Session 1 of the Progressive Terrorism Studies Webinar Series. “The Persistent Online Presence: The Shift in Platform Exploitation Over Time”
How the Salafi-Jihadi movement has been able to exploit the internet to distribute their message has been a key concern of those seeking to challenge these narratives. The first webinar in the Progressive Terrorism Studies Webinar series provided a data-driven update on how the Arabic speaking core of the Salafi-Jihadi information ecosystem has continued to evolve. This is not a new phenomenon – nor restricted to the pop cultural and pseudo-scientific hype regarding al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya – rather, jihadists have been exploiting all means possible on the Internet for decades.
This research comprises over 6.4 million Telegram updates collected in near real-time since June 2017. These updates were collected from channels and groups confirmed to be part of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, stemming from Jihadist exploitation of the internet for over a decade, but focused here on their operation on Telegram. From within this vast archive of material a collection of 4 million instances of URL sharing were recorded for analysis.
The session emphasised the importance of robust design and data collection in the study of Salafi-Jihadi groups.
The subject of study needs to be identified by someone able to:
recognise the theological references and imagery,
join online groups by passing the vetting conducted by the Salafi-Jihadi movement in Arabic. If a researcher cannot respond to Q&A in Arabic, it is a sure sign they cannot enter the core of the movement.
Similarly, for analysis which examines change over time the data collection needs to occur in near real-time, as downloading weeks, months, or years after the event does not provide a credible dataset for analysis. This is because the attempted disruption from outside, internal purging of some groups, and the activity of bots, all combine to undermine confidence in time-series analysis of Telegram data collected using a retrospective approach.
The large-scale analysis provides a strategic level overview of the way the Salafi-Jihadi movement has operated since Telegram became its primary platform for communicating with supporters and acting as a core platform for their media output – in combination with other platforms since Europol’s claim of they had removed IS from the internet in November 2019. By examining the URL they share, the analysis shows the breadth of the Salafi-Jihadi presence across platforms and provides an overview into whether there are detectable patterns in their use of different online services.
A reduced version of the domain tool used in the time-series analysis shows the engagement profile of various domains in the study.
The tool can be viewed here and more detail on the analysis can be found on github.
The analysis showed:
Some platforms experience persistent engagement profiles, while others experience sudden spikes in use, or short-term exploitation.
Correlations between the use of different platforms could be used to develop a rapid alert system to locate material.
Co-citation style network analysis can be used to detect clusters of platforms which are used collectively. This would allow clusters of platforms which are being exploited in a similar way to be supported or work collectively.
The session built on 2019 the publication by Emily Winterbotham, Dr Ali Fisher and Dr Nico Prucha. This is the largest ever study of traffic between the online platforms that comprise the Jihadi information ecosystem. This study included 24 months of data from the core of the Salafi-Jihadi Telegram network and revealed the inner workings of their multiplatform communication paradigm. The paper demonstrated the different roles that platforms play within the multiplatform information ecosystem, including Telegram, Tamtam, and Matrix.
Over the years there have been many Western-centric interpretations of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’, the AQ single narrative, claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are ‘defeated’.
The shift to using social media made the material the Salafi-Jihadi movement produce easier to locate which created an opportunity for greater numbers of researchers to comment on these groups. Some of this commentary, often from within orthodox Terrorism Studies, has based the analysis on what they understand from the writing, images, nashid and video they came across – in effect they are asking; what does this mean to me?
It is only in a western-centric context or an environment, which tends towards neo-colonialist approaches, that ‘Utopia’ might seem a reasonable interpretation. Look back – how many articles claiming to have identified material about a jihadi ‘utopia’ quote any Salafi-Jihadi text talking about utopia?
When you take a moment to examine references to Utopia in Salafi-Jihadi texts, a stark reality becomes clear – there are more articles by researchers claiming to have found evidence of a ‘jihadi Utopia’ or a ‘Utopian narrative’, than there are genuine references to Utopia in Salafi-Jihadi literature.
This is because the focus on concepts such as ‘Utopia’ and Western interpretation of victory and defeat are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens or habitus.
In the current context, the message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump, echoed by supporters and reinforced by researchers pushing their new book in that policy environment. It is possible to produce a definition to back expedient claims of ‘defeat’, as authors of the ISIS Reader have attempted to do. This type of commentary may provide easy and comfortable material for policymakers to read. However producing material that is comforting for policymakers is not the purpose of progressive research.
The purpose of research is to develop a deeper understand the object of study.
Claims of ‘Utopia’ and ‘defeat’ fail to reflect reality on the ground, do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes, and as such do not act as useful predictor of the future behaviour of Jihadi groups.
Far from defeated, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.
Instead of contorting definitions to fit a Western-centric notion of defeat, a more progressive approach would focus on analysing what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and what the groups themselves intend to communicate. This means being able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.
As detailed discussion of the meaning of Jihad has already filled many volumes, this post focuses on a single specific issue. A progressive approach leads to a different understanding of what victory and defeat mean for Salafi-Jihadi groups. This post shows how an evidence-based interpretation differs from the more common interpretation produced by neo-colonialist elements of orthodox Terrorism Studies.
The major distinction between a progressive and the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies can be encapsulated by the difference in interpretation of victory and defeat. In light of the continued fighting and estimates of fighters – consider which would be the more accurate predictor of continued violence:
The definition of defeat proposed by some within orthodox Terrorism Studies – that losing territory is defeat – based on Western military theory.
The Salafi-Jihadi understanding of defeat based on the perspective expressed in theologically inspired material produced by the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the demonstrable willingness to continue to fight.
A progressive perspective
A progressive approach proposes the second option and bases the interpretation of contemporary Salafi-Jihadi writing based on the thought expressed in the previous writing, audio and video. This approach is typified by the ability to quote from earlier texts, trace the development of the Salafi-Jihadi ideas, and identify the references to historic writing and Koranic verses which are incorporated into contemporary books, newspapers, magazines and videos. The progressive approach focuses on evidence-based interpretations because these theological concepts anchor contemporary jihadist media to its historical foundations.
Understanding those theological chains of thought and how they are interpreted by the core of the Salafi-Jihadi movement provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. As a result, research design based on the constants of Salafi-Jihadi theology is a fundamental element in the process of developing an evidence-based approach and strong data culture within a progressive Terrorism Studies.
Media Jihad, like other approaches to Jihad, continues to the final hour – as a result, the missionary work of al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) has and will continue despite the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For Salafi Jihadi groups, religion is about constants which are valid for human believers throughout time (since the revelation). Da’wa, missionary work, part of which has been undertaken electronically for the last past two decades, is part of these constants that make up the Jihadi framework of reference.
Salafi-Jihadi definition of defeat
Salafi-Jihadi groups have continued to fight uninhibited by the pronouncements of their defeat. This makes understanding the meaning of events in a Salafi-Jihadi worldview a vital part of research. Salafi-Jihadi worldview is entirely different from the Western-centric interpretations which are abound in orthodox Terrorism Studies.
The progressive approach to analysing Salafi-Jihadi groups uses an evidence-based methodology – this means being able to quote from the archive of Salafi-Jihadi writing to demonstrate the constants which are present in historical and contemporary material as these in combination with the context in which a group finds itself are the best predictors of future behaviour.
Salafi-Jihadi groups interpret events based on their current context and the constants contained in their theological worldview. They take seriously the command encompassed in the recent IS magazine ‘And Prepare Against Them’ – as has been repeatedly shown by Salafi-Jihadi groups over decades. Salafi-Jihadi groups have operated online and offline communicating to those willing to receive their message a mixture of pedagogical content (theology in the framing of “why we fight”) and military/terrorist operational art (“how we fight”).
As a result, when open fighting is not possible, Jihadi groups prepare for their next opportunity, the fertile soil.
..one of the most important fundaments for training in our jihadi Resistance Call is to spread the culture of preparation and training, its programs and methods, with all their aspects, by all methods of distribution, especially the Internet, the distribution of electronic discs, direct correspondence, recordings and every other method.
For example, context plays an important role in determining the meaning of the word da’wa. Da’wa mostly means propagating or calling to Islam, in reference of missionary work, an important pillar for all major religions. However, depending on context, it can also have a much more broad meaning, akin to general calls to act on behalf of Islam, or, as in the case of the title of as-Suri’s famous book ‘Global Islamic Resistance Call’, the word translated here as ‘call’ is Da’wa.
Applying this understanding to the nature of Salafi-Jihadi groups, it is apparent that the Jihadi movement have a dissimilar understanding of their purpose to those with a neo-colonialist agenda within the Terrorism Studies orthodoxy. For Salafi-Jihadi groups from AQ to Taliban to IS – ‘territorial loss’ is not defeat.
This can be shown through a range of writings from previous Salafi-Jihadi authors. For example, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi listed a range of meanings of defeat in Constants on the Pathof Jihad, they were, in short;
Following the way of the kuffar
Accepting their Supremacy
Inclination towards the kuffar
To lose hope *Some Jihadi translations into English write “loose hope” – the text makes it clear it is to abandon hope e.g. ‘giving up on the victory of God’ so ‘lose’ is used here.
Giving up the banner of Jihad
Giving up hope on military victory
Fear of the enemy
For the Jihadist movement, the timeline for victory extends to a spiritual dimension beyond death. In addition to the meanings of defeat, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi noted 11 meanings of victory in his book, Constants on the Path of Jihad, of which only one meaning is what a post-Westphalian state would refer to as victory on the battlefield. As such, the interrelated concepts of victory and defeat, for al-‘Uyairi, are not limited to the temporal or physical constraints of victory/defeat which dominate the mindset of post-Westphalian states and orthodox Terrorism Studies.
Similar understandings of victory and defeat can be found throughout the writing of the Salafi-Jihadi movement. This is an important reference point for evidence based research, as a key aspect of any struggle is how victory occurs within the minds of an adversary, and when an adversary is likely to believe it has been defeated – or in other words, what is success in an adversarial struggle?
As Anwar al-Awlaki explained in the 44 Ways to Support Jihad;
Victory here doesn’t necessarily mean against their enemies in this world. It means that they would succeed in preserving the religion and fighting for it until they die and meet Allah. It means they will never give up, compromise, or falter in carrying on the banner of Islam.[i]To illustrate the importance of this meaning of victory / defeat, Anwar al-Awlaki recalled, in 2009, the story of the “people of the ditch” (Companions of the Ditch). This is a theological element that appears consistently within the Salafi-Jihadi literature[ii];
These were a nation who became Muslim and the king wanted to force them to apostate and they refused. So he dug for them trenches and he filled these trenches with wood and he set fire to them and he would throw them one after the other in the fire until they would burn to death. They didn’t win, they were all killed till the last man. Men, women and children were all burnt alive and they did not win. It was the king who won against them. But what does Allah say about it in Quran? After he mentioned the story Allah (Azza wa Jal) says: “That is the great victory”. Why is it called victory? Because they were steadfast till the last moment, they didn’t give up. If they gave up, they would have lost.[iii]The “Companions of the Ditch” illustrates a specific concept of victory / defeat, which would be familiar to readers of other texts produced by the Jihadist movement. We can show both purpose and success consistently extend beyond the physical world from earlier iterations of the movement to the more recent material from al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
For example, in The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, Abu Mus’ab as-Suri quoted Sura at-Tawbah: 111.
Verily, Allah has purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the Paradise. They fight in Allah’s cause, so they kill and are killed. A promise binding on Him in truth in the Taurat [Tora] and the Injeel [Bible] and the Qur’an. And who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah. Then rejoice in the bargain which you have concluded. And that is the great victory.[iv]
Defeat and al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya
In addition to familiar figures from the past such as al-‘Uyairi, al-Awlaki, and as-Suri, the interrelated concepts of victory and defeat are equally clear in the media produced by al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya. For example, a nasheed released by al-Hayyat Media Center, about the battle for the Philippine city of Marawi begins:
Diamonds and pearls and palaces are waiting the men of tawhid, virgins and wine, never ending time in gardens with rivers beneath. Holding firm to the rope of Allah are the brothers in Marawi. Engraved in their heart is the love for their lord and for him they continue to bleed.[v]
Those ‘brothers’ who remain steadfast, by ‘holding firm to the rope of Allah’ will receive the reward for victory in paradise. This continuing element in the meaning of victory within contemporary Jihadist content was exemplified by another example from the province of Kirkuk (ولاية كركوك). In this video entitled The People who are Steadfast (اهل الثبات) an ISIS fighter speaking directly to the camera references both Marawi and Mosul as demonstrations of the Jihadist interpretation of victory.
I guess it is clear from the overall situation that we have already won the battle on the field of morale and ideas, winning it on the ground is just a matter of time, by the grace of Allah.[vi]He goes on to explain this perspective in a way which is important to the understanding of victory within the Jihadist movement. First, he highlights the importance of hardship in attaining victory by linking their actions to the experience of prophet Muhammad;
For a Muslim, trials and tribulations carry great gifts from Allah within them, we’ve been living under siege in Wilayah Kirkuk, although it seems like a hardship for a moment, however it is a divine honour from Allah to simulate those who were the first carriers of this message. We are under an embargo similar to the embargo that the prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) along with his followers went through in Mecca. We are under siege just like the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his companions were under siege during the battle of the trench.[vii]Accordingly, hardship has a role as part of attaining victory:
This is the nature of this path, this is how it has always been for anyone who carries this message throughout history. It is the path of trials and tribulations which purifies our ranks and prepares us for the upcoming victory … and ultimately grants us the highest ranks in Jannah.[viii]
This echoes many earlier writings for example, in the section entitled ‘The Fourth Path – Patience and Steadfastness’ in Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir’s Paths to Victory, the following verses are used to highlight the struggle on the ribat:
‘O you who have believed, persevere, outlast [your enemy] in patience, perform ribat, and fear Allah that you may succeed’” (Reported by Malik from Zayd Ibn Aslam).[ix]“We will surely test you with something of fear, hunger, poverty, death, and lack of food – and give glad tidings to those who are patient” (Al-Baqarah 155). At-Tabari said, “Allah tells the followers of His Messenger that He will test them and try them with hardships in order to distinguish those who will continue to follow the Messenger from those who will turn back on their heels” (At-Tafsir).[x]
Where the Coalition information operations and commentators have emphasised the killing of many fighters and demolition of formerly IS held cities as defeat for the Jihadist forces, Jihadists interpret these events differently. Addressing ‘the crusader coalition lead by the pharaoh of today’ (America) the ISIS fighter from Kirkuk continues;
When will you understand that you are fighting people who view the rockets and bullets or whatever weapons you use against them as keys to the highest ranks of paradise. We chose this path to either live as (honoured) Muslims, worshiping Allah as he commanded us, or even better to meet our lord; there is no third option.[xi]
Although commentators mistakenly claim ISIS does not mention losses[xii], here the video directly references losses but is clear that this is not how victory is measured.
victory is not measured in square kilometres rather it is measured by the overall outcome, including the outcome in the hereafter, and not short-term achievements. It is true that we lost ground, but with every day that passes the reality of the battle is becoming apparent to the Muslims worldwide, that this is a global campaign against Islam and the Muslims, it is a campaign against the Sharia and the very basic fundamentals of Islam.[xiii]
While within orthodox Terrorism Studies ‘territorial loss is defeat’ passes as an acceptable interpretation, for the individuals involved, victory / defeat is not about the area of land held. It is in following what they believe to be the true path of Allah measured through entrance into paradise.
Equally through their actions, demonstrating steadfastness they act as role models to others.[xiv] The final section of the video also shows the value which IS (and the Jihadist movement) place on the physical destruction caused by Coalition and other anti-ISIS operations. This is used to create a connection between contemporary events and historic events. In doing so they demonstrate their steadfastness (as they believe others have before them) in continuing to fight until the city around them is reduced to rubble.
The recent statement by the ‘Spokesman of the Islamic State’ Abu Hamza al-Qurashi continued this theme.
They found no way to battle the Islamic State except by pouring their hatred in the form of molten lava over the Muslims in Iraq and Sham. Thus they destroyed their cites, killed and maimed thousands, until the epics of Ramadi, Mosul, Sirte, and al-Baghuz took place. After which they declared their victory over the Islamic State, without celebrating their alleged victory for too long. As they know with certainty their claims of eliminating it are belied just as they were from before. How [could they claim victory] and its soldiers remain in various lands, with some of them maintaining empowerment within, by the bounty of Allah, while the affliction upon the kafirin and apostates has not ceased for an hour?
This complex combination of interpretations is not an attempt to build a brand around violence or presenting themselves as victims. It is giving da’wa. In following this approach, recent statements mirror the interpretations of ‘defeat’ laid out by previous generations of writers within the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Abu Hamza al-Qurashi’s statement highlighted the history of premature claims of victory from the West;
Thus we say to the protectors of the Cross, America, and her allies from the Arab and non-Arab rulers: Verily, you experienced the war of the Islamic State when fighting was centered in Iraq, in the alleys of Fallujah, Ramadi, the north and south of Baghdad, Diyala, Salahuddin, and Mosul. You repeatedly alleged and announced eliminating it. You become surprised after every announcement the expansion of operations of its soldiers, by the bounty of Allah.
In later sections of the statement he claimed, (after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi);
many kafirin, murtaddin, and munafiqin thought it the actual end of the Islamic State, while the transgressing Crusaders declared that it is not so based on their long experience in dealing with the Islamic State. They were assured that the word “baqiyyah” was not a mere slogan the muwahhidin used to provoke their disbelieving enemies. But rather, it is an expression based on a firm methodology among the soldiers of the Khilafah that prompts them to preserve what their preceding brothers left behind, completing what they started, and recovering what they lost.
Therefore, O tawaghit of America, O worshipers of the Cross, occupy yourselves with something two dogs who ruled America before you, Bush and Obama, also claimed and declared they had defeated the Islamic State a number of previous times. Or do you have no shame? You all have been declaring and claiming for 15 years the elimination of the muwahhidin…
… If in your estimation you believe you have concluded a battle and the mujahidin have retreated, then know that the matter, all of it, is in hands of Allah, the Mighty. Far removed is it that He would grant victory to you over His believing slaves. However, He tests His slaves to distinguish the truthful from the liar in jihad for Him. This is the tradition of Allah, the Mighty, in relation to His creation. Allah said: “And certainly, We shall test you with something of fear, hunger, and loss of wealth, lives, and fruits, but give glad tidings to the patient” (Al-Baqarah: 155)
In contrast to researchers focused on short-term trends and repeating pronouncements of defeat, the Jihadi movement maintains the assessment of success over a long timeline, which extends into the afterlife. Contemporary difficulties are frequently interpreted as tests of faith. For example,
And He said: “And We will, verily, try you till We know who from among you are patient mujahidin; and We will test your pronouncements” (Muhammad: 31).
Endure and be patient; guard your posts, and fear Allah, so that you may be successful. Know (may Allah keep you steadfast) that what you are facing is nothing but the tradition of Allah concerning His believing slaves, just as it is His tradition concerning the Prophets and Messengers. Allah said: “Or do you think you will enter Paradise without such (trials) that came to those who passed away before you? They were afflicted with severe poverty and ailments and were so shaken that even the Messenger and those who believed along with him said: ‘When is the help of Allah?’ Verily, indeed, the help of Allah is near” (Al-Baqarah: 214).
The reward for remaining steadfast in faith is entry into paradise (and emphatically not the physical world utopia of Western imagination).
Strive in your endeavors and seek Paradise, as we have only come out for the two best outcomes: a martyrdom pleasing to the Lofty Lord or a great conquest that gathers the Muslims and guides the astray.
“Then for him who transgressed all bounds and preferred the life of this world, verily, his abode will be the Fire. But as for him who feared standing before his Lord and restrained himself from desires and whims, verily, Paradise will be his abode” (An-Nazi’at: 37-41).
The interpretation of the interrelated concepts of success, victory and defeat are clear in jihadi writing (and these examples are easily available in English). With the Jihadi interpretation in such stark contrast to what appears within orthodox Terrorism Studies research, and the ongoing fighting casting significant doubt on the so-called ‘defeat’, one may wonder what the ISIS reader would look like if the authors had more than faux Arabic access to the documents not reproduced in English.
UK Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter has emphatically rejected claims that IS is defeated. It should be clear to those even loosely acquainted with the facts on the ground that the group and theology that al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote is far from defeated in Iraq and Syria and the media production, through which they pursue their missionary work, has not collapsed.
In 2019 there was an unseasonal two month increase in attacks in Iraq by IS, with sharp increases in both Baghdad and Ninewa. In addition, since the so-called ‘defeat’ of IS the US military spent over $1 million dropping 40 tonnes of explosive on a single island in Iraq, and IS attacks continue across Iraq and Syria, not to mention Egypt or it’s operations in Africa in general. The New York Times has noted ISIS Is Regaining Strength in Iraq and Syria, a view also shared by a report of the Pentagon inspector general. Furthermore, the US Special Representative for Syria and the Coalition to Defeat Daesh, Jim Jeffrey, has stated there were somewhere between 14,000-18,000 ISIS fighters “active between Syria and Iraq.” UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.
A series of videos from IS showed groups around the world pledging allegiance (bay’a) to their Caliph al-Baghdadi, which then sparked over 200 individuals to also post images of their bay’a or post videos showing them listening to pro-IS Nashid in public claiming to be in locations ranging from the UK, to Turkey and the Middle East. This has since been repeated with bay’a to IS’ new Caliph.
Claims of defeat may give policymakers a feeling of success and reassurance, perhaps even allow some to withdraw troops from key locations in the region, but the study of the Salafi-Jihadi movement needs a progressive approach based on evidence-based research and a strong data culture. When such evidence-based methods are applied, as we have shown here, the Jihadi worldview is a much better predictor of continued fighting than attempts within orthodox Terrorism Studies to find a definition that will allow claims of ‘defeat’. As such while orthodox Terrorism Studies, with systemic problems with data and evidence based analysis, announces defeat, from a progressive approach it is entirely predictable that IS continues to fight.
Artefacts of Western Habitus
Inserting Western artefacts such as the focus on crime, rap music, jihadi cool and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’, say more about the western-centric and neo-colonialist perspective of the researchers than what the material means to the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Where, for example, do you find Salafi-Jihadi groups writing about a physical world utopia? Why is the work of those who posit Salafi-Jihadi material is communicating about ‘Utopia’ not full of quotes showing Salafi-Jihadi groups writing about ‘Utopia’?
Consider, what would it mean to engage in suicide bombing to enter a physical world Utopia? What use would someone who joined Jihad to continue their life of crime have for a bomb vest?
As with all elements of Salafi-Jihadi theology, nuance and context are important. Some proposing a Terror-Crime Nexus (re-branded as the the Crime-Terror Nexus) have claimed repeatedly “Theft – any form of crime – is equated with ghanimah, which translates as ‘the spoils of war’”. While the transliterated Arabic word makes this claim seem authoritative, ghanimah emphatically does not cover all forms of crime. It focuses primarily on elements of property and wealth (as Salafi-Jihadi theology would define those concepts).
‘All crime’ inserts an artefact of Western habitus into the analysis of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, potentially exacerbating the tendency toward threat inflation and confirmation bias others have previously noted. To neocolonialists within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies the nuance of this distinction between property based crime and all crime may seem the pedantic nitpicking of a pedant. However, the distinction is important to Salafi-Jihadi groups. As such it is a distinction which is of concern to progressive and evidence based research.
These examples highlight how, despite the huge archive of theologically inspired Salafi-Jihadi material available online, researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies have repeatedly chosen to focus on artefacts of their western habitus which they perceive to be part of Salafi-Jihadi material. It is this reliance on western habitus, fueled by confirmation bias, which has led those within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies to repeatedly define Salafi-Jihadi groups as defeated, even when Jihadi theology clearly indicates they will continue to fight.
These neocolonialist notions of defeat owe more to western-centric policy circles’ need for affirmation than to the theology expressed Salafi-Jihadi writing. In doing so these researchers place the interpretation based on their western habitus ahead of the meaning transmitted by Salafi-Jihadi groups and understood by their intended audience.
A Western-centric definition of defeat
It has been a policy imperative in the US and elsewhere to declare ISIS defeated and backed by some researchers. This despite, as highlighted earlier, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya maintaining a fighting force which “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment.
The study of the Salafi-Jihadi movement has seen this type of positive endorsement of policy before, only for the stark reality to subsequently intervene. For example, recent document releases relating to lessons learned in Afghanistan have shown:
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers, according to the Post. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
In contrast to the ‘best possible picture’, “enemy-initiated attacks” rose sharply last year, with the fourth quarter seeing a total of 8,204 attacks – up from 6,974 in the same period in 2018”, according to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Just as events in Afghanistan were interpreted in positive light, many have sought ways to represent IS as in decline and have engaged in a race to come up with a definition which will allow researchers to pronounce IS defeated.
We have been in this position many times before. There have been many instances where academics, commentators and policy makers have been keen to take victory laps celebrating the defeat of Jihadi groups. Unfortunately, once the hyperbole infused fanfare has died down, these groups have continued to fight – many continue to this day – with or without sections of territory.
Misunderstanding how Salafi-Jihadi groups derive meaning from events can lead to disastrous misinterpretations. One may recall how al-Qaeda leadership had been cut off from foot soldiers in 2005-2006 only in 2007 for the New York Times to report American officials had “mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan”.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in defeating AQI and killing its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed that by 2009-2010 “we had essentially crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)” Rohan Gunaratna argued that a year before Osama Bin Laden was killed Al Qaeda had “already lost significant public support and was on the path of decline”. The subsequent killing of Bin Laden was hailed as a crushing, but not necessarily lethal, blow. Some terrorism analysts including Paul Cruickshankthought the Arab Spring could be al-Qaeda’s fall. Indeed there were many ways in which the Arab Spring could be presented as bad news for Al-Qaeda as it “appeared to undermine core tenets of the Al-Qaeda doctrine”. Fawaz A. Gerges wrote that “Only a miracle will resuscitate a transnational jihad of the al-Qaeda variety”. Ian Black wrote that “Al-Qaida had already looked marginal and on the back foot for several years. But the dawn of largely peaceful change in the Middle East and North Africa this year rendered it irrelevant.”
In 2012 Peter Bergen argued it was time to declare victory as al Qaeda was defeated. Similarly, many have been keen to proclaim the defeat and collapse of the Islamic State. Jason Burke wrote in October 2017 “a victory is a victory, and there are few reasons for cheer these days. So let us celebrate the defeat of Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate – and keep a wary eye out for the next fight”. He was not alone, many have been keen to claim victory. So many have followed some form of the logic, “Now that ISIS has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, it will become more violent outside this area” as Charlie Winter told the Sun Newspaper.
“territorial loss is defeat for the movement, that is what the authors have decided to call it. By every measure, the group is defeated…”
This sounds very similar to earlier attempts to define a defeated Taliban and AQ. These definitions have one thing in common. The commentary of a largely male, pale, and stale orthodox Terrorism Studies were unable to find evidence Salafi-Jihadi groups consider themselves defeated, so instead they found ways to define groups as defeated based on their own western habitus – independent of the objectives of the groups in question.
In effect orthodox commentary was not focused on how events were interpreted by the jihadi movement. Instead much of the orthodoxy has focused on what groups of predominantly English-speaking white men define as victory and defeat based on their Western-centric perspectives. As white Western-centric frames of reference have little resonance or relevance to the core of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, it should come as little surprise that the purportedly defeated groups continue fighting – apparently unaware of their defeat.
This image circulating on Salafi-Jihadi Telegram channels shows where the focus of attacks from the so-called ‘defeated’ IS have taken place. Some may quibble with the specific numbers – but the overall perspective significantly tests Western ideas of defeat and shifts to violence elsewhere.
73% of attacks in Syria and Iraq indicates where the movement thinks attention is focused. Furthermore, being more violent elsewhere after the so-called defeat, is difficult to square as the battle for Marawi which occurred prior to claims of ‘defeat’ still outstrips contemporary activities outside Iraq and Syria.
If it were Europe rather than Syria / Iraq would ISIS still be “defeated”?
As time has passed it has become increasingly common to find researchers from orthodox Terrorism Studies wrestling with the problem of having claimed a group has collapsed or is defeated, only for it to be increasingly obvious that group is continuing to fight – whether it is IS (with combinations of claims of post-Caliphate and a post-ISIS Iraq/Syria etc.) or earlier iterations which refer to AQ and the Taliban.
For example, even at the point of claiming IS is defeated the authors of the ISIS reader seem acutely aware they have become entangled in this problem. The quote (from above) continues…
“the group is defeated, but it is not destroyed and it remains active. Defeat is not permanent, as Clausewitz says.”
In contrast to claims of ‘defeat’, as highlighted earlier, there is evidence of somewhere between 14,000-18,000 ISIS fighters “active between Syria and Iraq.” Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, who puts the number of fighters around 20,000, has argued:
“Yes, they have lost much of their leadership. They have lost many of their capable men. But they’ve also managed to gain more experience and to recruit more people around them”.
UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq. While Christopher Lee has highlighted that
“The biggest concern is Daesh appears to have created a dependency among up to 100,000 civilians in areas they have moved into and in the many displacement camps.”
Those within the orthodox Terrorism Studies who pursue a neo-colonialist agenda seem comfortable claiming that ISIS with thousands of fighters perpetrating hundreds of attacks fits the definition of a ‘defeated’ group.
One wonders if those pushing that perspective would consider ISIS ‘defeated’ if the group was roaming Western Europe rather than Iraq/Syria with thousands of fighters, tens of thousands of followers, and perpetrating hundreds of attacks?
Recall the impact on European countries from comparatively few attacks. The shock of attacks in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, London on 7/7 or Westminster Bridge were profound – internationals politicians flocking to Paris and the UK is seeking to change the law after two knife attacks.
Attacks of a vastly greater scale are virtually a daily occurrence in Iraq and Syria, but some from the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies still claim ISIS is ‘defeated’.
One of the major distinctions between a progressive and the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies can be encapsulated by this difference in the interpretation of victory and defeat. In light of the continued fighting and estimates of fighters – consider which would be the more accurate predictor of continued violence:
The definition of defeat proposed by some within orthodox Terrorism Studies – that losing territory is defeat – based on Western military theory.
The Salafi-Jihadi understanding of defeat based on the perspective expressed in theologically inspired material produced by the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the demonstrable willingness to continue to fight.
A progressive approach to Terrorism Studies insists on option two. By seeking to extend their predominantly white, masculine and Western-centric definitions of defeat and victory, sections of the orthodox Terrorism studies echo the earlier “9/11” temporal narrative. While the temporal narrative was “an extension of US hegemony over world time”, according to Harmonie Toros, the neo-colonialist element of orthodox Terrorism Studies now seeks to claim hegemonic power for their definition of victory and defeat – irrespective of what the participants in the conflict think and whether the conflict continues.
[i] Anwar al-Awlaki, 44 ways to support Jihad, (Victorious Media)
[iii] Anwar al Awlaki, State of the Ummah, (Victorious Media 2009)
[iv] This is quoted in: Abu Mus’ab as-Suri, Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, Part One: The Roots, History and Experiences. December 2004.
[v] Nasheed, Brothers of Marawi, al-Hayyat Media Center, 2017
[vi] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker. .
[vii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker.
[viii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker.
[ix] Abu Hamzah al-Muhaiir, Paths to Victory, Jumada al-Akhirah 1438 (Translation by Himmah Productions)
[x] Abu Hamzah al-Muhaiir, Paths to Victory, Jumada al-Akhirah 1438 (Translation by Himmah Productions)
[xi] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words.
[xii] Within a day after losing the Syrian city of Manbij, ISIS issued a document explaining how the physical loss does not mean that the war is lost. After losing the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, ISIS again issued a lengthy statement outlining how they consider themselves in the exact footsteps of early Muslims and that losses are deemed as temporary as “the weapon that can kill belief has yet to be invented” as stated by British hostage John Cantlie in a video released in December 2016.
[xiii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. The video goes on to encourage attacks in Western cities as these would have a greater impact than traveling to Syria or Iraq. This echoes Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, “If one of you wishes and strives to reach the lands of the Islamic State, then each of us wishes to be in your place to make examples of the crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbour fears his neighbour. This message appeared again in (وحرض المؤمنين)
‘And Inspire the Believers’, al-Taqwa 25th February 2018 and follows the same logic as work by Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, ‘Advice To Those Who Cannot Come To Sham’, 23/12/2015 and the earlier Abu Mus’ab as-Suri.
This I have resolved on … to run when I can, to go when I cannot run, and to creep when I cannot go.
Pilgrim’s Progress – Part 2 Chapter 6.
The role of the Feeble-mind character in Bunyan’s religious allegory Pilgrim’s Progress is to highlight the importance of continuing to make progress towards an identified goal.
A more progressive approach to Terrorism Studies could focus on extending the depth at which the Salafi-Jihadi movement is understood. This would be based on robust data science and human expertise, a focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement – Arabic – and the extensive archive of theologically inspired thought which the movement has produced.
It is the archive of theology as expressed and interpreted by the core of the movement which provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. In contrast, some researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies claim to see artefacts of their western habitus in Salafi-Jihadi material – the focus on crime, rap music, and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’.
Since the 1980s research has shown that the study of terrorism has struggled with availability, handling and analysis of data. Despite the length of time and frequent observations about the problems with data, rather than making progress, these problems within orthodox Terrorism Studies have remained. In addition, “the dispersed nature of much of the more rigorous, ‘critical’ and conceptually innovative research on ‘terrorism’” means that level of rigor in research is conducted outside the orthodoxy.
Over a decade ago Magnus Ranstrop highlighted the ongoing problem, which Alex Schmid and Berto Jongman originally identified back in 1988; that ‘there are probably few areas in the social science literature in which so much is written on the basis of so little research’. As a result, much of the writing in Terrorism Studies is “impressionistic, superficial, and at the same time often also pretentious, venturing far-reaching generalisations on the basis of episodal evidence”.
Rüdiger Lohlker recently recently continued this theme when he highlighted, the tendency for orthodox Terrorism Studies to contain “an empty fog of words without inner content”. Quoting German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The section quoted by Rüdiger Lohlker continues:
This sort of chatter, though lacking the idea of philosophy, gains for itself a kind of authority through its very prolixity and arrogance. Partly this is because it seems almost incredible that such a big shell should be without a kernel…
G. W. F. Hegel
Such is the coagulation of mediocrity within a section of orthodox Terrorism Studies that unscientific, methodologically flawed and statistically unsound commentary is talked up as ‘data science’ and ‘groundbreaking research’, while the evidentiary basis goes unquestioned within the mainstream scholarship and peer review. Over the last decade – rather than being addressed – these issues have become systemic.
As noted in the development of Critical Terrorism Studies, “it is not enough to simply point out what is lacking in current research; a clear and realistic alternative must be provided”. Sections of the orthodox Terrorism Studies, and offshoots in the CVE industry, have an opportunity to break from the contemporary stagnation and develop a strong data culture and emphasis on evidence-based research. A progressive approach to analyzing the complex, theologically driven, Salafi-Jihadi movement, will move away from the contemporary obsession with finding so-called ‘gaps’ in the largely superficial and stagnant orthodox literature.
Many of the criticisms highlighted at the start of CTS remain within sections of the orthodoxy. CTS itself – with a focus on Western policy and Western academia – has struggled to break free from the Western frames of reference, among other challenges. The framing of Terrorism, with 9/11 as a moment of temporal rupture, still dominates CTS. This inhibits the deeper understanding of the Salafi-Jihadi movement which maintains different temporal reference points to those which dominate CTS and traditional approaches to Terrorism Studies, both in relation to time in the physical world and in relation to this world (Dunya) as an abode through which a soul passes.
To address the superficial, orientalist and neocolonialist tendencies of the orthodoxy, and the temporal framing of CTS, a progressive movement within Terrorism Studies would probe the intended meaning of Salafi-Jihadi content in their understanding of the world, rather than in a Western-centric English language dominated habitus. Critique of the orthodox Terrorism Studies has highlighted “its poor methods and theories, its state centricity, its problem-solving orientation and its institutional and intellectual links to state security projects”. Many of these problems have also concerned scholars within terrorism studies “who have long acknowledged the deficiencies and limitations of current research”.
In addition, a progressive Terrorism Studies approach would uphold standards for the appropriate use of statistical data to produce a clear break from the systemic malaise in data handling which have existed within orthodox Terrorism Studies. With a strong data culture and robust research design, a dynamic approach to Terrorism Studies could utilise the changes in the technological environment for research. This is not dissimilar from the way Salafi-Jihadi groups have adapted to the opportunities which evolving technology has created.
The way the object of study, such as the groups who make up the Salafi-Jihadi movement, choose to operate has evolved:
The evolving concept of the electronic ribat. Since 2011, members of jihadist forums have issued media strategies that encourage the development of a media mujahideen. This encouragement has been accompanied by the release of guides to using social media platforms, which often include lists of recommended accounts to follow.
By 2013, Jihadists had aggressively expanded their use of Twitter, in addition to Facebook and YouTube, especially since the outbreak of violence in Syria. This propagation effort by the “media mujahideen” was approved and sanctioned by movement leaders and contributed to the interconnected jihadist zeitgeist.
Learning from each interaction on the electronic ribat, the media mujahidin rapidly developed to maintain a persistent presence based on the speed, agility, and resilience of the Swarmcast.
In this struggle for survival, the media mujahidin have benefited from collective approaches and emergent behaviors, these have allowed a decentralised network to thrive in the face of increasingly aggressive content removal.
The media mujahidin frequently use widely available software for media production – this software would also be easily accessible to researchers to provide a window into the production methods.
In addition the current technological environment provides many opportunities for research:
Servers are cheap and easy to access – for example if you use Amazon for shopping, then that is enough to access cloud computing through AWS.
Processing power and RAM are cheaper than they have ever been, allowing relatively complex calculations and data analysis to be produced rapidly.
Most modern personal laptops and desktops have hardware sufficient to run the analysis required for many data science projects which would extend current research into the use of the internet by Salafi Jihadi groups, or ‘extremist’ groups more broadly. Of note, most contemporary material published by salafi Jihadi groups is produced on the same widely available hardware / software (more on that in a later post).
While there are many commercially available and hugely powerful ‘data systems’ which integrate a range of data storage and analytical processes within a single platform, there are also many open source programs which can be used to conduct academic research. These open sources software options may not permit all the analysis to be conducted within one platform, requiring the researcher to use a range of approaches to achieve the desired analysis.
There are many ‘how to’ guides for those aspiring to become better at using python, java, or any of the other popular coding languages. Similarly, resources are freely available which researchers can use to learn more about data science or using specific open source software more generally in their work, whether in the form of walkthroughs or articles packed with quick tips and tricks.
To build a stronger data culture will mean;
Acknowledging the problems with evidence and data which have to date beset orthodox Terrorism Studies,
Reviewers and editors robustly enforcing actual standards for statistical analysis, for example,
if you are going to claim something such as a correlation or a long-term trend – it will need to be backed up by a statistical calculation using data acquired through a scientifically appropriate method.
if the analysis is based on subjective ‘coding’ of data – is there an appropriate intercoder reliability score. If there is not, there is little reason for readers to be confident that the research presented would be repeatable, that coding remains unchanged over time, and that other researchers would apply the same coding definitions in the same way. Without intercoder reliability there is little reason to have confidence in the resulting ‘analysis’ rendering it largely unpublishable.
Editors and publishers insisting on clear conflict of interest reporting,
The Terrorism Studies community putting methodology above attention grabbing headlines and tweetable pseudo-metrics.
If the methodology is flawed or the statistical analysis unsound – no matter if the ‘findings’ are appealing or even intuitively correct – the study lacks the necessary basic elements to be considered publishable research.
If research is claiming to have analysed a sample, to what extent can the sample be considered representative of the whole?
Was that sample derived from a consistent methodology, or a hodgepodge of pieces cobbled together?
How was the sample identified and collected? In effect research design (architecture) and data collection (acquisition) to use two of Jeffrey Stanton’s four A’s of data science.
If you cannot do the calculation to produce a statistical result, do not use the word related to that calculation e.g. correlation, trend etc.
When an author claims correlation – a range of questions should spring to mind; do you mean a positive or negative correlation?
how strong a correlation?
Did you use Pearson, Spearman, or Kendall?
If a trend / trendline is claimed, what is the R-squared value? Is your line a good representation of the data?
A trend requires more than two or three data points.
Do you mean one point in time has fewer of ‘x’ than another? This is not a trend, upward or downward, one point just has fewer than the other.
Based on what is currently being published within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies there are a range of issues, including;
Journals specifically focused on terrorism research, a range of journals in related disciplines which have hurried to do ‘special issues’ on ISIS, and ‘research centers’ self-publishing special reports, which have published articles as if they are either unaware of the basic scientific and statistical standards or are content to publish material that they know falls short of the minimum acceptable scientific standards.
Senior researchers, including Professors, who will cite work that falls short of scientific or statistical standards without commentary or critique, some even talking it up as ‘ground breaking’ or ‘data science’.
The current state of orthodox Terrorism Studies must be judged on the behaviour of those in the discipline. Such is the coagulation of mediocrity in orthodox Terrorism Studies, senior researchers have not questioned unsound methodologies, and journals through their peer reviewers and editors, have not upheld standards. The previously observed problems of data and data analysis within some sections of orthodox Terrorism Studies have now reached systemic levels.
In a scientific discipline,
If the relevant scientific or methodological information is not present in an article submitted to a journal, then that paper is going in the bin because it does not reach minimum standards for undergraduate level work, let alone peer review.
When individuals deliver presentations, which make statistical claims about trends or correlation without any calculations, or use substandard / misleading data visualisation to support their argument, they could expect to be laughed out of the building.
If statistical and data analysis in Terrorism Studies do not adopt the standards adopted by other fields, it cannot take full advantage of the potential offered by increasing integration of data science or forms of statistical analysis into the study of Salafi-Jihadi groups.
The following series of posts examines specific tangible reasons why robust data science and evidence-based analysis is important and offers a critique of contemporary uses of data within orthodox Terrorism Studies.
A progressive focus on what events and material means to Salafi-Jihadi groups – Da’wa As Constant on the Path of Jihad:
The purpose of research is to develop deeper understand the object of study. While Western-centric interpretations of ‘utopia’ and claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are defeated may be easier to produce and more comfortable for policymakers to read, they do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes. The message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump and echoed by researchers including the authors of the ISIS Reader. Yet, while it is possible to produce a definition of ‘defeat’ to back such a claim, that definition is unlikely to be a useful indicator of the current state nor future behaviour of the group. Far from defeated al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.
In addition to expedient notions of ‘defeat’, the focus on concepts such as ‘Utopia’ are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens. A progressive approach would focus on understanding what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and be able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.
Progressive commitment to scientific methods to escape the impressionistic and statistically unsound representations of data in orthodox Terrorism Studies:
The failure to uphold statistical methods in orthodox Terrorism Studies has become systemic. Methodologically flawed, statistically unsound, unpublishable garbage is now talked up within the orthodoxy of Terrorism studies as ‘data science’ by professors and published in journals or circulated as ‘special reports’. This section provides a critique of the unscientific approaches to data and statistics considered acceptable within orthodox Terrorism Studies. The adoption of a progressive approach to Terrorism Studies would demand a clear break from this flawed research, putting robust methodology above tweetable headlines.
Orthodoxy claims decline – time for a reality check:
While production of media content by IS has fluctuated, some commentators have sought to coerce the data into a linear direction – a so-called decline. This section examines how the narrative has been constructed and shows that committing to the decline narrative has meant overlooking some serious methodological flaws and fluctuation in content. The decline narrative was built by shifting the goalposts both in terms of definition and time-periods rather than robust statistical analysis. In fact, while some claimed consensus around the decline narrative – a robust statistical analysis reveals average weekly video output increased in both quantity and longevity of production between 2017 and 2019.
Neo-Colonialist tendency to devalue ideas in Arabic:
This section unpacks some of the methods widely accepted within orthodox Terrorism Studies to show how they devalue material in Arabic in favour of English language sources and Western-Centric interpretations. A progressive Terrorism studies would focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement (Arabic).
Decline narrative as strategic communication tool:
The so-called decline has been more than a narrative deployed in commentary; it has also been used as a strategic communication tool. This section highlights the need for genuine scientific methodologies, appropriate statistical analyses, and robust conflict of interest reporting to ensure the field can escape the current coagulation of mediocrity and rebuild confidence in the academic output.
Progressive commitment to robust statistical analysis; the end to Mc_Data:
Scientific methodologies and robust statistical approaches can lift orthodox Terrorism Studies out of the current malaise of mediocrity, and enable the field to embrace the opportunity available through evidence-based research and a stronger data culture.
A progressive Terrorism studies, using robust data science and evidence-based analysis, is important because contrary to the dominant narratives of IS having collapsed or been in terminal decline, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) used the time on the open front in Iraq and Syria as an educational opportunity, to build a base of supporters running into the thousands. This is why al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”.
As such, the theology which groups such as al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote, will remain, will endure and, when given the opportunity of fertile soil, it will expand visibly when it suits their strategic cause.
Many column inches of commentary have been dedicated in recent months to the purported shift from Telegram to other platforms. We have shown previously that despite efforts to ‘cull’ jihadi channels on Telegram, disruption did not have a meaningful impact on the core network. This core allowed jihadi groups to maintain a persistent presence. The greatest impact of that attempted disruption appears to have been the much tweeted about inconvenience caused to pundits and commentators who had only been able to access the peripheral Jihadi channels and Nashir News network that were deleted in the disruption effort.
In this post we look at the content sharing network between January and May 2019. This produces a strategic overview of the network, to assess whether the network has been forced to evolve how they use the platform.
The analysis shows that at present the Jihadi network on Telegram is vast and remains functional. The URL sharing in core groups indicates core users are not currently preparing to make the jump to another platform.
The primarily Arabic Jihadi
Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has
produced over 1.7 million updates.
al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ,
Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network
which also draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
This network has shared
over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between
January and May 2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface
web, despite punditry to the contrary.
By contrast there are very
few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the
surface web is for the Jihadi movement.
The most frequently used domains
do not offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the
behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram of
mass link sharing to the accounts on the new platform is not currently being
A model of the information
flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem continues
to exhibit a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and
Tech resources, such as apps,
disposable phone numbers, encrypted email, and VPN are an important part of
both the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem.
Using the curated feed of human verified jihadi channels and groups archived by BlackLight between January and May. This dataset contains 1.7 million updates of which 878,795 (approximately 50%) were forwarded from other channels and groups.
Analysis of these messages
produced a network of over 85,000 connections (content sharing or cross
posting). The network is made up of 9,000 accounts and groups. The connections
between nodes show that groups of channels form specific clusters, each of
which containing some common theme or allegiance to a Jihadi group.
As discussed in previous posts
there is a dispersed network with many accounts that have some importance to
the network (rather than one or two very important accounts – which would make
the network vulnerable to disruption).
As in previous analyses, ISIS,
AQ, and Taliban channels all appear in the same interconnected network. This is
they draw on similar other
channels (those with a specific historical or theological focus for example) or
pro-Jihadi channels /
groups who share the overarching theology and purpose, but do not have specific
organizational allegiance, aggregate material from both al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya
The network structure and
emergent communication architecture of the clusters indicates that they will
likely remain resilient to the removal of even a large proportion of the
channels and groups. Of the different clusters, those closest to the al-Dawlat
al-Islamiyya have the most dispersed network architecture – providing the
greatest resilience, while Taliban appear to have adopted the distributed
structure to a lesser extent.
This section examines over 1 million
(1,048,575) URL identified in messages and captions. Within this million URL
sample the research found 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains.
Calculating the number of times
URL representing content on specific domains had been observed, Telegram links
appeared most frequently in posts. It is
a common observation that the domain on which data is being collected is also
the most frequently linked to domain in the dataset, as users often include the
link for a channel or chat in their posts.
Looking at the number of unique
URL gives an alternative perspective. It shows that while Telegram links appear
frequently, they are a relatively small number of URL appearing frequently. In
contrast, there are relatively higher numbers of URL from other domains, each
of which appear relatively infrequently. This is logical, as many URL outside
Telegram host a specific piece of content, and hence it is shared when it is
released and subsequently falls out of use.
Examining the URL from outside
Telegram provides an overview of the other locations within the Jihadi
information ecosystem. This shows the number of times domains were observed in
Similarly, analysing the domains
by the number of different URL shared from that domain, shows how the
information ecosystem combines branded content from jihadi groups, located on
content stores and aggregators, with a wide range of other material including
mainstream news sites.
From this we find:
Despite the claims Jihadi
groups have not been driven off the surface web, sites such as archive.org,
telegra.ph, and justpaste.it are frequently used as Jihadi content stores and
None of the most observed
domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period of adjustment,
which occurred in the autumn of 2015 and Spring 2016, Jihadi twitter accounts
regularly shared links to Telegram channels to allow sympathisers to maintain
access to the Jihadi information ecosystem. In the period to May 2019, the
behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not
currently being repeated.
Flow across the Ecosystem.
In examining the flow of users across the ecosystem in 2019 we
find there are two distinct clusters, one focused on tech and the other on
Jihadi content and related news. This uses the same method as was discussed
during the GRNTT
conference at Brookings.
The tech cluster on the lower portion of the graph fulfils
an important role for the movement, as it provides access to services such as VPN,
disposable / free phone numbers and a range of communication programmes
distributed as .apk files (Andriod Package File).
The content cluster features platforms from the three main
roles in the Jihadist information ecosystem:
The signposts including
Telegram and Facebook,
Content stores such as
Archive.org, Google Drive, imgur, and Files.fm
Aggregators such as
Justpaste.it and Telegra.ph
Other findings of note;
Obedient Supporters and Nashir 1440 are content aggregators which provide content downloads on the surface web.
Tgho.st – is a file sharing system native to Telegram. Tgho.st operates by users sending the file to a Telegram Bot, the bot subsequently returns a URL where that file can be downloaded by anyone using the download link in a browser. The service advertises that “These files are not deleted and will always be available for download”.
Videopress – URL to Videopress were frequently extracted from videos posted on the earlier version of Jihadology, although without the full Jihadology page / URL. Such a finding illustrates the importance of focusing on the Jihadi primary language, Arabic, rather than drawing conclusions from fringe languages, particularly English. However, this is likely to fall out of use following the recent update to the site.
The primarily Arabic Jihadi
Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has
produced over 1.7 million updates.
al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ,
Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network which also
draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
This network has shared
over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between January and May
2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface web, despite
punditry to the contrary.
By contrast there are very
few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the surface
web is for the Jihadi movement.
None of the most observed
domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the
behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not
currently being repeated.
A model of the information
flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem
highlights a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and
Tech resources, such as
apps, disposable phone numbers and email, and VPN are an important part of both
the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem.
A thousand men who fear not for their lives are more to be dreaded than ten thousand who fear for their fortunes.
The evidence based approach to analysing the Jihadi movement includes how the movement creates their visual images. Deconstructing these images into their components demonstrates that many of the different elements are included deliberately to communicate specific things. These elements must be interpreted within the appropriate habitus.
In part, as the late Reuven Paz noted, this means recognising that;
The Jihadi militancy is … almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world.
Reuven Paz, Reading Their Lips: The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites as ‘Soft Power’ in the War of the Minds
The other part of interpreting images within the appropriate habitus, is an appreciation of the Jihadi culture, in the sense as-Suri used “the cultural level of the mujahidin“.
At times, it is possible to heighten the cultural level of the mujahidin, and it is also possible to heighten the level of preparation and acquired skills, and this will contribute to refining the talent …
The trainers and those supervising the foundation of Resistance cells must discover those talents and refine them with culture and training so that they find their place in leading terrorist operations in this type of blessed jihad…
Later in the text as-Suri notes:
..one of the most important fundaments for training in our jihadi Resistance Call is to spread the culture of preparation and training, its programs and methods, with all their aspects, by all methods of distribution, especially the Internet, the distribution of electronic discs, direct correspondence, recordings and every other method.
as-Suri, Global Islamic Resistance Call
The socio-political and cultural elements of the habitus in which Jihadi media is created are fundamental to evidence based research into what this material intended to communicate. When this evidence based approach is applied, notions of “jihadi cool”, going from zero-to-hero, crime and gangsta rap, along with claims of utopia and ‘utopian narratives’ all become unsustainable as interpretations of what Jihadi groups intend to communicate.
Jihadi culture has drawn influences from theology, the history of muslims, history of Jihadi groups and draws on experiences from earlier iterations of the movement. Jihadi culture is inextricably linked to their understanding of evidence and scholarship, specifically the vast archive of text, audio, and video which precedes the emergence of the contemporary al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
Evidence based approach
This image has been part of the Jihadi information ecosystem and is part of a wider genre of images.
These images are composites of numerous elements, the inclusion of which are intended to communicate concepts which have also been referenced in earlier jihadi material.
Deconstructing the image
The original image ‘training the brothers in street fighting’ was produced by hadrawmawt Yemen. This training session depicts the practical application of theology in meeting the obligation to prepare for Jihad and life on ribat. This obligation is emphasized by the quote from Surah al-Anfal (Quran 8:60) which features in the final sawa’iq media image.
And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged.
Surah al-Anfal 8:60
Like the interconnection between contemporary jihadi material and historic precursors, the original image of the training session also appears in other content. Here it is used in combination with another image of training, also referring to Quran 8:60, emphasizing the mujahidin are obligated to prepare for combat.
The importance of preparing (training) appears frequently in documents from previous iterations of the Jihadi movement, including those by as-Suri (quoted above) and discussed in detail in Zaad e Mujahidin. For example;
Generally the military training ought to be acquired by every healthy Muslim. Even the disabled Muslim could perform various military duties, due to the modern method of warfare….
After the compulsory requirement of the Imaan and the Taqwa, the Mujahid ought to pay careful attention to the following three points: – Highest standard of military training. – Obedience. – Prudence and Contrivance.
Zaad e Mujahidin
Our battle today is a battle of attrition – prolonged for the enemies. They must come to terms that jihad will last until judgement day. And that god commanded for us jihad while not decreeing for us to win. Therefore, we ask god for steadfastness, determination, guidance, righteousness, and success for us and for our brothers.
The Jihadi movement is clear about their aim and purpose, these are constants in their material not ‘latest trends’. As Reuven Paz quoted Indian scholar, Dr. Om Nagpal,
The Mujahidin do not hide their intentions. They do not use diplomatic or apologetic language. On various occasions they have used aggressive language. Repeatedly from the different corners of the world, they have proclaimed in categorical terms that their mission is Jihad. Jihad inspires them. Jihad invigorates them. Jihad gives them a purpose in life. Jihad for them is a noble cause, a sacred religious duty. Jihad is a mission
Once the theological underpinning of the Jihadi movement is recognised, interpretation of the imagery can focus on the framework (or Habitus) within which it is created and the concepts which it is intended to communicate.
The dominant narrative among Western governments, policy experts and the mainstream media has been that Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups embrace a violent “ideology,” rather than specific religious doctrines that pervade and drive their agenda.
Rüdiger Lohlker continues,
It is 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, that religion matters.
The Jihadi movement interprets waging jihad as a religious duty and they consider innovation in religion unacceptable. As a result, Jihadi culture is based on what they consider evidence; evidence rooted in a long tradition of theological writing, divine comandment and historical human acting (i.e. tales of the sahaba and selective readings of the Sunna).
That evidence is the key to an authentic interpretation of the imagery the movement produces. If commentary and academic interpretations cannot explicitly site the evidence and connect their interpretation to the long history of Jihadi theological writing, it risks becoming significantly more about what Western researchers imagine they see; an interpretation trapped in a western habitus rather than an authentic interpretation of the Jihadi movement.
Many Telegram channels and groups operated by Jihadi groups, distribute lengthy Arabic documents.
An analysis of the content shared by one such channel, ‘The Caliphate Library’ Telegram Channel shows how the Jihadi movement thrives on lengthy documents that sets out their theology, beliefs, and strategy.*
Overview of findings:
This individual library contained 908 pdf documents, which collectively contain over 111,000 pages. This is far from what one might expect from a movement which thinks in 140 characters, as some Western commentators suggest.
In addition to the material produced by Dawlat al-Islamiyya, the channel;
republished earlier writing through Maktabat al-Himma, a theological driven publication house of Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
shared earlier work produced by al-Qaeda
distributed historical and contemporary Salafi writing which intersects with their theology.
ISI era is an important part the identity for Dawlat al-Islamiyya – over 15% of the pages in ‘IS media products’ category originate from that period.
While 10% of PDF were encrypted, most documents were produced using tools easily available on most modern laptops.
Not one of the texts envisages a ‘Jihadist Utopia’ nor proposes a ‘Utopian narrative’. The idea of a ‘Utopian Narrative’ is an artefact of Western misinterpretation. It is not rooted in the texts of of Dawlat al-Islamiyya nor their predecessors.
The following infographic summerises the analysis of over 1000 documents in this Caliphate Library.
*The Caliphate Library is a loose translation of its actual name, as at time of writing the Channel is still live.
#exclusive for the supporters (munasireen) and companions (ashab) of the raids (al-ghazawat) on #platforms of social media:
More than 500 links to electronic releases (isdarat) of the Islamic state that are not eligible for #deletion by the will of god, we ask god to anger the kuffar, the apostates, the hypocrites.
These links by the will of god do not get deleted all the while these will help the munasireen in their raids of social media platforms.
Share and deem the reward (ajr) and we advise you [to place these links] in the comment section on YouTube.
We warn you after placing your trust in god to use a VPN and to ensure to enforce technical security measures for the protection for the raiders on the social media sites. (raiders in Arabic is stated as ashab of the raids).
We will continuously renew [this collection of links protected from removal] until we have more than 1000 links, god willing
Experiment with the links, share them and reap your reward.
The release of this collection of ‘500 links’ through pastethis.to highlights the theological underpinning of the actions taken by the media mujahidin.
The nature of
rewards in the Jihadist belief system.
underpinning – reaping your reward, ajr
Ghazwat and the Ribat.
Jihad – Media
– Activism – Militancy – Documenting the Struggle Online to Influence Target
Isdarat – the
groundwork of Online Jihad by AQAP, first generation
roles platforms play within the ecosystem.
The role of
the website jihadology within the jihadist ecosystem.
in the Jihadist Belief-System
“Conveyed by ‘Ali, may god be pleased with him: “whoever inspires his brother to jihad will be rewarded likewise upon every step of this endeavor of the worship of the Sunna.”
Cited by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, “Join the Caravane”, January 4, 2004, citing in length ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s “Join the Caravane”, referenced furthermore in jihadist literature to historical scholar Ibn Nahhas.
To give readers a deeper nuanced insight
into the above statement issued on Telegram, we will decipher a few keywords / concepts
that are in most cases absolutely clear and easily understood when issued by
Arabic native speakers, born as Sunni Muslims, to their core target audience:
Arabic native speakers, born as Sunni Muslims. The message was transmitted across
Jihadists are religious people (if we like
it or not) who over the past 40 years have been prolific writers to craft a
specific theology. The
theology of Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (AQ) and any other Sunni extremist
groups, is based on Arabic-language religious scriptures, not just Qur’an and Sunna, but also references elements of
the rich 1,400-year long tradition of Islamic writings. Yet, as penned by
Rüdiger Lohlker, there is a lack of willingness to deal with the writings and
motivations of jihadist subcultures and their inherent theology. The term theology
is provocative, referring to the specific type of rhetoric and thinking
regarding the relationship between humans and god. While it may be comforting for
some to describe al-Baghdadi as ‘monstrous’, or a female follower as a ‘witch’,
academic study can make greater progress if focusing less on the moral outrage
and instead focusing on how Sunni extremists actually articulate, pitch, and
project their messages.[i]
the ecosystem of jihadist writings, including historical authors that matter
for modern jihadist groups, many theological concepts are identifiable – if you
are able, and so inclined, to read the easy findable electronic PDFs. With
the apparent inability to read basic Arabic jihadist texts or fully understand
videos (which are 99% in Arabic in the case of IS), the majority of keywords
and textual content remains behind a veil.
for any Arabic reader versed in Arabic-language jihadist writings, the speeches,
audios, images and videos they produce clearly contain key theological
concepts. Similarly, for those with an understanding of the socio-cultural
context of the intended audience, even the non-Arabic language products have a
clear theological meaning. Unfortunately, these theological concepts have passed
largely unnoticed in the pop-science analysis of English-only magazines such as
AQ’s Inspire, Dawlat al-Islamiyah’s Dabiq and the multi-lingual Rumiyya
dominates the ‘research’ output have created an absolute win-win situation for
the neglect to either treat Arabic language extremist sources as primary data[ii]
or entering it into evidence to relate the use of language for non-Arabic IS
products, Sunni extremist propaganda (including the pro-jihadist ‘salafist’
materials) targeting a non-Arab(ic) audience, attacking open, inclusive
societies, continues without much interruption. Hardcore texts of violence
include lengthy citations, textual references and include sources of Qur’an and
Sunna used by contemporary ‘Salafist’ text books projected via the Internet in
respective languages into European societies.
art of the jihadist pen, or “scholars of jihad”, as extremist scholars of this
subculture refer to themselves, is to express a coherent theology, referencing
historical authors such as Ibn Taymiyya or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and to
embed citations or references to Qur’an and Sunna. With the establishment of
over 300,000 pages of Arabic text since the 1980s, all available online if you
know where to look يا لغوي, jihadists have developed a specific
hermeneutical reading of scripture and project their actions as the active
application of what is defined in writing as divine law, the will of god, the
commandments, absolute rulings that must be enforced to be a ‘pious believer’ –
and be eligible for paradise.
Texts authored by the “scholars of jihad” include
references and citations of linguist dictionaries such as Lisan al-Arab, tafsir
works and sometimes ridicule religious curricula taught in MENA schools
claiming the references of jihad (for example) are either omitted or taught in
a wrongful way. In order to understand groups such as IS, you must be literate
in Arabic and be able to comprehend the propaganda that is often well versed in
religious references and sources – this is the habitus that extremist groups
exploit to address their primary, single most important key target audience:
Arab native speakers.
Religious extremists have no easy, cozy relationship with an intervening
deity that to them is real, this is not limited of course to this context. For
religious extremists in general, the relationship to god is personal and
intimately – while socially re-enforced based on human interpreted divine
How most of
the intended audience orders their reality is that;
an intervening deity is real,
articulated in the jihadist framework, this is a world they pass through, referencing an authentic hadith,
after this world they hope their actions will be deemed such that the intervening deity permits them entrance to paradise, reference – among many – i.e. Qur’an 3:169.
Hence statements of those either passively ‘martyred’ by air
strikes, or during combat when not having actively sought it, as well as the
istishhadi operatives, suicide or ‘martyrdom’ bombers who deliver their
explosives actively to their targets, are often introduced by Qur’an 3:169:
“Think not of those, who are slain in the path of God, as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, they are bestowed with provision.”[iii]
This mind-set is further sanctioned by citing Qur’an 2:154, to
back up the above statement:
“Do not say that those who are killed in God’s cause are dead; they are alive, though you do not realize it.”[iv]
The stories of ‘martyrs’ enable the narrator to present the
individual as a ‘true’ Muslim who indeed lived, fought, and sacrificed for
implantation of the divine definition as set in Qur’an, 3:146 to widen the
conviction of “being alive with God” in the afterlife (akhira):
“Many prophets have fought, with large bands of godly men alongside them who, in the face of their suffering for God’s cause, did not lose heart or weaken or surrender: God loves those who are steadfast.”[v]
The jihadist, in his self-perception, is part of “bands of godly
men” and as such have remained steadfast, reluctant of their own physical safety
or lives – after all, humans are tested by god in this world to decide who will
be rewarded in what way in the next world. Furthermore, the jihadist sources
emphasize that individual believers are expected to have “spent” their lives
and their wealth “on the path of God”. Qur’an 9:111 is cited to provide an
alleged theological and judicial framework:
“God has purchased the persons and possessions of the believers in return for the Garden – they fight in God’s way: they kill and are killed – this is a true promise given by Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an. Who could be more faithful to his promise than God? So be happy with the bargain you have made: that is the supreme triumph.”[vi]
of the theological distinctions come in deciding which actions will gain ajr –
a form of reward – and which will not, i.e. lead to “sin” or tribulations.
A shared broad mental construct, and socio-cultural context is laid out in the religious coded, Arabic language corpus of jihad – the distinction comes from how one must behave to obtain reward, which may subsequently cause you to be permitted entrance to paradise. Thus, from a linguist perspective, the jihadist language is clear and easy to comprehend. Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, most Sunni jihadist groups had been quick to issue statements ensuring that bin Laden was a human (and not a prophet or the like), having invested his life for the worship of god by his actions and sacrifice. Following a classical jihadi-lingual ductus, he was referred to as “the shaykh, the martyr – as we deem him to be – Osama bin Laden.”[vii]
In other releases, i.e. the death of Hamud b. ‘Uqla’ al-Shu’aybi, died in late 2001 and having been cited by bin Laden but also having had an important influence on Saudi jihadists of the 2000s, the full reference of the martyr in this framing is expressed: “we deem him to be a martyr, god is the measure of all things” (al-Jarbu’, 2002, shared in AQ forums as word document at the time). This wording was later used throughout the 1500 page strong The Voice of Jihad AQ magazine to refer to their members who had been ‘martyred’.
Steadfastness is another way of earning ajr,
and is an integral element of jihadist literature and videos. Steadfastness is
the expression of maintaining a sincere intention towards god, as your actions
of this world in the service for god will be judged to determine your status, reward,
in the afterlife.
Theological underpinning – reaping your reward, ajr
“Reward”, or ajr in Arabic, in the mindset
of modern jihadist groups and thinkers, however, is based on the ancient
understanding thereof and is two-fold:
The reward must be earned based on one’s deeds and actions for god in this world to be eligible to enter paradise after death. This is one of the main literal elements of the textual corpus of jihad. As for jihadists, jihad means an active form of worshipping and serving god, with a sincere intention, driven to fight for the protection, revenge or for the security of the jama’a ahl al-sunna; reward is earned along this way in this world with death as the new stage of life in mind. Hence popular slogans of this subculture, expressed in writings and placed in active application in many of its audio-visual releases, embody this with further theological reference points. A popular propaganda-slogan thus states that the Mujahid seeks one of the two most precious things (al-husayn): victory (nasr) or attaining the shahada, exiting this world and dwelling in paradise. This is a citation of Qur’an 9:52 and used by al-Zarqawi in the beheading video of Olin “Jack” Armstrong in 2004. The Chechen hostage takers of the musical Nord Ost in Moscow in 2002 also put up a black banner on the wall, reading in Arabic the Islamic shahada complemented by allahu akbar and ihda l-husnayyin, the reference to Qur’an 9:52. IS used this slogan, for example, in the last videos that had emerged from Mosul before the fall, framing the expected reward despite worldly – or physical loss – as a win for what comes after life in the conviction of humans who see themselves as enablers of divinity.
Reward is also a historical reference to
the physical world that early Muslims obtained as a result of raiding the
caravans of the Quraish. The “spoils” or “booty of war” are filled with
Qur’anic references to surat al-Anfal and surat al-Tawba. A physical reward
thus is based on receiving a share of the “spoils of war”, often referred to as
in Arabic as ghanima. Yet jihadists warn of focusing on the potential to make ghanima
through jihad, rather than having a sincere intention.
A 2003 article in “The Voice of Jihad”,
the first regular electronic magazine released online by AQ on the Arab
Peninsula, warns of prioritizing “taking ghanima as reward of one’s jihad”,
thus neglecting a complete understanding of the concept of jihad and the spoils
of war by omitting “when raiders take ghanima a third is their reward.” The
article continues: “the ahadith provide clear evidence whoever seeks to embark
on his jihad solely for the purpose of gaining worldly presentation, will not
receive any ajr.”[viii]
The reference of ajr in this context is
strictly related to what the Mujahid, having a sincere intention, will receive
when killed. This hadith is also used by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam in his “Declaration
of Jihad” and further contextualized with another hadith sources: “Conveyed by
al-Nisa’i based on a stable isnad[ix] by
Abu Usama who said: “a man came to the prophet, peace and blessings upon him,
he said: “have you [ever] seen a man raiding looking for ajr, thinking about
financial gain?” The messenger of god, peace and blessings upon him said: “god
will not acknowledge anyone [as a martyr] except those who are pure and sincere
in their desire.”[x]
Ajr: Rewards in the afterlife for deeds
and actions in this world, a jihadist Telegram channel member asking for reward
for his Jaysh al-‘Izza brethren for having slain mercenaries, for their jihad
and to receive their martyrs.
The reward is also contingent on the
context in which action is taken. Anwar al-Awlaki described in Allah is
Preparing Us for Victory, when times are hard, the reward for taking action
If it comes at a
time when things are easy then the ajr is reduced. But if the time is
one of difficulty, then the ajr is increased.
Ajr is in accordance
to the difficulty.
Comprehending the meaning and importance of ajr within the Jihadi understanding,
shows that claims in Western commentary that ISIS seeks to pursue a ‘utopian
project’ or present a ‘utopian narrative’ are based on a fundamental misunderstanding
of jihad. It is life on the ribat that is the life revered by the jihadist
movement. The reward they seek is ajr, which, if sufficient, may permit access
chapter on the virtues of life on the ribat, Ibn-Nahas highlights why behavior
on the ribat is among the best livelihoods.
narrated, the messenger of god said:
“Among the best livelihoods of people is that of a man holding the
rein of his horse in the path of Allah, flying on its back whenever he hears
the call. He flies in search of killing or being killed. And a man on top of a
mountain peak or on the bottom of a deep valley, establishing prayers, paying
his zakah, and worshiping his Lord until death visits him. People see nothing
from him but good.”
Those who spend the night on the ribat are murabitin. The image of murabit on the classical ribat is important to the
understanding of the identity and approach of the media mujihidin today, as it
is the self-image of those on the electronic ribat. As noted:
Murabita, according to the British Orientalist, translator and
lexicographer, Edward Lane, “also signifies a company of warriors; or of men
warring against an enemy; or a company of men having their horses tied at the
frontier in preparation for the enemy; or keeping post on the frontier; and in
To translate and conceptualise the Arabic term ribat can be very contentious. The term
is frequently referred to in both jihadist videos and in print / online
literature in the context of religiously permissible warfare; in a modern
meaning it could loosely be translated as “front”.
Ribat is prominent due to its reference in the 60th verse of the eight
chapter of the Qur’an, the Surat al-Anfal
(“the Spoils of War”). It is often used to legitimize acts of war and among
others found in bomb making handbooks or as part of purported theological
justification in relation to suicide operations – for decades. Extremists consider
the clause as a divine command stipulating military preparation to wage jihad
as part of a broader understanding of “religious service” on the “path of god.”
Ribat as it appears in the Qur’an is referenced in the context of
“steeds of war” (ribat al-khayl) that
must be kept ready at all times for war and hence remain “tied”, mostly in the
Islamic world’s historic border regions or contested areas. In order to “strike
terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah”, these “steeds of war” are to
be unleashed for military purposes and mounted (murabit – also a sense of being garrisoned) by the Mujahidin.
The relevant section reads:
“Prepare against them whatever
forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses,[xii] to
frighten off [these] enemies of God and of your, and warn others unknown to you
but known to God. Whatever you give in God’s cause will be repaid to you in
full, and you will not be wronged,” Qur’an 8:60.
has two main aspects in contemporary jihadist thinking. First, the complete
60th verse of the Qur’an is often stated in introductions to various
ideological and military handbooks or videos. While some videos issue ribat in connection with various weapons
and the alleged divine command in the jihadist reading thereof. As the real-world fighting Mujahidin are considered “strangers” (ghuraba’) in this world fighting at the
very edge of worldly perception, thus being ‘mounted’ at the front (ribat) and the borders (thughur), the background networks of the
‘media Mujahidin’ must be accredited
likewise. Thus, in the past fifteen years, ribat
has migrated and expanded into the virtual “front”, as the murabit who is partaking in the media work has been equated with
the actual Mujahid fighting at the
frontlines. In a similar understanding, the physical “frontier” or “border” has
shifted to the ‘arm-chair jihadists’, the professional media teams embedded
with fighting units as well as the global network of media supporters as the
value of the media jihad is
understood and used on a tactical and strategic level by militants to further
The advantage exploited by the muribiteen in early Islamic history is
the ability to move rapidly, have a heavy impact on the target, and move on.
This is encapsulated by the concept of Ghazwa (غزوة), a raid or expedition.[xiii]
Jihadist groups around the world have used the word to describe their physical
operations such as “ghazwat al-asir”, a campaign by the Islamic State of Iraq
(ISI) to avenge the imprisonment of Muslims.[xiv] In
2006, IED attacks in Bouzareh near Algiers, was valorised as “Ghazwa Bushawi”
by the “the Media Council of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le
Combat” before the group merged with AQIM.[xv]
Today these raids occur on online, Channels on Telegram act as
coordination points through which these raids are organised. In one approach,
Jihadi groups post the time and target for the raid that day. They provide
supporters with pre-prepared tweets or URL which supporters can copy and post
directly onto platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.[xvi]
These raids seek to cause sudden spikes in activity to spread their message
broadly, there is no attempt at permanence as they know the accounts they use
will be removed. In fact, they plan for it. Just as the self-image of horse
backed warrior, the users in the online ghazwa arrive suddenly, have an impact
but do not intend to stay around.
A longer discussion of these concepts appears in: Ali Fisher, Netwar
Jihad – Media – Activism – Militancy – Documenting the Struggle Online to Influence Target Audiences
Incitement to jihad is well established within the online dominions, where media activism can be achieved from any place, in- or outside of conflict zones. With a ring of decentralized media workers supporting those who are ‘embedded’ with fighting elements, the jihadi media has in the past two decades greatly improved in providing professional made videos and writings from real-life combat zones for computer-, tablet-, smartphone-, and television-screens throughout the world. The ‘media mujahid’ as a role model promotes those ‘embedded’ front-line cameramen in particular, without whom the quality and quantity of jihad groups worldwide would not have a lasting impact or relevance. In the jihadists’ self perception, the;
“media [worker] has become a martyrdom operative without an explosives belt, for they are entitled to these merits [of jihad]. Furthermore, haven’t you seen how the cameramen handle the camera instead of carrying Kalashnikovs, running in front of the soldiers during attacks, defying death by exposing their chests to the hails of bullets!?’[xvii]
media worker in the field has turned into a role model of adoration just like
any hardcore fighter or martyrdom operative, and is portrayed by the jihadi
media likewise and accredited as an istishhadi,
as someone who actively has sought out and attained the shahada. The wish to become a martyr, having a “clear intention” (as
described above) as proof of their piety and their loyalty to god, being ‘true’
practitioners of Islam expecting compensation in the afterlife.
new role model is backed by the accreditation of the value of the quantitative
and qualitative online propaganda:
“Haven’t you seen the cells responsible for expanding the electronic media files (isdarat), how they enter the most dangerous and most fortified areas and how they disseminate the isdarat of the Mujahideen in the heartlands of the hypocrites (munafiqin)!?”[xviii]
workers, on the other hand who are not directly embedded with fighting units,
are not of lesser importance. For they ensure the process, editing, the layout,
translating and subsequent publication.
Isdarat – the groundwork of Online Jihad by AQAP, first generation
Since the early 2000s with the first
generation of AQAP being active in Saudi Arabia while ISI used the power vacuum
in Iraq, the Internet has become the medium of communication and
exchange of information for Jihadis. In that time, the Internet has been
increasingly used on a very efficient and professional basis. Countless online
Jihad communities had come into existence. Not only have a number of online
forums been established, but there had been (and still are to a certain extend)
blogs and traditional websites available, which spread and share a broad
variety of documents and data in general. Jihadis often refer to the Arabic term
isdarat for data, that consists of general publications, videos (suicide
bombings and last testimonies, roadside bomb attacks etc.), sermons or general
statements and declarations – but also technical information such as
bomb-making, weapons guides or chemical crash courses. Since the early 2000s
the Internet has become a 24-hour online database, where any user with
sufficient knowledge of the Web (and Arabic) is able to access, understand
and/or download these isdarat. In an interview with al-Qa’ida’s first
online magazine (2003), Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), Abu Jandal
al-Azdi explains the reasons for these isdarat and states that „these [isdarat]
guide the youth of Islam and they [the Mujahidin and their leaders] have
published books, statements, audio-files, and videos.”[xix] Today
the users exchange useful tips and practical hints, discuss ideological and
theological issues and allow an insight into their tactics and strategies
within the online forums. The usage of the Web has been systematically funneled
by the al-Qa’ida cells on the Arabian Peninsula and provided the framework for
extensive online operations as of writing (2019).
Isdarat was also the name
of one of the most prominent early IS websites. It has been a website and
telegram channel where users could access the content. For IS, with the
changing circumstances of being able to mainstream “jihad” more due to the
acquisition of territory on an unprecedented level, videos are a key element to
convey what AQ projected in writings in a more compelling audio-visual format.
The different roles
platforms play within the ecosystem.
Websites such as Isdarat, exist within an ecosystem of content stores, aggregators
and beacons. Since the emergence of the media mujahidin on social media in 2013,
the different elements have formed part of a multi-platform
Likewise, the telegram post (above) shows how the interconnectivity
between platforms continues to allow jihadi groups to share information and
avoid disruption on social media and the surface web.
The message is shared on Telegram (beacon), directing users to
Pastethis.to which functions as the aggregator for the links. The aggregator gives
the location of each individual file (or content store). Traffic between
platforms can be harder to locate because often all that is visible on the
aggregator is the URL rather than the actual content.
The PasteThis.to page contained a list of video titles and URL where these
are stored. In this case the content store is most often Videopress or WordPress,
with many of these originally posted on Jihadology.
Jihadology in the ecosystem of online jihad
Analysis of the URL made available via the Pastethis.to pages, shows
a clear tendency toward using particular content stores.
Advertised as unlikely to be removed, the most common links lead
to Videopress. Videopress is notable for being used by Jihadology to store
material. As discussed previously,
the videos are not only accessible via the site but via the underlying
videopress URL which opens the video in a browser rather than on the site.
Having located the underlying videopress URL jihadi sympathizers are able to
share the location of the content via the aggregator, benefiting from the stability
of content posted on Jihadology, but without the user having to visit the site.
Similarly, where subdomains appear in the URL, the most common
subdomain is azelin.files, followed by videos.files. This image shows how the
videopress link which was shared on pastethis.to can be found in the source
code for Jihadology.
This is not a
one-off example, another aggregator (still available using Google cache) shows
an audio file available via the azelin.files subdomain.
other links are dead (apart from the archive.org) content posted on Jihadology
and hosted on WordPress is still available.
Pastethis.to aggregator, features the video No Respite. The shortcode used in
the aggregator is the same as the one available via Jihadology.
This video is
also notable as Abdul Hamid was arrested
… “after he posted a four-minute-long Isis propaganda video called No Respite”,
which was viewed more than 400 times on his Facebook page”. Hamid subsequently
“pleaded guilty to disseminating a terrorist publication” according to the Evening
this release has shown,
The theological underpinning of the actions taken by the media mujahidin, and the theological aspects cannot be separated from their strategy. They are integral parts of jihadi thought and cannot be treated as window dressing to be stripped away at the whim of Western researchers.
The persistent presence of the Swarmcast is in part due to the agility of the media mujahidin. They use a diverse range of platforms and share the location of specific content stores via beacons and aggregators.
The Jihadology website, as shown previously, is exploited within the jihadist ecosystem as a content store. URL of the videos are extracted from the site to be shared with jihadi sympathizers. These links are shared in such a way that the video plays in the browser rather than on the site – ensuring the individual accesses the content in a Jihadi context.
[i] Rüdiger Lohlker, Theologie der Gewalt. Das
Beispiel IS, Facultas: Vienna, 2016.
Schuuhrman, Terrorism studies and the struggle for primary data, November 5,
All following verses of the Quran are quotations of: Muhammad A. S.
Abdel-Haleem, The Qurʾan (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2004).
See for example Mu’awiyya al-Qahtani, “The Biography of the Hero Abu Talha
al-Ansari”, Mu’assasat al-Mas’ada
For a contextual reading, Nico Prucha, “Abdallah ‘Azzam’s outlook for Jihad in
1988 – “Al-Jihad between Kabul and Jerusalem””, Research Institute for European
and American Studies (2010), http://www.rieas.gr/images/nicos2.pdf.
For example in the as-Sahab video release la tukallafu ila nafsak, June 2011.
This part of the sawt al-jihad (no.3, Ramadan 1424), is the exact same as
provided here: https://library.islamweb.net/newlibrary/display_book.php?ID=3&startno=0&idfrom=2&idto=8&bookid=81&Hashiya=3#docu
and also referenced by, for example, Yusuf al-Qaradawi: https://www.al-qaradawi.net/node/2072[ix] Chain
‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, I’lan al-jihad, electronic version, 1997.
Prucha, Nico, “Jihadists‘ use of Quran’s ribat concept”, in: Janes Islamic
Affairs Analyst, August 2009
Ghazwa is also the name of a magazine distributed by Lashkar-e-Taiba in
Hanley Jr, John T., et al. The Anatomy of Terrorism and Political Violence
in South Asia Proceedings of the First Bi-Annual International Symposium of the
Center for Asian Terrorism Research (CATR) October 19-21, 2005, Denpensar,
Bali, Indonesia. No. IDA-P-4096. INSTITUTE FOR DEFENSE ANALYSES ALEXANDRIA VA,
For discussion of bombings linked to ghazwat al-asir
Prucha, Online territories of terror: how jihadist movements project influence
on the Internet and why it matters off-line, PhD Thesis, Universität Wien |
Philologisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche Fakultät (2015) (p. 280)
Prucha, Nico. “IS and the Jihadist Information Highway–Projecting
Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram.” Perspectives on Terrorism
Al-Manhajjiyya fi tahsil al-khibra al-i’lamiyya, first part, 18. This
ideological handbook is part of a lengthy series sanctioning the media work in
general, published by the media groups Markaz al-Yaqin and al-Furqan in May
sawt al-jihad number 11, 17.
And why this exploitation allows Jihadists to maintain a persistent information ecosystem.
This is the second in a series of posts that uses data science to sort the anecdotal observation from evidence-based research. After the hype, what about the data? Part 2.
The recent reports
of UK government pressure on Automattic and WordPress to remove content posted
on Jihadology, has resulted in plenty of opinionated tweets and longer form commentary.
As the UK government has claimed that Jihadology could
be used as a convenient platform by extremists, the first past of the post
Whether this is a theoretical
possibility, or if there is evidence that Jihadology is used by jihadist
groups, and if so, how and for what purpose do they use it?
The second part of the post examines whether this is an isolated
is there evidence that individual
pieces of Jihadist material which pundits and researchers post on social media
and the surface web are subsequently exploited by Jihadist groups.
Is there evidence that when the aggregated
impact of individual tweets and surface web posts are analysed as a collective
behaviour, rather than as isolated events, that this creates a resource
which is exploited by Jihadist groups – resulting in pundits unwittingly becoming
part of the Jihadist information ecosystem?
The evidence shows that Jihadology:
is used by jihadist
groups as a convenient platform through which to share access to videos, and
is a source of media to
feed JihadistContent Aggregators, allowing material to be shared within a
Jihadist context while not being subject to removal.
recommended to fellow Jihadist sympathisers as a good place to find content,
emphasizing the content on Jihadology does not get banned or removed.
The data further shows:
More broadly, there is a network of researchers and commentators who are publishing Jihadist material on the surface web. The aggregated result of these individual actions is the unwitting creation of an online resource which hasbeen exploited by Jihadist groups and hasbecomepart of the Jihadist information ecosystem.
It is perhaps the greatest irony that Government sessions to discuss how to make it harder for Daesh to spread their message online, are often attended by researchers who frequently publish that same content on the surface web and social media.
Jihadology describes itself as a ‘clearinghouse’ for jihadi
primary source material, original analysis and translation services. As a
result, it allows researchers who lack the expertise or experience to find content
themselves to publish research.
For those with genuine access, Dawlah al-Islāmiyah, recently
released an archive of over 5,200 Media Foundation and Wilayat produced video
files (which included multiple language versions of some videos).
They have also followed the tradition of jihadist media groups of
releasing numerous astuwanat [barrels / أسطوانات] of content. Each “barrel” contains a
collection of material organised by theme, organisation, or specific media
production. While previously astuwanat were made available via CD, DVD or ISO
file, they are now more often released via torrent or direct download in Telegram
– although the banner images promoting them often still contain an image of a
In combination with the ‘Archive’ channels on Telegram, policy
professionals and researchers with requisite knowledge, language skills and
experience, should be able to access Jihadist material without using Jihadology
as a crutch with which they can limp through what should be basic research
tasks for those doing more than an undergraduate research essay.
Afterall, given their inability to master the simple task of finding content, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect those leaning on the Jihadology crutch to provide an authentic interpretation of what they find on the site. Furthermore, basing analysis on what is found on the site, leaves the researcher studying what is posted on Jihadology (which is not exhaustive), rather than the range of material extremist groups actually produce.
The current discussion of Jihadology and pressure on WordPress, occurs within the context of the UK government position that:
“It is reckless to publish terrorist propaganda online without safeguards to stop those vulnerable to radicalisation from seeing it”.
It should perhaps be needless to state that those who are
vulnerable to the message of Jihadist groups must as some point become
consumers of jihadist material or messages, if they are to be anything other
than theoretically vulnerable.
For Jihadist groups da’wa is given via printed material, images,
audio, video, speeches, conversations or communicated through specific
behaviours. Through this range of delivery methods, individuals are provided
with role models and theological guidance for actions, and in which they can
use online platforms to gain unfiltered access to the universe of content that
is of great importance to jihadist groups.
It is in this context that a report
from the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)
criticised social media companies for not acting fast enough to remove content.
Furthermore, the FT reported
that UK security officials argue Jihadology:
be used as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages
from outlawed terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda”. (emphasis added).
However, various European countries take different views on what to do about sharing content from groups they deem illegal or extreme. At the time of writing, in France Jihadology is unavailable.
Germany threatens fines for companies not reacting quickly enough to content posted, and the UK imposes prison time for those sharing this content. For example:
December 2018 – Abdulrahman Alcharbati (diagnosed as bipolar according to the BBC report) was jailed for seven years, for offences including posting ISIS videos on Facebook.
December 2016 – Abdul Hamid, who Judge Peter Rook QC accepted had ‘significant physical and mental health problems’ was sentenced to two years in prison for posting the video ‘No Respite’.
At this point, in the UK while two men with mental health problems have been sentenced to years in prison for posting ISIS videos, another man is lauded by academics for making the same videos freely available.
This raises important and complex issues as global communication networks exist alongside international borders, and the extent to which Jihadist groups and sympathisers use Jihadology as a platform to access content, and furthermore, the role Jihadology plays within the jihadist information ecosystem.
Reusing individual links
In the New Netwar, we observed that Jihadist groups and their supporters locate individual URL of videos posted on Jihadology and reuse those links within the context of their own channels and groups.
A similar theme was picked up in recently in the Twitter discussion,
following the story in the Financial Times, noting it is not just the
videopress links (which have previously appeared on Jihadology) but references
to the site itself. As @Charlie_KDN
noted in a tweet;
Each week 100’s of @Jihadology_Net links are published on ISIS TG chans and groups to rebroadcast suspended content on other platforms.
For example, links to videos including ‘Honor is in Jihad’ and
issues of al-Naba that have been posted on Jihadology are shared on pro-ISIS
Telegram channels (as are links to a site run by Pieter van Ostaeyen).
Once the videos are neatly archived by Jihadology – the links are then shared as collections. For example, on a single day in October 70 unique Videopress URL were observed being shared a total of 1,125 times via core Telegram channels.
A potential additional advantage to sharing the Videopress links is that it opens a video player in a web browser, providing a seamless experience for the viewer and ensuring the content is shared in a pro-Jihadist context rather than with a research focus.
In addition to using individual links to content, Jihadist supporters use Jihadology to feed material to their content aggregators. For example, a PasteThis.at link shared in a pro-ISIS Telegram channel, provided a single page from which users could access over 100 issues of al-Naba.
The actual files from which this PasteThis.at
page link to were stored on azelin.files.wordpress.com. Using this method
Jihadist groups and supporters can provide access to content from within the
context of their own discussions, Telegram groups, and theological worldview.
In addition, when Jihadist supporters build individual websites to aggregate content, they have been observed using Jihadology as a source of content. In this example the aggregator was built using Cloud9 which operates as part of Amazon AWS.
The al-Ajnad and al-Furqan options both direct uses to the pages on Jihadology for those entities. Those links have been clicked over 350 and 240 times respectively.
This cloud9 based aggregator also
contained a section in which users could select videos by clicking on the banner
advertising their chosen video. Many of the links made available in this
section were to videopress files, the link for which had previously been shared
As in the previous
example, Jihadology is used to provide a stable source for much of the content.
However, the way the site is built a user may be unaware of the actual file
location – allowing the aggregator to promote a Jihadist worldview
In addition, to
re-using individual links or feeding content aggregators, pro-jihadist or
pro-IS Telegram users have been observed posting recommending Jihadology as a
source of material. Much of these comments follow a similar theme.
In this example, the Arabic reads.
“and I prefer links to the
site jihadology which is specialized in studying jihadists as it states,
therefore it neither gets deleted nor
any content it hosts gets banned“
Within core IS channels links to
the main IS category on jihadology are shared, leading to videos, video series,
or the weekly editions of the al-Naba’ magazine:
كامل اعداد صحيفه النبأ من واحد إلى 110 ماعليك الا بالنقر على الرقم
وتتحمل. برابط غير قابل للحذف لن يفتح الرابط الا بعد تشغيل ألفي بي ان vpn
The text reads:
“All editions of the al-Naba’ magazine, from edition 1 to 110,
just change the number in the link and download it. This link will not be
deleted and do not open this link without employing a VPN.”
Another message advised:
هنا في هذه الروابط صفحات
“this site gives you all the links of the releases from wilaya
Halab of the Islamic State, the link does not get deleted.”
Conveniently, for the author of this message in a core IS channel,
viewers can quickly get the current videos by IS from the province of Aleppo.
It is important to the author of the Telegram message, that while
content may be removed elsewhere it is kept in a safe and orderly manner on
sites like Jihadology. This allows IS to project their content in an orderly
manner, allowing placement of – in this case – geographic located collections
to the benefit of ISIS.
This evidence demonstrates it is
not that users theoretically “could’ use Jihadology as a
convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed
terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda” … Jihadists
supporters and sympathisers do use it to access individual URL,
feed their content aggregators, and recommend
it to their peers because the content is not removed. Unfortunately, the
recommendation that users adopt VPN to access Jihadology may blunt the efficacy
of traffic analysis, a problem which may also be compounded by the many
commentators and policy professionals who have recently claimed to be regular
This means that while tech and
social media companies are pressured, and threatened with fines, the content is
still findable and IS supporters and sympathisers know it. As a result, ISIS (and other Jihadist groups) do not
have to struggle to maintain a persistent presence for their content online, in
addition to using Telegram, they can release the content and then allow sites like
Jihadology to archive it for them.
The defence of Jihadology:
In defence of Jihadology, there have been many commentators saying
a version of:
“the site is a vital research portal that provides a valuable service for academics, policymakers and journalists researching Islamist extremism”.
There have been numerous researchers who have recently been tweeting
that they regularly use Jihadology – effectively announcing they rely on
Jihadology as a crutch for their inability to locate or access Jihadist content.
Penetrating Jihadist networks (beyond the entry level Nashir type channels)
relies on being able to recognise the theologically encoded references and
follow the content. As such, one wonders if in future those publicly stating
they use Jihadology regularly may reflect on why they consider themselves qualified
to conduct the complex task of analysing content when they can’t complete the
simple task of locating that content by themselves. The inability to find
content, and thereby having to rely on what is posted on Jihadology, may
perhaps explain why Arabic language jihadist materials are so rarely referenced
or cited in research.
As locating content is a significant part of research production,
and given the number of people currently claiming they use Jihadology to find
content, it appears Aaron Zelin deservers credit on many more research papers
than he is currently recognised as making a significant contribution.
One wonders why commentators on Twitter talk of the valuable
contribute made by Aaron and Jihadology, only to reduce that contribution to a
reference to jihadology.net in a URL buried in a footnote when that same author
publishes their research?
Others steer away from the ‘value’ of the contribution, and
instead take the view that the “Content by itself does jack shit”.
This follows the rationale that;
“How the message is received and incorporated into a broader worldview and acted upon is one aspect of what we, perhaps too vaguely, call the “process of radicalization”.
The description of what is broadly an ideational model of
behaviour change highlights wider factors in the process. Nobody lives in a
vacuum, but ideational models still require an idea to fulfil a fundamental
role in this type of behaviour change process. As demonstrated above, links are not shared in
a vacuum. Jihadist supporters have become adept at accessing the content posted
on Jihadology and sharing it via Telegram channels and through Content Aggregators
which project and reinforce their theologically driven worldview. It is in this
context that potentially vulnerable people may access Jihadist media production.
It is naïve to imagine the content posted on Jihadology can only be
accessed by visiting Jihadology.net and searching the site for content.
While Jihadology was never intended to be a platform for jihadist groups, the data shows Jihadology has become a repository for video and written material exploited regularly by ISIS / Jihadist supporters and sympathisers. The links to specific videos or collections of material are shared within the context of aggregators or Jihadist Telegram channels, where the meaning of the content is discussed and Jihadology is recommended as a source that can be relied upon as it is not be deleted.
The data show users in Arabic language Telegram channels recommend Jihadology to their peers as a location for them to view or download content. However, is Jihadology an isolated case or is it unfair for European governments to pick on Jihadology and Aaron Zelin specifically? Is this an example of a wider research sub-culture which actively publishes Jihadist content across social media and the surface web?
Wider Research Sub-culture
To test whether there is evidence that Jihadology is an isolated case, we turn to the releases of the multilingual magazine Rumiyah using the #Rumiyah hashtag. If Jihadology is an isolated case, we would expect the initial release of each edition of the magazine, to be met with a surge of tweets about it on Twitter from ISIS accounts and supporters. The example below shows that the surge of tweets occurred.
Closer analysis of the data reveals that there are relatively few
original tweets, but many retweets. This tends to indicate that there is less
emphasis on conversation / interpretation and instead a greater focus on spreading
If these spikes were driven by ISIS supporters tweeting until their
accounts are suspended one would expect to see many accounts being active for
one release and a separate network active for the next release. One would not
expect there to be a network infrastructure to span numerous releases. The way
this would happen is if accounts were able share news of the release, without
To examine nature of the network of retweets (which make up a large proportion of the overall tweets), we used Social Network Analysis (SNA) of the retweets. SNA shows the structure of the network through which news of the magazine release flows. In the case of Rumiyah releases, SNA shows that there was a network of accounts which spans numerous releases.
While Twitter suspends many pro-ISIS accounts, this prominent cluster is able to maintain a persistent presence. A closer examination of this persistent cluster shows it is populated by Academics, Commentators, Reporters and organisations selling monitoring services.
However, are these accounts coincidentally engaged in discussion of the
meaning of ‘Rome’ and ‘Romans’ within Jihadist theology, lacking deeper Arabic
connectivity, or is this announcing the release of the magazine and / or
sharing content from it?
Note: the coincidental appearance is not as ludicrous as it first sounds. One of the ‘Lend me your ears’ series of videos featuring John Cantlie was released on the same day as an entirely disconnected toga party. Both just happened to use the hashtag #lendmeyourears at the same time. And both ISIS and toga partiers were surprised by the juxtaposition of content.
In reality a review of the tweets shows that this is not coincidental. The network of academics is publishing announcements about the release of the magazine, including the banners ISIS created to promote the release, and sections of the magazine, such as text and graphics.
The sharing of content
likely provides greater reach for the content than ISIS could have achieved
alone. Reaching as many people as possible was after all one of the main
purposes of producing and releasing the magazine, and media material more
The release of Rumiyah
issues was not the only times academics and commentators have probably provided
greater reach and longevity for Jihadist content than ISIS could have achieved
alone. Looking back over data from recent years, across a range of video announcements,
audio releases, and claims of attacks a pattern emerges.
al-Zawahiri – April 2017
In April 2017, al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri released a new speech. After an initial tweet by Elizabeth Kendall, covering the key points from the speech @marypgkeating responded posting a link to the speech on YouTube with ‘English subtitles’, while others join in retweeting.
In November 2016, al-Furqan released a speech by al-Baghdadi. The release was greeted by: “Wow – it’s Baghdadi” from Mr Winter, followed by the name of the audio so others could find it and comments on the contents of the speech.
Could this type of tweeting
be used to find content? To test this and mimic a ‘naïve searcher’ trying to
find content, a search on Google.co.uk in May 2017 (six months later) used the
title of the speech as tweeted.
In the results,
English translation posted by al-Naba on archive.org,
swath of other related ISIS documents including an English translation of a
speech by the Abu Muhammad al-Adnani; Official spokesman for the Islamic State
ISIS video from the province of Ṭarabulus which had a similar name. That link
lead to the video posted on Jihadology.net.
The test shows that this information could lead uninitiated users to access ISIS content. In addition, the data highlights that individual unwitting actions rapidly combine to provide easy access to a range of genuine ISIS content.
Battle footage and executions
In addition to speeches, there
were numerous ISIS videos of the fighting in Mosul. For example, the image from
this video release from Ninewe province, would have allowed those able to read Arabic
or Latin characters to search for the title of the video.
The ‘naïve searcher’ test
was conducted in May 2017, using google.co.uk with the English title. This returned
both the first and second parts of this series. At the time, ten of the top
fifteen results provided a link to the video.
The same test in December 2018 still returned the video via
Jihadology.net. This despite the same researcher (who
now receives funding from Facebook) giving a bullish claim about the difficulty
of finding IS content on social media and surface web.
He recently claimed;
“It isn’t just a case of googling “IS propaganda” and seeing what comes up (any more). This stuff isn’t readily available on the surface web like it used to be. If you’re not on Telegram or in a forum, the options are increasingly limited.”
Beyond the parochialism and evident Western habitus which leads a researcher to imagine the go-to search terms used by Jihadist supporters would include the word ‘Propaganda’, he is also apparently oblivious to the evidence that is available to anyone who bothered to do even the simplest research.
Just putting the content of one of his own tweets into a search engine delivers … IS propaganda. His assurances sound bold, but like many others that circulate within the field, it could not be considered “research-based in any rigorous sense” to use Alex Schmid’s phrase. That is “a very polite, typically academic way of putting it”, Nafeez Ahmed would likely suggest another.
Just like the previous insistence on media ‘decline’, fully
fledged collapse, content production correlated to territory, and the ‘naïve
notion’ of Utopia, claims about the findability of content have joined the list
of claims which have turned out to be, as Rüdiger Lohlker recently highlighted,
“an empty fog of words without inner content”. Quoting German philosopher G. W.
F. Hegel, the section quoted by Rüdiger Lohlker continues:
This sort of chatter, though lacking the idea of philosophy, gains for itself a kind of authority through its very prolixity and arrogance. Partly this is because it seems almost incredible that such a big shell should be without a kernel…
G. W. F. Hegel
While those at institutions with links to Facebook insist content is hard to find, the actions of ‘experts’ who publish Jihadist content enable even uninitiated individuals to locate the content about the fighting in Iraq and Syria (and elsewhere). In this particular case, the publishing of announcements, pictures, statements and other ISIS material was not an isolated to a couple of examples. The Twitter timeline documented here shows the extent to which publishing of ISIS content made widely available.
Responsibility and da’wa
One of the ways in which
terrorist groups, of almost all types, have sought to extend their influence,
is through claiming responsibility for attacks. Announcing attacks and
recognising those responsible for them is important for ISIS and the Jihadist
movement. As Abu Mus’ab al-Suri wrote in his Call for a Global Islamic
The issue of individual jihad was a great da’wah success. It had great influence on awakening the spirit of jihad and resistance within the ummah, and it transformed unknown individuals such as al Diqamsa, Salman Khatir, Sayyid Nusayr and Ramzi Yusuf into becoming symbols of a nation. The crowds cheer their names, people’s thirst for revenge is satisfied, and a generation of youth dedicated to the Resistance follow their example
Similarly, Anwar al-Awlaki explained (while discussing the
seventh meaning of victory);
Prevail here means the prevailing of their da’wah and not always their battles. They could loose (sic) the battle but their da’wah will achieve victory and be available. Nobody can stop their da’wah. The idea is that it will keep this group strong from generation to generation.
Seventh Meaning of Victory, Yusuf al ‘Uyayree Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad (Constants on the Path of Jihad) Lecture series delivered by Imam Anwar al Awlaki (Quoted as transcribed)
For jihadist groups,
statements claiming an attack or detailing a battle are not simple information
updates, they are part of da’wa; spreading their theology by retelling the
actions of the believers. Afterall, as Abdullah
Azzam argued, “Jihad is da’wah with a force”.
Following the 2017 attack
on the Manchester Arena ISIS issued statements in Arabic and English. A review
of data from the time shows a range of researchers, including those based in
the UK, either tweeted or retweeted the actual announcement, with collectively
100 retweets of just the four versions identified below.
A snapshot from Twitter on the day following the attack at the Manchester Arena, finds the OSCE held the World Counter Terrorism Conference in Vienna. The conference included discussion of how to make it harder for terrorist groups to spread their message, while some of those at the event were also publishing ISIS content on social media.
One of the attendees tweeted;
about the OSCE event,
the OSCE response to the attack in Manchester,
republished the ISIS claim of the attack,
before returning to the content of the OSCE event.
tweeting of announcements was not a single ephemeral event, claims of
responsibility were also shared for the attack on the Champs Elysees.
This has also continued in 2019, the current Director of ICSR published ISIS claims of responsibility for the bombing which killed US personnel in Manbij, Syria
The tweeting of this material from Rumiyah to speeches, videos and announcements, has the potential to increase the reach of Jihadist messages. In addition, as shown with the reuse of links to content on Jihadology, Jihadist supporters can also reuse that URL for their own purposes. In the example below from January 2019, an account with a username referencing ISIS responds to a story of Troop withdrawal by posting a link to a section of an ISIS video.
the numerous notable elements:
this specific clip from an ISIS video has 35,600 views on Twitter, despite claims by researchers this material is difficult to find (for them).
the original video clip was not posted by an ISIS, or Jihadist, account. It was an OSINT focused account, which a supporter subsequently used. This is one of the ways in which Jihadist groups exploit content sharing by commentators and pundits.
this indicates is an increasingly sophisticated approach in which a user can
create a seemingly pro-ISIS account, find a version of an ISIS video posted by
an OSINT commentator and subsequently exploit the reticence of Twitter to
remove such content from non-jihadist accounts by reposting the URL to the
tweet containing the video.
An approach fit for a 21st Century Sisyphus, Yes Minister or Monty Python
Tech companies are understandably reticent to remove content published by researchers. Yet while European governments pressure social media companies to remove content, and try to create upload filters and image hash databases etc. European governments are also giving things of value (salaries, grants, travel, and hotels) to researchers who publish this same material on social media.
As a result, while CTIRU, EUROPOL, Twitter and social media companies more broadly were making efforts to reduce circulation of ISIS content on social media – academics and for-profit organisations publish and republish jihadist content on the same social media platforms, and to an audience beyond that which ISIS could achieve alone.
It is perhaps the greatest irony that Government sessions to discuss how to make it harder for Daesh to spread their message online, are attended by researchers who frequently publish that same content on the surface web and social media.
It is an approach fit for Yes Minister, Monty Python or a 21st Century Sisyphus.
Why this matters to Jihadist groups:
First the evidence above
shows that jihadist groups recognise the opportunity to give da’wa by aggregating
links to content posted by pundits and researchers. Second, when Western
organisations and pundits immediately repost jihadist content, this is then
re-posted in pro-ISIS Telegram channels and used to galvanize the mujahid
Third, part of their
theological understanding of da’wa is to spread their message as widely as
possible. This goal of broad dissemination is considered successful if others
hear the message of their theology. This has been
covered in numerous documents written by a range of leaders of the jihadist
movement. These documents have emphasized that spreading their theology as
widely as possible is an important component of jihadist activity.
For example, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi recorded in his Constants on The Path of Jihad,
Jihad is not dependent on a particular land, but Jihad must be part of your life,
Seventh meaning of victory: victory of your idea (Anwar al-Awlaki’s translation is quoted above)
Viewed collectively, in the context they are used by Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, these points recognised that there will always be people to reach, both those to fight and those to give da’wa. Therefore, spreading the message is a constant for the Jihadist movement.
The importance of this task was also covered by ibn Nuhaas, who highlighted the The Virtues of Encouraging Jihad. He quotes Surah al Nisa 84,
“So fight, [O Muhammad], in the cause of Allah; you are not held responsible except for yourself. And encourage the believers [to join you] that perhaps Allah will restrain the might of those who disbelieve. And Allah is greater in might and stronger in punishment.”
The phrase “you are not held responsible except for yourself” is
interpreted by Jihadists within the context of da’wa to mean that they will be individually
judged on whether the individual sought to spread the word, not on whether
those who heard that message subsequently responded. Therefore, their
interpretation of the duty is to find ways to spread their theology.
purpose of the da’wa effort was also noted by Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his General
Guidelines for Jihad, (as-Sahab media) there were two elements to the
communication or media work.
First: Educating and cultivating the Mujahid vanguard, which shoulders, and will continue to shoulder, with the permission of Allah, the responsibility of confronting the Crusaders and their proxies, until the Caliphate is established.
Second: Creating awareness within the masses, inciting them, and exerting efforts to mobilize them so that they revolt against their rulers and join the side of Islam and those working for its cause
In more specific guidance he wrote:
Focus on spreading awareness amongst the general public so as to mobilize it. Similarly, focus on spreading a greater level of awareness and understanding amongst the Mujahid vanguard to create an organized, united, ideological, and aware Jihadi force that strongly believes in the Islamic faith, adheres to its rulings, shows humbleness to the believers and deals with the disbelievers with firmness. At the same time, full effort should be put in immediately to ensure that people with scholarly and propagational abilities come forth from within the ranks of the Mujahideen so that our message & belief set may be preserved and the call to Jihad may be spread amongst Muslims.
Researchers publishing the announcements are, in the eyes of jihadist groups who produced the original statements, spreading the da’wa which these acts were intended to give.
In the jihadists mindset, these researchers are tools for their divine mission. The reposting of links to Jihadology clearly indicates the Jihadist mindset on the issue – these are not two separate worlds but one interconnected ecosystem, however unwitting some of the participants are within it.
Pick on Aaron?
The data on content releases, from magazines to speeches, to videos and announcement of attacks, shows that Jihadology is not alone in publishing Jihadist content.
The data analysis shows a research sub-culture has developed in which posting jihadist content on social media is an acceptable norm; Aaron Zelin is just one part of a much wider network of researchers publishing ISIS and jihadist content on social media and surface web.
Given the extent to which publishing jihadist content on social media and the surface web has become a norm for pundits who make up this research sub-culture, it seems both unfair and entirely ineffective for European governments to target Jihadology and Aaron Zelin as if he and his website are an aberration distinct from the research sub-culture of which he is part.
To what extent can European governments threaten social media companies with fines (or individuals with prison time), when those same governments work with, give things of value to, or employ the researchers and commentators who post that same content on the same social media platforms?
Ethical approaches and leadership.
The kneejerk censorship vs. academic freedom arguments move nothing forward. It merely provides more time for Jihadist groups to distribute their material by exploiting the current way .
Researchers who publish ISIS theologically driven content (and
almost invariably without real analysis) often claim to offer these materials
to a wider audience for the ‘greater good’. The evidence shows, they are
complacently enabling the jihadist movement to remain a coherent online
presence – a situation inevitably to the advantage of the movement.
Years ago, when I had the privilege of working on a project with researchers at CEOP, their professionalism, integrity and approach eclipsed that which currently passes as the norm in what might loosely be termed Terrorism Studies.
They had a robust approach to mental health. Upon finding new material or images of child exploitation they did not franticly tweet them. Upon hearing of an attack, they did not reach for their phone to alert journalists to their availability for interview. Finding indecent images of children on a new platform, they did not begin pitching the story of the ‘next big thing’ to whoever would take it. When serious events caused the issue to make the headlines, they did not use it as a reason rush to the TV studios and tweet about being on TV.
These researchers did not spend any time on how many Twitter followers they had, and they certainly didn’t tweet about how many followers they had. From my limited experience of working with researchers from CEOP, they avoided behaviours that could make the situation worse, that could make the content more widely available, or could exacerbate the suffering of victims. From the evidence above, the study of terrorism is generations behind their example.
After the hype about the removal of ISIS Telegram channels, this post examines the data on the information ecosystem to sort the anecdotal observation from evidence-based research.
Central to the authentic understanding of the Jihadist movement is the ability to locate and understand the content. Unfortunately there is tendency among some researchers to give prominence to and draw conclusions from the limited content they can locate. This is a problem we have highlighted previously including in the New Netwar and in earlier posts:
Content, especially Arabic language content, is fundamental to the movement, yet the lingual & theological expertise to understand it is almost constantly neglected and lacking in research. This blind spot allows the jihadist movement to reorganize and recuperate out of view of contemporary research and commentary.
difference between the content commentators hype and tweet about because they
can find it, and the content that is important to the Jihadist movement, is one
of the fundamental and often poorly understood distinctions in contemporary
academic study of the Jihadist movement.
Two recent events, the recent purge of Nashir channels on Telegram and the UK government putting pressure on Jihadology, have, individually and collectively, highlighted how important it is for researchers to have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the movement to be able to locate content themselves. Research should get beyond the easy to find Nashir network, which are there to give entry level access to the movement.
The inability to penetrate beyond a few entry level daily news
channels, leads to challenges compounded by the lack of serious data analysis
on the extent to which material produced by ISIS, AQ and other Jihadist groups,
is actually available online.
In just the last few weeks there have been conflicting accounts.In one a researcher with funding from Facebook claimed that “This stuff isn’t readily available on the surface web like it used to be. If you’re not on Telegram or in a forum, the options are increasingly limited.” While Peter Neumann defended Jihadology by saying “the online nature of this makes it ubiquitous”.
Something being ubiquitous tends to be mutually exclusive with not being readily available. What these comments and other commentary has laid bare is how often commentary is based on opinion and anecdotal observation, at best, rather than evidence-based research.
In the following pair of two posts we look at the data behind these two events.
This first post examines theextent to which the removal of fringe Nashir channels on Telegram impacted the information ecosystem.
The second uses data analysis to test the recent UK government suggestion that Jihadology could be used as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, to answer the question whether Jihadology is used to access content by groups such as ISIS and examine whether some researchers and commentators play an unwitting role in the jihadist information ecosystem.
Part 1: The Telegram Cull.
BBC Monitoring reported that what they term the ‘Telegram cull’ followed attempts by ISIS to “beef up its presence on the platform”. Focusing on Nashir, BBC Monitoring continued …
jihadist group operates a network of multiple channels and groups on Telegram under the “Nashir News Agency” brand.
The focus on Nashir channels was repeated by others, Pieter VanOstaeyen noted; “Remarkably large take down of ISIS Telegram channels and groups tonight”and in a later Tweet “Of around 60 Nāshir News accounts I was following 4 remained active”.
Shiraz Maher, had similar problems, “It was a rough morning for me. Major take downs of the channels/groups I was in”. These and similar observations fueled the impression that the jihadist network was under significant pressure. “Not only ISIS accounts, everything that even remotely reeks of Jihad is getting hit” tweeted Pieter Van Ostaeyen. He later joked “There was a major disruption in the Dark Side of The Force, but they’re back again”
Jihadist Ecosystem – 10 December 2018
To ascertain the actual impact, a review of 410 human verified Jihadist groups and channels on Telegram, using the same methodology as the previous post, was conducted. It showed that the information ecosystem has remained resilient. The data from the 410 channels and groups shows that many survived the purported cull.
The followers / members of the groups remain at an average of over two thousand with the largest garnering over 70,000 followers. There are over 200 channels with more than 400 followers. However, it is currently unclear if these are different individuals in the groups – as discussed in an earlier post.
The time elapsed since the creation of the channel / group also provides clear evidence that the information ecosystem has remained uninterrupted. The average length of time a channel has been operating is greater than one year (Mean 380.1 and median 380.6 days).
The longevity of channels shows that recent chatter about losing access to channels has had an impact only on those with limited access to Jihadist channels, and who struggle to locate the content. For the wide range of jihadist sympathisers who can read and understand the meaning of the content, access has continued largely unabated.
Access to content shown by views on individual posts shows that users are accessing the content. Even an overly cautious estimate where all duplicate view counts are removed to avoid double counting, produces a conservative 135,256,000 total views.
Decoding the Swarm logic of the Media Mujahidin is in part based on understanding the network structure.
Analysing the last 500 posts from each of the channels / groups and extracting the data of posts forwarded from other channels / groups /users, produces the network graph.
The graph has 3410 nodes in total, 2831 (83%) of which are part of an interconnected giant component.
The network perspective confirms what the longevity and availability of accounts had suggested, that the information ecosystem has remained intact.
This is a repeat of much of the analysis on Twitter where an inability to find content was misconstrued as evidence the content did not exist.
Unfortunately, as we demonstrated in the New Netwar, at the same time that researchers were reporting they could find very little content on Twitter, the platform was used to drive a large portion of traffic to Jihadist content. Similarly, today commentary based on the narrow soda straw of Nashir and similar channels is to miss a wide range of the content, communication and meaning which occurs on Telegram.
Despite the chatter about a ‘wave’ of channels and groups becoming inaccessible and commentators losing access to large numbers of Nashir channels the network is still there and remains accessible to those who know how to access it. From the user perspective, the removals would barely rank as an inconvenience.
The findings of this post repeats the findings of the previous analysis of Telegram Channels. Those findings were:
The graph shows that Jihadist Telegram Channels form a series of interconnected clusters.
Despite attracting the greatest attention from Western commentators, the Nashir News cluster is a tiny part of the overall ecosystem.
AQ and ISIS clusters are distantly connected.
There is a cluster of Jihadist sympathizers and supporters which align closely with neither ISIS nor AQ.
The creation of content archives on Telegram ensures users who see themselves as murabiteen (horse backed warriors guarding Muslim territory) are able to access the content needed to conduct ghazawat (raids) onto other platforms.
Major IS cluster
A closer look at the major IS cluster shows 27 statistical interconnected clusters. Each of these clusters has a particular thematic focal point, including a range of specifc theological elements. Within this major cluster there is a further ‘core’ group of channels, as well as channels relating to a range of Wilayat.
Even within just this major IS cluster there is significant range of material which provides a deeper view of the movement than may be realised if one begins from a perspective that nashir are a core part of the ecosystem. The idea of ‘core nashir’ is an oxymoron. Losing access to nashir would barely register if one genuinely has access to the breadth of content at the core which, needless to say, is mainly in Arabic.
Adopting a soda straw mentality, where a small part of the information ecosystem – in this case the Nashir network – is talked up and given an overblown sense of prominence in the jihadist information ecosystem, inhibits the authentic understanding of ISIS and Jihadist activity online.
The soda straw mentality comes in numerous forms the study of jihadist groups and terrorism more broadly. Some are based on the very limited access to content. The recent commotion and Twitter chatter about a wave of Nashir deletions highlights many of those caught up with this particular issue as genuine access would deter anyone from thinking the nashir represent anything other than a small fraction of the activity.
This post replicates the earlier finding that the Nashir network is part of the ISIS Telegram network, and a very small part of the overall information ecosystem. As a result, much of the contemporary commentary suggesting Telegram (and largely Nashir channels) is the place to get content, is based on anecdotal observations derived from gazing down a narrow soda straw at an often fringe group of accounts. There is a largely unobserved network of accounts which meant those with genuine access barely noticed the removal of Nashir channels.
If commentary is based on a level of access to Jihadist content where removal of the Nashir channels is noteworthy, for example for the authors of this report,one has to view claims that the research authentically reflects the breadth of ISIS activity with a degree of skepticism.
Central to the authentic understanding of the Jihadist movement is the ability to locate and understand the content. Otherwise the study of Jihadist groups becomes dislocated from the meaning and purpose of the movement and produces interpretations of the movement using misplaced notions of crime,rap, and the ‘naïve notion’ of Utopia. In contrast, Jihadist groups have produced tens of thousands of documents, outlining their understanding and intended application of theology. For example, Anwar al-Awlaki described;
People like Shaykh Abdullah Azzam and Shaykh Yusuf al ‘Uyayree.They wrote amazing books, and after they died it was as if Allah made theirsoul enter their words to make it alive; it gives their words a new life.
Rasoolullah (sallallahu ‘alayhe wassallam) said the at-Taifah will prevail. Prevail here means the prevailing of their da’wah and not always their battles. They could loose the battle but their da’wah will achieve victory and be available. Nobody can stop their da’wah. The idea is that it will keep this group strong from generation to generation.
Seventh Meaning of Victory, Yusuf al ‘Uyayree Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad (Constants on the Path of Jihad) Lecture series delivered by Imam Anwar al Awlaki (Quoted as transcribed)
Put simply, whether it is a battle or a channel on Telegram, for Jihadists part of the victory they seek stems from ensuring their actions give da’wah. It is the encoded theological aspects such as this, rather than speculation about crime and utopia, that allows users to move beyond the Nashir based fringes. Being able to identify theological elements which allow individuals to access a greater breadth of Arabic content should be a basic requirement for anything above a degree level researcher.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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:
treating the current problem as unprecedented and exceptional
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.
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.
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.
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’.
[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.