Salil al-Sawarim, parts 2 (2012) and 3 (2013) – making the Islamic state

Part of the Salil al-Sawarim mini series – a blast from the past of pre-IS/ISIS materials that are of grave importance to the IS ecosystem and the framework of Sunni extremism.

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Any Sunni jihadist video incorporates elements and theological ‘narratives’ (question of habitus) that are visualized and implemented for their target audience – that target audience is Arabic native speakers who ideally understand substrates of Sunni extremism having been brought up within a Sunni Arab habitus. Sunni extremism has a text rich history and tradition as outlined before that predates IS and goes back to the first organized manifestation of Sunni extremism in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Already in the 1980s, when hand drawn maps and black and white photographs enhanced Arabic type written magazines, within the jihadist mindset Afghanistan was carved out of wilayat – that then became known to a broader audience due to IS media work and non-Arab foreign fighters addressing their target audiences in their native languages. Yet, with the majority of Sunni extremist materials being broadcast to an Arab target audience above all others – as the Sunni extremist movement is dominated by Arab members – the overwhelming majority of (online) releases by Sunni extremists in general are in Arabic and all non-Arabic media items have references to originally Arabic language writings.

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Salil al-Sawarim 2 (SAS2) shows fighters conducting hit-and-run missions, infiltrating Iraqi cities, such as Hit, Ramadi, or Haditha to capture and execute Iraqi counter-terrorist or government officials, and then withdrawing to the remote desert.

This modus operandi was a common theme for AQ in Iraq that morphed into the Islamic State today – with al-Furqan over the past decade and a half regularly releasing videos of hit-and-run missions, IED strikes on US vehicles, sniper attacks and hostages. While the 2012 and 2013 parts of Salil al-Sawarim videos highlighted pre-ISIS capability to undertake hit-and-run strikes disguised as Iraqi SWAT and police units, the 2014 release of the fourth part sought to document.

It is important to understand the full framework of Sunni extremism to comprehend the dynamics at work in the Arab world in particular as of 2018.Major video releases such as the four Salil al-Sawarim are the core of the post-2014 video productions of IS – showing the implementation of the “prophetic methodology”, the systematic execution of Shiites in Iraq (and later Yezides and bringing that mindset to Syria to combat the Alawite dominated Syrian army), the use of stolen Iraqi government police uniforms to infiltrate and kill as many as possible, the systematic intel-styled rooting ouf of high value targets; the coerced repentance of Sunnis in IS “liberated” areas, who have/had not other choice but to join or submit to ISIS – and who are now faced as of 2018 with a new wave of deadly sectarianism by the new forceful rule of Shiite militias driving their own agenda; the visualized concept of theological and historical coherent elements such as inghimas and shuhada’; the personal messages of (foreign) fighters addressing their Arab target audience in modern colloqiual Arabic to project Islamic knowledge in a preacher styled religious-authoritative setting and by thus are far more powerful and convincing than al-Zawahiri reading a script of the screen; all of these examplorary elements are tied to hundreds and hundreds of pages of Arabic text – historical as well as contemporary crafted by Sunni extremist key writers – and resonate within the Arab target audience and allow new members to initiate into this movement.

The second video also introduces footage that would become commonplace in “Islamic State” propaganda: a professionally-laid out shooting range where many masked men are training. The weapons shown include the classic Kalashnikov assault rifle, as well as the much glorified – and often seen in jihadist videos – Pulemyot Kalashnikova (P.K.) heavy machine gun. SAS2 is more sophisticated than its prequel; the attacks by the Mujahidin appear more precise, professional and deadly. SAS2 emphasizes the importance of media work, featuring an IS media operative preparing crates of DVDs to give out to Sunnis in the towns and cities that will be attacked but not immediately occupied.

A Mujahid is interviewed and introduced as a “soldier of the Islamic State”. Iraqi cars, gear and elite police SWAT equipment are handed out to the graduates of the training course.

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A Mujahid in full SWAT gear gives an interview; apparently looted SWAT boots and uniforms being handed out

The video also features action footage in various towns and cities at night. Iraqi soldiers and policemen approach IS fighters disguised in special police uniforms to greet them, believing they are comrades, only to be executed.

Those who IS considers high-value targets, predominantly collaborators and Sahwa officers, are at the centre of the film. The film showcases IS laying the groundwork to eventually take over the territory cleansed of functionaries loyal to the central Iraqi government.

A blog named “Islamic News Agency – da’wa al-haqq” described the second SAS movie as a documentary in Full HD, with 49 minutes of IS fighters in special counter-terrorism vehicles conducting assaults in various cities and killing dozens of Iraqi soldiers.

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The third video of the Salil al-sawarim series was released on January 17, 2013. By this time, the “Islamic State” was seeking to consolidate control of territory in Iraq and the purpose of SAS3 was to document its proclaimed campaign Hadim al-aswar (“take down the walls!”).

The video opens with a band of Mujahidin singing and the film is introduced as:

“a new phase in the conduct of jihadi operations, starting in the beginning of Ramadan, a.H. 1433. The Mujahidin have arisen anew and returned to areas from which they had previously withdrawn. This film is a documentary of some of the military operations in this important and historical phase for jihadist work in Iraq.”

The campaign “take down the walls” consisted of systematic attacks on prisons and had two strategic objectives:

  1. Exacting revenge for Sunnis, perceived as excluded, marginalized and persecuted by the ruling Shiite majority of Iraq;
  2. Replenishing fighter ranks with freed inmates who have little choice but to support and join IS.

The official banner of the al-Furqan release in the light of the campaign “take down the walls!”

SAS3 features freed inmates of the Tasfirat prison in Tikrit who have assumed or resumed leadership roles within IS. These men inform the audience of the hardship and torture endured in prison while relaying theological interpretations framed within the need to act.

The Sunni community is repeatedly portrayed as driven to extinction by Iranian-backed Shiites and Western enmity. In addition, every IS armed operation is framed as an altruistic act for the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

The specific Sunni extremist interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith are put in practice; for example, a Mujahid issues a call to prayer while standing next to slain enemies. Such footage is intended to portray IS as the only Sunni group willing to resist the Shiite takeover of Iraq and Syria.

The 80-minute long SAS3 concludes with a massive suicide bombing attack on an Iraqi army barracks near or in Mosul, undertaken by a Tunisian foreign fighter. He is identified as Abu Ziyyad al-Bahhar “from Tunis, the Muslim city where real men are made.” He describes his emigration (hijra) into Syria and then Iraq in 2013 and claims he did not face any problems while traveling. Using classical Sunni extremist rhetoric, he urges others to follow his example:

“This is not the end of the path – no (…) Many of our brothers have spent many years in prison (…). Hijra, jihad, hardships and combat; being imprisoned, blood, flesh [and sacrifice], this is the path. This is the path of Muhammad.”

The “Islamic State” is the first Islamist movement to make highly professional use of the Internet for “missionary purposes” (da’wa) related to territory seized from sovereign states and having had the ability to control these for a longer time. The control of strategic towns and even huge cities such as Mosul, parts of Ramadi (2014-2015), Fallujah, and Raqqa, the capital of the “Caliphate”, allowed IS media workers to continuously produce new video propaganda from both the ‘hinterland’ as well as the frontlines.

This enabled jihadist media strategists to convey several messages; firstly, they showcase IS members building and maintaining critical infrastructure for civilians, while fighting, bleeding and dying for their altruistic project on the frontlines. They also show IS fighting a rich blend of enemies, including air force raids by the “crusader alliance” and various Shiite, Kurdish and Christian militias on the ground. These sequences are intended to convey a sizeable Islamic state populated by people who have adopted a real Muslim identity.

This is a legacy new and less initiated members can quickly come to terms with: what are we fighting for (as was outlined by al-‘Utaybi in 2006 or Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi in 2005).

The dangerous difference is that a secret and hidden mindset comprising of over thousands of pages written in Arabic by AQ and later enriched by IS “scholars” is available – mostly unchallenged – online that showcases and demonstrates in often times humble and honest words by men who have bled and died for their beliefs, why any “true” Sunni Muslim should follow their path and reclaim violently territory lost by IS and/or attack clearly theologically defined enemies as legitimate to attack worldwide.

IS ecosystem: Salil al-Sawarim (2012)

Part of the Salil al-Sawarim series

The first part of Salil al-sawarim (SAS1) was released by “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) in 2012. After al-Qaeda in Iraq consolidated control over the Sunni province of al-Anbar, it declared the establishment of ISI, al-dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiyya – in October 2006. Al-Anbar province has an extensive border with Syria that includes the Syrian town of Minbaj, which became one of the main hubs for cross-border activity and which was later conquered by IS and lost in late 2016.

SAS1 features a rich blend of “narratives” that have formed an integral part of Sunni extremist identity since the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003/4. SAS1 features several prominent jihadist figures, including IS godfather Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani. The video portrays the Shiites as mere agents and henchmen of the Americans and shows a number of attacks on police posts and individuals accused of apostasy and collaboration – a signpost of what would increase in scale and pace leading to 2014, the declaration of the caliphate – as well as to mid-2017 with the increasing loss of territory and the return to the old tactics.

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Salil al-Sawarim 1 fostering sectarian tensions and praising the “Islamic State” Godfather Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi

The first film features two sequences that would later become “Islamic State” modus operandi, and appear prominently in SAS4. The first type of sequence depicts well-planned, well-organized and well-executed rapid attacks on police and army checkpoints in urban and remote areas of the country. For example, the film shows fighters killing uniformed officers in Baghdad in hit-and-run and execution-style shootings. The film uses audio recordings of Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani or Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi to justify these killings – a common example of how speeches of even long deceased figures of influence matter to the movement to date. The second type of sequence shows fighters raiding army outposts in remote areas. The aftermath of these attacks is also shown, including close-ups of dead Iraqi soldiers as proof of the success of the Sunni extremists – something that has in the second half of 2017 intensified again with the loss of territory and the systematic attacks on remote and undermanned outposts in the Iraqi desert.

In other parts of SAS1, suicide bombers give their testimony (wasiyya) while crude bombs and handgun silencers are proudly shown as “industrial produce of the State for the oppressed,” whom IS claims to be fighting for. Sniper scenes are an integral part of the first SAS movie, as in SAS4.

The post 2014 IS weapons workshops as a game changer on the battlefields is outlined in this article here.

SAS1 features a coherent blend of elements of Iraqi-based Sunni extremist theology, notably the theoretical offer to fellow Sunni Muslims, including those in the ranks and service of the Iraqi army, police and government, to repent (tawba) and become “true” Muslims again. This form of repentance and inclusion is important throughout the series, but reaches a climax in the fourth SAS video, which shows the mass repentance of Sunnis in areas that IS conquered in Iraq in early 2014.

This is a form of applied theology, an idea that originated with AQ, though it lacked the territory to fulfil its implementation. By contrast, SAS1 features former Sahwa (“Awakening Council”) soldiers repenting and joining IS while its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, calls on all Sunnis to renounce their loyalty to the Iraqi Shiite-led government of al-Maliki.

A targeted assassination in SAS1 set the precursor for what was about to hit Iraq, in particular the region of al-Anbar and the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and smaller towns such as Hit. And it is this exact modus operandi that IS has, as of 2018, reverted to with the strategy of denying their enemies a long-term prospect of controlling the terrority that was lost by IS according the the themes of the video and written propaganda released since August 2016.

SAS1 also features a speech by Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani entitled “we renew our invitation (da’wa) to every apostate, traitor and deviant to repent and to return [to the state of being a Sunni Muslim.” This offer is especially directed at “policemen and Sahwa members” and ceases to be valid when IS overpowers or captures them. According to jihadist reasoning, repentance can only be considered sincere and potentially accepted if the individual does so without coercion – so as not to violate the jihadist interpretation of Qur’an verse 5:34:

“unless they repent before you overpower them – in that case bear in mind that God is forgiving and merciful.”

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A speech by IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani and the direct application in the video

The first Salil al-sawarim video ends with a slogan that has since become commonplace in IS propaganda: “the Islamic State will remain” (baqiyya). The conclusion of SAS1 also makes clear the ambition of the “Islamic State in Iraq” to expand into Sham (Syria) and liberate Sunni Muslims from the regime of al-Asad.

Notes on the “Salil al-sawarim” series: the theological framework – from Amsterdam to the “Islamic State”

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The release of the video Salil al-sawarim (SaS) by ISIS’s media department al-Furqan in May 2014 demonstrated the sophistication of the jihadist use of social media to disseminate their video content. At the time, this had been Twitter – needless to write, Telegram as of early 2016 – and now in full swing as of end of 2017 – has replaced Twitter as the first entry point for new IS curated content. The Twitter metrics are detailed at Jihadica (two part series). Notions and sentiments visualized by videos such as Salil al-Sawarim over the past years have enabled to jihadists to project influence on a number of layers and levels, demonstrating how – in their mindset – Islamic territory has to be “restored” and “cleansed”. The first three Salil al-sawarim videos had been very popular, high quality edited and showed a mix of extreme obscene violence and ideology at play by IS’ predecessor “the Islamic State of Iraq”.

This post provides a few elements of  Salil al-sawarim 4, or the “clanging of the swords, 4”  as it provides an excellent example of a certain form of IS propaganda. More specifically, it is a key example of how IS uses theology to justify the actions of its fighters and legitimise its occupation of territory in Syria and Iraq – and the legacy it leaves behind as of end of 2017 with the loss of most of the territory the jihadists had managed to control, according to al-Quds al-Arabi.

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

Ibn Taymiyya is renowned for his “characteristically juridical thinking”[2] and viewed as a highly competent legal scholar. His writings are based – at least in part – on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).

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Ibn Taymiyya has featured prominently in Sunni extremist thought since the 1980s, when AQ established this ideology. The “Islamic State” has based all of its audio-visual output on the theology penned by AQ. The crucial difference is that IS has the territory to implement and enforce this corpus of theology on the population of the self-designated “caliphate”.

Ibn Taymiyya provides a legal framework based on jurisprudential findings for killing “an insulter of the prophet, regardless whether he is a Muslim or a disbeliever”.[3] Whoever insults the Prophet, according to Ibn Taymiyya, “must be killed, no matter if he is a Muslim or disbeliever, and has no right to repent.”

Within the Sunni extremist mind-set, the sword must be drawn upon anyone who opposes their worldview and specific interpretation of Qur’anic sources or the hadith (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad). In various AQ and IS videos, a specific sound effect subtly underscores references to Ibn Taymiyya’s writings. This sound effect, popular within jihadist online subculture, is that of a sword drawn from its shaft, clanging in the process.

Jihadists have also used the writings of Ibn Taymiyya to justify specific attacks. For example, Muhammed Bouyeri cited Ibn Taymiyya’s book before killing Dutch filmmaker and Islam critic Theo van Gogh in November 2004 in Amsterdam:

“Shortly before he [Bouyeri] killed van Gogh, he circulated the theological tractate on the “heroic deed” of Ibn Maslama[4] per e-mail to his friends. It is one of the 56 texts Bouyeri wrote or distributed. The fatwa of Ibn Taymiyya was among them also in a short leaflet-form downloadable from tawhed.ws titled “The drawn sword against the insulter of the Prophet” (al-sarim al-maslul didda shatim al-rasul). It is likely that the text not only influenced Bouyeri’s decision to assassinate van Gogh, but also his method.

The text details how and why to kill targets, first of all because of insult (shatm, sabb, adhan) of Islam. Bouyeri tried to sever van Gogh’s head with a big knife after he had shot him several times. In the text we find the passage: “the cutting of the head without mercy is legal if the Prophet does not disapprove it.” Moreover, the text advises multiple times to use assassination as an act of deterrence. The slaughter of van Gogh in open daylight seems like a one-to-one translation into reality of the directives we find in the text.”[5]vanGogh_Buyairi

User-created content on Twitter praising the killing of Theo van Gogh, outlining the theological obligation to hunt anyone who insults Prophet Muhammad or God.[6]

In addition, AQ alluded to the writings of Ibn Taymiyya in a video claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing targeting the Embassy of Denmark in Pakistan in 2008[7] after a Danish newspaper published cartoon depictions of Muhammad.

Ibn Taymiyya is among several traditionalists and historical scholars who have explored the subject of avenging the Prophet Muhammad. The work by Jordanian-Palestinian jihadist scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi stands out in its attempt to clearly outline who can be killed legitimately for insulting Prophet Muhammad. Al-Maqdisi extends this beyond individuals, and says any government deemed to have insulted either the Prophet, God or religion in general is a legitimate target for reprisal.[8]

In January 2015 two brothers, apparently trained in Yemen by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, opened fire in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. After the attack, a bystander filmed the Kouachi brothers shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet” (li-intiqamna al-rasul), before fatally shooting wounded French police officer Ahmad Merabet.[9] A video published on January 11, 2015 by the IS-affiliated media outlet, Asawitimedia, praised the attacks. The video is entitled “The French have insulted the Prophet of God – thus a merciless reaction.”

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“The French have insulted the Prophet of God”

There is a coherent message across jihadist writings, videos, and theological decrees that say vengeance restores the dignity of Prophet Muhammad. They command individuals worldwide to demonstrate their faith by responding violently to those who insult the Prophet.

IS’ fourth Salil al-Sawarim movie, in which retribution for insulting Prophet Muhammad is the underlying principle of a brutal and rapidly emerging sectarian war (harb ta’ifi), shows IS fighters seeking to exterminate the Shiites, portrayed as a group that has insulted the prophet, his companions, God, and in sum, Islam, since the early days of the religion. This is one of the key theological principles of “the Islamic State of Iraq” that then became even more important in the phase of conquest and expansion into Syria 2012 onwards. The countless videos by the then re-named “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” ensured to reformat its newley conquered territory – on the one hand, killing or forcing locals to join – or public “recant” and return to IS understanding of ahl al-Sunna wa-l jama’a – and on the other hand the systematic eradication of Sufi shrines, graveyards, sacred trees, Shiite mosques, Yazidi temples, Christian churches etc. as based on AQ’s penned and yet fiercly deployed theology by IS’ Godfather Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi – and embodied by the IS and the khilafa as tradition henceforth.

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Such nuances are at the very core of all Sunni extremist Arabic language releases – not since IS, but since the very 1980s. What we have witnessed is a subsequent expansion of theological steered acts across regions and countries where Sunni extremists in recent years have had the chance to set up a foothold – no matter how temporary that has been.

in the above sequences of screenshots  Ibn al-Qayyim, the disciple of Ibn Taymiyya, referred to as shaykh al-Islam by orthodox Muslims is cited in regards of the destruction of the “site of veneration by the rafidimushrikin”. The text serves as the jurisprudence for IS to act:

  • “it is not permissible [for Sunni Muslims] to leave the sites and places of shirk and idols untouched once the power to destroy them is established, even if just for one day. For these are the symbols of kufr and shirk are the from the greatest of evil. Therefore, it is not permissible to rule maintaining after conquering these sites.”
  • In Arabic: tawaghit, plural of taghut, a term used in reference of worldly tyrant rulers and idols, worshipped in violation of tawhid. The fight against taghut in jihadist mindset is bound by both elements – fighting worldly un-Islamic Arab regimes and thus restore the ‘true’ Islamic community (umma).

For example, SAS4 shows several sequences in which murdered Iraqi soldiers are described as Shiites, or rejectionists (rafida), a degrading term in Sunni extremist literature. The film marks Shiites as inferior humans who constitute the “interior enemy” because they are Arabs – in Iraq at the time as opposed to the Iranian intervention later. It follows that they are Islam’s most important foe and must be fought first and foremost.

Text and videos are not the only means of spreading the theoretical principle of avenging the Prophet; two of the most popular jihadist songs, or nashid, on YouTube reference Ibn Taymiyya and the notion of killing all those who insult Islam. A nashid by Abu Yaseer has had over 1.5 million views and can easily be retrieved online by searching for “Salil al-Sawarim”.[10] A related nashid with the title “the words [are now about action and hence] words of the sword” by Abu ‘Ali has over 3.5 million views.[11] The reference of the “sword” unites both nashid.

The four-part Salil al-sawarim series conveys three main themes:

  1. Punishment: It is legitimate to kill anyone considered a non-Sunni Muslim, in particular the Shiites of Iraq. Shiism
  2. by Sunni extremist standards is portrayed as a sect that has deviated from Islam and seeks to destroy Sunni Islam from within.
  3. Inclusion and representation: IS is shown operating carefully within Sunni territories in Iraq and Syria, assassinating key government figures and offering the Sunni majority a chance to reintegrate into the true Sunni community – represented solely by the “Islamic State” – by repenting (tawba) their sin of having worked for non-Sunni Muslims.

The chance to repent has become an integral part of IS strategy to consolidate newly-conquered territory. Key IS ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani have supported this strategy; it consists of annihilating key figures of the Iraqi government; punishing Sunnis who collaborated with the Americans or Shiites; and offering Sunni police and soldiers a chance to be cleansed of their sins and restored as true members of the Sunni community by renouncing their past actions and swearing allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

Salil al-sawarim has turned into a popular and active meme online. It fosters IS identity and creates role models in a fandom-styled environment where users can create and upload their own images to praise videos like SAS and the worldview they depict.

IS has become more than an idea or a physical movement. It has managed to spread its “values” and theological reference points across a wide range of online platforms in a number of languages, primarily Arabic.

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

[2] Wael b. Hallaq: Ibn Taymiyya against the Greek Logicians. Translated with an introduction by Wael Hallaq, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, xxxiii.

[3] The book is available online on various websites and outlets, for example Dorar al-Sunniyya, www.dorar.net. A print version is available in most religious book shops in Arab countries. The image is a book cover illustration of a commented version published as: Ibn Taymiyya, al-Sarim al-maslul ‘ala shatim al-rasul li-shaykh al-Islam Taqiyy al-Din Ahmad bin ‘Abd alHalim Ibn Taymiyya al-Harrani, Shibra al-Khayma: Alexandria and Medina, 2008.

[4] As the author of the citation Philipp Holtmann explains, “terrorists are called upon to identify with the Muslim Ibn Maslama who volunteered to kill Muhammad’s critic Ka’b bin al-Ashraf.” Philipp Holtmann, Virutal Leadership in Radical Islamist Movements: Mechanisms, Justifications and Discussion. Working Paper, The Institute for Policy and Strategy, Herzliya Conference February 6-9, 2011, http://www.herzliyaconference.org/eng/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/PhilippHoltmann.pdf

[5] Ibid.

[6] The text praises Muhammad Bouyeri as a jihadist role model. Not only has he acted to avenge the violation of van Gogh against religion in general, but rather he, according to the text, denounced the worldly law in the Dutch court, claiming to only acknowledge shari’a law.

[7]A video entitled al-qawla qawla al-sawarim, “the words [are now about action and hence] words of the sword”, shows the testimony of the suicide operative identified as a Saudi by the nom de guerre Abu Gharib al-Makki [the Meccan]. The one-hour video justifies the attack; “the time to talk is over, the time for actions (i.e the swords must be drawn) has come to avenge the insults of Prophet Muhammad”.

[8] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, al-Sarim al-maslul ‘ala sabb al-rabb aw al-din aw a-rasul sala l-llahu ‘alayhi wa-salam, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l Jihad.

[9] A detailed oversight is provided by the BBC, also outlining in depth the attack by IS member Amedy Coulibaly who executed several hostages in a Jewish supermarket, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30708237

Amedy Coulibaly uploaded a video where he pledges allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Part of his video is used in one of the ‘official’ IS videos to applaud the January 2015 Paris attack, Risala ila Fransa, Wilayat Salah al-Din, February 14, 2015.

[10] Hosted by the YouTube Channel “The Great Breakfast War” – the channel & link have been deleted. Thank you YouTube!

[11] This singer was featured in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula videos as far back as 2003/4.

Online Jihad: Data Science

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

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

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

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

‘Doubt Upon The Strength Of al-Mujahedeen’

The Media War Upon The Islamic State claims:

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

‘Media Blackout’

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

The Media War Upon The Islamic State claims:

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

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

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

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

ansar 1000 tweets are 1000 arrows

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

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Online Jihad: Data Science

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

In 2017, highlighted in an earlier blog post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The March 2016 Brussels Attacks – 10 Reasons by the “Islamic State” & the context of the Sunni extremist universe

umma wulud3 raqqa

On March 22, 2016, two bombings hit the city of Brussels. The bombings at Brussels airport and the metro station Maelbeek, which is located in the heart of the city and close by many European Union institutions, left 32 people dead from around the world – not including the three suicide bombers. As would later be the case with the Manchester bombings (May 22, 2017), several days later documents by IS were released to outline and justify these attacks. Based on theological grounds and grievances echoing from within the territory held by IS, a document was published on March 25, 2016, by al-Wafa’ – an official media organ of the “Islamic State”. The text is entitled “Ten Reasons to Clarify the Raids on the Capital [of Belgium] Brussels.” Penned by a woman by the nom de guerre of Umm Nusayba, ten reasons are clearly outlined why suicide bombers had attacked the airport and metro station.

This Arabic language text has not played any role, in the media reporting or the wider academia, to understand the motivation behind this terrorist attack – in the words of the terrorists. The same re-occurred when a similar text was released days after the May 2017 Manchester attack (here). It almost seems that ISIS has the luxury of disseminating their coherent extremist writings well knowing it reaches their target audience and bypasses most of the non-Arabic speaking counter-terrorism, media and academic analysts. Apart from being published on Telegram where a wider range of ISIS sympathizers is initiated into this mindset – and where most speak Arabic. The text references theological nuances and sentiments such as shirk as outlined earlier and maintains the obligation to attack the mushrikin and to “shake their thrones”.

“The Brussels raid that shocked the world and shook the thrones of the tawaghit[1] while the men of the caliphate – by the grace of God – have the capability to strike anywhere. Despite heightened security efforts.”[2]

The author then outlines the ten points which had been disseminated as well using the hash tag “Brussels raid” (ghazwa Bruksil) on Twitter while the document was released on Telegram. The ten points have to be read from a theological perspective from within the Sunni extremist ecosystem to understand the gravity and depth:

  1. The author describes Brussels as one of the main urban hubs where attacks against Muslims are organized. Addressing non-Muslims, the author asks, “isn’t Brussels the capital of the European Union which operates against Muslims? [This is] where hostile decision processes are undertaken against Muslims from within your [i.e. EU] territory.”
  1. Brussels was chosen furthermore as these decisions result in “you bombing Muslim civilians and innocent children, yet you claim to only target fighters of the Islamic State. Is an infant a grown male IS fighter and are the houses of civilians part of the barracks of the men of the Islamic State? Your mistakes in your war against the Islamic State have led you to dance in a cycle of death; for you are targeting unarmed civilians. Therefore, our response is proportionate to what you have done.” This reference is clear to those who are initiated into the Arabic-language dominated Sunni extremist mindset and ecosystem. It is a reference to Qur’an 16:126 as discussed only here in the framework of a just war against non-Muslim aggressors (as opposed to revenge operations within the sectarian war inside the Middle East). “You are the ones that started this wicked cycle of violence, God, exalted and might He is, says: “So if anyone commits transgression against you, attack him as he attacked you.”[3]

IS is part of the Sunni extremist tradition – and has to be considered within this context of an ocean of Arabic language Sunni extremist materials 

This divine equation of life – by jihadist standards – is not new or unique to ISIS. Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, former bin Laden bodyguard, first leader of al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia and prolific theologian published online in 2002 a 14-page long assessment of the hostage operation in Moscow by Chechen jihadists. In the wake of the hostage crisis at the musical “Ost-West” killing the hostages had been the last resort and not the main intention of this operation. Had this been at the center, the hostage-takers would have had lured the Russian Special Forces into the theater to kill as many as possible before starting to execute the hostages. “The Mujahideen do not desire to massacre civilians as the Russians do in Chechnya. For had this been the objective of previous operations then the Russian people would appreciate to a great extend the voices of the hardliners,[4] granting them to increase death and mayhem in Chechnya.”[5] Rather, as al-‘Uyairi outlined, the failure of “the Mujahideen to execute all hostages and likewise to blow up the building had not been their prime objective (…); killing the hostages was only a last resort for the Mujahideen.”[6] As

“the world is allied against the Chechen cause, America and Europe are in unison with Russia. When the Russians had been allowed [by their allies] to penetrate the territory of Georgia to fight the Mujahideen and the muhajireen, there had been no other option. All the states of the world remained silent regarding the massacres committed by the Russians in Chechnya. The Chechen people received no help at all from the world, neither mercy nor sympathy.”[7]

The right of self-defense, by all means, is the underlining justification. For how else could “the people of Chechnya defend themselves against the invaders[8] (or in the sense of the attack in Brussels: military aggressors that indiscriminately bomb targets in ISIS held territory) who came to their land, corrupting the religion and this world (al-din wa-l dunya).”[9] In the Russian context, al-‘Uyairi reasons any kidnapping and execution, any harm against the Russians as justified in the Qur’an and therefore as approved by shari’a law standards. He references Qur’an 2:194, but only the part suitable for his interpretation in the context of cloaking the ‘an-eye-for-an-eye’ equation in the divine language, as much as Umm Nusayba did in the 2016 document:

“So if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you, but be mindful of God.” (2:194)

Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, AQ leader in Iraq and the Godfather of IS used the very same part of the Qur’an to reason the kidnapping and execution of four staffers of the Russian embassy in Bagdad. The crimes committed in Chechnya and the Russian presence in Iraq had been the prime motivation to individually punish the members of the embassy for the Russian military engagement in the Caucasus – and ten years later to dispatch suicide bombers to attack critical infrastructure in Brussels and hit civilians.

Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, even though dead for over a decade, has left a substantial legacy. His speeches are from time to time featured in new IS videos and highlight the claim of fighting on behalf of the “prophetic methodology” that was conveyed by avantgardist fighters and leaders such as al-Zarqawi and others.

The reading of this particular verse is not only applied in the framework of kidnapping or executing individuals, but also to sanction greater attacks. As Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (Mustafa ‘Abd al-Qadir Sit Maryam Nasir), the alleged mastermind of the Madrid bombings (2004) wrote in an analysis to reason the London bombings in 2005,

“for our Qur’an and the sunna[10] of our prophet command us to refrain from killing women, children and pious men[11] devoted to religious worship, if they are clearly distinguished from men [of war] and have not fought [against Muslims]. However, the prophet commanded us to show hostility to those who committed aggression against us by committing the same aggression against them. Written in for you in the [holy] script is:

“so if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you.” This is a repetition of what had been prescribed for you in the Holy Script “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”[12] Our historical as well as contemporary scholars, however, decided that the enemies, when they have slain women, children, and non-combatants, it is our obligation to treat them likewise; compelling them to cease committing their crimes [and as deterrence]. This ruling is not just made by the scholars of the Mujahideen and the terrorists (irhabiyyin), but by all of the scholars, with the exception of the vermin and the apes of the munafiqin (hypocrites).”[13]

Al-Suri equates the tens of thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to the deaths of 9/11:

“if we summon the death-toll of our two operations [9/11] to now [2005] as not more than 4,000 killed civilians since September 11th.”[14]

According to al-‘Uyairi, without any reference to works or scholars, the above mentioned parts of the Qur’an in it’s selective reading and interpretation are proof of sanctioning jihadist operations such as the Moscow theater siege, or as al-Suri related, to bomb the London public transportation. Or Brussels in 2016. For, in jihadist mindset,

“these verses are thoroughly discussed among the scholars [of Islam] and the like. In short, it is permissible for us to punish them as they punish us. For the Russians target innocent women and children, killing them intentionally and unabated. The Russian people are the ones supporting the military; they are the ones electing[15]them upon their nomination by the military hardliners. For if the people of Russia do not drink of the cup the Chechens have to drink of, for then they will not feel the bitterness. For if the Russians taste (dhaqa) the fire of war, then this will surely lead to the withdrawal of the peoples support for the operations of the army.”[16]

This is part of the basis of the partial reading of Qur’an 2:194 within the Sunni extremist ecosystem. All of the above-cited works are translated from Arabic. All writers had been native Arabic speakers and their works and actions continue to inspire the current as well as future generations of extremists. The readers of Umm Nusayba’s 2016 reaction to the March Brussels attack have most likely seen videos of al-Zarqawi killing hostages and at least parts of al-‘Uyairi’s work. This is part of the materials disseminated (either in full or partially) on Telegram, where Nusayba’s authoritative work, as published by ISIS official media al-Wafa’, has been released.

Ten Reasons to Attack Brussels (continued)

The third point is in particular relevant, as the growing polarization comes into play, roughly eight months after the refugee crisis hit Europe in the Summer of 2015.

  1. Brussels was attacked “as within your territory Muslims are threatened all the time and anywhere. Even up to the point of Christian extremist groups threatening Muslims in their mosques, turning them into targets and killing them. And your governments do nothing, turn a blind eye to these actions and do not refer to these acts as terrorism.” Umm Nusayba again references the above detailed parts of Qur’an 2:194 only in the active past tense: “therefore we have attack you as you have threatened and attacked (…).”
  2. “You have insulted our messenger – peace and blessings upon him – in your capital. You have sprayed graffiti insulting Muslims on their mosques and hung pictures of pigs as well on the mosques in your capital. [Belgian] Muslims organized demonstrations to have these attacks prohibited and those responsible punished. Your government has done nothing. And you believe we will forget the insults of our prophet? By God, never! And be it ten years later, we will and always will avenge our prophet and our mosques. Wherever our prophet has been insulted, we will strike in revenge. This is reason enough to conduct raids against you and wipe you out completely by nuclear weapons. You do not understand the depth of our love for our prophet. When the time is right, we will get even.”
  3. “For you imprison the virtuous, pure, chaste Muslimas or have you forgotten what you have done to our sister Malika [El-Aroud]?[17] You even took away her citizenship, all she did was marry a man who is a mujahid and tell the story about You took away her citizenship because she is a Muslima and you despise her Islam (…) while you make decisions to combat Muslims. (…) you may have forgotten her, we haven’t. Neither have we forgotten her sisters of the pure, virtuous Muslimas that are imprisoned by your hands. We have avenged them.”
  4. We attacked Brussels “for you imprison our men such as [the Paris master mind] Salah ‘Abd al-Salam, until when will he be held in prison? He did not attack your country and out of passion for France you arrested him. Don’t you understand that we are passionate for our imprisoned brothers (…)?”
  5. “The pressure on Muslims and the ban of the hijab as ruled by the Belgian courts. Likewise, the ban of the hijab in schools. You claim religious freedom and women’s rights, yet it does not apply to Muslims and their interests. You have forfeited your every principle and philosophy. (…) you assume Muslims are weak[18] and can be oppressed as you please, we, however, will not forget and therefore we have struck in revenge.”
  6. “You lie. Your media lies. You accuse Muslims of injustice and enmity. Even in the weakest phases [of the history] you repeat these accusations against them. You in your lies are misguiding people and frame Islam as a religion of savagery (…). Yet you switch the truth and take no responsibility for perpetrating crimes on Muslim soil and occupying it (…).”
  7. “We have been commanded to combat [non-Muslim] people until they confess “there is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” (…) as reported by Ibn ‘Umar, the messenger of God – peace and blessings upon him – said: “I am ordered to combat the people until they confess there is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God; and they profess the prayer and give zakat. For if they do this, then I will restrain myself of their blood and their possessions, except for what is rightfully to be claimed by Islam and by their account for God.”

This statement made by prophet Muhammad is cited from time to time in the Sunni extremist ecosystem to justify attacks and to emphasize their absolute claim of fighting for the absolute Islamization of the world. Umm Nusayba references the source of this hadith as conveyed by al-Bukhari 17/1, number 25 and Muslim 53/1, number 22. The same hadith has been used by one of the key theologians for the AQ driven resistance in Iraq at the time while being a core member of AQAP in Saudi Arabia. In an article by ‘Abdallah bin Muhammad al-Rushud for the first bi-weekly electronic al-Qa’ida magazine, Sawt al-jihad (“the Voice of Jihad”), he cites the hadith in an article on the viewpoint of “shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya” to theologically outline the justification for violent acts in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. In a second article, he states this hadith as the commandment to “combat people in general without discrimination as long as your objective is that they enter Islam.”[19] Umm Nusayba continues:

“I bring the joyful news to you that this religion will engulf the whole world (…). By God, we do not fight but to raise the speech of God and to spread justice among the people. There is no distinguishing between Arab and non-Arab, except for God-fearingness and piety, no white is more worth than black, except for piety.”

  1. “Our amir, our caliph, our leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – may God protect him – has promised you revenge. He keeps his word and does not issue empty threats. Has he not promised revenge to anyone harming Muslims? Has he not told every taghut and their allies “for by God, we will avenge, by God, we will avenge and if it takes years.”[20] What is to come, will be more devastating and bitter.[21] His soldiers, operatives and followers are everywhere, waiting for the right time (…). We pledged loyalty and his orders are as [decisive] as a sword on our necks.”

The outlook that “Muslims are not being returned to the status they have been in the past” concludes the document. Because now there is an organized Sunni representation that is “a state and a caliph which is for Muslims, which won’t be destroyed as you would like to see it.” The greatest success ISIS reclaims is the conquest of territory and the consolidation under a formalistic rule of law, that is shari’a law by the most hardcore and extreme interpretation thereof – besides Saudi Arabia. By basing the legitimacy of rule on literally hundreds of thousands of historical writings of theological nature ISIS claims an Islamic statehood on highly coherent principles. Attacks in Brussels and elsewhere are framed as “state” foreign policy in the sense of western governments having formed an anti-ISIS coalition in combination with military action against the group in Syria and Iraq in particular. The “statehood” of ISIS is based theological literature – past and present. Authors in this repository, which is freely accessible online to anyone having the Arabic language skills needed and the openness to initiate into this engulfing, state of mind.[22]This ranges from Ibn Taymiyya to Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab as well as ‘intermediary theologians’ that had been key functionaries for the ‘classical’ al-Qa’ida – such as Yusuf bin Salih al-‘Uyairi or ‘Abdallah bin Muhammad al-Rushud. The application of this state of mind, embodied by the “Islamic State” and projected to the outside via social media in over two thousand official videos makes this Sunni extremist project one that has come true – and that is worth fighting for. In a simplified definition, ISIS represents the abode of Islam (dar al-Islam), promising “grievances for western states caused by lone lions who have assaulted them, penetrating deep in their flesh without mercy.”[23] For ISIS the war, despite territorial losses, is won. It has set the “correct creed as a seed in the minds of thousands of Muslims inside and outside of Syria and Iraq. Giving birth to a new generation on the grounds of the holy book and the sword.”[24]

[1] The “tyrants” as outlined in the previous chapters; the reference is commonly used for defined un-Islamic rulers in the Middle East and also references western governments who are engaged in a new crusade against Islam.

[2] Umm Nusayba, “’ashara asbab bayyina l-ghazwi Brussels al-‘asima”, al-Wafa’, March 25, 2016. Obtained on Telegram.

[3] Qur’an 2:194

[4] Lit.: “increase the  voices of men of war”.

[5] Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, ‘Amaliyya “masrah Moscow” madha rabiha ‘l-Mujahideen minha wa-madha khasiru?, 5-6.

[6] Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, ‘Amaliyya “masrah Moscow” madha rabiha ‘l-Mujahideen minha wa-madha khasiru?, 5.

[7] Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, ‘Amaliyya “masrah Moscow” madha rabiha ‘l-Mujahideen minha wa-madha khasiru?, 6.

[8] Lit.: “repelling the attacking aggressor”, daf’a al-‘adu al-sa’il. This is a reference to Ibn Taymiyya and also a slogan that was used in the Sawt al-Jihad magazine of the first generation al-Qa’ida branch in Saudi Arabia where al-‘Uyairi had been a core media member and its first leader.

[9] Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, ‘Amaliyya “masrah Moscow” madha rabiha ‘l-Mujahideen minha wa-madha khasiru?, 5.

[10] In the meaning of “tradition” but in the jihadist mindset as the role model for the proper conduct of “customary procedures.”

[11] Lit.: “men of religion” (rijal al-din).

[12] A reference to parts of Qur’an 5:45:

“In the Torah we prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an equal wound for a wound.”

[13] Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. “Risala ila al-Britaniyyin wa-Europiyyin sha’ban wa-hukumat bi-sha’n tafjirat London”, July 2005, al-muqawamat al-Islamiyyat al-‘alimiyyat, 35.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lit.: “giving their endorsement to them”.

[16] Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, ‘Amaliyya “masrah Moscow” madha rabiha ‘l-Mujahideen minha wa-madha khasiru?, 7.

[17] The story of Malika El-Aroud and her husband is available in the interview by Florian Flade: “Das Leben und Sterben des Moez Garsallaoui”, OJihad blog, October 17, 2012,

https://ojihad.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/das-leben-und-sterben-des-moez-garsallaoui/

[18] mustada’ifin

[19] ‘Abdallah bin Muhammad al-Rushud, “al-muqassid al-thani min muqasid al-jihad: al-da’wa ila llah” Sawt al-Jihad number 18.

[20] Risala ila al-mujahidin wa-l umma al-Islamiyya fi shahr Ramadan li-amir al-mu’minin Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi, Mu’assassat al-Furqan, Ramadan 3, 1435.

[21] This is a slogan that was utilized by ISIS in the wake of the attacks in Paris, November 2015. Videos released by wilayat Homs in November 2015 show French foreign fighters responding to the attack. The same media tactic was repeated shortly after the attacks occurred in March 2016 in Brussels (w. al-Raqqa, March 26).

[22] Worldview might come to mind from a a-religious western angle, yet it would neglect the appeal of physical-spiritual life in this world and the continuation of one’s existence in the ‘afterlife’ and paradise.

[23] Mu’awiyya al-Baghdadi, “madha jana al-tahaluf al-duwwali khilal akthar min ‘amayn min harbihi dudd al-dawlat al-Islamiyya, Mu’assassat Ashhad, May 2, 2017.

[24] Ibid.

Part 7: How does IS use Telegram to recruit European foreign fighters and terrorists?

part 7 header

Throughout the Summer of 2016 apparent lone wolf attackers struck in France, Germany, Russia[1] and the U.S. The attackers acted on behalf of the “Islamic State” and in most cases selfie-styled videos had been made and uploaded to IS media operatives of Amaq Agency (wakalat al-‘Amaq). The short videos followed a classical Jihadist modus operandi, with the exception that these had not been foreign fighters, but rather either local French, American citizens, or as in the case of Germany, refugees from Syria or Afghanistan. Omar Mateen, U.S. citizen born in America, attacked a night club in Orland, Florida in June 2016, leaving 49 people dead and 53 injured.[2] Jihadist users on Telegram had been quick to disseminate pictures of Omar Mateen – after these had been released by the mainstream media – to praise the attacker as a martyr and a “soldier of the caliphate.” A trend on Telegram quickly emerged to refer to such attacks under the hashtag “in your homes”, a reference to the jihadist understanding of the division of world into “dar al-Islam” (abode of Islam) and “dar al-kuffar” (abode of disbelievers). As French, American and other nation’s combat aircraft continue to bomb IS, the “dar al-Islam”, IS seeks to inspire and theologically guide attackers such as Omar Mateen to conduct revenge operations in the “depth of your abodes” (fi ‘aqr diyarikum), as the Arabic hashtag for “in your homes” advocates. Whatever the jihadists produce for publication, always is theologically coherent.

The Syrian refugee who failed undertaking a suicide bombing attack in Anspach, Germany, as well as the Afghan refugee who at random stabbed passengers on train in the region of Würzburg had filmed their final statements beforehand. These statements are – just like the 9/11 “martyr’s” videotaped farewell message or the 7/7 bombing attackers last words – the testimony (wasiyya) as much as a legacy. Allegedly, Telegram was used to communicate from within the caliphate with at least some of the attackers who then in turn used the app to upload their self-filmed wasiyya. This video was then edited and branded with the Amaq logo and released to the IS Telegram community with the intention that the swarm with fan it out to other online sites and platforms for maximum visibility.

The value of continuing its successful influence operation has driven IS on Telegram to dedicate media channels and media operatives to translating and producing new content for a specific French, German, Italian, English, Russian, and Bahasa Indonesia audience. All of these non-Arabic materials are theologically coherent with the universe of over 30 years of Sunni jihadist writings and videos. This is not new, and was also part of AQ’s strategy to draw potential recruits in via the Internet, but IS has formalized the process having the advantage of time, money, territory and dedicated resources to elevate this process. This has led to a two-fold production line: (i) official and (ii) user generated content. Together, these packages carry a range of messages which focus on the importance of the individual to take action. They highlight the ethos captured in the ‘Open Source Jihad’ as set by AQ’s English language magazine “Inspire” where barriers to entry are low and anyone can contribute. For example, they encourage individuals to realise that not all attacks have to be complex coordinated operations, nor use sophisticated weaponry, nor focus on a specific high profile target. Instead they articulate that anyone can strike a blow for the Islamic State. A video, for example, published by IS in April 2015 entitled “Hunt the Safavids” a French suicide bomber speaking in French (with Arabic subtitles) eulogises Muhammad Merah, the Toulouse shooter and clearly phrases what ideologues have authoritatively stated for many years: hijrah is an obligation, however if one cannot physically join jihadist movements in the Middle East and elsewhere, attacks are a legitimate substitute. Both actions grant the individual entry to paradise, the objective that drives Sunni extremists worldwide.

On November 26, 2016, IS released a video in French with Arabic subtitles. The video was published by Furat Media, a dedicated IS-media institution that produces content for non-Arab(ic) audience. As always video is in 16:9, full high definition, and features eulogies and praise for the span of lone wolf attackers in 2016. The film, entitled “Sur leur pas”  demonstrates vividly how IS uses and perceives Telegram for their purposes.

Part 6 sur leur pas furat.jpg

Screenshots of the video highlighting attacks, assailants and encrypted communication on Telegram.

Assailants are introduced and areas of attacks highlighted. Combined with mainstream media footage of respective attacks, IS boosts these as revenge operations and part of the “Islamic State” ‘foreign policy.’ Telegram chat exchanges claim to ‘document’ that some of the aspiring IS fighters had expressed the wish to conduct the hijra and join IS, but had been warned this being to dangerous. Rather, their intention can be translated into conducting attacks in their home countries instead of risking arrest for seeking to emigrate to Syria or Iraq. The final screen shows an elder Arab man crying over the death of his family and destruction of his home as a consequence of coalition bombing sorties against IS. A young man with his side arm ready watches the French language subtitled Arabic video and then shuts his MacBook to exercise revenge and restore dignity for the Sunni Muslim community.

[1] Thomas Joscelyn, Jihadists who Attacked Russian Police Appear in Islamic State Video, The Long War Journal, August 18, 2016,

http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/08/jihadists-who-attacked-russian-police-appear-in-islamic-state-video.php

[2] Lizette Alvarez et al, Orlando Gunman was ‘Cool and Calm’ After Massacre, Police say, The New York Times, June 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/14/us/orlando-shooting.html?_r=0.

Part 4: Understanding the Resilience and Appeal of “Islamic State” Electronic Propaganda and Beyond

Resuming the ” Islamic state Briefing”, this week with part four. The depth of the jihadist movement ranges back to the 1980s and ISIS has its history since the 2000s.

The study of the Jihadist movement has tried to understand it in terms of street criminals, gangsters, individuals obsessed with computer games (particularly first person shooters), and a desire to go from zero-to-hero. It hardly addresses foreign fighters from Arab countries and often lack any attempt to address the theological aspects of the movement, imagery, encoded messages and prominence of scholars within the Jihadist movement’s overall interpretation of theological concepts, including an Islamic State model of governance. Reducing the Sunni extremist cosmos by only focusing on the “Islamic State” after 2013 at best, referring to them as “jihadists” while not even considering the history of IS since the very beginning in the 2000s, leads to a marginal understanding of the group and the motivations behind it. Neglecting the massive quantity of high quality Arabic language writings by ISIS and the Sunni extremist cosmos it stems from is a disaster. Core concepts such as tawhid or shirk are widely unknown and only briefly explained at best. What is missing is a discourse based on thorough, evidence based facts. However, these facts cannot weigh into discourse or echo within academic research, when Arabic sources and the theological universe that drives Sunni extremists remain neglected. Without proper Arabic skills and with no deep-rooted research on Islamic theology, the Sunni extremist movements remains hidden behind a firewall. Without knowing this content by heart and being able to decipher visual codes, uncovering extremist networks online is a challenge and has led to the assumption there is a decline of ISIS media production. This is the case, if researchers only look at superficial English language content on Twitter and do not see the rich blend of materials that are published in Arabic – and since early 2016 to a great extent on Telegram.

Ignoring the huge library of writing by focusing on only the narrow daily announcements, or English language material, leads to dangerous misinterpretations of the movement – even more so, when not even Latinized Arabic key words in English language propaganda releases are questioned or taken into consideration. Facing the contemporary challenge of the Jihadist movement, policy cannot afford to fall for superficial interpretations, which emphasize memes, general simplifications, infographics, and flashy videos – and generally ignore the deep theological nuanced Arabic publications.

The movement is significantly more complex than these interpretations suggest.

The ideology that is based on theological concepts and framings of al-Qa’ida (AQ) and subsequently the splinter group the Islamic State (ISIS) and its ability to propagate this theological spectrum as a monopoly of truth through professional promotion and marketing material disseminated via modern communication technology has proven to be its most resilient foundation and greatest innovation. This Jihadist media activism is evident and strengthens this resilience on a daily basis with new audio-visual and written propaganda uploaded from a number of conflict zones, in numerous languages, to a wide range of online social platforms and multimedia channels.

Policy makers in the U.S. and the E.U. lack a thorough understanding – for jihadist narratives that are widely based on religious scripture, advocating a cohesive and coherent ideology, that is, to be precise, theology. This theology is based on complex religious principals, offered mainly in Arabic and has its basis in the 1980s to contemporary al-Qa’ida ideologues, whereas ISIS in particular displays the implementation thereof in oftentimes easy to comprehend audio-visual productions. The Sunni extremist writings and videos from back in the 1980s to today refer and cite not only religious scripture, selected ayyat from the Qur’an and hadith – deeds and sayings ascribed to Prophet Muhammad – but also cite and reference historical Sunni Islamic scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Ibn al-Qayyim or Ibn Nahhas, to name a few. This is part of the textual layer that is being pushed out on all channels on the Internet. Historical scholars – overwhelmingly having written in Arabic  – are often quoted “who says there is no distinction to be made between combatants and non-combatants. A Wahhabi scholar from the 19th/20th century is quoted saying that in principle killing unbelievers is allowed. This is another proof for the family resemblance between Wahhabism and Jihadism, easily substantiated by the number of theological tracts republished by IS”, as noted by Rüdiger Lohlker in reference to the Barcelona attacks. Without Arabic and the proper command of knowing who such historical scholars are and under which circumstances their theological treatises were penned and why this matters today and  how this is used by online media savvy activists, most documents and videos by jihadists remain a safe haven. Not to mention the general lack of understanding the scope, pace and depth ISIS has on Telegram, whereas most studies of 2017 solely focus on Twitter, claiming twitter remains the entry point and primary dissemination hub for ISIS.

Community building takes place on Telegram and twitter is used for media raids – while the content varies between Arabic theological support materials and core graphic materials. Researchers need to focus on both while understanding and the ecosystem and where it all stems from.

The daily content is just the tip of the iceberg. The archive of Sunni extremism represents what the movement is about, lays out the strategy, and justification for actions. Alone ISIS released over 2,000 official videos and much more daily short clips; all in all, from the 1980s to today, over half a million – mainly Arabic – documents exist in digital format, whereas materials before the age of mass digitalization have been digitalized by the first generation of committed electronic media mujahidin in the 2000s.[1] 116 editions of the Arabic language magazine “al-Jihad” were printed and disseminated from 1984-1995, focusing on Afghanistan, Palestine and later the Balkans. The first generation of al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) pioneered the electronic frontier of jihad by releasing two magazines, “The Voice of Jihad” (in sum over 1,500 pages) and “The Military Camp of the Sword.” Nothing about ISIS as of 2017 is new, if such magazines have been read and taken into account when studying jihadism.

The cover of the al-Jihad magazine of June 1985 addresses “our sisters, the Mujahidat”, women who fought alongside males in the war against the Soviet occupation. More telling, however, is the advertisement for ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s book “The Defense of Muslim Lands is the Among the Most Important of an Individual’s Duties”. ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam was a Islamic scholar (shaykh) from Palestine and had been a university lecturer for Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in Amman, Jordan.[2] In 1989, he and his two eldest sons Muhammad and Ibrahim were killed in a car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan.[3] ‘Azzam is until now, decades after he died, one of the most influential theologians, who is being regularly cited, referenced and eulogized by all outlets of jihadist media capacity.[4] In 1988, ‘Azzam travelled to Seattle, USA, and gave a khutba, the Friday prayer. This khutba was filmed and that video is part of the Sunni extremist ecosystem. While he was in Seattle, the conflict in Afghanistan was slowly but surely coming to an end. Dominated by the events of the jihad against the Soviet Red Army, ‘Azzam not only tries to recruit and ‘re-introduce’ Islam to his audience of America-based Muslims but he moves a step ahead and attacks the United States as another major, logical future enemy at a second or third stage of jihad with the victory in Afghanistan in sight for the Mujahideen. ‘Azzam’s khutba provides a usual mix of citations from the Qur’an and sunna, bound to his contemporary tales of the fighting Mujahidin as well as the suffering Muslim population in Afghanistan. While he also includes stories and details of individual Mujahidin who fought and died, who attained the “shahada on the path of God” (i.e. died as ‘martyrs’) and witnessed divine blessings during their service for God, ‘Azzam repeatedly addresses the need to “establish an Islamic state” that can only be realized by jihad, combat (qital) with the potential to enter Paradise (janna) while struggling for this divine aim. ‘Azzam, who was a highly industrious writer and who frequently gave sermons, introduced stories from the Afghan jihad and tales of the shuhada’, killed Mujahideen who as a result attained the shahada for the sake of religion, and has made such stories from the frontlines of jihad popular, accessible and perhaps somewhat mainstream.[5] One of his documents, the 251 page long writing entitled “The Craving for the Women of Paradise” (al-hur)[6], can be considered as a template for contemporary jihadist publications (writings and videos) regarding the shuhada’, glorifying jihad and providing the theological and historical necessity to do so.

For jihadis, the age old question of fard al-‘ayn and fard al-kifayya, pondering whether or not combat is confined to Afghanistan and Palestine at this stage (mid 1980s);

Addressing the theological-operational element of nafir;

And the questions of Muslim unity and disbeliever aggression, etc. all of these elements matter for jihadism and since the Syrian revolution turned extremely bloody and was hijacked by seasoned jihadist fighters and clerics, these elements are of essential value to understand the mess in the Middle East (and attacks/operations elsewhere; besides Europe there are The Philippines, Indonesia, various attacks in Russia, Maldives etc.).

This is just one example of the tradition of Sunni extremist content – online &offline – that forms the basis of materials published by the “Islamic State” as of 2017. Including, materials that are available online and are also handed out within ISIS territories, as has been documented since 2013 by the very media cycle of ISIS.

This ecosystem contains the answers to questions posed by those who only read the daily updates. For example, the archive of the Jihadist movement contains the rationale stretching back to fighting with the Soviets in Afghanistan for when female suicide bombers are permitted and when they are not, it is no mystery when research takes in the archive of Arabic documents.

The documents and videos produced by Islamic State project what they consider to be a real Sunni Muslim, on the path of God who acts in accordance with divine rule and regulations which the early Muslims had under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad. Any release by IS – as much as by AQ – seeks to inform, educate and convince the consumer that the jihadis are the only “true” Muslims, following the correct “prophetic methodology” This ideational content echoes an earlier prediction about an internet-enabled ideological struggle over the definition of reality. In this vision, warfare would be “conducted on an entirely new battleground; it is a struggle not over territory or boundaries but over the very definitions of these terms”[7] where IS seeks to maintain hegemony over concepts such as the “prophetic methodology” and other theological concepts expressed by key words.

The battle for these definitions occur in the physical landscape and equally on the digital platforms that comprise the information ecosystem.

Neglecting the evidence that jihadi networks online are both agile and unified around coherent theological “narratives”, risks breeding a sense of complacency, which allows the Islamic State (and other jihadi groups) to develop physical and digital locations to which they can retreat and regroup. This is a real risk if the current shift in distribution strategy adopted by the Islamic State is viewed as decline, rather than a reconfiguration and refocusing of effort. Yet acknowledging that the “decline” is based on faulty research, which neither takes the vast amount of Telegram communication into consideration or Arabic language materials (or Arabic words used in non-Arabic propaganda releases).

Islamic State communicates its strategy to supporters predominantly in Arabic and oftentimes uses citations of legitimate mainly Arabic language scriptures, the Holy Qur’an and Hadith (deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad) as well as scholarly religious (historical and contemporary) writings.[8] These citations of historical as well as contemporary Islamic scholars are frequent in writings and are woven into the audio-visual productions of jihadis.[9] This cannon of material which jihadis  have to hand justifies, from their perspective, their acts and seeks to provide a clear identity; of what being a “Sunni Muslim” means to them.

[1] Nico Prucha: Die Stimme des Dschihad – al-Qa’idas erstes Online Magazin, Dr. Kovac: Hamburg, 2010.

[2] Hegghammer, T. (2008) Abdullah Azzam, der Iman des Dschihad in Kepel, G. / Milelli, J. (2008) Al-Qaida – Texte des Terrors (München, Zürich: Piper), pp. 148-157. Hegghammer describes ‘Azzam’s academic development, his “religious studies in Damascus (1963-1966)”, his “Palestinian Jihad (1967-1970)”, his “promotion at the al-Azhar” University, Cairo, (1971-1973) and his “years in Amman (1973-1980)”. He become a professor in Jidda and was able to acquire a position in the Saudi funded new international Islamic University in Islamabad.

[3] He was killed on Friday, 24.11.1989 at about seven o’clock in the morning, on his way to a mosque in Peshawar to preach the Friday sermon. Muhammad was 20 and his brother 15 years old (Hegghammer). Various conspiracy theories exist, who killed ‘Azzam (Hegghammer, pp. 163-164). Ranging from bin Laden who had him removed to gain control over the Arab fighters, to al-Zawahiri, who wanted the Egyptians in charge and who wanted to attack the regimes in the Middle East while ‘Azzam vowed for the Mujahideen to remain in Afghanistan to found a true Islamic state. Or was it a personal revenge, committed by an Afghan splinter group or was it the ISI?

[4] The double-agent Abu Dujana al-Khurasani, aka Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who on 30 December 2009 killed several CIA and Jordanian GID agents in Khost, Afghanistan, by undertaking a suicide-operation claimed in one of “last interviews” also to have revenged ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam. According to al-Balawi, the GID is responsible for his murder. Prucha, N. (2010) Notes on the Jihadists’ Motivation for Suicide-Operations, Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies, 4 (1), pp. 65.

[5] ‘Azzam, ‘A. (1987) Ilhaq bi-l-qafila, http://tawhed.ws/r?i=6nxrvref (25.10.2010). “Join the Caravan” is a classical work of the jihad literature.

[6] ‘Azzam, ‘A. ‘Ushshaq al-Hur, http://tawhed.ws/dl?i=pwtico4g (02.10.2010). “The ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam folder” can be accessed here: http://tawhed.ws/a?a=a82qriko.

[7] Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, Harpercollins Publishers (reprint): New York, 1995.

[8] Among the tens of thousands of writings are prominent items such as “An Abbreviated Biography of the Prophet – Peace and Blessings upon him” by ISIS media foundation Maktabat al-Himma (2015, 335 pages) or the 1106 page long theological tractate by Khalid bin ‘Ali al-Mardi on shirk – ascribing or the establishment of “partners” placed beside God, which is a frequent theological sanctioning used to execute “apostates” and Shiites within ISIS videos.

[9] Linguistic problems are nothing new in the study of terrorism. See for example: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/15/why-we-cant-just-read-english-newspapers-to-understand-terrorism-big-data/