “polytheism” for now) by foreign fighters from Cambodia[1], or get a picture of the importance of the tearing down of the border between Syria and Iraq by a foreign fighter from Chile.

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Without reading the Arabic core documents, however, theological nuances that echo into contemporary IS motifs and mindset is missing. This is where non-Arabic language translations and tabloid-styled magazines come into play and provide further explanations – yet serving as a further opening for the non-Arabic able consumers to dig deeper into the electronic treasure trove of Sunni extremist books and videos of the past 35+ years, including dedicated English, German, French, Russian, Bahasa etc. materials (including said books and videos). And these are the very documents that make up the Sunni extremist mindset and that lead IS to the application thereof where they can derive the theological framework for their non-combat actions or governing rules (from destroying museums to systematic destruction of Shiite mosques or enslaving Yazidis). Liberating territory defined as “Islamic” and enforcing shari’a rule carried out by the extremists, who would then establish special police units to assure any violation of religious commandments will be punished. This, naturally, targets the local population in an attempt to “reformat” or replace local Islamic customs and give religion the space it did not have before. Most of these theological concepts, parameters and nuances can be referred to the “prophetic methodology” – if we follow the extremists in their words. Thus the “caliphate upon the prophetic methodology” as a slogan represents in sum what jihadists and their sympathizers struggle for. This too, is not new if you recall AQAP slogans of the 2000s such as “akhriju l-mushrikin min jazirat al-‘Arab” and the deployment of the first bi-weekly electronic magazine “sawt al-jihad”.[2] These materials serve as a legacy for IS to establish itself in the 2000s and to unfold in 2013/4 onwards. In turn the legacy of IS and the massive quantity of contemporary materials will be the legacy for future Sunni extremist groups that are operationally sometimes but theologically always connected. With the demise of parts of IS-held territory, the coherent audio-visual narratives – nearly all of the over 2,000 videos are in full-HD, 16:9 – remain and serve as inspiration to restore rule by the “prophetic methodology” for future generations. This is where the nostalgia will kick in with all the jihadist legacy expressed by the texts, videos, nashid, poetry, even humor.[3]

IS was able to enforce theological authoritative texts and religious decrees using a solid basis by “AQ scholars” and consequently document the output by audio-visual means, which then on top had been consistently released on social media. At first massively on Twitter[4] before moving on to Telegram.[5] And of course there is the strategy to spray IS materials on all levels of the Internet. Telegram has replaced Twitter as the core and is the first line of dissemination from which onwards specific content gets pushed out. On Telegram not all content is being disseminated outside the core IS-groups into the ‘open net’, (might do an extra post on this sometime).

Hence, nothing of what IS does is new – however, the scale and pace of enforcing these theological parameters physically (and filming and disseminating this online) is new, with the exception of execution of alleged spies, hostages or “apostates” (as had been outlined by – of the many – Abu Yahya al-Libi, 2009). This is partly why the ‘narratives’ of IS are highly coherent and attractive. AQ often referred to ‘aqida (creed) and minhaj/manhaj (methodology) when outlining what defines a Sunni Muslim. This ranges from proper prayer conduct to destroying graves of holy men (awliya’) whenever possible. AQ was only able in a limited way to enforce this “prophetic methodology” when in control of pockets of territory in Iraq and especially in Yemen and partly in Mali and when AQAP 1.0 was active in Saudi Arabia targeting the “mushrikin”. The claim to re-enact the lives of early Muslims under the command of prophet Muhammad, acting on said “prophetic methodology” and applying divine laws as opposed to man-made laws is a core element of Sunni extremist theology and hence part of the wider mindset tied into the “Muslim identity” – by the standards of the extremists. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (2004) romanticized about this as one of the objectives for any mujahid in his 1600 page long book “Global Islamic Resistance Call” (pages 42, 92). Al-Suri referenced a popular hadith, predicting “the return of the caliphate upon the prophetic methodology.” Ayman al-Zawahiri in his “fourth open interview” (2007), conducted online and published by al-Sahab – back in the day that communication took place within vBulletin community forums –, demanded that Sunni jihadist organizations in Iraq ally with “the Islamic State in Iraq” to liberate territory and consequently re-establish the “abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam) by introducing the “prophetic methodology”. End of July 2014, the al-Furqan Media Foundation (which was founded over a decade ago) released a video entitled ‘ala minhaj al-nubuwwa.

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Claiming “prophetic conduct” means claiming infallibility. Dozens of IS videos in the past years show the enforcement of shari’a law regulations and applied theology – not only the hard power side such as the execution of spies, the amputation of hands, but also the collection of taxes, the enforcing of health regulations at food markets or state provided dental care. A great deal of this is carried out by the al-Hisba, the religious police, which not only enforces proper Islamic clothing but is also often seen in videos where contraband such as alcohol and tobacco are burned or items related to shirk) are destroyed.

From Theory to Practice & the On-/Off-Line Relationship

Religious references to the ahl al-Sunna wa-l jama’a are often made[6], meaning the Sunni Muslims who act according to the prophetic tradition (Sunna), emulating 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). IS has taken this concept to a new level by popularizing their slogan “upon the prophetic methodology” (ala minhaj al-nubuwwa). This means that they justify every action, ranging from the destruction of Shiite mosques to the execution of non-Sunni Muslims, with reference to certain, selectively chosen parts of divine scripture and the prophetic tradition.

Jihadist media operatives document all of these actions, who then produce professional, full high definition 16:9 videos. These videos are released on social media platforms that, in turn push contents onto the mobile devices and desktop computers of users.

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The billboard above reads: “the messenger – peace be upon him said: “between a man and shirk and disbelief  stands the abolishing of [ritual] prayer.”

As IS applies a great deal of theological documents and theories penned by generations of AQ theologians, argumentatively, AQ remains most important and has regained an active role by offshoot groups and individuals who subscribe to this monopoly of truth. The theological parameters and interpretations of Islamic sources give out a highly coherent set of ‘narratives’. While the role model of the ‘proper’ Sunni Muslim according to these principals of faith (‘aqida) and religious methodology (manhaj/minhaj) is embodied by the jihadists who claim purity and absolute proximity to god. The doctrine of Sunni extremism provides a clear identity of what it should mean to be a ‘true’ monotheistic Muslim (muwahhid) and how to profess the divine laws of God (shari’a) as based on the authoritarian interpretations and guidelines freely available on the Internet – giving answers to real life grievances in zones of conflict across diverse Islamic countries. Fighters and clerics likewise and sometimes in rotating roles relate the written ideology into actions and fierce emotional sermons conveyed by the extremist’s most powerful platform: Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and more; jihadi forums and dedicated websites. These role models, the corpus of texts, and most important the jihadi-affiliated and hijacked iconography most prominently represented and identifiable by the black banner with the imprinted shahada,[7] has successfully manifested within majority Sunni Islamic societies, and has even more so gained visibility within the Arab public space amid the chaos and aftermath of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.[8] Perhaps even more so in times of upheaval and (re-) spawning of militant groups throughout the countries affected by the ‘Arab Spring’, first and foremost Syria, the emphasis of jihadist media advisors, strategists and contributors is set to emphasize their own role and importance:

“We are indeed convinced that the battlefields of the media jihad are of the most important streams of jihad and a elementary front thereof in this raging war with our enemies. Therefore, we [media workers] commit ourselves just as any jihadi brigade, working correspondingly with our brothers in the fields of war, directly encountering the enemies.”[9]

The media in principal is used on a tactical level, not only to incite and recruit individuals worldwide, but to create theological denominators and operational paradigms with policy guidelines for various jihadist groups. While “jihad” is first and foremost agreed to as being implemented by militant and violent means in general, or in short linked to “combat” (qital), the media thereof follows the rationale of propagating Islam (da’wa) and the proper religious methodology (manhaj/minhaj). This propagation thus is part of the overall objective to “establish the rightly guided caliphate” while uniting various Sunni fighting groups and individuals under this particular propagated manhaj.[10]

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With the Islamic State having endured for years as the “established rightly guided caliphate”, stretching across Syria and Iraq as its core area, and the day-to-day application of the “prophetic methodology”, the legacy it already leaves behind for future jihad theaters is part of the many challenges to overcome modern-day global terrorism.

[1] Markaz al-Hayyat li’-l ‘ilam, Stories from the Land of the Living – the Story of Abu Khaled the Cambodian from Australia,

[2] Nico Prucha, Die Stimme des Dschihad “Sawt al-gihad”: al-Qa’idas erstes Online-Magazin Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovač, 2010

[3] See the statements by Thomas Hegghammer: https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/23/the-culture-that-makes-a-jihadi-thomas-hegghammer-interview-poetry-militancy

[4] Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha: The Call-Up: The Roots of a Resilient and Persistent Jihadist Presence on Twitter, Global Ecco, CTX vo.4 no.3, August 2014, https://globalecco.org/nl/the-call-up-the-roots-of-a-resilient-and-persistent-jihadist-presence-on-twitter

[5] Nico Prucha: IS and the Jihadist information Highway – Projecting Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram, Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 10, no. 6 (2016), http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/556

[6] For example the major IS video release “The Clanging of the Swords, part 4”, published in May 2014. The video shows IS in the early stages of conquest and consolidating territory in the al-Anbar province of Iraq. Ali Fisher, Nico Prucha, Is this the most successful release of a jihadist video ever?, Jihadica, May 2014, http://www.jihadica.com/is-this-the-most-successful-release-of-a-jihadist-video-ever/

[7] The black flag comprises a centric grey circle imprinted with (from down upwards) “Muhammad – rasul – allah”, a reference to the Islamic creed “There is no God (allah) but God and Muhammad is the messenger (rasul) of God.” The symbolic is amplified as this exact layout and wording had been the seal of the prophet (khatim al-nabawiyya) whereas the contemporary jihadists further seek to position a monopoly of truth by signing documents and by placing the flag as an expression of divine will and power. The use of the Prophetic seal, placed not only on the flag but also to sign ‘official Islamic State’ documents and rulings, is served as a nonnegotiable authority, backed by the interpretation and application of Qur’an and Sunna – speaking in the name of God and His messenger, Muhammad, furthering the belief of being in a direct lineage to divinity and expressing the entitlement of the soldiers of God (jund allah).

[8] The manifestation of pro-AQ styled jihadist groups, exercising violence or ‘soft-power’ such as restoring basic infrastructure and handing out supplies to the Sunni population is evident by the trans-national appearance of the Ansar al-Shari’a network. The Ansar al-Shari’a groups propagate openly jihadist iconography and a similar rhetoric based on the fundamental teachings of AQ. The Libyan branch based in Bengazi and Derna as well as the chapter in Tunisia had been declared by the U.S. State Department as “foreign terrorist organizations” and “global terrorist entities” following the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, September 11, 2012. Thomas Joscelyn, State Department designates 3 Ansar al Sharia organizations, leaders, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/01/state_department_des_2.php, January 10, 2013.

[9] Mu’assasat al-Ma’sada al-I’lamiyya / Fursan al-Balagh al-I’lam (eds.), Bayan nusrat al-ansar li-ikhwanihim al-Mujahidin al-abrar, https://shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=212520, October 10, 2013. This statement is signed by the most influential contemporary jihadi media key figures.

[10] Mu’assasat al-Ma’sada al-I’lamiyya / Fursan al-Balagh al-I’lam (eds.), Bayyan nusrat al-ansar li-ikhwanihim al-Mujahidin al-abrar, 3-5.