Archive for the ‘online jihad’ category

ISIS: Sunset on the ‘decline narrative’

June 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So, how did we know?

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

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

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

 

How did we do it?

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

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

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

These clandestine networks are protected by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all content is created equal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Authenticity

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

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

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

Metrification:

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

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

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

Specifically, the tendency toward:

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

 

Unprecedented and exceptional

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

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

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

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

 

Descriptive over-generalisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Risks of being an uncritical mouthpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

As Rüdiger Lohlker wrote in September 2016,

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How well established is the Jihadist movement on Telegram?

March 15, 2018

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

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

Nashir / News

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

 

Channel_Network_2a

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

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

Wider Telegram Network

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

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

ISIS_NPTG_network2a

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

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

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

nashir stats sample

A subordinating silence

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

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

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

naba 117 stats with banner.jpg

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

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

Amaq view number sample

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

As Caron E. Gentry wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nashir execution stats 14032018

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

 

Notes:

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

 

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

January 14, 2018

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.

SAS2_3_80s.jpg

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.

photo_٢٠١٧-٠٨-٣٠_٠٥-٣٦-٣٢.jpg

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.

SAS2_1.jpg

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.

SAS2_2

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.

Online Jihad: Data Science

November 10, 2017

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

Digital_war

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

DOT_AR

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

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

‘Doubt Upon The Strength Of al-Mujahedeen’

The Media War Upon The Islamic State claims:

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

‘Media Blackout’

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

The Media War Upon The Islamic State claims:

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

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

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

FCO_daesh

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

ansar 1000 tweets are 1000 arrows

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

photo_2017-10-16_18-56-26

Online Jihad: Data Science

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

In 2017, highlighted in an earlier blog post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

October 15, 2017

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?

October 10, 2017

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 6: Substituting the Jihadist Twittersphere for Islamic State Telegrams

October 10, 2017

part 6 sub TW4TG

Telegram offers privacy and encryption, allowing users to interact using their mobile devices (tablets and smart-phones) as well as laptop and desktop computers. It offers as a secure environment where sharing content is very easy. This includes the option to download large files directly via the Telegram application instead of having to open an external link in a browser to access the new videos and word documents. According to Telegram, the application is a cloud-based instant messaging service, providing optional end-to-end-encrypted messaging. It is free and open, having an “open API and protocol free for everyone,”[1] while having no limits on how much data individual users can share.

Media savvy IS members and sympathizers then took to Telegram where in the meantime, via hundreds of channels, often more than 50,000 Telegram messages are pushed out each week.

Telegram is being used to share content produced by ‘official’ IS channels. As had been the case on Twitter – and as is the nature of online jihad on social media sites – such content is enriched and enhanced by media supporters from within ISIS held territory as well as sympathizers worldwide. The output is mainly in Arabic whereas dedicated linguist and translation departments ensure a global audience is reached. Telegram is being used as a formal communication channel by a range of content aggregators within the movement, rolling out the official IS videos from the various provinces to word and PDF documents released by a rich blend of media agencies, such as al-Battar, al-Wafa’, Ashhad, al-Hayyat and many more.

A media group by the name Horizon (Mu’assassat Afaaq) established itself as a new IS media wing to provide sympathizers advice and tutorials on online security and encryption. This is a current trend and highlights that user security on mobile devices, encryption and general awareness is raising. This chatter on Telegram, arguably, also led ‘classic’ IS media newspapers to pick up this trend and put an emphasis on the “electronic war”, enemy capabilities and operational security advice for IS members and sympathizers.[2]

ISIS overview

Sunni Jihadists and in particular IS have a passion to publish and disseminate pictures, conveying coded notions, sentiments and passions. The “Gazwa” channel on Telegram sees itself in the tradition of the classical horseback riding ‘hit-and-run’ warrior, independent of a fixed base or camp.

Following the classical understanding of conducting raids in the desert – as visualized in  the execution video addressed earlier, the jihadists on Telegram perceive  themselves as a coordination point for raids (ghazawat). These ghazawat are orchestrated on Telegram and then pushed into other social media platforms. Telegram is central to the supply of text for Tweets, disseminating new hashtags, the timing of such raids, and the flooding of comments on Facebook pages and so on. IS media operatives and sympathizers miss Twitter and even from IS official media outlets a return has been demanded – fearing that da’wa on Telegram just being among like-minded people will not work, as outlined in a future part.[3]

Hence, Arabic transcribed keywords in Latin such as “ghazwa” play a major role, and help to identify content quickly and sign up for new jihadist related channels on Telegram and elsewhere. As visualized above – taken from the IS channel Ghazwa on Telegram, the transliteration can vary especially after channels are being suspended.

During the attacks in March 2016 in Brussels, IS media operatives on Telegram prepared French language Tweets with hashtags used at the time of the attack to maximize the reach of pro-IS Tweets. Likewise, other social media platforms are affected by such “social media raids.” By the time such accounts are deleted on Twitter and elsewhere, IS has a new event-driven operation backed by social media raids. As had been the case on Twitter, Telegram is now the main hub for IS to share content reposting from Twitter, other social media such as YouTube, vimeo, DailyMotion, SendVid and Facebook, as well as websites containing IS propaganda, including those hosted on wordpress.com.

The multi-lingual strategic outreach and communication approach is clear: targeting non-Arabic speaking potential recruits in the West remains a high priority of IS while maintaining and ensuring the steady uninterrupted production and dissemination of Arabic content (targeting Arab native speakers worldwide).

Part 6 Telegram operation wide network

Multi-dimension outreach strategy: orchestrating an influence operation during the March 2016 Brussels attack, calling for a “Twitter Campaign”. French-language pro-IS tweets to be copy-and-pasted onto Twitter accounts that will be abandoned shortly after, using respective French mainstream hashtags to inject pro-IS messages into general networks. This method is also used to ensure content moves from Telegram where it is only visible to channel members onto open platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, or blogs such as WordPress.

 

 

[1] www.telegram.org

[2]  Ali Fisher, Swarmcast: How Jihadist Networks Maintain a Persistent Online Presence, Perspectives on Terrorism, 2015, http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/426/html

[3] Al-Naba’ Magazina no. 54.