How well established is the Jihadist movement on Telegram?

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

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

Nashir / News

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

 

Channel_Network_2a

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

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

Wider Telegram Network

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

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

ISIS_NPTG_network2a

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

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

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

nashir stats sample

A subordinating silence

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

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

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

naba 117 stats with banner.jpg

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

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

Amaq view number sample

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

As Caron E. Gentry wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nashir execution stats 14032018

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

 

Notes:

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

 

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

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

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

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

This post shows:

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

War by the numbers

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

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

P1

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

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

6th grade math class – A holiday anecdote

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

p2

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

His reasoning was persuasive, he said;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The root of the problem, as Reuven Paz noted in 2007,

Jihadi militancy is … almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world.[iv]

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

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

And because habitus allowed Bourdieu;

to analyze the social agent as a physical, embodied actor, subject to developmental, cognitive and emotive constraints and affected by the very real physical and institutional configurations of the field.[vii]

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

p3

Why decliners ignore 2016

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

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

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

Perhaps not immediately clear to the reader;

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

Problem 1:

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

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

p4

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

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

Problem 2:

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

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

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

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

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

p5

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

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

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

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

p6

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

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

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

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

What about 2014?

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

Recent commentary has suggested:

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

However, a different picture emerges once the flaw in decliner logic and fluctuations in content have been exposed by genuine data science. This different picture is one which has long been evident to anyone embedded in an Arabic context and “crystal clear to virtually anyone who has the linguistic capacity to grasp and the opportunity to witness what jihadists are actually saying, writing and doing, both online and offline”.[xiv]

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

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

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

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

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

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

A supplemental thought experiment:

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

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

p7

p8

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

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

p9

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

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

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

Morale is not something you can buy with money, and victory is not measured in square kilometres rather it is measured by the overall outcome, including the outcome in the hereafter, and not short-term achievements.

It is true that we lost ground, but with every day that passes the reality of the battle is becoming apparent to the Muslims worldwide, that this is a global campaign against Islam and the Muslims, it is a campaign against the Sharia and the very basic fundamentals of Islam.

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

I guess it is clear from the overall situation that we have already won the battle on the field of morale and ideas, winning it on the ground is just a matter of time, by the grace of Allah.

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

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

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

 

Notes

[i] See for example;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xv] From an IR perspective see:

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

For a jihadist perspective see:

Anwar al-Awlaki, State of the Ummah.

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

How decliners get data so wrong

Western habitus and Jihadist media:

media_battle_on_fire

The understanding of the jihadist movement is a research task which requires collaboration between data analysis and subject matter expertise, a formulation Jeffery Stanton described in his book Introduction to Data Science.

Daulati_Baqiyah

Previous posts have focused on the role of subject matter expertise, and how the study of the Jihadist movement has tried to understand it in terms of street criminals, gangsters, individuals obsessed with computer games (particularly first person shooters), and a desire to go from zero-to-hero. These interpretations originate from the attempt to view the subject matter – Jihadist media – through a Western and predominantly English language lens. In this lens, not even Latinized Arabic key words from the rich blend of Arabic dominated theological motifs are reflected upon sufficiently. This traps the interpretation within specific perceptive dispositions that Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus.[i] These interpretations frequently lack any attempt to address the theological aspects of the movement, even the simple references in the titles of media products go unnoticed. This, as a consequence, leaves the analysis dislocated from the repeated referencing of the concepts, which link together to construct chains that anchor contemporary media to the foundations created by scholars stretching back through the history of Jihadist writing, (and furthermore, the redundant yet coherent use of historical writings used by jihadists to enhance and enrich their posture).

For example, most discussion and interpretation of the series Salil al-Sawarim (SAS), located in a Western habitus, focused on the Hollywood style or slick production values – just as understanding of the movement often revolves around ideas of ‘brand’ and ‘marketing’. However, as noted in the previous post SAS:

 

is particularly illustrative of this emphasis on theology. Readers sufficiently initiated into the mainly Arabic language corpus of Sunni extremist theology will understand the title’s particular reference right away;[1] it refers to the book al-Sarim al-maslul ‘ala shatim al-rasul, “the Sharp Sword on whoever Insults the Prophet.” Its author is 13th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD),

Equally consider the sound effect used to underscore references to Ibn Taymiyya’s writings in numerous AQ and IS videos. It is no coincidence that it is a high pitched metallic sound effect which recreates a sword being drawn from its scabbard.

Interpreting the movement with references to a street crime, zero-to-hero, and gangsta lifestyle, creates an impression recruits are being lured to join ISIS with the promise of Big Screen TVs, blunts, 40s and bitches… (to quote ‘Steve Berman’).[ii] These interpretations lack any attempt to address the theological aspects of the movement, nor encoded cultural understandings, and the meaning evident to those from (or sufficiently initiated into) an alternative habitus.

William Rowlandson argues, definitions are “really a debate about who owns the words”.[iii] Framing the interpretation of Jihadist media within a Western habitus focuses interpretation firmly within the comfort zone of English speaking commentators who often have little familiarity with the theological and historical reference points used by the movement, nor a nuanced understanding of the concepts expressed by Jihadists in Arabic. To maintain their ownership over such interpretations, it has become increasingly important for some commentators to downplay the role of theology.

Instead, bolstered by a focus on defecting European Foreign Fighters, these commentators attempt to wrest the analytical locus of the jihadist movement away from the complex, and unfamiliar Arabic core – preferring instead to locate understanding within a Western habitus. This approach fences off alternative world views and further seeks to extend Western hegemonic ownership over meaning – developed since 9/11 became a moment of universal temporal rupture.

Western policymakers reviewing recent media statements, commentary and research will have found a confused range of interpretations for the Resilience and Appeal of “Islamic State” media content. This confusion is as often due to an imbalance between the level of subject matter and data analysis expertise. For example, the data analysis of ISIS networks on VK, deployed a robust data analysis approach for the online phase of the research, but from the outset struggled with the subject matter. The authors appeared surprised to find women prominent in the digital outreach efforts.

However, as Saudi former Usama bin Laden bodyguard and first-generation leader of AQAP Yusuf al-‘Uyayri wrote in ‘The Role of the Women in Fighting the Enemies’:

the woman is an important element in the struggle today, and she must participate in it with all of her capacity and with all of her passion. And her participation does not mean the conclusion of the struggle – no. Rather, her participation is counted as a pillar from amongst the pillars that cause victory and the continuation of the path.[iv]

The document highlights women as fighters and participants in battle (mujahidah being the female form of mujahid):

[T]o show the importance of your role in this clash today between the religions of Kufr and the Religion of Islam, and especially in the new crusade that the world is waging against Islam and the Muslims under the leadership of America, then we must remind you of an aspect of your role, reflected in the image of the Mujahidah of the Islamic Golden Age.

While acknowledging limitations on the involvement in battle – outside of specific circumstances – the document states

… we want you to follow the women of the Salaf (female companions of the prophet) in their incitement (inspire) to fight and their preparation for it and their patience on this path and their longing to participate in it with everything in return for the victory of Islam.

Far from being unlikely to be involved in online activities, this emphasis on incitement, preparation, and participation should highlight the expected role women may play within the online struggle – including on VK.

Familiarity with these texts is not just a niche historical interest. AQAP theologians such as Yusuf al-‘Uyairi and their many writings have long mattered to IS (not just in the time since they caught the attention of commentators as they swept into Syria). Many of the Arabic language productions by IS have strong lingual and theological ties to content produced by the original incarnation of AQAP, yet IS was the first group to have the room, territory and thus resource to apply the otherwise theoretical theology that was brought into organized existence by key leaders and theologians such as al-‘Uyairi. His study circles, strategic writings, sober analysis of U.S. intervention into Iraq etc. are reflected in the structure and output of contemporary IS media releases and notions. Furthermore, a eulogy of al-‘Uyairi (died 2003) by his brother in arms al-‘Awshan (who was also killed shortly after) was downloaded nearly 3,000 times in just one core IS-Telegram channel.

Data Science:

Familiarity with subject matter is one aspect of data science, the other is the familiarity with data handling and statistical techniques. One of the most common elements of commentary (and confusion) is the question of how much ISIS content is being produced, and what it looks like – sadly fewer column inches are allotted to the strategic purpose this content serves.

Since mid-September the stream of commentary, reports, and presentation claiming to show some element of the online presence or Virtual Caliphate has gathered pace. However, as methods vary wildly, and statements are often ad hoc responses what an individual personally saw on Twitter, rather than explanations of research that carries predictive value, politicians can be forgiven their moments of confusion.

Take these statements – both in November from Charlie Winter, one of the proponents of the flawed concept of a Virtual caliphate:

“The caliphate will continue to exist no matter what happens on the ground,”[v]

And

“My latest on the state of #IS’s virtual caliphate. Bottom line up front: It’s not doing too well these days”.[vi]

September:

Back in late September he told a Wired security event about the ‘Virtual Caliphate’:

“There’s a lot of propaganda coming out on a daily basis,” … “Hundreds and hundreds of unique media products, videos, magazines, radio bulletins, in lots of different languages coming out every single day.”[vii]

Tech World reported from the event:

ISIS and its central media office, Winter claims, is “really effective” at keeping up that flow of information – and the propaganda side is something that the group strongly tries to maintain. “I think some of them are addicted to this propaganda, it’s something the group really tries to cultivate, the interdependence between the brand and supporters,” he says.

October:

In October the claim changed, now ISIS had only produced a total of 300 items for the month of September. This claim included a graphic which purported to show “#IS’s media machine is contracting. A large proportion of the propaganda apparatus is now almost totally dormant”.[viii]

It later transpired that to produce the impression that sections of the ISIS media apparatus were “totally dormant” any foundation or province thought to have produced 4 or fewer pieces of content was excluded.

Despite the grainy resolution of the accompanying graphic it was possible to see that the approach had significant methodological problems. The viewer could make out which provinces were considered ‘dormant’. These included al-Furat, Somalia, Khurasan, Bayda’, Anbar, & West Africa. The problem was simple:  all these actually produced more than four pieces of content in September.

Publishing the image provided conclusive proof that from a data science perspective, the research is not analysing ISIS production, but recording the declining ability of a particular individual to locate ISIS content.

Furthermore, the impact of the methodological limitations means that from a data science perspective the graphs showing ‘content type’ actually record the type of content which this individual is able to find – not an assessment of the type of content ISIS is actually producing. A subtle difference, but one which makes all the difference in data science.

Equally problematic, this analysis equates the publication of a single photo with that of an hour-long video and a 16-page newspaper. As a result, the organisation that published the 46 minute speech by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at the end of September 2017 is recorded as dormant because it only produced the first recording of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be released in the last 10 months.

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

November:

In November, the claims of drastic decline continue; “Nowadays, IS propagandists can barely get out 20 pieces of media in a week”.[ix] As in October, from a data science perspective the claim is based on the declining ability of a specific individual to find content, not actual IS production.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality continues to widen.

November has witness the continued weekly production of the 16-page newspaper al-Naba’ with associated infographics (now 106 issues in total) and numerous photo reports, at least 39 at time of writing (22nd November), collectively containing 215 unique images from 11 different provinces, including al-Furat, Khurasan, al-Khayr, Diyala, and the Khalid ibn al-Walid army. In addition, al-Bayyan has continued to be broadcast, providing a range of radio programmes and daily updates (available to stream, and download in MP3, text and pdf versions in a range of languages).

November also saw the launch of a new 16 page magazine al-Anfal along with videos from provinces including al-Baraka which produced two videos & one each from Damascus, Salah al-Din, al-Janub, and Diyala, bringing the total to six without the inclusion of non-Wilayat video production. This volume of production is a far cry from claims “ISIS is struggling to produce 20 items a week”.

In fact, not only does the current content for November eclipse the ‘struggling 20 a week’ mark, on current pace the images alone will exceed the claim of 300 pieces for September. A situation which echoes the 2016 CTC report on ISIS visual production. That report also claimed significant decline in ISIS production. However, subsequent analysis showed ISIS weekly production actually exceeded the CTC estimate of monthly production. (New Netwar p. 38) This was because CTC, just like these more recent claims of decline, were based on tracking the declining ability of the researchers to find content, not the ability of ISIS to produce it.

Given the ongoing level of production, it is hard to see how a data science approach could produce a credible analysis which shows a shift from; “There’s a lot of propaganda coming out on a daily basis” in late September to; “struggling to produce 20 a week” by early November. But this type of confusion is not unusual; the lack of collaboration between data analysis and subject matter expertise regularly results in research which fails to produce a coherent understanding of the information ecosystem. As is often the case these studies bear little resemblance to the observable reality for those able to access and understand the content produced by the jihadist movement.

For example, a Home Office funded VOX-Pol study concluded ‘the IS Twitter community is now almost non-existent’. Yet at the time of the study 40% of known traffic to ISIS content was coming from Twitter. In addition, a presentation during the recent VOX-Pol conference at ICSR contained research showing there were “90 tweets planning terrorist attacks are tweeted per minute”.[x] That conference also produced the rather cryptic statement that “The deep web should be inhospitable, but not too inhospitable”.[xi]

The need to understand how ISIS networks of influence operate at a strategic level is now evident to almost all – and it requires data science based on the collaboration between data analysts and subject matter experts to achieve it. Understanding the information ecosystem is about more than peering down soda straws at handpicked examples; it is about the way different parts of the ecosystem co-exist and intersect; it is about the way the humans behind the screens interact and fundamentally about the content they share. This includes the documents which outline the strategy and tactics which the Jihadist movement currently intends to use.

The Jihadist movement distributes their strategy in their own words, these words should not be obscured by disciplinary siloes, a failure to collaborate, nor an attempt to force the understanding of the movement into a Western, predominantly English language, habitus.

 

Notes:

[i] The influence of habitus within Critical Terrorism Studies, particularly with reference to 9/11 as a point of temporal rupture is discussed by Harmonie Toros. While this focuses largely on temporal elements the approach is equally applicable here.:

Harmonie Toros, “9/11 is alive and well” or how critical terrorism studies has sustained the 9/11 narrative, Critical Studies on Terrorism Vol. 10 , Iss. 2, 2017

[ii] Track 6, The Marshall Mathers LP

This deliberately crass reference to Dr Dre is used to emphasise the gulf between the imagery of western gangsta rap and what Jihadist media actually contains.

[iii] Rowlandson, W. 2015. Imaginal Landscapes: Reflections on the Mystical Visions of Jorge Luis Borges and Emanuel Swedenborg. London: Swedenborg Society.

Quoted in Harmonie Toros, “9/11 is alive and well” or how critical terrorism studies has sustained the 9/11 narrative, Critical Studies on Terrorism Vol. 10 , Iss. 2, 2017

[iv] Yusuf Bin Salih Al-‘Uyayri, The Role Of The Women In Fighting The Enemies, (Translated version) At-Tibyan Publications

[v] https://www.thedailybeast.com/winning-the-battle-losing-the-message-inside-americas-utter-failure-to-counter-isis-propaganda

[vi] https://twitter.com/charliewinter/status/928586607271268352

[vii] https://www.techworld.com/security/how-isis-runs-its-central-media-operation-3664672/

[viii] https://twitter.com/charliewinter/status/920651518172332032

[ix] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41845285

[x] https://twitter.com/VOX_Pol/status/919914070907736065

[xi] https://twitter.com/VOX_Pol/status/919952628632707074

Online Jihad: Data Science

Online Jihad has been monitoring online communities since the 2007 release of Asrar al-Mujahidin, intended to facilitate secure communication with Islamic State Iraq amongst other jihadist groups. Over the intervening period the volume of content and platforms used to disseminate content has expanded rapidly. Marking this, Online Jihad will have a new series of posts focusing on Data Science approaches to tracking the Jihadist movement.

Digital_war

The ability of al-Qa’ida (AQ), and subsequently ISIS, to propagate their theology and demonstrate their particular methodology via modern communication technology has proven to be one of the most resilient elements and greatest area of innovation. Supporters even share (and mock) content intended to be part of the ‘counternarrative’ effort. For example, the tweet (below) from @DOTArabic was shared by a range of Jihadist Telegram channels.  The tweet shares the link to an article about  ‘Terrorist rehab‘ (  المركز السوريّ لمحاربة الفكر المتطرّف ) opening in Northern Aleppo.

DOT_AR

The sharing of this type of content demonstrates an awareness of the influence operations against ISIS, which is also demonstrated by the Ansar al-Khilafah Publication – The Media War Upon The Islamic State: The Media Techniques of Misleading the Masses that lists different techniques which have been observed being used against ISIS. The techniques are grouped into Media Deviation, Propaganda and Psychological Warfare. These are the ‘three foundations’ through which “to make people stand with them or to turn away from al-Mujahedeen”.

The study of western tactics is particularly clear in two of the techniques identified in the Media War document.

‘Doubt Upon The Strength Of al-Mujahedeen’

The Media War Upon The Islamic State claims:

They will use words such as “so-called” or “alleged” or “apparently”. For example, they will say the “so-called fighters” or “so-called leader al-Adnani” and so forth, as if to give the impression that they do not really exist or that they are insignificant. They imply that there is something suspicious or false about the sources of al-Mujahedeen or any news of their successes or strengths.

‘Media Blackout’

Attempting to control the information available about the struggle with AQ and ISIS has been a common tactic across many theaters including the battle with the insurgency in Iraq and the current fighting against ISIS.

The Media War Upon The Islamic State claims:

“Sometimes [the Western coalition] do not want to admit casualties, and that is why you find many cases of several operations by al-Mujahedeen and news of this coming out of the battlefield or even their videos and evidence of it, yet you do not find any news about it in the mainstream media, as if it never happened.”

Reducing the level of AQ and ISIS content by removing content and suspending accounts has been a focal point of western policy, highlighted by many politicians and the heads of security services including GCHQ.

The Media War Upon The Islamic State, highlights “The mass twitter suspension is the perfect example” of the attempt to Blackout ISIS media. In addition, the ‘Global Coalition’ through official accounts such as the UK Against Daesh twitter account has taken a second angle, attempting to dissuade users and journalists from reporting or sharing Amaq content.

FCO_daesh

The AQ and ISIS strategists have long studied western tactics and understood how they would be leveraged against their movement. This contrasts with the confused interpretations for the Resilience and Appeal of “Islamic State” Electronic Propaganda often presented to western policymakers. Given the level of innovation, policy makers in the West are struggling to find a way to cope with the massive quantity and often times high quality productions issued by groups such IS who continue to draw in new recruits from western societies each month.

ansar 1000 tweets are 1000 arrows

Understanding how the internet is used to distribute content and build the networks of influence, which underpin the most resilient elements of the Jihadist movement, is vital. Unfortunately, while there has been no let-up in the quantity of analysis being published about ISIS media activities, there have been limitations in the quality of that analysis which has undermined the understanding of the Jihadist movement.

photo_2017-10-16_18-56-26

Online Jihad: Data Science

Lacking a nuanced understanding of the movement, both “counter-narratives” and takedowns have become trapped in a tactical paradigm. Once derided as a ‘straw man argument’, the need to understand how ISIS networks of influence operate at a strategic level is now evident to almost all; unfortunately in the meantime the tactical understanding of the movement has meant the U.S. and its Western allies have been drawn into open warfare online, on a battlefield chosen by their jihadist adversaries. As predicted in 2014, it is jihadist groups who have thrived in the chaos that resulted.

In 2017, highlighted in an earlier blog post:

… with the partial loss of territory and the de-population of Sunni urban centers in Syria and Iraq as a consequence, IS has withdrawn to the countryside, to continue the fight – and to maintain and upkeep their greatest weapon: media work as a means of long-term influence and resistance.

The study of the Jihadist movement has tried to understand it in terms of street criminals, gangsters, individuals obsessed with computer games (particularly first person shooters), and a desire to go from zero-to-hero. As shown in an earlier post;

these interpretations often lack any attempt to address the theological aspects of the movement … and prominence of scholars within the Jihadist movement’s overall interpretation of theological concepts, including an Islamic State model of governance.

Interpreting the work of the media mujahidin as marketing or in terms of their ‘brand’, fails to comprehend the role of their work within the movement – just as focusing on infographics and thinking in 140 characters leads to misunderstanding of the breadth and purpose of da’wah. Similarly using Hollywood as a frame of reference, rather than deep-rooted research on Islamic theology; and narrowly defined ‘official’ images rather than the true breadth of Arabic sources may sound good for 15 seconds, but it frequently underestimates the scale of content production and lacks the depth required to understand the purpose or strategy of the movement.

Focusing on social media, images, infographics and videos as ways of branding the jihadist movement, confuses the purpose of Jihad and da’wah;

“Jihad is Da’wah with a force, and is obligatory to perform with all available capabilities, until there remains only Muslims or people who submit to Islam.”[i]

Future posts in the Data Science stream on Online Jihad will focus on two themes,

  1. Applying Data Science methodology to monitor and understand Jihadist online communities,
  2. Highlighting where many of the current approaches to analysis of the jihadist movement lack nuance, use inappropriate methodology and at times fail to produce an authentic understanding of movement nor its strategy.

 

[i] Hashiyat ash-Shouruni and Ibn al-Qasim in Tahfa al-Mahtaj ‘ala al-Minhaj 9/213

Quoted by Abdullah Azzam, Defence of the Muslim Lands, (English translation work done jihadist media)