Archive for the ‘Data Science’ category

ISIS: Sunset on the ‘decline narrative’

June 1, 2018

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

How well established is the Jihadist movement on Telegram?

March 15, 2018

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 decliners get data so wrong

November 23, 2017

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

November 10, 2017

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)