Archive for January 2018

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

January 26, 2018

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]

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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.

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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]

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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]

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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.

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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

January 14, 2018

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)

January 1, 2018

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.