Focus on what events and material means to Salafi-Jihadi groups – Da’wa as Constant on the Path of Jihad

Defeating a Salafi Jihadist group requires more than Western commentators and politicians finding an expedient way to claim some form of victory.

Introduction

Over the years there have been many Western-centric interpretations of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’, the AQ single narrative, claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are ‘defeated’.

The shift to using social media made the material the Salafi-Jihadi movement produce easier to locate which created an opportunity for greater numbers of researchers to comment on these groups. Some of this commentary, often from within orthodox Terrorism Studies, has based the analysis on what they understand from the writing, images, nashid and video they came across – in effect they are asking; what does this mean to me?

It is only in a western-centric context or an environment, which tends towards neo-colonialist approaches, that ‘Utopia’ might seem a reasonable interpretation. Look back – how many articles claiming to have identified material about a jihadi ‘utopia’ quote any Salafi-Jihadi text talking about utopia?

When you take a moment to examine references to Utopia in Salafi-Jihadi texts, a stark reality becomes clear – there are more articles by researchers claiming to have found evidence of a ‘jihadi Utopia’ or a ‘Utopian narrative’, than there are genuine references to Utopia in Salafi-Jihadi literature.

This is because the focus on concepts such as ‘Utopia’ and Western interpretation of victory and defeat are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens or habitus.

In the current context, the message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump, echoed by supporters and reinforced by researchers pushing their new book in that policy environment. It is possible to produce a definition to back expedient claims of ‘defeat’, as authors of the ISIS Reader have attempted to do. This type of commentary may provide easy and comfortable material for policymakers to read. However producing material that is comforting for policymakers is not the purpose of progressive research.

The purpose of research is to develop a deeper understand the object of study.

Claims of ‘Utopia’ and ‘defeat’ fail to reflect reality on the ground, do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes, and as such do not act as useful predictor of the future behaviour of Jihadi groups.  

Far from defeated, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.

Instead of contorting definitions to fit a Western-centric notion of defeat, a more progressive approach would focus on analysing what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and what the groups themselves intend to communicate. This means being able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.

As detailed discussion of the meaning of Jihad has already filled many volumes, this post focuses on a single specific issue. A progressive approach leads to a different understanding of what victory and defeat mean for Salafi-Jihadi groups. This post shows how an evidence-based interpretation differs from the more common interpretation produced by neo-colonialist elements of orthodox Terrorism Studies.

The major distinction between a progressive and the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies can be encapsulated by the difference in interpretation of victory and defeat. In light of the continued fighting and estimates of fighters – consider which would be the more accurate predictor of continued violence:

  1. The definition of defeat proposed by some within orthodox Terrorism Studies – that losing territory is defeat – based on Western military theory.
  2. The Salafi-Jihadi understanding of defeat based on the perspective expressed in theologically inspired material produced by the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the demonstrable willingness to continue to fight.  

We are people for whom if this world puts upon us pressure the sky widens for us by means of martyrdom

A progressive perspective

A progressive approach proposes the second option and bases the interpretation of contemporary Salafi-Jihadi writing based on the thought expressed in the previous writing, audio and video. This approach is typified by the ability to quote from earlier texts, trace the development of the Salafi-Jihadi ideas, and identify the references to historic writing and Koranic verses which are incorporated into contemporary books, newspapers, magazines and videos. The progressive approach focuses on evidence-based interpretations because these theological concepts anchor contemporary jihadist media to its historical foundations.

Understanding those theological chains of thought and how they are interpreted by the core of the Salafi-Jihadi movement provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. As a result, research design based on the constants of Salafi-Jihadi theology is a fundamental element in the process of developing an evidence-based approach and strong data culture within a progressive Terrorism Studies.

Media Jihad, like other approaches to Jihad, continues to the final hour – as a result, the missionary work of al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) has and will continue despite the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For Salafi Jihadi groups, religion is about constants which are valid for human believers throughout time (since the revelation). Da’wa, missionary work, part of which has been undertaken electronically for the last past two decades, is part of these constants that make up the Jihadi framework of reference.

Salafi-Jihadi definition of defeat

Salafi-Jihadi groups have continued to fight uninhibited by the pronouncements of their defeat. This makes understanding the meaning of events in a Salafi-Jihadi worldview a vital part of research. Salafi-Jihadi worldview is entirely different from the Western-centric interpretations which are abound in orthodox Terrorism Studies.

The progressive approach to analysing Salafi-Jihadi groups uses an evidence-based methodology – this means being able to quote from the archive of Salafi-Jihadi writing to demonstrate the constants which are present in historical and contemporary material as these in combination with the context in which a group finds itself are the best predictors of future behaviour.

Salafi-Jihadi groups interpret events based on their current context and the constants contained in their theological worldview. They take seriously the command encompassed in the recent IS magazine ‘And Prepare Against Them’ – as has been repeatedly shown by Salafi-Jihadi groups over decades. Salafi-Jihadi groups have operated online and offline communicating to those willing to receive their message a mixture of pedagogical content (theology in the framing of “why we fight”) and military/terrorist operational art (“how we fight”).

As a result, when open fighting is not possible, Jihadi groups prepare for their next opportunity, the fertile soil.

..one of the most important fundaments for training in our jihadi Resistance Call is to spread the culture of preparation and training, its programs and methods, with all their aspects, by all methods of distribution, especially the Internet, the distribution of electronic discs, direct correspondence, recordings and every other method.

For example, context plays an important role in determining the meaning of the word da’wa. Da’wa mostly means propagating or calling to Islam, in reference of missionary work, an important pillar for all major religions. However, depending on context, it can also have a much more broad meaning, akin to general calls to act on behalf of Islam, or, as in the case of the title of as-Suri’s famous book ‘Global Islamic Resistance Call’, the word translated here as ‘call’ is Da’wa.

Applying this understanding to the nature of Salafi-Jihadi groups, it is apparent that the Jihadi movement have a dissimilar understanding of their purpose to those with a neo-colonialist agenda within the Terrorism Studies orthodoxy. For Salafi-Jihadi groups from AQ to Taliban to IS – ‘territorial loss’ is not defeat.

This can be shown through a range of writings from previous Salafi-Jihadi authors. For example, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi listed a range of meanings of defeat in Constants on the Path of Jihad, they were, in short;

  • Following the way of the kuffar
  • Accepting their Supremacy
  • Inclination towards the kuffar
  • Obeying kuffar
  • To lose hope *Some Jihadi translations into English write “loose hope” – the text makes it clear it is to abandon hope e.g. ‘giving up on the victory of God’ so ‘lose’ is used here.
  • Giving up the banner of Jihad
  • Giving up hope on military victory
  • Fear of the enemy

For the Jihadist movement, the timeline for victory extends to a spiritual dimension beyond death. In addition to the meanings of defeat, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi noted 11 meanings of victory in his book, Constants on the Path of Jihad, of which only one meaning is what a post-Westphalian state would refer to as victory on the battlefield. As such, the interrelated concepts of victory and defeat, for al-‘Uyairi, are not limited to the temporal or physical constraints of victory/defeat which dominate the mindset of post-Westphalian states and orthodox Terrorism Studies.

Similar understandings of victory and defeat can be found throughout the writing of the Salafi-Jihadi movement. This is an important reference point for evidence based research, as a key aspect of any struggle is how victory occurs within the minds of an adversary, and when an adversary is likely to believe it has been defeated – or in other words, what is success in an adversarial struggle?

As Anwar al-Awlaki explained in the 44 Ways to Support Jihad;

Victory here doesn’t necessarily mean against their enemies in this world. It means that they would succeed in preserving the religion and fighting for it until they die and meet Allah. It means they will never give up, compromise, or falter in carrying on the banner of Islam.[i]To illustrate the importance of this meaning of victory / defeat, Anwar al-Awlaki recalled, in 2009, the story of the “people of the ditch” (Companions of the Ditch). This is a theological element that appears consistently within the Salafi-Jihadi literature[ii];

These were a nation who became Muslim and the king wanted to force them to apostate and they refused. So he dug for them trenches and he filled these trenches with wood and he set fire to them and he would throw them one after the other in the fire until they would burn to death. They didn’t win, they were all killed till the last man. Men, women and children were all burnt alive and they did not win. It was the king who won against them. But what does Allah say about it in Quran? After he mentioned the story Allah (Azza wa Jal) says: “That is the great victory”. Why is it called victory? Because they were steadfast till the last moment, they didn’t give up. If they gave up, they would have lost.[iii]The “Companions of the Ditch” illustrates a specific concept of victory / defeat, which would be familiar to readers of other texts produced by the Jihadist movement. We can show both purpose and success consistently extend beyond the physical world from earlier iterations of the movement to the more recent material from al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya. 

For example, in The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, Abu Mus’ab as-Suri quoted Sura at-Tawbah: 111.

Verily, Allah has purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the Paradise. They fight in Allah’s cause, so they kill and are killed. A promise binding on Him in truth in the Taurat [Tora] and the Injeel [Bible] and the Qur’an. And who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah. Then rejoice in the bargain which you have concluded. And that is the great victory.[iv]

Defeat and al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya

In addition to familiar figures from the past such as al-‘Uyairi, al-Awlaki, and as-Suri, the interrelated concepts of victory and defeat are equally clear in the media produced by al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya. For example, a nasheed released by al-Hayyat Media Center, about the battle for the Philippine city of Marawi begins:

Diamonds and pearls and palaces are waiting the men of tawhid, virgins and wine, never ending time in gardens with rivers beneath. Holding firm to the rope of Allah are the brothers in Marawi. Engraved in their heart is the love for their lord and for him they continue to bleed.[v] 

Those ‘brothers’ who remain steadfast, by ‘holding firm to the rope of Allah’ will receive the reward for victory in paradise. This continuing element in the meaning of victory within contemporary Jihadist content was exemplified by another example from the province of Kirkuk (ولاية كركوك). In this video entitled The People who are Steadfast (اهل الثبات) an ISIS fighter speaking directly to the camera references both Marawi and Mosul as demonstrations of the Jihadist interpretation of victory.

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.[vi]He goes on to explain this perspective in a way which is important to the understanding of victory within the Jihadist movement. First, he highlights the importance of hardship in attaining victory by linking their actions to the experience of prophet Muhammad;

For a Muslim, trials and tribulations carry great gifts from Allah within them, we’ve been living under siege in Wilayah Kirkuk, although it seems like a hardship for a moment, however it is a divine honour from Allah to simulate those who were the first carriers of this message. We are under an embargo similar to the embargo that the prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) along with his followers went through in Mecca. We are under siege just like the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his companions were under siege during the battle of the trench.[vii]Accordingly, hardship has a role as part of attaining victory:

This is the nature of this path, this is how it has always been for anyone who carries this message throughout history. It is the path of trials and tribulations which purifies our ranks and prepares us for the upcoming victory …  and ultimately grants us the highest ranks in Jannah.[viii]

This echoes many earlier writings for example, in the section entitled ‘The Fourth Path – Patience and Steadfastness’ in Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir’s Paths to Victory, the following verses are used to highlight the struggle on the ribat:

‘O you who have believed, persevere, outlast [your enemy] in patience, perform ribat, and fear Allah that you may succeed’” (Reported by Malik from Zayd Ibn Aslam).[ix]“We will surely test you with something of fear, hunger, poverty, death, and lack of food – and give glad tidings to those who are patient” (Al-Baqarah 155). At-Tabari said, “Allah tells the followers of His Messenger that He will test them and try them with hardships in order to distinguish those who will continue to follow the Messenger from those who will turn back on their heels” (At-Tafsir).[x]

Where the Coalition information operations and commentators have emphasised the killing of many fighters and demolition of formerly IS held cities as defeat for the Jihadist forces, Jihadists interpret these events differently. Addressing ‘the crusader coalition lead by the pharaoh of today’ (America) the ISIS fighter from Kirkuk continues;

When will you understand that you are fighting people who view the rockets and bullets or whatever weapons you use against them as keys to the highest ranks of paradise. We chose this path to either live as (honoured) Muslims, worshiping Allah as he commanded us, or even better to meet our lord; there is no third option.[xi]

Although commentators mistakenly claim ISIS does not mention losses[xii], here the video directly references losses but is clear that this is not how victory is measured.

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.[xiii]

While within orthodox Terrorism Studies ‘territorial loss is defeat’ passes as an acceptable interpretation, for the individuals involved, victory / defeat is not about the area of land held. It is in following what they believe to be the true path of Allah measured through entrance into paradise.

Equally through their actions, demonstrating steadfastness they act as role models to others.[xiv] The final section of the video also shows the value which IS (and the Jihadist movement) place on the physical destruction caused by Coalition and other anti-ISIS operations. This is used to create a connection between contemporary events and historic events. In doing so they demonstrate their steadfastness (as they believe others have before them) in continuing to fight until the city around them is reduced to rubble.

The recent statement by the ‘Spokesman of the Islamic State’ Abu Hamza al-Qurashi continued this theme.

They found no way to battle the Islamic State except by pouring their hatred in the form of molten lava over the Muslims in Iraq and Sham. Thus they destroyed their cites, killed and maimed thousands, until the epics of Ramadi, Mosul, Sirte, and al-Baghuz took place. After which they declared their victory over the Islamic State, without celebrating their alleged victory for too long. As they know with certainty their claims of eliminating it are belied just as they were from before. How [could they claim victory] and its soldiers remain in various lands, with some of them maintaining empowerment within, by the bounty of Allah, while the affliction upon the kafirin and apostates has not ceased for an hour?

This complex combination of interpretations is not an attempt to build a brand around violence or presenting themselves as victims. It is giving da’wa. In following this approach, recent statements mirror the interpretations of ‘defeat’ laid out by previous generations of writers within the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Abu Hamza al-Qurashi’s statement highlighted the history of premature claims of victory from the West;   

Thus we say to the protectors of the Cross, America, and her allies from the Arab and non-Arab rulers: Verily, you experienced the war of the Islamic State when fighting was centered in Iraq, in the alleys of Fallujah, Ramadi, the north and south of Baghdad, Diyala, Salahuddin, and Mosul. You repeatedly alleged and announced eliminating it. You become surprised after every announcement the expansion of operations of its soldiers, by the bounty of Allah.

In later sections of the statement he claimed, (after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi);

many kafirin, murtaddin, and munafiqin thought it the actual end of the Islamic State, while the transgressing Crusaders declared that it is not so based on their long experience in dealing with the Islamic State. They were assured that the word “baqiyyah” was not a mere slogan the muwahhidin used to provoke their disbelieving enemies. But rather, it is an expression based on a firm methodology among the soldiers of the Khilafah that prompts them to preserve what their preceding brothers left behind, completing what they started, and recovering what they lost.

Similarly,

Therefore, O tawaghit of America, O worshipers of the Cross, occupy yourselves with something two dogs who ruled America before you, Bush and Obama, also claimed and declared they had defeated the Islamic State a number of previous times. Or do you have no shame? You all have been declaring and claiming for 15 years the elimination of the muwahhidin…

… If in your estimation you believe you have concluded a battle and the mujahidin have retreated, then know that the matter, all of it, is in hands of Allah, the Mighty. Far removed is it that He would grant victory to you over His believing slaves. However, He tests His slaves to distinguish the truthful from the liar in jihad for Him. This is the tradition of Allah, the Mighty, in relation to His creation. Allah said: “And certainly, We shall test you with something of fear, hunger, and loss of wealth, lives, and fruits, but give glad tidings to the patient” (Al-Baqarah: 155)

In contrast to researchers focused on short-term trends and repeating pronouncements of defeat, the Jihadi movement maintains the assessment of success over a long timeline, which extends into the afterlife. Contemporary difficulties are frequently interpreted as tests of faith. For example, 

And He said: “And We will, verily, try you till We know who from among you are patient mujahidin; and We will test your pronouncements” (Muhammad: 31).

Endure and be patient; guard your posts, and fear Allah, so that you may be successful. Know (may Allah keep you steadfast) that what you are facing is nothing but the tradition of Allah concerning His believing slaves, just as it is His tradition concerning the Prophets and Messengers. Allah said: “Or do you think you will enter Paradise without such (trials) that came to those who passed away before you? They were afflicted with severe poverty and ailments and were so shaken that even the Messenger and those who believed along with him said: ‘When is the help of Allah?’ Verily, indeed, the help of Allah is near” (Al-Baqarah: 214).

The reward for remaining steadfast in faith is entry into paradise (and emphatically not the physical world utopia of Western imagination).

Strive in your endeavors and seek Paradise, as we have only come out for the two best outcomes: a martyrdom pleasing to the Lofty Lord or a great conquest that gathers the Muslims and guides the astray.

“Then for him who transgressed all bounds and preferred the life of this world, verily, his abode will be the Fire. But as for him who feared standing before his Lord and restrained himself from desires and whims, verily, Paradise will be his abode” (An-Nazi’at: 37-41).

The interpretation of the interrelated concepts of success, victory and defeat are clear in jihadi writing (and these examples are easily available in English). With the Jihadi interpretation in such stark contrast to what appears within orthodox Terrorism Studies research, and the ongoing fighting casting significant doubt on the so-called ‘defeat’, one may wonder what the ISIS reader would look like if the authors had more than faux Arabic access to the documents not reproduced in English.

UK Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter has emphatically rejected claims that IS is defeated. It should be clear to those even loosely acquainted with the facts on the ground that the group and theology that al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote is far from defeated in Iraq and Syria and the media production, through which they pursue their missionary work, has not collapsed.

In 2019 there was an unseasonal two month increase in attacks in Iraq by IS, with sharp increases in both Baghdad and Ninewa. In addition, since the so-called ‘defeat’ of IS the US military spent over $1 million dropping 40 tonnes of explosive on a single island in Iraq, and IS attacks continue across Iraq and Syria, not to mention Egypt or it’s operations in Africa in general. The New York Times has noted ISIS Is Regaining Strength in Iraq and Syria, a view also shared by a report of the Pentagon inspector general. Furthermore, the US Special Representative for Syria and the Coalition to Defeat Daesh, Jim Jeffrey, has stated there were somewhere between 14,000-18,000 ISIS fighters “active between Syria and Iraq.” UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.

A series of videos from IS showed groups around the world pledging allegiance (bay’a) to their Caliph al-Baghdadi, which then sparked over 200 individuals to also post images of their bay’a or post videos showing them listening to pro-IS Nashid in public claiming to be in locations ranging from the UK, to Turkey and the Middle East. This has since been repeated with bay’a to IS’ new Caliph.  

Claims of defeat may give policymakers a feeling of success and reassurance, perhaps even allow some to withdraw troops from key locations in the region, but the study of the Salafi-Jihadi movement needs a progressive approach based on evidence-based research and a strong data culture. When such evidence-based methods are applied, as we have shown here, the Jihadi worldview is a much better predictor of continued fighting than attempts within orthodox Terrorism Studies to find a definition that will allow claims of ‘defeat’.  As such while orthodox Terrorism Studies, with systemic problems with data and evidence based analysis, announces defeat, from a progressive approach it is entirely predictable that IS continues to fight. 

Artefacts of Western Habitus

Inserting Western artefacts such as the focus on crime, rap music, jihadi cool and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’, say more about the western-centric and neo-colonialist perspective of the researchers than what the material means to the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Where, for example, do you find Salafi-Jihadi groups writing about a physical world utopia? Why is the work of those who posit Salafi-Jihadi material is communicating about ‘Utopia’ not full of quotes showing Salafi-Jihadi groups writing about ‘Utopia’? 

Consider, what would it mean to engage in suicide bombing to enter a physical world Utopia? What use would someone who joined Jihad to continue their life of crime have for a bomb vest?

As with all elements of Salafi-Jihadi theology, nuance and context are important. Some proposing a Terror-Crime Nexus (re-branded as the the Crime-Terror Nexus) have claimed repeatedly “Theft – any form of crime – is equated with ghanimah, which translates as ‘the spoils of war’”. While the transliterated Arabic word makes this claim seem authoritative, ghanimah emphatically does not cover all forms of crime. It focuses primarily on elements of property and wealth (as Salafi-Jihadi theology would define those concepts).

‘All crime’ inserts an artefact of Western habitus into the analysis of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, potentially exacerbating the tendency toward threat inflation and confirmation bias others have previously noted. To neocolonialists within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies the nuance of this distinction between property based crime and all crime may seem the pedantic nitpicking of a pedant. However, the distinction is important to Salafi-Jihadi groups. As such it is a distinction which is of concern to progressive and evidence based research.

These examples highlight how, despite the huge archive of theologically inspired Salafi-Jihadi material available online, researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies have repeatedly chosen to focus on artefacts of their western habitus which they perceive to be part of Salafi-Jihadi material. It is this reliance on western habitus, fueled by confirmation bias, which has led those within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies to repeatedly define Salafi-Jihadi groups as defeated, even when Jihadi theology clearly indicates they will continue to fight.

These neocolonialist notions of defeat owe more to western-centric policy circles’ need for affirmation than to the theology expressed Salafi-Jihadi writing. In doing so these researchers place the interpretation based on their western habitus ahead of the meaning transmitted by Salafi-Jihadi groups and understood by their intended audience.

A Western-centric definition of defeat

It has been a policy imperative in the US and elsewhere to declare ISIS defeated and backed by some researchers. This despite, as highlighted earlier,  al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya maintaining a fighting force which “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment.

The study of the Salafi-Jihadi movement has seen this type of positive endorsement of policy before, only for the stark reality to subsequently intervene. For example, recent document releases relating to lessons learned in Afghanistan have shown:

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers, according to the Post. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

In contrast to the ‘best possible picture’, “enemy-initiated attacks” rose sharply last year, with the fourth quarter seeing a total of 8,204 attacks – up from 6,974 in the same period in 2018”, according to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Just as events in Afghanistan were interpreted in positive light, many have sought ways to represent IS as in decline and have engaged in a race to come up with a definition which will allow researchers to pronounce IS defeated.

We have been in this position many times before. There have been many instances where academics, commentators and policy makers have been keen to take victory laps celebrating the defeat of Jihadi groups. Unfortunately, once the hyperbole infused fanfare has died down, these groups have continued to fight – many continue to this day – with or without sections of territory.

Misunderstanding how Salafi-Jihadi groups derive meaning from events can lead to disastrous misinterpretations. One may recall how al-Qaeda leadership had been cut off from foot soldiers in 2005-2006 only in 2007 for the New York Times to report American officials had “mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan”. 

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in defeating AQI and killing its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed that by 2009-2010 “we had essentially crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)”  Rohan Gunaratna argued that a year before Osama Bin Laden was killed Al Qaeda had “already lost significant public support and was on the path of decline”. The subsequent killing of Bin Laden was hailed as a crushing, but not necessarily lethal, blow. Some terrorism analysts including Paul Cruickshank thought the Arab Spring could be al-Qaeda’s fall. Indeed there were many ways in which the Arab Spring could be presented as bad news for Al-Qaeda as it “appeared to undermine core tenets of the Al-Qaeda doctrine”. Fawaz A. Gerges wrote that “Only a miracle will resuscitate a transnational jihad of the al-Qaeda variety”. Ian Black wrote that “Al-Qaida had already looked marginal and on the back foot for several years. But the dawn of largely peaceful change in the Middle East and North Africa this year rendered it irrelevant.”

In 2012 Peter Bergen argued it was time to declare victory as al Qaeda was defeated. Similarly, many have been keen to proclaim the defeat and collapse of the Islamic State. Jason Burke wrote in October 2017 “a victory is a victory, and there are few reasons for cheer these days. So let us celebrate the defeat of Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate – and keep a wary eye out for the next fight”. He was not alone, many have been keen to claim victory. So many have followed some form of the logic, “Now that ISIS has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, it will become more violent outside this area” as Charlie Winter told the Sun Newspaper.

In 2020 ISIS is defeated because, as a recent CTC Sentinel article claimed;

“territorial loss is defeat for the movement, that is what the authors have decided to call it. By every measure, the group is defeated…”  

This sounds very similar to earlier attempts to define a defeated Taliban and AQ. These definitions have one thing in common. The commentary of a largely male, pale, and stale orthodox Terrorism Studies were unable to find evidence Salafi-Jihadi groups consider themselves defeated, so instead they found ways to define groups as defeated based on their own western habitus – independent of the objectives of the groups in question.

In effect orthodox commentary was not focused on how events were interpreted by the jihadi movement. Instead much of the orthodoxy has focused on what groups of predominantly English-speaking white men define as victory and defeat based on their Western-centric perspectives. As white Western-centric frames of reference have little resonance or relevance to the core of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, it should come as little surprise that the purportedly defeated groups continue fighting – apparently unaware of their defeat.

This image circulating on Salafi-Jihadi Telegram channels shows where the focus of attacks from the so-called ‘defeated’ IS have taken place. Some may quibble with the specific numbers – but the overall perspective significantly tests Western ideas of defeat and shifts to violence elsewhere.

73% of attacks in Syria and Iraq indicates where the movement thinks attention is focused. Furthermore, being more violent elsewhere after the so-called defeat, is difficult to square as the battle for Marawi which occurred prior to claims of ‘defeat’ still outstrips contemporary activities outside Iraq and Syria. 

If it were Europe rather than Syria / Iraq would ISIS still be “defeated”? 

As time has passed it has become increasingly common to find researchers from orthodox Terrorism Studies wrestling with the problem of having claimed a group has collapsed or is defeated, only for it to be increasingly obvious that group is continuing to fight – whether it is IS (with combinations of claims of post-Caliphate and a post-ISIS Iraq/Syria etc.) or earlier iterations which refer to AQ and the Taliban.

For example, even at the point of claiming IS is defeated the authors of the ISIS reader seem acutely aware they have become entangled in this problem. The quote (from above) continues… 

“the group is defeated, but it is not destroyed and it remains active. Defeat is not permanent, as Clausewitz says.”  

In contrast to claims of ‘defeat’, as highlighted earlier, there is evidence of somewhere between 14,000-18,000 ISIS fighters “active between Syria and Iraq.” Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, who puts the number of fighters around 20,000, has argued:

“Yes, they have lost much of their leadership. They have lost many of their capable men. But they’ve also managed to gain more experience and to recruit more people around them”.

UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq. While Christopher Lee has highlighted that

“The biggest concern is Daesh appears to have created a dependency among up to 100,000 civilians in areas they have moved into and in the many displacement camps.”

Those within the orthodox Terrorism Studies who pursue a neo-colonialist agenda seem comfortable claiming that ISIS with thousands of fighters perpetrating hundreds of attacks fits the definition of a ‘defeated’ group.

One wonders if those pushing that perspective would consider ISIS ‘defeated’ if the group was roaming Western Europe rather than Iraq/Syria with thousands of fighters, tens of thousands of followers, and perpetrating hundreds of attacks?

Recall the impact on European countries from comparatively few attacks. The shock of attacks in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, London on 7/7 or Westminster Bridge were profound – internationals politicians flocking to Paris and the UK is seeking to change the law after two knife attacks.

Attacks of a vastly greater scale are virtually a daily occurrence in Iraq and Syria, but some from the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies still claim ISIS is ‘defeated’.  

Conclusion

One of the major distinctions between a progressive and the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies can be encapsulated by this difference in the interpretation of victory and defeat. In light of the continued fighting and estimates of fighters – consider which would be the more accurate predictor of continued violence:

  1. The definition of defeat proposed by some within orthodox Terrorism Studies – that losing territory is defeat – based on Western military theory. 
  2. The Salafi-Jihadi understanding of defeat based on the perspective expressed in theologically inspired material produced by the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the demonstrable willingness to continue to fight.  

A progressive approach to Terrorism Studies insists on option two. By seeking to extend their predominantly white, masculine and Western-centric definitions of defeat and victory, sections of the orthodox Terrorism studies echo the earlier “9/11” temporal narrative. While the temporal narrative was “an extension of US hegemony over world time”, according to Harmonie Toros, the neo-colonialist element of orthodox Terrorism Studies now seeks to claim hegemonic power for their definition of victory and defeat – irrespective of what the participants in the conflict think and whether the conflict continues.


[i] Anwar al-Awlaki, 44 ways to support Jihad, (Victorious Media)

[ii] Nico Prucha, A Look at Suicide Fatwas: The Case of Algeria, RIAS, http://www.rieas.gr/researchareas/2014-07-30-08-58-27/islamic-studies/1331-a-look-at-jihadists-suicide-fatwas- (2010)

[iii] Anwar al Awlaki, State of the Ummah, (Victorious Media 2009)

[iv] This is quoted in:
Abu Mus’ab as-Suri, Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, Part One: The Roots, History and Experiences. December 2004.

[v] Nasheed, Brothers of Marawi, al-Hayyat Media Center, 2017 

[vi] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker. .  

[vii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker.

[viii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker.

[ix] Abu Hamzah al-Muhaiir, Paths to Victory, Jumada al-Akhirah 1438 (Translation by Himmah Productions)

[x] Abu Hamzah al-Muhaiir, Paths to Victory, Jumada al-Akhirah 1438 (Translation by Himmah Productions)

[xi] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words.

[xii] Within a day after losing the Syrian city of Manbij, ISIS issued a document explaining how the physical loss does not mean that the war is lost. After losing the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, ISIS again issued a lengthy statement outlining how they consider themselves in the exact footsteps of early Muslims and that losses are deemed as temporary as “the weapon that can kill belief has yet to be invented” as stated by British hostage John Cantlie in a video released in December 2016.

[xiii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. The video goes on to encourage attacks in Western cities as these would have a greater impact than traveling to Syria or Iraq. This echoes Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, “If one of you wishes and strives to reach the lands of the Islamic State, then each of us wishes to be in your place to make examples of the crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbour fears his neighbour. This message appeared again in  (وحرض المؤمنين) 

 ‘And Inspire the Believers’, al-Taqwa 25th February 2018 and follows the same logic as work by Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, ‘Advice To Those Who Cannot Come To Sham’, 23/12/2015 and the earlier Abu Mus’ab as-Suri. 

[xiv] See for example:

‘Abdul-Qādir Ibn ‘Abdil-‘Azīz, The Obligation Of Holding Steadfast To The Book And The Sunnah (The Manhaj Of Ahl As-Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah),  (Translated edition, al-Tibyan Publications)

A more progressive Terrorism Studies

This I have resolved on … to run when I can, to go when I cannot run, and to creep when I cannot go.

Pilgrim’s Progress – Part 2 Chapter 6.

The role of the Feeble-mind character in Bunyan’s religious allegory Pilgrim’s Progress is to highlight the importance of continuing to make progress towards an identified goal.

A more progressive approach to Terrorism Studies could focus on extending the depth at which the Salafi-Jihadi movement is understood. This would be based on robust data science and human expertise, a focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement – Arabic – and the extensive archive of theologically inspired thought which the movement has produced.

It is the archive of theology as expressed and interpreted by the core of the movement which provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. In contrast, some researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies claim to see artefacts of their western habitus in Salafi-Jihadi material – the focus on crime, rap music, and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’.    

Since the 1980s research has shown that the study of terrorism has struggled with availability, handling and analysis of data. Despite the length of time and frequent observations about the problems with data, rather than making progress, these problems within orthodox Terrorism Studies have remained. In addition, “the dispersed nature of much of the more rigorous, ‘critical’ and conceptually innovative research on ‘terrorism’” means that level of rigor in research is conducted outside the orthodoxy.

Over a decade ago Magnus Ranstrop highlighted the ongoing problem, which Alex Schmid and Berto Jongman originally identified back in 1988; that ‘there are probably few areas in the social science literature in which so much is written on the basis of so little research’. As a result, much of the writing in Terrorism Studies is “impressionistic, superficial, and at the same time often also pretentious, venturing far-reaching generalisations on the basis of episodal evidence”.

Rüdiger Lohlker recently recently continued this theme when he highlighted, the tendency for orthodox Terrorism Studies to contain “an empty fog of words without inner content”. Quoting German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The section quoted by Rüdiger Lohlker continues:

This sort of chatter, though lacking the idea of philosophy, gains for itself a kind of authority through its very prolixity and arrogance. Partly this is because it seems almost incredible that such a big shell should be without a kernel…

 G. W. F. Hegel

Such is the coagulation of mediocrity within a section of orthodox Terrorism Studies that unscientific, methodologically flawed and statistically unsound commentary is talked up as ‘data science’ and ‘groundbreaking research’, while the evidentiary basis goes unquestioned within the mainstream scholarship and peer review. Over the last decade – rather than being addressed – these issues have become systemic.

Making progress

As noted in the development of Critical Terrorism Studies, “it is not enough to simply point out what is lacking in current research; a clear and realistic alternative must be provided”. Sections of the orthodox Terrorism Studies, and offshoots in the CVE industry, have an opportunity to break from the contemporary stagnation and develop a strong data culture and emphasis on evidence-based research. A progressive approach to analyzing the complex, theologically driven, Salafi-Jihadi movement, will move away from the contemporary obsession with finding so-called ‘gaps’ in the largely superficial and stagnant orthodox literature.

Many of the criticisms highlighted at the start of CTS remain within sections of the orthodoxy. CTS itself – with a focus on Western policy and Western academia – has struggled to break free from the Western frames of reference, among other challenges. The framing of Terrorism, with 9/11 as a moment of temporal rupture, still dominates CTS. This inhibits the deeper understanding of the Salafi-Jihadi movement which maintains different temporal reference points to those which dominate CTS and traditional approaches to Terrorism Studies, both in relation to time in the physical world and in relation to this world (Dunya) as an abode through which a soul passes.

To address the superficial, orientalist and neocolonialist tendencies of the orthodoxy, and the temporal framing of CTS, a progressive movement within Terrorism Studies would probe the intended meaning of Salafi-Jihadi content in their understanding of the world, rather than in a Western-centric English language dominated habitus. Critique of the orthodox Terrorism Studies has highlighted “its poor methods and theories, its state centricity, its problem-solving orientation and its institutional and intellectual links to state security projects”. Many of these problems have also concerned scholars within terrorism studies “who have long acknowledged the deficiencies and limitations of current research”.

In addition, a progressive Terrorism Studies approach would uphold standards for the appropriate use of statistical data to produce a clear break from the systemic malaise in data handling which have existed within orthodox Terrorism Studies. With a strong data culture and robust research design, a dynamic approach to Terrorism Studies could utilise the changes in the technological environment for research. This is not dissimilar from the way Salafi-Jihadi groups have adapted to the opportunities which evolving technology has created.

The way the object of study, such as the groups who make up the Salafi-Jihadi movement, choose to operate has evolved:

  • The evolving concept of the electronic ribat. Since 2011, members of jihadist forums have issued media strategies that encourage the development of a media mujahideen. This encouragement has been accompanied by the release of guides to using social media platforms, which often include lists of recommended accounts to follow. 
  • By 2013, Jihadists had aggressively expanded their use of Twitter, in addition to Facebook and YouTube, especially since the outbreak of violence in Syria. This propagation effort by the “media mujahideen” was approved and sanctioned by movement leaders and contributed to the interconnected jihadist zeitgeist. 
  • Learning from each interaction on the electronic ribat, the media mujahidin rapidly developed to maintain a persistent presence based on the speed, agility, and resilience of the Swarmcast.
  • In this struggle for survival, the media mujahidin have benefited from collective approaches and emergent behaviors, these have allowed a decentralised network to thrive in the face of increasingly aggressive content removal.
  • The media mujahidin frequently use widely available software for media production – this software would also be easily accessible to researchers to provide a window into the production methods.

In addition the current technological environment provides many opportunities for research:

  • Servers are cheap and easy to access – for example if you use Amazon for shopping, then that is enough to access cloud computing through AWS.
  • Processing power and RAM are cheaper than they have ever been, allowing relatively complex calculations and data analysis to be produced rapidly.
  • Most modern personal laptops and desktops have hardware sufficient to run the analysis required for many data science projects which would extend current research into the use of the internet by Salafi Jihadi groups, or ‘extremist’ groups more broadly. Of note, most contemporary material published by salafi Jihadi groups is produced on the same widely available hardware / software (more on that in a later post).
  • While there are many commercially available and hugely powerful ‘data systems’ which integrate a range of data storage and analytical processes within a single platform, there are also many open source programs which can be used to conduct academic research. These open sources software options may not permit all the analysis to be conducted within one platform, requiring the researcher to use a range of approaches to achieve the desired analysis.   
  • There are many ‘how to’ guides for those aspiring to become better at using python, java, or any of the other popular coding languages. Similarly, resources are freely available which researchers can use to learn more about data science or using specific open source software more generally in their work, whether in the form of walkthroughs or articles packed with quick tips and tricks.

To build a stronger data culture will mean;

  • Acknowledging the problems with evidence and data which have to date beset orthodox Terrorism Studies, 
  • Reviewers and editors robustly enforcing actual standards for statistical analysis, for example,
    • if you are going to claim something such as a correlation or a long-term trend – it will need to be backed up by a statistical calculation using data acquired through a scientifically appropriate method.  
    • if the analysis is based on subjective ‘coding’ of data – is there an appropriate intercoder reliability score. If there is not, there is little reason for readers to be confident that the research presented would be repeatable, that coding remains unchanged over time, and that other researchers would apply the same coding definitions in the same way. Without intercoder reliability there is little reason to have confidence in the resulting ‘analysis’ rendering it largely unpublishable.  
  • Editors and publishers insisting on clear conflict of interest reporting,
  • The Terrorism Studies community putting methodology above attention grabbing headlines and tweetable pseudo-metrics.
    • If the methodology is flawed or the statistical analysis unsound – no matter if the ‘findings’ are appealing or even intuitively correct – the study lacks the necessary basic elements to be considered publishable research.  
      • Sample:
        • If research is claiming to have analysed a sample, to what extent can the sample be considered representative of the whole?
        • Was that sample derived from a consistent methodology, or a hodgepodge of pieces cobbled together?
        • How was the sample identified and collected? In effect research design (architecture) and data collection (acquisition) to use two of Jeffrey Stanton’s four A’s of data science.   
    • If you cannot do the calculation to produce a statistical result, do not use the word related to that calculation e.g. correlation, trend etc.  
      • Correlation:
        • When an author claims correlation – a range of questions should spring to mind; do you mean a positive or negative correlation?
        • how strong a correlation?
        • Did you use Pearson, Spearman, or Kendall?
      • Trend:
        • If a trend / trendline is claimed, what is the R-squared value? Is your line a good representation of the data?
        • A trend requires more than two or three data points.
        • Do you mean one point in time has fewer of ‘x’ than another? This is not a trend, upward or downward, one point just has fewer than the other.

Based on what is currently being published within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies there are a range of issues, including;

  • Journals specifically focused on terrorism research, a range of journals in related disciplines which have hurried to do ‘special issues’ on ISIS, and ‘research centers’ self-publishing special reports, which have published articles as if they are either unaware of the basic scientific and statistical standards or are content to publish material that they know falls short of the minimum acceptable scientific standards.
  • Senior researchers, including Professors, who will cite work that falls short of scientific or statistical standards without commentary or critique, some even talking it up as ‘ground breaking’ or ‘data science’.  

The current state of orthodox Terrorism Studies must be judged on the behaviour of those in the discipline. Such is the coagulation of mediocrity in orthodox Terrorism Studies, senior researchers have not questioned unsound methodologies, and journals through their peer reviewers and editors, have not upheld standards. The previously observed problems of data and data analysis within some sections of orthodox Terrorism Studies have now reached systemic levels.

In a scientific discipline,

  • If the relevant scientific or methodological information is not present in an article submitted to a journal, then that paper is going in the bin because it does not reach minimum standards for undergraduate level work, let alone peer review.
  • When individuals deliver presentations, which make statistical claims about trends or correlation without any calculations, or use substandard / misleading data visualisation to support their argument, they could expect to be laughed out of the building.  

If statistical and data analysis in Terrorism Studies do not adopt the standards adopted by other fields, it cannot take full advantage of the potential offered by increasing integration of data science or forms of statistical analysis into the study of Salafi-Jihadi groups.

The following series of posts examines specific tangible reasons why robust data science and evidence-based analysis is important and offers a critique of contemporary uses of data within orthodox Terrorism Studies.  

  • A progressive focus on what events and material means to Salafi-Jihadi groups – Da’wa As Constant on the Path of Jihad:

The purpose of research is to develop deeper understand the object of study. While Western-centric interpretations of ‘utopia’ and claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are defeated may be easier to produce and more comfortable for policymakers to read, they do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes. The message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump and echoed by researchers including the authors of the ISIS Reader. Yet, while it is possible to produce a definition of ‘defeat’ to back such a claim, that definition is unlikely to be a useful indicator of the current state nor future behaviour of the group. Far from defeated al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.

In addition to expedient notions of ‘defeat’, the focus on concepts such  as ‘Utopia’ are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens. A progressive approach would focus on understanding what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and be able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.

  • Progressive commitment to scientific methods to escape the impressionistic and statistically unsound representations of data in orthodox Terrorism Studies:

The failure to uphold statistical methods in orthodox Terrorism Studies has become systemic. Methodologically flawed, statistically unsound, unpublishable garbage is now talked up within the orthodoxy of Terrorism studies as ‘data science’ by professors and published in journals or circulated as ‘special reports’. This section provides a critique of the unscientific approaches to data and statistics considered acceptable within orthodox Terrorism Studies. The adoption of a progressive approach to Terrorism Studies would demand a clear break from this flawed research, putting robust methodology above tweetable headlines. 

  • Orthodoxy claims decline – time for a reality check:

While production of media content by IS has fluctuated, some commentators have sought to coerce the data into a linear direction – a so-called decline. This section examines how the narrative has been constructed and shows that committing to the decline narrative has meant overlooking some serious methodological flaws and fluctuation in content. The decline narrative was built by shifting the goalposts both in terms of definition and time-periods rather than robust statistical analysis. In fact, while some claimed consensus around the decline narrative – a robust statistical analysis reveals average weekly video output increased in both quantity and longevity of production between 2017 and 2019.

  • Neo-Colonialist tendency to devalue ideas in Arabic:

This section unpacks some of the methods widely accepted within orthodox Terrorism Studies to show how they devalue material in Arabic in favour of English language sources and Western-Centric interpretations. A progressive Terrorism studies would focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement (Arabic).

  • Decline narrative as strategic communication tool:

The so-called decline has been more than a narrative deployed in commentary; it has also been used as a strategic communication tool. This section highlights the need for genuine scientific methodologies, appropriate statistical analyses, and robust conflict of interest reporting to ensure the field can escape the current coagulation of mediocrity and rebuild confidence in the academic output.

  • Progressive commitment to robust statistical analysis; the end to Mc_Data:

Scientific methodologies and robust statistical approaches can lift orthodox Terrorism Studies out of the current malaise of mediocrity, and enable the field to embrace the opportunity available through evidence-based research and a stronger data culture.  

A progressive Terrorism studies, using robust data science and evidence-based analysis, is important because contrary to the dominant narratives of IS having collapsed or been in terminal decline, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) used the time on the open front in Iraq and Syria as an educational opportunity, to build a base of supporters running into the thousands. This is why al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”.

As such, the theology which groups such as al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote, will remain, will endure and, when given the opportunity of fertile soil, it will expand visibly when it suits their strategic cause.

Dawn is coming.

Media Mujahidin on Telegram: Overview of 2019

Many column inches of commentary have been dedicated in recent months to the purported shift from Telegram to other platforms. We have shown previously that despite efforts to ‘cull’ jihadi channels on Telegram, disruption did not have a meaningful impact on the core network. This core allowed jihadi groups to maintain a persistent presence. The greatest impact of that attempted disruption appears to have been the much tweeted about inconvenience caused to pundits and commentators who had only been able to access the peripheral Jihadi channels and Nashir News network that were deleted in the disruption effort.  

In this post we look at the content sharing network between January and May 2019. This produces a strategic overview of the network, to assess whether the network has been forced to evolve how they use the platform.

The analysis shows that at present the Jihadi network on Telegram is vast and remains functional. The URL sharing in core groups indicates core users are not currently preparing to make the jump to another platform. 

Overview:

  • The primarily Arabic Jihadi Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has produced over 1.7 million updates.
  • al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ, Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network which also draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
  • This network has shared over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between January and May 2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface web, despite punditry to the contrary.
  • By contrast there are very few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the surface web is for the Jihadi movement. 
  • The most frequently used domains do not offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram of mass link sharing to the accounts on the new platform is not currently being repeated.   
  • A model of the information flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem continues to exhibit a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and aggregators. 
  • Tech resources, such as apps, disposable phone numbers, encrypted email, and VPN are an important part of both the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem.  

Data

Using the curated feed of human verified jihadi channels and groups archived by BlackLight between January and May. This dataset contains 1.7 million updates of which 878,795 (approximately 50%) were forwarded from other channels and groups.

Analysis of these messages produced a network of over 85,000 connections (content sharing or cross posting). The network is made up of 9,000 accounts and groups. The connections between nodes show that groups of channels form specific clusters, each of which containing some common theme or allegiance to a Jihadi group. 

As discussed in previous posts there is a dispersed network with many accounts that have some importance to the network (rather than one or two very important accounts – which would make the network vulnerable to disruption).

As in previous analyses, ISIS, AQ, and Taliban channels all appear in the same interconnected network. This is often because:

  • they draw on similar other channels (those with a specific historical or theological focus for example) or
  • pro-Jihadi channels / groups who share the overarching theology and purpose, but do not have specific organizational allegiance, aggregate material from both al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya and AQ.   

The network structure and emergent communication architecture of the clusters indicates that they will likely remain resilient to the removal of even a large proportion of the channels and groups. Of the different clusters, those closest to the al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya have the most dispersed network architecture – providing the greatest resilience, while Taliban appear to have adopted the distributed structure to a lesser extent.

External Links.

This section examines over 1 million (1,048,575) URL identified in messages and captions. Within this million URL sample the research found 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains.

Calculating the number of times URL representing content on specific domains had been observed, Telegram links appeared most frequently in posts.  It is a common observation that the domain on which data is being collected is also the most frequently linked to domain in the dataset, as users often include the link for a channel or chat in their posts.  

Domains as proportion of total observations

Looking at the number of unique URL gives an alternative perspective. It shows that while Telegram links appear frequently, they are a relatively small number of URL appearing frequently. In contrast, there are relatively higher numbers of URL from other domains, each of which appear relatively infrequently. This is logical, as many URL outside Telegram host a specific piece of content, and hence it is shared when it is released and subsequently falls out of use.

Number of different URL per domain

Examining the URL from outside Telegram provides an overview of the other locations within the Jihadi information ecosystem. This shows the number of times domains were observed in posts.    

Similarly, analysing the domains by the number of different URL shared from that domain, shows how the information ecosystem combines branded content from jihadi groups, located on content stores and aggregators, with a wide range of other material including mainstream news sites.

From this we find:

  • Despite the claims Jihadi groups have not been driven off the surface web, sites such as archive.org, telegra.ph, and justpaste.it are frequently used as Jihadi content stores and aggregators.
  • None of the most observed domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period of adjustment, which occurred in the autumn of 2015 and Spring 2016, Jihadi twitter accounts regularly shared links to Telegram channels to allow sympathisers to maintain access to the Jihadi information ecosystem. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not currently being repeated.   

Flow across the Ecosystem.

In examining the flow of users across the ecosystem in 2019 we find there are two distinct clusters, one focused on tech and the other on Jihadi content and related news. This uses the same method as was discussed during the GRNTT conference at Brookings.  

The tech cluster on the lower portion of the graph fulfils an important role for the movement, as it provides access to services such as VPN, disposable / free phone numbers and a range of communication programmes distributed as .apk files (Andriod Package File).

Overview of network graph showing traffic across Jihadi Information Ecosystem

The content cluster features platforms from the three main roles in the Jihadist information ecosystem:

  • The signposts including Telegram and Facebook,
  • Content stores such as Archive.org, Google Drive, imgur, and Files.fm
  • Aggregators such as Justpaste.it and Telegra.ph
Annotated network image

Other findings of note;

  • Obedient Supporters and Nashir 1440 are content aggregators which provide content downloads on the surface web.
  • Tgho.st – is a file sharing system native to Telegram. Tgho.st operates by users sending the file to a Telegram Bot, the bot subsequently returns a URL where that file can be downloaded by anyone using the download link in a browser. The service advertises that “These files are not deleted and will always be available for download”.
  • Videopress – URL to Videopress were frequently extracted from videos posted on the earlier version of Jihadology, although without the full Jihadology page / URL. Such a finding illustrates the importance of focusing on the Jihadi primary language, Arabic, rather than drawing conclusions from fringe languages, particularly English. However, this is likely to fall out of use following the recent update to the site.  

Conclusion

  • The primarily Arabic Jihadi Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has produced over 1.7 million updates.
  • al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ, Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network which also draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
  • This network has shared over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between January and May 2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface web, despite punditry to the contrary.
  • By contrast there are very few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the surface web is for the Jihadi movement. 
  • None of the most observed domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not currently being repeated.   
  • A model of the information flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem highlights a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and aggregators. 
  • Tech resources, such as apps, disposable phone numbers and email, and VPN are an important part of both the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem. 

Documents in Caliphate Library

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

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

Overview of findings:

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

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

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

How Jihadist Groups exploit Western researchers to promote their theology

And why this exploitation allows Jihadists to maintain a persistent information ecosystem.

This is the second in a series of posts that uses data science to sort the anecdotal observation from evidence-based research. After the hype, what about the data? Part 2.

The recent reports of UK government pressure on Automattic and WordPress to remove content posted on Jihadology, has resulted in plenty of opinionated tweets and longer form commentary.

As the UK government has claimed that Jihadology could be used as a convenient platform by extremists, the first past of the post looks at;

  • Whether this is a theoretical possibility, or if there is evidence that Jihadology is used by jihadist groups, and if so, how and for what purpose do they use it?  

The second part of the post examines whether this is an isolated case;

  • is there evidence that individual pieces of Jihadist material which pundits and researchers post on social media and the surface web are subsequently exploited by Jihadist groups.  
  • Is there evidence that when the aggregated impact of individual tweets and surface web posts are analysed as a collective behaviour, rather than as isolated events, that this creates a resource which is exploited by Jihadist groups – resulting in pundits unwittingly becoming part of the Jihadist information ecosystem?

The evidence shows that Jihadology:

  • is used by jihadist groups as a convenient platform through which to share access to videos, and text documents.
  • is a source of media to feed JihadistContent Aggregators, allowing material to be shared within a Jihadist context while not being subject to removal.    
  • is recommended to fellow Jihadist sympathisers as a good place to find content, emphasizing the content on Jihadology does not get banned or removed.  

The data further shows:

  • More broadly, there is a network of researchers and commentators who are publishing Jihadist material on the surface web. The aggregated result of these individual actions is the unwitting creation of an online resource which has been exploited by Jihadist groups and has become part of the Jihadist information ecosystem.  

It is perhaps the greatest irony that Government sessions to discuss how to make it harder for Daesh to spread their message online, are often attended by researchers who frequently publish that same content on the surface web and social media.

Introduction

Jihadology describes itself as a ‘clearinghouse’ for jihadi primary source material, original analysis and translation services. As a result, it allows researchers who lack the expertise or experience to find content themselves to publish research.

For those with genuine access, Dawlah al-Islāmiyah, recently released an archive of over 5,200 Media Foundation and Wilayat produced video files (which included multiple language versions of some videos).

They have also followed the tradition of jihadist media groups of releasing numerous astuwanat [barrels / أسطوانات] of content. Each “barrel” contains a collection of material organised by theme, organisation, or specific media production. While previously astuwanat were made available via CD, DVD or ISO file, they are now more often released via torrent or direct download in Telegram – although the banner images promoting them often still contain an image of a disk. 

In combination with the ‘Archive’ channels on Telegram, policy professionals and researchers with requisite knowledge, language skills and experience, should be able to access Jihadist material without using Jihadology as a crutch with which they can limp through what should be basic research tasks for those doing more than an undergraduate research essay.   

Afterall, given their inability to master the simple task of finding content, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect those leaning on the Jihadology crutch to provide an authentic interpretation of what they find on the site.  Furthermore, basing analysis on what is found on the site, leaves the researcher studying what is posted on Jihadology (which is not exhaustive), rather than the range of material extremist groups actually produce.    

European Context

The current discussion of Jihadology and pressure on WordPress, occurs within the context of the UK government position that:


“It is reckless to publish terrorist propaganda online without safeguards to stop those vulnerable to radicalisation from seeing it”.

It should perhaps be needless to state that those who are vulnerable to the message of Jihadist groups must as some point become consumers of jihadist material or messages, if they are to be anything other than theoretically vulnerable.

For Jihadist groups da’wa is given via printed material, images, audio, video, speeches, conversations or communicated through specific behaviours. Through this range of delivery methods, individuals are provided with role models and theological guidance for actions, and in which they can use online platforms to gain unfiltered access to the universe of content that is of great importance to jihadist groups.

It is in this context that a report from the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) criticised social media companies for not acting fast enough to remove content. Furthermore, the FT reported that UK security officials argue Jihadology:

could be used as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda”. (emphasis added).

However, various European countries take different views on what to do about sharing content from groups they deem illegal or extreme. At the time of writing, in France Jihadology is unavailable.

Germany threatens fines for companies not reacting quickly enough to content posted, and the UK imposes prison time for those sharing this content. For example:

  • December 2018 – Abdulrahman Alcharbati (diagnosed as bipolar according to the BBC report) was jailed for seven years, for offences including posting ISIS videos on Facebook.
  • December 2016 – Abdul Hamid, who Judge Peter Rook QC accepted had ‘significant physical and mental health problems’ was sentenced to two years in prison for posting the video ‘No Respite’.

At this point, in the UK while two men with mental health problems have been sentenced to years in prison for posting ISIS videos, another man is lauded by academics for making the same videos freely available.

This raises important and complex issues as global communication networks exist alongside international borders, and the extent to which Jihadist groups and sympathisers use Jihadology as a platform to access content, and furthermore, the role Jihadology plays within the jihadist information ecosystem.

Reusing individual links

In the New Netwar, we observed that Jihadist groups and their supporters locate individual URL of videos posted on Jihadology and reuse those links within the context of their own channels and groups.

Jihadist Telegram channels re-purposing individual URL from Jihadology

A similar theme was picked up in recently in the Twitter discussion, following the story in the Financial Times, noting it is not just the videopress links (which have previously appeared on Jihadology) but references to the site itself. As @Charlie_KDN noted in a tweet;

Each week 100’s of @Jihadology_Net links are published on ISIS TG chans and groups to rebroadcast suspended content on other platforms.

@Charlie_KDN

For example, links to videos including ‘Honor is in Jihad’ and issues of al-Naba that have been posted on Jihadology are shared on pro-ISIS Telegram channels (as are links to a site run by Pieter van Ostaeyen).


Jihadist Telegram channels re-purposing individual URL from Jihadology

Once the videos are neatly archived by Jihadology – the links are then shared as collections. For example, on a single day in October 70 unique Videopress URL were observed being shared a total of 1,125 times via core Telegram channels.


Jihadist Telegram channels re-purposing individual URL from Jihadology

A potential additional advantage to sharing the Videopress links is that it opens a video player in a web browser, providing a seamless experience for the viewer and ensuring the content is shared in a pro-Jihadist context rather than with a research focus.  

Feeding Content Aggregators

In addition to using individual links to content, Jihadist supporters use Jihadology to feed material to their content aggregators. For example, a PasteThis.at link shared in a pro-ISIS Telegram channel, provided a single page from which users could access over 100 issues of al-Naba.


PasteThis.at page re-purposing individual URL for al-Naba up to issue #147 posted on Jihadology

The actual files from which this PasteThis.at page link to were stored on azelin.files.wordpress.com. Using this method Jihadist groups and supporters can provide access to content from within the context of their own discussions, Telegram groups, and theological worldview.

In addition, when Jihadist supporters build individual websites to aggregate content, they have been observed using Jihadology as a source of content. In this example the aggregator was built using Cloud9 which operates as part of Amazon AWS.

The al-Ajnad and al-Furqan options both direct uses to the pages on Jihadology for those entities. Those links have been clicked over 350 and 240 times respectively.

Content aggregator directs users to Jihadology

This cloud9 based aggregator also contained a section in which users could select videos by clicking on the banner advertising their chosen video. Many of the links made available in this section were to videopress files, the link for which had previously been shared on Jihadology. 

Clickable banners using videopress URL many originally posted on Jihadology

As in the previous example, Jihadology is used to provide a stable source for much of the content. However, the way the site is built a user may be unaware of the actual file location – allowing the aggregator to promote a Jihadist worldview

Why Jihadists use Jihadology:

In addition, to re-using individual links or feeding content aggregators, pro-jihadist or pro-IS Telegram users have been observed posting recommending Jihadology as a source of material. Much of these comments follow a similar theme.

In this example, the Arabic reads.

“and I prefer links to the site jihadology which is specialized in studying jihadists as it states, therefore it neither gets deleted nor any content it hosts gets banned

Within core IS channels links to the main IS category on jihadology are shared, leading to videos, video series, or the weekly editions of the al-Naba’ magazine:

كامل اعداد صحيفه النبأ من واحد إلى 110 ماعليك الا بالنقر على الرقم وتتحمل. برابط غير قابل للحذف لن يفتح الرابط الا بعد تشغيل ألفي بي ان vpn

#نشر

The text reads:

“All editions of the al-Naba’ magazine, from edition 1 to 110, just change the number in the link and download it. This link will not be deleted and do not open this link without employing a VPN.”

Another message advised:

هنا في هذه الروابط صفحات #لكامل_إصدارات_الدوله_الاسلاميه_من_ولاية_حلب_بروابط_غير_قابله_للحذف

“this site gives you all the links of the releases from wilaya Halab of the Islamic State, the link does not get deleted.”

Conveniently, for the author of this message in a core IS channel, viewers can quickly get the current videos by IS from the province of Aleppo.

It is important to the author of the Telegram message, that while content may be removed elsewhere it is kept in a safe and orderly manner on sites like Jihadology. This allows IS to project their content in an orderly manner, allowing placement of – in this case – geographic located collections to the benefit of ISIS.

This evidence demonstrates it is not that users theoretically “could’ use Jihadology as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda” … Jihadists supporters and sympathisers do use it to access individual URL, feed their content aggregators, and recommend it to their peers because the content is not removed. Unfortunately, the recommendation that users adopt VPN to access Jihadology may blunt the efficacy of traffic analysis, a problem which may also be compounded by the many commentators and policy professionals who have recently claimed to be regular users.  

This means that while tech and social media companies are pressured, and threatened with fines, the content is still findable and IS supporters and sympathisers know it. As a result, ISIS (and other Jihadist groups) do not have to struggle to maintain a persistent presence for their content online, in addition to using Telegram, they can release the content and then allow sites like Jihadology to archive it for them.

The defence of Jihadology:

In defence of Jihadology, there have been many commentators saying a version of:

“the site is a vital research portal that provides a valuable service for academics, policymakers and journalists researching Islamist extremism”.

There have been numerous researchers who have recently been tweeting that they regularly use Jihadology – effectively announcing they rely on Jihadology as a crutch for their inability to locate or access Jihadist content. Penetrating Jihadist networks (beyond the entry level Nashir type channels) relies on being able to recognise the theologically encoded references and follow the content. As such, one wonders if in future those publicly stating they use Jihadology regularly may reflect on why they consider themselves qualified to conduct the complex task of analysing content when they can’t complete the simple task of locating that content by themselves. The inability to find content, and thereby having to rely on what is posted on Jihadology, may perhaps explain why Arabic language jihadist materials are so rarely referenced or cited in research.

As locating content is a significant part of research production, and given the number of people currently claiming they use Jihadology to find content, it appears Aaron Zelin deservers credit on many more research papers than he is currently recognised as making a significant contribution.

One wonders why commentators on Twitter talk of the valuable contribute made by Aaron and Jihadology, only to reduce that contribution to a reference to jihadology.net in a URL buried in a footnote when that same author publishes their research?

Others steer away from the ‘value’ of the contribution, and instead take the view that the “Content by itself does jack shit”. This follows the rationale that;

“How the message is received and incorporated into a broader worldview and acted upon is one aspect of what we, perhaps too vaguely, call the “process of radicalization”.

This particular researcher visits Jihadology several times a week – one assumes to view content disconnected from “the process of radicalisation” and thereby to study it doing “jack shit” if he follows his own logic, but who knows.

The description of what is broadly an ideational model of behaviour change highlights wider factors in the process. Nobody lives in a vacuum, but ideational models still require an idea to fulfil a fundamental role in this type of behaviour change process.  As demonstrated above, links are not shared in a vacuum. Jihadist supporters have become adept at accessing the content posted on Jihadology and sharing it via Telegram channels and through Content Aggregators which project and reinforce their theologically driven worldview. It is in this context that potentially vulnerable people may access Jihadist media production. It is naïve to imagine the content posted on Jihadology can only be accessed by visiting Jihadology.net and searching the site for content.   

While Jihadology was never intended to be a platform for jihadist groups, the data shows Jihadology has become a repository for video and written material exploited regularly by ISIS / Jihadist supporters and sympathisers. The links to specific videos or collections of material are shared within the context of aggregators or Jihadist Telegram channels, where the meaning of the content is discussed and Jihadology is recommended as a source that can be relied upon as it is not be deleted.  

Just Jihadology?

The data show users in Arabic language Telegram channels recommend Jihadology to their peers as a location for them to view or download content. However, is Jihadology an isolated case or is it unfair for European governments to pick on Jihadology and Aaron Zelin specifically? Is this an example of a wider research sub-culture which actively publishes Jihadist content across social media and the surface web?   

Wider Research Sub-culture

Rumiyah

To test whether there is evidence that Jihadology is an isolated case, we turn to the releases of the multilingual magazine Rumiyah using the #Rumiyah hashtag. If Jihadology is an isolated case, we would expect the initial release of each edition of the magazine, to be met with a surge of tweets about it on Twitter from ISIS accounts and supporters. The example below shows that the surge of tweets occurred.

Spikes in traffic around releases

Closer analysis of the data reveals that there are relatively few original tweets, but many retweets. This tends to indicate that there is less emphasis on conversation / interpretation and instead a greater focus on spreading information.

If these spikes were driven by ISIS supporters tweeting until their accounts are suspended one would expect to see many accounts being active for one release and a separate network active for the next release. One would not expect there to be a network infrastructure to span numerous releases. The way this would happen is if accounts were able share news of the release, without being suspended.  

To examine nature of the network of retweets (which make up a large proportion of the overall tweets), we used Social Network Analysis (SNA) of the retweets. SNA shows the structure of the network through which news of the magazine release flows. In the case of Rumiyah releases, SNA shows that there was a network of accounts which spans numerous releases.

While Twitter suspends many pro-ISIS accounts, this prominent cluster is able to maintain a persistent presence. A closer examination of this persistent cluster shows it is populated by Academics, Commentators, Reporters and organisations selling monitoring services.

Network of accounts tweeting / retweeted about Rumiyah

However, are these accounts coincidentally engaged in discussion of the meaning of ‘Rome’ and ‘Romans’ within Jihadist theology, lacking deeper Arabic connectivity, or is this announcing the release of the magazine and / or sharing content from it?

  • Note: the coincidental appearance is not as ludicrous as it first sounds. One of the ‘Lend me your ears’ series of videos featuring John Cantlie was released on the same day as an entirely disconnected toga party. Both just happened to use the hashtag #lendmeyourears at the same time. And both ISIS and toga partiers were surprised by the juxtaposition of content.      

In reality a review of the tweets shows that this is not coincidental. The network of academics is publishing announcements about the release of the magazine, including the banners ISIS created to promote the release, and sections of the magazine, such as text and graphics.

Tweets featuring Rumiyah announcement or content

The sharing of content likely provides greater reach for the content than ISIS could have achieved alone. Reaching as many people as possible was after all one of the main purposes of producing and releasing the magazine, and media material more broadly.

The release of Rumiyah issues was not the only times academics and commentators have probably provided greater reach and longevity for Jihadist content than ISIS could have achieved alone. Looking back over data from recent years, across a range of video announcements, audio releases, and claims of attacks a pattern emerges.

Speeches:

al-Zawahiri – April 2017

In April 2017, al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri released a new speech. After an initial tweet by Elizabeth Kendall, covering the key points from the speech @marypgkeating responded posting a link to the speech on YouTube with ‘English subtitles’, while others join in retweeting.

Tweets sharing al-Zawahiri speech details

al-Baghdadi

In November 2016, al-Furqan released a speech by al-Baghdadi. The release was greeted by: “Wow – it’s Baghdadi” from Mr Winter, followed by the name of the audio so others could find it and comments on the contents of the speech.

Could this type of tweeting be used to find content? To test this and mimic a ‘naïve searcher’ trying to find content, a search on Google.co.uk in May 2017 (six months later) used the title of the speech as tweeted.

In the results,

  • an English translation posted by al-Naba on archive.org,
  • a swath of other related ISIS documents including an English translation of a speech by the Abu Muhammad al-Adnani; Official spokesman for the Islamic State and
  • an ISIS video from the province of Ṭarabulus which had a similar name. That link lead to the video posted on Jihadology.net.  

The test shows that this information could lead uninitiated users to access ISIS content. In addition, the data highlights that individual unwitting actions rapidly combine to provide easy access to a range of genuine ISIS content. 

Battle footage and executions

Mosul

In addition to speeches, there were numerous ISIS videos of the fighting in Mosul. For example, the image from this video release from Ninewe province, would have allowed those able to read Arabic or Latin characters to search for the title of the video.

Tweet announcing video release

The ‘naïve searcher’ test was conducted in May 2017, using google.co.uk with the English title. This returned both the first and second parts of this series. At the time, ten of the top fifteen results provided a link to the video.

The same test in December 2018 still returned the video via Jihadology.net. This despite the same researcher (who now receives funding from Facebook) giving a bullish claim about the difficulty of finding IS content on social media and surface web.

He recently claimed;

“It isn’t just a case of googling “IS propaganda” and seeing what comes up (any more). This stuff isn’t readily available on the surface web like it used to be. If you’re not on Telegram or in a forum, the options are increasingly limited.”

Beyond the parochialism and evident Western habitus which leads a researcher to imagine the go-to search terms used by Jihadist supporters would include the word ‘Propaganda’, he is also apparently oblivious to the evidence that is available to anyone who bothered to do even the simplest research.

Just putting the content of one of his own tweets into a search engine delivers … IS propaganda. His assurances sound bold, but like many others that circulate within the field, it could not be considered “research-based in any rigorous sense” to use Alex Schmid’s phrase. That is “a very polite, typically academic way of putting it”, Nafeez Ahmed would likely suggest another.

Just like the previous insistence on media ‘decline’, fully fledged collapse, content production correlated to territory, and the ‘naïve notion’ of Utopia, claims about the findability of content have joined the list of claims which have turned out to be, as Rüdiger Lohlker recently highlighted, “an empty fog of words without inner content”. Quoting German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, the section quoted by Rüdiger Lohlker continues:

This sort of chatter, though lacking the idea of philosophy, gains for itself a kind of authority through its very prolixity and arrogance. Partly this is because it seems almost incredible that such a big shell should be without a kernel…

G. W. F. Hegel

While those at institutions with links to Facebook insist content is hard to find, the actions of ‘experts’ who publish Jihadist content enable even uninitiated individuals to locate the content about the fighting in Iraq and Syria (and elsewhere). In this particular case, the publishing of announcements, pictures, statements and other ISIS material was not an isolated to a couple of examples. The Twitter timeline documented here shows the extent to which publishing of ISIS content made widely available. 

Attacks

Responsibility and da’wa

One of the ways in which terrorist groups, of almost all types, have sought to extend their influence, is through claiming responsibility for attacks. Announcing attacks and recognising those responsible for them is important for ISIS and the Jihadist movement. As Abu Mus’ab al-Suri wrote in his Call for a Global Islamic Resistance;

The issue of individual jihad was a great da’wah success. It had great influence on awakening the spirit of jihad and resistance within the ummah, and it transformed unknown individuals such as al Diqamsa, Salman Khatir, Sayyid Nusayr and Ramzi Yusuf into becoming symbols of a nation. The crowds cheer their names, people’s thirst for revenge is satisfied, and a generation of youth dedicated to the Resistance follow their example

Similarly, Anwar al-Awlaki explained (while discussing the seventh meaning of victory);

Prevail here means the prevailing of their da’wah and not always their battles. They could loose (sic) the battle but their da’wah will achieve victory and be available. Nobody can stop their da’wah. The idea is that it will keep this group strong from generation to generation.

Seventh Meaning of Victory, Yusuf al ‘Uyayree Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad (Constants on the Path of Jihad) Lecture series delivered by Imam Anwar al Awlaki (Quoted as transcribed)

For jihadist groups, statements claiming an attack or detailing a battle are not simple information updates, they are part of da’wa; spreading their theology by retelling the actions of the believers. Afterall, as Abdullah Azzam argued, “Jihad is da’wah with a force”.  

Following the 2017 attack on the Manchester Arena ISIS issued statements in Arabic and English. A review of data from the time shows a range of researchers, including those based in the UK, either tweeted or retweeted the actual announcement, with collectively 100 retweets of just the four versions identified below.

Tweets sharing announcements of the attack in Manchester

A snapshot from Twitter on the day following the attack at the Manchester Arena, finds the OSCE held the World Counter Terrorism Conference in Vienna. The conference included discussion of how to make it harder for terrorist groups to spread their message, while some of those at the event were also publishing ISIS content on social media.

One of the attendees tweeted;

  • about the OSCE event,
  • the OSCE response to the attack in Manchester,
  • republished the ISIS claim of the attack,
  • before returning to the content of the OSCE event. 

The tweeting of announcements was not a single ephemeral event, claims of responsibility were also shared for the attack on the Champs Elysees.

This has also continued in 2019, the current Director of ICSR published ISIS claims of responsibility for the bombing which killed US personnel in Manbij, Syria  

Claims by Islamic State published on Twitter

The tweeting of this material from Rumiyah to speeches, videos and announcements, has the potential to increase the reach of Jihadist messages. In addition, as shown with the reuse of links to content on Jihadology, Jihadist supporters can also reuse that URL for their own purposes. In the example below from January 2019, an account with a username referencing ISIS responds to a story of Troop withdrawal by posting a link to a section of an ISIS video.

ISIS video with 35k views

Among the numerous notable elements:

  • this specific clip from an ISIS video has 35,600 views on Twitter, despite claims by researchers this material is difficult to find (for them).
  • the original video clip was not posted by an ISIS, or Jihadist, account. It was an OSINT focused account, which a supporter subsequently used. This is one of the ways in which Jihadist groups exploit content sharing by commentators and pundits.

What this indicates is an increasingly sophisticated approach in which a user can create a seemingly pro-ISIS account, find a version of an ISIS video posted by an OSINT commentator and subsequently exploit the reticence of Twitter to remove such content from non-jihadist accounts by reposting the URL to the tweet containing the video.       

An approach fit for a 21st Century Sisyphus, Yes Minister or Monty Python

Tech companies are understandably reticent to remove content published by researchers. Yet while European governments pressure social media companies to remove content, and try to create upload filters and image hash databases etc. European governments are also giving things of value (salaries, grants, travel, and hotels) to researchers who publish this same material on social media.

As a result, while CTIRU, EUROPOL, Twitter and social media companies more broadly were making efforts to reduce circulation of ISIS content on social media – academics and for-profit organisations publish and republish jihadist content on the same social media platforms, and to an audience beyond that which ISIS could achieve alone.

It is perhaps the greatest irony that Government sessions to discuss how to make it harder for Daesh to spread their message online, are attended by researchers who frequently publish that same content on the surface web and social media. 

It is an approach fit for Yes Minister, Monty Python or a 21st Century Sisyphus.     

Why this matters to Jihadist groups:

First the evidence above shows that jihadist groups recognise the opportunity to give da’wa by aggregating links to content posted by pundits and researchers. Second, when Western organisations and pundits immediately repost jihadist content, this is then re-posted in pro-ISIS Telegram channels and used to galvanize the mujahid vanguard.

Third, part of their theological understanding of da’wa is to spread their message as widely as possible. This goal of broad dissemination is considered successful if others hear the message of their theology.  This has been covered in numerous documents written by a range of leaders of the jihadist movement. These documents have emphasized that spreading their theology as widely as possible is an important component of jihadist activity.

For example, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi recorded in his Constants on The Path of Jihad,

  • Jihad will continue until the Day of Judgment (or as referenced in numerous ISIS videos, ‘Until the final hour’), which also connects it to Sahih Muslim / Book 41 / Hadith 6924
  • Jihad is not dependent on a particular land, but Jihad must be part of your life,  
  • Seventh meaning of victory: victory of your idea (Anwar al-Awlaki’s translation is quoted above)

Viewed collectively, in the context they are used by Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, these points recognised that there will always be people to reach, both those to fight and those to give da’wa. Therefore, spreading the message is a constant for the Jihadist movement. 

The importance of this task was also covered by ibn Nuhaas, who highlighted the The Virtues of Encouraging Jihad. He quotes Surah al Nisa 84,

“So fight, [O Muhammad], in the cause of Allah; you are not held responsible except for yourself. And encourage the believers [to join you] that perhaps Allah will restrain the might of those who disbelieve. And Allah is greater in might and stronger in punishment.”

Surah al Nisa 84

The phrase “you are not held responsible except for yourself” is interpreted by Jihadists within the context of da’wa to mean that they will be individually judged on whether the individual sought to spread the word, not on whether those who heard that message subsequently responded. Therefore, their interpretation of the duty is to find ways to spread their theology. The purpose of the da’wa effort was also noted by Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his General Guidelines for Jihad, (as-Sahab media) there were two elements to the communication or media work.

First: Educating and cultivating the Mujahid vanguard, which shoulders, and will continue to shoulder, with the permission of Allah, the responsibility of confronting the Crusaders and their proxies, until the Caliphate is established.

Second: Creating awareness within the masses, inciting them, and exerting efforts to mobilize them so that they revolt against their rulers and join the side of Islam and those working for its cause

In more specific guidance he wrote:

Focus on spreading awareness amongst the general public so as to mobilize it. Similarly, focus on spreading a greater level of awareness and understanding amongst the Mujahid vanguard to create an organized, united, ideological, and aware Jihadi force that strongly believes in the Islamic faith, adheres to its rulings, shows humbleness to the believers and deals with the disbelievers with firmness. At the same time, full effort should be put in immediately to ensure that people with scholarly and propagational abilities come forth from within the ranks of the Mujahideen so that our message & belief set may be preserved and the call to Jihad may be spread amongst Muslims.

Researchers publishing the announcements are, in the eyes of jihadist groups who produced the original statements, spreading the da’wa which these acts were intended to give. 

In the jihadists mindset, these researchers are tools for their divine mission. The reposting of links to Jihadology clearly indicates the Jihadist mindset on the issue – these are not two separate worlds but one interconnected ecosystem, however unwitting some of the participants are within it.

Why Pick on Aaron?

The data on content releases, from magazines to speeches, to videos and announcement of attacks, shows that Jihadology is not alone in publishing Jihadist content.

The data analysis shows a research sub-culture has developed in which posting jihadist content on social media is an acceptable norm; Aaron Zelin is just one part of a much wider network of researchers publishing ISIS and jihadist content on social media and surface web.

Given the extent to which publishing jihadist content on social media and the surface web has become a norm for pundits who make up this research sub-culture, it seems both unfair and entirely ineffective for European governments to target Jihadology and Aaron Zelin as if he and his website are an aberration distinct from the research sub-culture of which he is part.

To what extent can European governments threaten social media companies with fines (or individuals with prison time), when those same governments work with, give things of value to, or employ the researchers and commentators who post that same content on the same social media platforms?

Ethical approaches and leadership.

The kneejerk censorship vs. academic freedom arguments move nothing forward. It merely provides more time for Jihadist groups to distribute their material by exploiting the current way . 

Researchers who publish ISIS theologically driven content (and almost invariably without real analysis) often claim to offer these materials to a wider audience for the ‘greater good’. The evidence shows, they are complacently enabling the jihadist movement to remain a coherent online presence – a situation inevitably to the advantage of the movement.

Years ago, when I had the privilege of working on a project with researchers at CEOP, their professionalism, integrity and approach eclipsed that which currently passes as the norm in what might loosely be termed Terrorism Studies.

They had a robust approach to mental health. Upon finding new material or images of child exploitation they did not franticly tweet them. Upon hearing of an attack, they did not reach for their phone to alert journalists to their availability for interview. Finding indecent images of children on a new platform, they did not begin pitching the story of the ‘next big thing’ to whoever would take it. When serious events caused the issue to make the headlines, they did not use it as a reason rush to the TV studios and tweet about being on TV.

These researchers did not spend any time on how many Twitter followers they had, and they certainly didn’t tweet about how many followers they had. From my limited experience of working with researchers from CEOP, they avoided behaviours that could make the situation worse, that could make the content more widely available, or could exacerbate the suffering of victims. From the evidence above, the study of terrorism is generations behind their example.

After the hype, what about the data? Part 1: the Telegram ‘Cull’

After the hype about the removal of ISIS Telegram channels, this post examines the data on the information ecosystem to sort the anecdotal observation from evidence-based research.

Central to the authentic understanding of the Jihadist movement is the ability to locate and understand the content. Unfortunately there is tendency among some researchers to give prominence to and draw conclusions from the limited content they can locate. This is a problem we have highlighted previously including in the New Netwar and in earlier posts:

Content, especially Arabic language content, is fundamental to the movement, yet the lingual & theological expertise to understand it is almost constantly neglected and lacking in research. This blind spot allows the jihadist movement to reorganize and recuperate out of view of contemporary research and commentary.

Notes on the ecosystem

The difference between the content commentators hype and tweet about because they can find it, and the content that is important to the Jihadist movement, is one of the fundamental and often poorly understood distinctions in contemporary academic study of the Jihadist movement. 

Two recent events, the recent purge of Nashir channels on Telegram and the UK government putting pressure on Jihadology, have, individually and collectively, highlighted how important it is for researchers to have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the movement to be able to locate content themselves. Research should get beyond the easy to find Nashir network, which are there to give entry level access to the movement. 

The inability to penetrate beyond a few entry level daily news channels, leads to challenges compounded by the lack of serious data analysis on the extent to which material produced by ISIS, AQ and other Jihadist groups, is actually available online.

In just the last few weeks there have been conflicting accounts.In one a researcher with funding from Facebook claimed that “This stuff isn’t readily available on the surface web like it used to be. If you’re not on Telegram or in a forum, the options are increasingly limited.” While Peter Neumann defended Jihadology by saying  “the online nature of this makes it ubiquitous”. 

Something being ubiquitous tends to be mutually exclusive with not being readily available. What these comments and other commentary has laid bare is how often commentary is based on opinion and anecdotal observation, at best, rather than evidence-based research.

In the following pair of two posts we look at the data behind these two events.

  • This first post examines theextent to which the removal of fringe Nashir channels on Telegram impacted the information ecosystem.
  • The second uses data analysis to test the recent UK government suggestion that Jihadology could be used as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, to answer the question whether Jihadology is used to access content by groups such as ISIS and examine whether some researchers and commentators play an unwitting role in the jihadist information ecosystem.

Part 1: The Telegram Cull.

BBC Monitoring reported that what they term the ‘Telegram cull’ followed attempts by ISIS to “beef up its presence on the platform”. Focusing on Nashir, BBC Monitoring continued …

jihadist group operates a network of multiple channels and groups on Telegram under the “Nashir News Agency” brand.


https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c200h0s4

The focus on Nashir channels was repeated by others, Pieter VanOstaeyen noted; “Remarkably large take down of ISIS Telegram channels and groups tonight”and in a later Tweet “Of around 60 Nāshir News accounts I was following 4 remained active”.

Shiraz Maher, had similar problems, “It was a rough morning for me. Major take downs of the channels/groups I was in”.  These and similar observations fueled the impression that the jihadist network was under significant pressure. “Not only ISIS accounts, everything that even remotely reeks of Jihad is getting hit” tweeted Pieter Van Ostaeyen.  He later joked “There was a major disruption in the Dark Side of The Force, but they’re back again”

Jihadist Ecosystem – 10 December 2018  

To ascertain the actual impact, a review of 410 human verified Jihadist groups and channels on Telegram, using the same methodology as the previous post, was conducted. It showed that the information ecosystem has remained resilient. The data from the 410 channels and groups shows that many survived the purported cull.

Followers

The followers / members of the groups remain at an average of over two thousand with the largest garnering over 70,000 followers. There are over 200 channels with more than 400 followers. However, it is currently unclear if these are different individuals in the groups – as discussed in an earlier post


Mean 2,870: Median 452: Maximum 71,807

Longevity

The time elapsed since the creation of the channel / group also provides clear evidence that the information ecosystem has remained uninterrupted. The average length of time a channel has been operating is greater than one year (Mean 380.1 and median 380.6 days). 

The average length of time a channel has been operating is greater than one year

The longevity of channels shows that recent chatter about losing access to channels has had an impact only on those with limited access to Jihadist channels, and who struggle to locate the content. For the wide range of jihadist sympathisers who can read and understand the meaning of the content, access has continued largely unabated.

Views

Access to content shown by views on individual posts shows that users are accessing the content. Even an overly cautious estimate where all duplicate view counts are removed to avoid double counting, produces a conservative 135,256,000 total views. 

The Network

Decoding the Swarm logic of the Media Mujahidin is in part based on understanding the network structure.

Analysing the last 500 posts from each of the channels / groups and extracting the data of posts forwarded from other channels / groups /users, produces the network graph.

The graph has 3410 nodes in total, 2831 (83%) of which are part of an interconnected giant component. 

The network perspective confirms what the longevity and availability of accounts had suggested, that the information ecosystem has remained intact.

This is a repeat of much of the analysis on Twitter where an inability to find content was misconstrued as evidence the content did not exist.

Unfortunately, as we demonstrated in the New Netwar, at the same time that researchers were reporting they could find very little content on Twitter, the platform was used to drive a large portion of traffic to Jihadist content. Similarly, today commentary based on the narrow soda straw of Nashir and similar channels is to miss a wide range of the content, communication and meaning which occurs on Telegram.

Information Ecosystem on Telegram

Despite the chatter about a ‘wave’ of channels and groups becoming inaccessible and commentators losing access to large numbers of Nashir channels the network is still there and remains accessible to those who know how to access it. From the user perspective, the removals would barely rank as an inconvenience.  

The findings of this post repeats the findings of the previous analysis of Telegram Channels. Those findings were:

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

Major IS cluster

A closer look at the major IS cluster shows 27 statistical interconnected clusters. Each of these clusters has a particular thematic focal point, including a range of specifc theological elements. Within this major cluster there is a further ‘core’ group of channels, as well as channels relating to a range of Wilayat.

Even within just this major IS cluster there is significant range of material which provides a deeper view of the movement than may be realised if one begins from a perspective that nashir are a core part of the ecosystem. The idea of ‘core nashir’ is an oxymoron. Losing access to nashir would barely register if one genuinely has access to the breadth of content at the core which, needless to say, is mainly in Arabic.  

Soda Straws

Adopting a soda straw mentality, where a small part of the information ecosystem – in this case the Nashir network – is talked up and given an overblown sense of prominence in the jihadist information ecosystem, inhibits the authentic understanding of ISIS and Jihadist activity online.

The soda straw mentality comes in numerous forms the study of jihadist groups and terrorism more broadly. Some are based on the very limited access to content. The recent commotion and Twitter chatter about a wave of Nashir deletions highlights many of those caught up with this particular issue as genuine access would deter anyone from thinking the nashir represent anything other than a small fraction of the activity.

Other soda straws appear from the way individuals handle data or cherry pick time periods which create impression of decline, strong correlations to territory and ‘full-fledged collapse’. Nafeez Ahmed’s The Astonishingly Crap Science of ‘Counter-Extremism’ should be required reading.   

Conclusion

This post replicates the earlier finding that the Nashir network is part of the ISIS Telegram network, and a very small part of the overall information ecosystem. As a result, much of the contemporary commentary suggesting Telegram (and largely Nashir channels) is the place to get content, is based on anecdotal observations derived from gazing down a narrow soda straw at an often fringe group of accounts. There is a largely unobserved network of accounts which meant those with genuine access barely noticed the removal of Nashir channels.

If commentary is based on a level of access to Jihadist content where removal of the Nashir channels is noteworthy, for example for the authors of this report,one has to view claims that the research authentically reflects the breadth of ISIS activity with a degree of skepticism.

Central to the authentic understanding of the Jihadist movement is the ability to locate and understand the content. Otherwise the study of Jihadist groups becomes dislocated from the meaning and purpose of the movement and produces interpretations of the movement using misplaced notions of crime,rap, and the ‘naïve notion’ of Utopia. In contrast, Jihadist groups have produced tens of thousands of documents, outlining their understanding and intended application of theology. For example, Anwar al-Awlaki described;   

People like Shaykh Abdullah Azzam and Shaykh Yusuf al ‘Uyayree.They wrote amazing books, and after they died it was as if Allah made theirsoul enter their words to make it alive; it gives their words a new life.

Rasoolullah (sallallahu ‘alayhe wassallam) said the at-Taifah will prevail. Prevail here means the prevailing of their da’wah and not always their battles. They could loose the battle but their da’wah will achieve victory and be available. Nobody can stop their da’wah. The idea is that it will keep this group strong from generation to generation.


Seventh Meaning of Victory, Yusuf al ‘Uyayree Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad (Constants on the Path of Jihad) Lecture series delivered by Imam Anwar al Awlaki (Quoted as transcribed)

Put simply, whether it is a battle or a channel on Telegram, for Jihadists part of the victory they seek stems from ensuring their actions give da’wah. It is the encoded theological aspects such as this, rather than speculation about crime and utopia, that allows users to move beyond the Nashir based fringes. Being able to identify theological elements which allow individuals to access a greater breadth of Arabic content should be a basic requirement for anything above a degree level researcher.


ISIS: Sunset on the ‘decline narrative’

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

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

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

image1

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

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

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

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

 

So, how did we know?

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

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

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

 

How did we do it?

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

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

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

These clandestine networks are protected by:

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

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

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

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

image2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all content is created equal.

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

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

image3

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

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

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

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

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

 

Authenticity

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

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

image4

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

Metrification:

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

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

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

Specifically, the tendency toward:

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

 

Unprecedented and exceptional

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

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

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

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

 

Descriptive over-generalisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

image5

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

 

Risks of being an uncritical mouthpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

As Rüdiger Lohlker wrote in September 2016,

“without deconstructing the theology of violence inherent in jihadi communications and practice, these religious ideas will continue to inspire others to act, long after any given organized force, such as the Islamic State, may be destroyed on the ground;”[x]

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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