Back to the Nashir – Total Decentralization and Enhanced Resilience

Much has been written – and claimed – about the importance of the “Nashir” setup for the online presence of IS. By its logo, most times despite some variations, Nashir is easy to identify, even for non-Arabic speakers. As outlined before, Nashir is part of the IS ecosystem of online operations, but by no means “the” core spine or the central hub. From the start of jihadist online operations in the pre-9/11 2001 era, they have been resourceful, creative, highly adaptive and keen to adapt to new possibilities showcasing a high degree of innovation of ensuring to fulfilling – in jihadist mindset – the divine command of militant actions in real-life and a coherent flow of content framed as da’wa for the electronic and non-electronic realms.

In short, whatever is possible online, jihadists have been keen and adventurous from start to tamper with and follow a best-practice use that develops from a user perspective to ensure their wide range of violent, pro-violent, non-violent content stays up for as long as possible. The same habitus accounts for jihadist battlefield experiments and making use of scarce resources – as in early of the Iraq war who remembers the handles of shovels re-used as butts for pieced-together Dragunov sniper rifles?

“For the time being, for as far as we know, IS is not present on the internet anymore and we will see how fast, if ever, they will regain service”, according to Belgian Federal Prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt after a massive takedown of IS accounts and networks on Telegram, IS was quick to kick back into action within about twelve hours. As the Nashir accounts had been culled, a big fuss was being made of the importance of IS having lost its core network.

IS creates content and pushes it out via dispersed networks. While this was centered on Telegram as the main dissemination hub, the Europol-led takedown of IS networks on that platform had the consequence that the networks formerly confined to Telegram are now on over a dozen of platforms and services similar to Telegram. Needles to write, the use of ‘outside’ links to/for the ‘surface’ web continues uninterrupted – but you need to monitor a lot of platforms now to ensure collecting as much as possible IS hubs (from Telegram, yes IS was back quick, to TamTam, Hoop, BCM, etc. etc.).

Cross platform use furthermore has a higher level of resilience as links to respective platforms are exchanged and increasingly a need for a exchange of quick private messages is required to receive ‘trusted’ links, including selected Nashir channels to avoid further takedown (including a Facebook messenger link).

tg-coms

Back to the Nashir

With Nashir alive and kicking on over a dozen of platforms, posting/reposting ‘Amaq content, new videos, new written releases (al-Naba’, collected statement of Abu Bakr etc.), Nashir has regained a presence in the blogging sphere.

bitly-19k

Sharing a bit.ly link, first on December 18 within Tamtam and also within Telegram, this particular link was clicked over 19,000 times since its creation on December 10, 2019.

frontpage

up-to-date content, ‘Amaq statements claming various attacks in MENA, the Sahel, West Africa, the current al-Naba’ edition, martyr poster – screengrab of the Nashir site.

country

Where are consumers most likely located – VPN use distorts yet nobody uses a VPN to switch to a restricted country.

source

and another example of diversification – the problem with the very temporary inconvenience as an “IS user” on Telegram due to the end of November Europol cull has enabled to re-enable the Telegram network and over a dozen other platforms as back/ups / parallel use to decentralized da’wa operations online to ensure a persistent presence of up-to-date and ‘historical’ content of primarily Arabic sources that matter gravely to IS.

 “What if the Caliphate Falls?” The IS Outlook in Early 2019

التقاط

By Seth Cantey and Nico Prucha

As outlined in our last post, around the time that al-Kuwaiti ended his life, a document written by an author using the pseudonym Abu Mawadda emerged. Titled “What if the caliphate were to fall?”[1] the article featured a banner showing a mighty tree, weathered by what appears to be a storm, yet firmly rooted to the ground. As IS has emphasized in several propaganda releases, physical territory is not required in order to act on behalf of “prophetic methodology,” which includes losses and defeat.[2] The relationship to physical territory is relative and fluctuates as jihadists are tested by God, and where only pure and true believers succeed either in this life or the afterlife.[3] What matters is the struggle and overcoming any tribulation (ibtila’) and strife (fitna). These stages clarify who is a true believer and steadfast and who is a hypocrite (munafiq) or weak in his/her belief. For Sunni extremists, steadfastness, in Arabic thibat, is detailed within a strict theological framework. No true believer can have thibat without physically proving so, and only those who are steadfast can overcome fitna or deviation. Fitna is part of creation and a means to separate humans into groups, ranging from true believers to various stages of disbelievers, hypocrites etc. Thus, fitna is a tool to ensure human purity and sincere intention to be in the service of God, and therefore to act on God’s behalf to implement, safeguard, and spread divine laws. “For God, high and exalted he is, crafted fitna in his creation to separate the sincere believers from the hypocritical liars.”[4]

Following classical jihadist literature, this claim is backed by holy scripture, the Qur’an, which is cited as proof and confirmation. “For us, we have been instructed on how to learn about those who are sincere, who are mentioned and brought to attention in the noble verses [of the Qur’an] (…), proof for those who are sincere is clearly stated. God, all praise is his, said, “The true believers are the ones who have faith in God and His Messenger and leave all doubt behind, the ones who have struggled with their possessions and their persons in God’s way. They are the ones who are true.”[5]

The 2016 document, foreseeing the obvious, that the height of IS territorial conquest cannot be sustained for the foreseeable future, highlights the main achievement of “the state.” “As God – high and exalted he is – declared you as those who believe in God and his messenger. Having realized the conditions of faith (shurud al-iman) to establish the religion of God, with the enabling by God of those who firmly believe [in the conquering of] territory.”[6] The document continues on the topic of the conquest of territory: “They [IS] have enforced obligatory prayers, the giving of alms (zakat), and are those who are commandeering good and forbidding what is wrong.”[7] The last part is a direct reference to the principle of ‘Al-amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa-nahiyy ‘an al-munkar’, with the important difference that IS uses the active verb, implying they are the ones who actively and by human effort command good (amirun) and actively forbid evil (nahun).  In this claim, the group seeks to draw on the authority of Qur’an 3:104: “Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong. Those who do this are the successful ones.”[8]

The current legacy of IS, which is of dire importance to the group as it loses territory, is at least twofold. First, IS was able to reformat physical territory based on its understanding of annihilating people and cultural heritage, vindicating (from the group’s perspective) its theology of violence. Second, its actions were documented in full HD videos, and these images are being re-shared in a context of nostalgia. Thus, IS asks “how can the disbelievers and hypocrites claim that the Mujahideen are dissuaded when losing a city or province, or when an amir or minister is killed? (…) By God, certainly not. The loss of Raqqa, Mosul, al-Khayr, Homs, even losing all provinces of the caliphate in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, East Africa and elsewhere [won’t affect us], God is in command of what has been and what is to come. (…) [Territorial losses] are only going to mislead the hypocrites (…) not the sincere muwahhideen. They are the ones continuing the insurgency, unimpressed by the killings of their leaders or losing their cities.”[9] The legacy of the first generation of leaders, ministers, and key theological figures endures in the form of their writings, audio-speeches, videos, and pictures online, where jihadist media supporters continue to (re-) post and (re-) share content across a wide range of platforms. “They suspect and imagine that the death of our leaders is the end of the caliphate. If this umma were to die with the death of the caliph, it would have died with the death of Prophet Muhammad.”[10]

This sentiment was reinforced in a document published in April 2018 that mocked the global coalition against Daesh as “having amassed many states, yet the Islamic State stays on top.”[11] It further mocked “the continued declared victory by this campaign here and there, claiming that the state of Islam has collapsed and is eliminated.” The mindset for IS is that their adversaries have lost the desire to fight. The group claims to find this unsurprising, as reflected in the quote: “How can they be patient in a war against those who love death on the path of God, just as they love life? They are fighting men who are dedicated to paradise, seeking to satisfy their lord.” For jihadist supporters and actual fighters, one key slogan is that the Islamic State will remain (baqiyya). Proof that this is the case for over a decade is expressed in comparing the coming and going of U.S. administrations over time. “The Bush administration claimed victory. The administration left, and the Islamic state remained. Obama came to power and did the same thing, yet the Islamic State remained. Now the old man Trump came and wants the same thing, and as before him, he will be unable to achieve victory.”[12]

Sunni extremists continue operating freely online, expanding existing databases of texts (theory) and videos (practice) for future generations. Organization on platforms like Telegram allows for a swarming to other platforms, social media sites, and the internet in general. Jihadists believe in the divine obligation of da’wa (proselytizing) to indoctrinate future generations for their cause. Groups such as IS operate conveniently online, their clandestine networks protected by, as outlined before on this blog:

  • A linguistic firewall: Arabic language skills are required to access clandestine networks. (The ongoing paucity of these language skills among researchers is appalling.)
  • An initiation firewall: knowledge of the coherent use of coded religious language and keywords, which few researchers, even those who do speak and read Arabic, can demonstrate in their writing.
  • The challenges of Telegram, where IS succeeded in shifting and re-adapting its modus operandi of in-group discussions and designated curated content intended for both public and private audiences (as part of a wider da’wa).

Media raids ensure that dedicated content gets pumped to the surface web, ranging from Twitter to Facebook, while the IS-swarm can (re-)configure and organize content related to what is happening offline on the ground. This ensures that the cycle of offline events influencing online materials is uninterrupted. Theological motivation, coherently repacked and put in practice, based on 300,000 pages of writings and over 2,000 videos by IS alone, must be addressed. Yet, “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.”[13]

[1] Abu Mawadda (Al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa(tu)?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[2] Samih ‘Umar, “Khasarna Manbij wa-rabihna al-ma’raka,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, August 17, 2017.

[3] This relates to the notion of seeking ihda al-husayn, victory (nasr) or martyrdom (shahada).

[4] Abu Mawadda (al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[5] Ibid, citing Qur’an 49:15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Embedded in this citation of the Qur’an is the deeper meaning of applied theology – referenced in the Qur’an in Arabic as ya’murun bi-l-ma’ruf wa-yanhun bi-l-munkir.

[9] Abu Mawadda (al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Nasif al-Shabahat, “Dawla satunsar wa-hamla satuksar,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, April 2018.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rüdiger Lohlker, “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

The Era of Recruitment via Twitter. Online Initiation into the Ranks of IS: the Tale of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti

3

By Seth Cantey and Nico Prucha

In December 2015, the, at the time, IS media outlet Al-Wafa’ released a document titled “Story of the call to arms of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti.” Penned under the pseudonym Hafid al-Khattabi, the author details Abu Anwar’s journey from Kuwait to the ranks of the Islamic State. According to the account, Abu Anwar studied engineering in the U.S., where he followed a liberal lifestyle of sin. Later, “he chose the path of repentance.” He learned about IS when he was asked about the group by a journalist on the street after leaving a mosque. The reporter was shocked to learn that Abu Anwar did not know anything about IS.[1] The article suggests that an ignorant Western reporter who bumped into a Muslim leaving a mosque lit the spark for Abu Anwar that led him to the Islamic State. After searching for “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” online and learning more, he wondered why he had only known about the “Islamic State” from history books. He continued his search for hours and come across many electronic sources.”[2] This hours-long quest to find out about IS online enabled him “to see and listen for himself about the Islamic State that some people had claimed was nothing but a criminal group, an aggressor, that had no room for mercy or compassion.”[3] He started to follow the “electronic releases of the Islamic State and was overwhelmed by the refutations and revelations of doubt disseminated against IS.[4]  He continued to read the noble Qur’an and the hadith of the prophet – God’s blessings upon him – and was entangled by the verses related to jihad, istishhad,[5] hijra, and combat. Especially the hadith relating to Sham [historical Syria][6] fascinated him, exerting himself in the study of tawhid, al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, ahkam al-diyyar, the obligations to migrate from the abode of disbelief to the abode of Islam, the obligation for disbelief in the tawaghit, the excommunication (takfir) of the soldiers of the tyrants, absolute dissociation from them and any disbeliever, [and] loyalty to Muslims and [the obligation] to support them by worldly and bodily means.”[7] The process of studying online resources by IS and becoming radicalized, in the sense that Abu Anwar considers the theological content by IS online as more authoritative than his understanding of religious matters prior, took about eight months.

In most Muslim-majority societies, just as in most Christian and other religious communities, religious scripture that enables violence or dehumanization of the “other” only plays a marginal role. Sunni extremists always project themselves as being ‘true’ Muslims, their focus to theologically explain the obligation to be a ‘100 % Muslim,’ which they argue requires enforcing and explaining otherwise neglected elements that relate to violence. This authoritative perspective, as pitched theoretical writings and especially in videos, show the direct application of religion and led Abu Anwar to “question God whether or not he should heed to the call of arms and migrate for jihad… Every day his heart burned with bitterness and full of fear to heed to the call to arms, desiring to join the battles to raise the banner of God, for victory for God’s religion.”[8]

When Abu Anwar finally bought his plane ticket, he flew to Turkey and encountered a new problem: how to connect with individuals of the Islamic State? He tried by “calling a hotel in Irbil to inquire about the possibility of travel to Mosul and the status of “terrorism” in the region, claiming his Iraqi mother required financial support and help.”[9] Going to Mosul would be impossible, but he was advised to “hire a driver to take him from Turkey to Raqqa for about 150 US dollars.”[10]

When Abu Anwar’s initial attempts failed,[11] he gave himself an ultimatum: either he would join IS or return to America. The night before his return flight, he sought out supporters of the Islamic State on Twitter,[12] writing that he was in Turkey, coming from the United States, and that he “was confronted by people telling me that you are seeking those who seek to migrate to the Islamic State.” He then went to sleep and awoke in the middle of the night to find a notification on his phone that one of the supporters had replied, wanting to speak to him. Abu Anwar shared his story and that his return flight to America would leave in eight hours, and he asked whether one of the brothers could help him enter the caliphate.[13] The ensuing arrangement was that Abu Anwar would be picked up “in Turkey to enter together the territory of the khilafa.

In early 2016, after IS had largely migrated from Twitter to Telegram, [14] a picture of Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti surfaced on the internet. Below is the photograph of a young man standing in front of a makeshift armored vehicle, one that has been a signature image for IS in much the same way as for the A-Team in the popular TV series.  Abu Anwar had volunteered for a suicide mission using the makeshift vehicle. The accompanying graphic included poetic text which read:

“While on his way bidding farewell, he said:

He aborted his studies;

Packed his bags;

Bade his loved ones farewell;

Cancelled his accounts;

Wrote his testimonial;

Wiped his tears;

Craving for his lord,

He realized [his istishhadiyya operation] and advanced [to be accepted by God]…

Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti. A success story.”

[1] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Radd/ruddud wa-shubuhat is a category in the literature of jihadism, providing space for jihadist theologians to selectively argue on theological grounds against mainstream, moderate, or opposing (i.e., AQ), theologians.

[5] Istishhad refers to the attainment of the shahada, i.e., martyrdom, either dying during combat as a regular mujahid or being a suicide bomber, an istishhadi operative.

[6] Most likely a reference to the hadith: Musnad Ahmad (21096), which states, “Narrated by Zayyid bin Thabit al-Ansari – may God be satisfied with him – said, “The messenger of God, peace and blessing be upon him, was heard saying: “My blessings for Sham [Greater historical Syria]! My blessings for Sham! My blessings for Sham!” They said: “O messenger of God, what is the meaning of this?” He said: “These angels of God have spread their wings over Sham.””

[7] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The story includes an Arabic-speaking guard at a mosque in Turkey that Abu Anwar attended, who asked if he was really sure that he wanted join Daesh. Separately, an imam inquired, “Why does the [Islamic] State kill those who they refer to as disbelievers?” and went on to claim that IS was “nothing but a Jewish project.” Abu Anwar also tried to hire a driver to take him from Turkey to Raqqa. When the driver called a friend who spoke Arabic, that friend shouted at Abu Anwar over the phone: “Are you crazy? Pay what you owe the driver and get lost!”

[12] Although Twitter is not mentioned by name, the description of private messaging, the supporters of IS, the response hours later, and the fact that this story is from 2015, all point to the social-media platform.

[13] Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.

[14] Nico Prucha, “IS and the Jihadist Information Highway – Projecting Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 10, No. 6 (2016). http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/556

Media Mujahidin on Telegram: Overview of 2019

Many column inches of commentary have been dedicated in recent months to the purported shift from Telegram to other platforms. We have shown previously that despite efforts to ‘cull’ jihadi channels on Telegram, disruption did not have a meaningful impact on the core network. This core allowed jihadi groups to maintain a persistent presence. The greatest impact of that attempted disruption appears to have been the much tweeted about inconvenience caused to pundits and commentators who had only been able to access the peripheral Jihadi channels and Nashir News network that were deleted in the disruption effort.  

In this post we look at the content sharing network between January and May 2019. This produces a strategic overview of the network, to assess whether the network has been forced to evolve how they use the platform.

The analysis shows that at present the Jihadi network on Telegram is vast and remains functional. The URL sharing in core groups indicates core users are not currently preparing to make the jump to another platform. 

Overview:

  • The primarily Arabic Jihadi Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has produced over 1.7 million updates.
  • al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ, Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network which also draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
  • This network has shared over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between January and May 2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface web, despite punditry to the contrary.
  • By contrast there are very few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the surface web is for the Jihadi movement. 
  • The most frequently used domains do not offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram of mass link sharing to the accounts on the new platform is not currently being repeated.   
  • A model of the information flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem continues to exhibit a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and aggregators. 
  • Tech resources, such as apps, disposable phone numbers, encrypted email, and VPN are an important part of both the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem.  

Data

Using the curated feed of human verified jihadi channels and groups archived by BlackLight between January and May. This dataset contains 1.7 million updates of which 878,795 (approximately 50%) were forwarded from other channels and groups.

Analysis of these messages produced a network of over 85,000 connections (content sharing or cross posting). The network is made up of 9,000 accounts and groups. The connections between nodes show that groups of channels form specific clusters, each of which containing some common theme or allegiance to a Jihadi group. 

As discussed in previous posts there is a dispersed network with many accounts that have some importance to the network (rather than one or two very important accounts – which would make the network vulnerable to disruption).

As in previous analyses, ISIS, AQ, and Taliban channels all appear in the same interconnected network. This is often because:

  • they draw on similar other channels (those with a specific historical or theological focus for example) or
  • pro-Jihadi channels / groups who share the overarching theology and purpose, but do not have specific organizational allegiance, aggregate material from both al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya and AQ.   

The network structure and emergent communication architecture of the clusters indicates that they will likely remain resilient to the removal of even a large proportion of the channels and groups. Of the different clusters, those closest to the al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya have the most dispersed network architecture – providing the greatest resilience, while Taliban appear to have adopted the distributed structure to a lesser extent.

External Links.

This section examines over 1 million (1,048,575) URL identified in messages and captions. Within this million URL sample the research found 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains.

Calculating the number of times URL representing content on specific domains had been observed, Telegram links appeared most frequently in posts.  It is a common observation that the domain on which data is being collected is also the most frequently linked to domain in the dataset, as users often include the link for a channel or chat in their posts.  

Domains as proportion of total observations

Looking at the number of unique URL gives an alternative perspective. It shows that while Telegram links appear frequently, they are a relatively small number of URL appearing frequently. In contrast, there are relatively higher numbers of URL from other domains, each of which appear relatively infrequently. This is logical, as many URL outside Telegram host a specific piece of content, and hence it is shared when it is released and subsequently falls out of use.

Number of different URL per domain

Examining the URL from outside Telegram provides an overview of the other locations within the Jihadi information ecosystem. This shows the number of times domains were observed in posts.    

Similarly, analysing the domains by the number of different URL shared from that domain, shows how the information ecosystem combines branded content from jihadi groups, located on content stores and aggregators, with a wide range of other material including mainstream news sites.

From this we find:

  • Despite the claims Jihadi groups have not been driven off the surface web, sites such as archive.org, telegra.ph, and justpaste.it are frequently used as Jihadi content stores and aggregators.
  • None of the most observed domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period of adjustment, which occurred in the autumn of 2015 and Spring 2016, Jihadi twitter accounts regularly shared links to Telegram channels to allow sympathisers to maintain access to the Jihadi information ecosystem. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not currently being repeated.   

Flow across the Ecosystem.

In examining the flow of users across the ecosystem in 2019 we find there are two distinct clusters, one focused on tech and the other on Jihadi content and related news. This uses the same method as was discussed during the GRNTT conference at Brookings.  

The tech cluster on the lower portion of the graph fulfils an important role for the movement, as it provides access to services such as VPN, disposable / free phone numbers and a range of communication programmes distributed as .apk files (Andriod Package File).

Overview of network graph showing traffic across Jihadi Information Ecosystem

The content cluster features platforms from the three main roles in the Jihadist information ecosystem:

  • The signposts including Telegram and Facebook,
  • Content stores such as Archive.org, Google Drive, imgur, and Files.fm
  • Aggregators such as Justpaste.it and Telegra.ph
Annotated network image

Other findings of note;

  • Obedient Supporters and Nashir 1440 are content aggregators which provide content downloads on the surface web.
  • Tgho.st – is a file sharing system native to Telegram. Tgho.st operates by users sending the file to a Telegram Bot, the bot subsequently returns a URL where that file can be downloaded by anyone using the download link in a browser. The service advertises that “These files are not deleted and will always be available for download”.
  • Videopress – URL to Videopress were frequently extracted from videos posted on the earlier version of Jihadology, although without the full Jihadology page / URL. Such a finding illustrates the importance of focusing on the Jihadi primary language, Arabic, rather than drawing conclusions from fringe languages, particularly English. However, this is likely to fall out of use following the recent update to the site.  

Conclusion

  • The primarily Arabic Jihadi Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has produced over 1.7 million updates.
  • al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ, Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network which also draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
  • This network has shared over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between January and May 2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface web, despite punditry to the contrary.
  • By contrast there are very few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the surface web is for the Jihadi movement. 
  • None of the most observed domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not currently being repeated.   
  • A model of the information flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem highlights a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and aggregators. 
  • Tech resources, such as apps, disposable phone numbers and email, and VPN are an important part of both the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem. 

Come Home: Jihad in Arabia

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The Islamic State, which is oftentimes referred by its Arabic acronym Daesh, proclaimed the re-establishment of the Caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph. Daesh stands for al-dawlat al-Islamiyya fi l-‘Iraq wa-sh Sham. The name change reflected the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq into Syria and since 2014 often refers to itself as the Islamic State or the Islamic Caliphate State. It had been groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ) that theorized about restoring a Islamic State[1] with partially having been able to establish proto-states,[2] but never to the extent of having been able to assert control over a greater population within traditional core Arab Sunni territory. Jihadists had fantasized about being able to combat Arab regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, urging in their rhetoric to be empowered to liberate Palestine, as in their perspective, they had just defeated the Soviet Union with the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan.[3] Not seeing, yet hoping, in 1989 that one day jihad can be waged inside Arab countries, ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam  wrote: “From the morning into the middle of the night, and we are like this, if we have liberated Afghanistan tomorrow, what will we work on? (…) Or God will open a new front for us somewhere in the Islamic world and we will go, wage a jihad there. Or will I finish my sharia studies at the Islamic University in Kabul? Yes, a lot of the Mujahideen are thinking about what to work on after the jihad ends in Afghanistan.”[4] Jihad further internationalized as the zones of conflict diversified. In the 1990s conflicts arose featuring jihadist groups in Bosnia, the Caucasus, prominently Chechnya with jihadist revenge operations throughout Russia, Somalia, it continued in Afghanistan with the Taliban taking over the country and time and again Kashmir. None of these regions of conflict are part of the Arab world, yet from all of these conflicts Arabic-language media items originated, featuring a range of languages, yet dominated by Arabic. Non-Arabic fighters and tales had been subtitled in videos or released as translations, and Arabic native speaking foreigners had been either in key positions (i.e. Khattab) or Arabic affluent local fighters gave their testimony. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that AQ was able to manifest in Saudi Arabia (AQAP) for a few years but the game-changer for Sunni jihadis had been the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. Even when the first generation of AQAP failed, and was forced to re-establish itself in Yemen, jihad was finally able to gradually establish itself in Iraq in the chaotic aftermath of 2003 – giving birth over time what would be known as ISIS. Finally, after the AQAP 1.0 phase where jihadis fought inside Saudi Arabia, referred to as the land of the two holy sanctuaries, and where Arabic was the common language with few exceptions, a Sunni jihadist arm was able to persist in Iraq and produce almost exclusively materials in Arabic featuring Arabic native speakers – to seek to attract more recruits to their cause.

As the late Reuven Paz wrote in 2005, “viewing the struggle in Iraq as “return home” to the heart of the Arab world for Muslim fighters after years of struggle in “exile” in places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Central Asia.”[5] Building a media heritage and tradition, Muslim fighters, referring to the first and early foreign fighter generation had been keen to write about their experiences in “exile” and document their “struggle” by releasing writings, martyr stories, audio-recordings and most important – and on a more regular basis – videos. Especially written accounts of the shuhada’, the martyrs, had been a popular and a unifying element of all conflict zones where foreign and local fighters presented their struggle as a fight for justice and their cause as decreed by God on his path. Increasingly – and as early as the early to mid-1990s – this form of documented “struggle” in “exile” entered the Internet where it is meant to stay and continues to inspire individuals to this day.[6] The martyr-stories are an integral part of the jihadist literature. Documents in Arabic outline individual biographies from 1980s Afghanistan[7] to the 1990s Chechnya[8], Bosnia[9], Somalia, to the 2000s with Afghanistan[10], the Caucasus, Somalia, Saudi Arabia[11] and Iraq[12]. From every region, from throughout the 1980s (Afghanistan) to the 2000s, Sunni extremist militant groups used the media as a tool to report to fellow Muslims (mainly in Arabic but not exclusively) about their – in their view – pious acts and deeds in fighting against injustice and oppression. Arabic is the lingua jihadica while only parts of the literature, including selected martyr biographies, are specifically translated into other languages. In cases where the martyr is not a native Arabic speaker, his account usually is translated into Arabic and the original language biography is published as well – within the respective lingual networks. The power and the value of jihadist video productions from a lingual outreach perspective in this regard is strategic: any non-native Arabic speaker issues his filmed farewell testimonial, in Arabic referenced as wasiyya, in his native language – Arabic subtitles are added. Only a portion of Arabic native speaker videos, however, are released at a later point with non-Arabic subtitles.

The theology of IS, AQ and any other Sunni extremist groups, however, is based on Arabic-language religious scriptures, not just Qur’an and Sunna, but also references elements of the rich 1,400-year long tradition of Islamic writings. The “Islamic State” applied the theology of AQ in full within its territory – and manages to post videos from other regions of the world as of 2019 where the group manages to control or at times dominate parts of territory.[13] ‘Amaq statements with claims of IS attacks in Congo und Uganda surfaced the past days as well, with pictures showing looted assault rifles and cell phones – and looted tanks and burning village homes in Nigeria. These media items, videos, pictures, writings justifying the occupation of Marawi and the outlook of jihad in South East Asia etc. are ALL in Arabic. In regions where Sunni jihadist groups pop up, Arabic language emerges within the group projected to the outside – core target audience – for native Arabic speakers. Local fighters, as is the case since the existence of VHS tapes featuring local fighters in the 1980s Afghanistan, 1990s Bosnia, Chechnya etc. speak in their local language – with Arabic substitles for the core target audience.

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Whereas past AQ generations, in particular in Saudi Arabia[14], had to theologically justify their specific targeting of non-Muslims, IS enforces these theological decrees and legal rulings, in Arabic referred to in the authoritative use of language as fatawa[15] and ahkam: judicial rulings and religious conditions based on chains of arguments allowing or ban i.e. certain behavior or acts.

Jihadist online materials is a rich blend of various media, never short of content, ranging from simple homepages, discussion forums, blogs, various online libraries for texts and videos, to every single social media platform as of writing.[16] The online media footprint today is the development of nearly three decades of committed media work by jihadist actors – with two decades of online cyberpunk styled activism, ensuring that content once uploaded will stay online – and thus findable – somewhere in the rich online ecosystem. This dedicated work has been and is the expression of a strategic discourse on how to conduct jihadist warfare online and has been penned in a highly coherent manner by leading jihadist theoreticians such as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.[17]

As Reuven Paz, a fluent Arabic speaker (and reader of Arabic language extremist materials) noted in 2007, “Jihadi militancy is … almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world.”[18] As Ali Fisher notes: “People who live in that socio-political context, or habitus, easily pick up on the factors that make up the ‘narratives’”, and furthermore: “The habitus is itself a generative dynamic structure that adapts and accommodates itself to another dynamic meso level structure composed primarily of other actors, situated practices and durable institutions (fields).” And because habitus allowed Bourdieu, Fisher concludes;

“to analyze the social agent as a physical, embodied actor, subject to developmental, cognitive and emotive constraints and affected by the very real physical and institutional configurations of the field.[19]

In their habitus and manifestation, jihadist media discourses refer to certain principles of belief, or define norms, issue symbols, introduce and enforce wordings, and sources with the intention of having resonance within their target audience. As members of their respective societies, or religiously influenced cultures, they operate from “within” in crafting public messages and framing their narratives, sanctioning violence and defining “justice” and “values” – conveyed by jihadist media groups in a pedagogical fashion, using a highly coded religious language, first and foremost for their target audience: native Arabic speakers, born as Sunni Muslims. It is as if

“the form in which the significant symbols are embodied to reach the public may be spoken, written, pictorial, or musical, and the number of stimulus carriers is indefinite. If the propagandist identifies himself imaginatively with the lives of the subjects in a particular situation, he is able to explore several channels of approach.”[20]

Jihadist media groups operating in Arabic and to a much lesser degree in western languages have perhaps taken note of al-Suri’s “Message to the British and European Peoples and Governments regarding the Explosions in London”, July 2005, where he outlined the Internet as the most important medium to propagate and spread the jihadists demands and frame of reference in general.[21] He referred to “the jihadi elite” residing in Europe to partake in this venture.

With the rise of the Islamic State and their declaration of the caliphate in mid-2014, the propaganda and the interspersed media strategies to fan-out such content had reached an unprecedented peak. The move by IS to shift to social media (first Twitter 2012 until late 2015, then Telegram 2016 to as of writing (2019)[22], with a change of modus-operandi)[23], their supporters, like other Jihadist groups, have become increasingly adept at integrating operations on the physical battlefield with the online effort to propagate their ideology (=theology) and celebrate their ‘martyrs’, being able to echo contemporary stories to the rich literal corpus that exists since the 1980s.

 

 

[1] For example referred by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam in his 1989 sermon in Seattle, USA, telling the stories of the war against the Soviets and why the ultimate goal can only be to re-establish a Islamic State. ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam,

[2] Yemen / Mali source

[3] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, al-jihad bayna Kabul wa-l Bayt al-Maqdis, Seattle, 1988.

For a contextual reading, Nico Prucha, “Abdallah ‘Azzam’s outlook for Jihad in 1988 – “Al-Jihad between Kabul and Jerusalem””, Research Institute for European and American Studies (2010), http://www.rieas.gr/images/nicos2.pdf.

[4] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, Muqaddima fi-l hijra wa-l ‘idad, 85.

[5] Reuven Paz, The Impact of the War in Iraq on the Global Jihad, in: Fradkin, Haqqani, Brown (eds.); Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol 1, The Hudson Institute, 2005, 40.

[6] Nico Prucha, “Die Vermittlung arabischer Jihadisten-Ideologie: Zur Rolle deutscher Aktivisten,” In: Guido Steinberg (ed.), Jihadismus und Internet: Eine deutsche Perspektive, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, October 2012, 45-56, http://www.swp-berlin.org/de/publikationen/swp-studien-de/swp-studien-detail/article/jihadismus_und_internet.html.

[7] Of the many works from this time, the accounts of martyrs by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam are popular to this day: ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam: ’Ashaq al-hur” martyr biography collection, http://tawhed.ws/dl?i=pwtico4g, accessed August 29, 2013. To give readers an impression, this book by ‘Azzam is

[8] The al-Ansar mailing list, a branch of the al-Ansar online forum, released a collection of martyrs who died in Chechnya: al-Ansar (ed.): qissas shuhada’ al-shishan, 2007; 113 pages.

[9] This tradition was continued in the 1990s with the influx of Arab foreign fighters in Bosnia, see for example the 218 page long collection by: Majid al-Madani / Hamd al-Qatari (2002), Min qissas al-shuhada al-Arab fi l-Busna wa-l Hirsik, www.saaid.net

[10] Abu ‘Ubayda al-Maqdisi and ‘Abdallah bin Khalid al-‘Adam. Shuhada fi zaman al-ghurba. The document was published as a PDF- and WORD format in the main jihadist forums in 2008, although the 350-page strong book was completed in 2005.

[11] With al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) active, a bi-monthly electronic magazine, the Voice of Jihad, was featured and martyr stories had been released online as well. The most prominent martyrs are featured in a special “the Voice of Jihad” electronic book (112 pages): Sayyar a’lam al-shuhada’, al-Qa’idun website, 2006.

[12] Sayyar a’lam al-shuhada‘ was a series that featured the martyr biographies in 2004-2006; the collected martyr biographies (in sum 212 pages) had been re-released by al-Turath media, a media organization that is part of IS in 2018. Since the launch of IS’ weekly newspaper al-Naba’, prominent martyr stories have been featured there.

[13] As displayed in  IS videos, i.e. Hijra wa-l qital, Wilayat Gharb Afriqa (January 15, 2019) or Radd al-Wa’id, Wilaya Diyala (January 29, 2019).

[14] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi-Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[15] Plural for fatwa.

[16] For a discussion on how Twitter was used by jihadist actors: Nico Prucha and Ali Fisher. “Tweeting for the Caliphate – Twitter as the New Frontier for Jihadist Propaganda.” CTC Sentinel (Westpoint), June 2013, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/tweeting-for-the-caliphate-twitter-as-the-new-frontier-for-jihadist-propaganda

[17] Lia, Brynjar, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

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

[19] Ali Fisher, How 6th Graders Would See Through Decliner Logic and Coalition Information Operations, Onlinejihad, January 2018,  https://onlinejihad.net/2018/01/26/how-6th-graders-would-see-through-decliner-logic-and-coalition-information-operations/

[20] Harold D. Lasswell, The Theory of Political Propaganda, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 21, No. 3. (Aug., 1927), 627-631, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0554%28192708%2921%3A3%3C627%3ATTOPP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-L.

[21] Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, ila Britaniyyin wa-l Eurupiyyin bi sha’n tafjirat London July 2007 wa-mumarissat al-hukuma al-Britaniyya

[22] Although

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

As of 2019, the Islamic State, but also AQ or the Taliban continue to operate on Telegram and from this protected realm newly produced propaganda is injected into online spaces that are (more) accessible than the closed and hard to find groups on Telegram.

Making of a Jihadi image

A thousand men who fear not for their lives are more to be dreaded than ten thousand who fear for their fortunes.

Denis Diderot

The evidence based approach to analysing the Jihadi movement includes how the movement creates their visual images. Deconstructing these images into their components demonstrates that many of the different elements are included deliberately to communicate specific things. These elements must be interpreted within the appropriate habitus.

In part, as the late Reuven Paz noted, this means recognising that;

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


Reuven Paz, Reading Their Lips: The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites as ‘Soft Power’ in the War of the Minds

The other part of interpreting images within the appropriate habitus, is an appreciation of the Jihadi culture, in the sense as-Suri used “the cultural level of the mujahidin“.

At times, it is possible to heighten the cultural level of the mujahidin, and it is also possible to heighten the level of preparation and acquired skills, and this will contribute to refining the talent …

The trainers and those supervising the foundation of Resistance cells must discover those talents and refine them with culture and training so that they find their place in leading terrorist operations in this type of blessed jihad…

Later in the text as-Suri notes:

..one of the most important fundaments for training in our jihadi Resistance Call is to spread the culture of preparation and training, its programs and methods, with all their aspects, by all methods of distribution, especially the Internet, the distribution of electronic discs, direct correspondence, recordings and every other method.

as-Suri, Global Islamic Resistance Call

The socio-political and cultural elements of the habitus in which Jihadi media is created are fundamental to evidence based research into what this material intended to communicate. When this evidence based approach is applied, notions of “jihadi cool”, going from zero-to-hero, crime and gangsta rap, along with claims of utopia and ‘utopian narratives’ all become unsustainable as interpretations of what Jihadi groups intend to communicate.

Jihadi culture has drawn influences from theology, the history of muslims, history of Jihadi groups and draws on experiences from earlier iterations of the movement. Jihadi culture is inextricably linked to their understanding of evidence and scholarship, specifically the vast archive of text, audio, and video which precedes the emergence of the contemporary al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya.

Evidence based approach

Image by sawa’iq media

This image has been part of the Jihadi information ecosystem and is part of a wider genre of images.

Collection of images produced by Furat posted together in a single Telegram post.

These images are composites of numerous elements, the inclusion of which are intended to communicate concepts which have also been referenced in earlier jihadi material.

Deconstructing the image

The original image ‘training the brothers in street fighting’ was produced by hadrawmawt Yemen. This training session depicts the practical application of theology in meeting the obligation to prepare for Jihad and life on ribat. This obligation is emphasized by the quote from Surah al-Anfal (Quran 8:60) which features in the final sawa’iq media image.

And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged.

Surah al-Anfal 8:60

Like the interconnection between contemporary jihadi material and historic precursors, the original image of the training session also appears in other content. Here it is used in combination with another image of training, also referring to Quran 8:60, emphasizing the mujahidin are obligated to prepare for combat.

The importance of preparing (training) appears frequently in documents from previous iterations of the Jihadi movement, including those by as-Suri (quoted above) and discussed in detail in Zaad e Mujahidin. For example;

Generally the military training ought to be acquired by every healthy Muslim. Even the disabled Muslim could perform various military duties, due to the modern method of warfare….

After the compulsory requirement of the Imaan and the Taqwa, the Mujahid ought to pay careful attention to the following three points:
– Highest standard of military training.
– Obedience.
– Prudence and Contrivance.

Zaad e Mujahidin
The same image was also used after the al-Furqan release of “In the Hospitality of Amirul-Muminin”

Our battle today is a battle of attrition – prolonged for the enemies. They must come to terms that jihad will last until judgement day. And that god commanded for us jihad while not decreeing for us to win. Therefore, we ask god for steadfastness, determination, guidance, righteousness, and success for us and for our brothers.

The Jihadi movement is clear about their aim and purpose, these are constants in their material not ‘latest trends’. As Reuven Paz quoted Indian scholar, Dr. Om Nagpal,

The Mujahidin do not hide their intentions. They do not use diplomatic or apologetic language. On various occasions they have used aggressive language. Repeatedly from the different corners of the world, they have proclaimed in categorical terms that their mission is Jihad. Jihad inspires them. Jihad invigorates them. Jihad gives them a purpose in life. Jihad for them is a noble cause, a sacred religious duty. Jihad is a mission


quoted in;
Paz, Reuven. “The brotherhood of global jihad.” (October , 2001) http://www.e-prism.org

Conclusion

Once the theological underpinning of the Jihadi movement is recognised, interpretation of the imagery can focus on the framework (or Habitus) within which it is created and the concepts which it is intended to communicate.

The dominant narrative among Western governments, policy experts and the mainstream media has been that Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups embrace a violent “ideology,” rather than specific religious doctrines that pervade and drive their agenda.

Rüdiger Lohlker continues,

It is crystal clear to virtually anyone who has the linguistic capacity to grasp and the opportunity to witness what jihadists are actually saying, writing and doing, both online and offline, that religion matters.

The Jihadi movement interprets waging jihad as a religious duty and they consider innovation in religion unacceptable. As a result, Jihadi culture is based on what they consider evidence; evidence rooted in a long tradition of theological writing, divine comandment and historical human acting (i.e. tales of the sahaba and selective readings of the Sunna).

That evidence is the key to an authentic interpretation of the imagery the movement produces. If commentary and academic interpretations cannot explicitly site the evidence and connect their interpretation to the long history of Jihadi theological writing, it risks becoming significantly more about what Western researchers imagine they see; an interpretation trapped in a western habitus rather than an authentic interpretation of the Jihadi movement.

Documents in Caliphate Library

Many Telegram channels and groups operated by Jihadi groups, distribute lengthy Arabic documents.

An analysis of the content shared by one such channel, ‘The Caliphate Library’ Telegram Channel shows how the Jihadi movement thrives on lengthy documents that sets out their theology, beliefs, and strategy.*

Overview of findings:

  • This individual library contained 908 pdf documents, which collectively contain over 111,000 pages. This is far from what one might expect from a movement which thinks in 140 characters, as some Western commentators suggest.
  • In addition to the material produced by Dawlat al-Islamiyya, the channel;
    • republished earlier writing through Maktabat al-Himma, a theological driven publication house of Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
    • shared earlier work produced by al-Qaeda
    • distributed historical and contemporary Salafi writing which intersects with their theology.
  • ISI era is an important part the identity for Dawlat al-Islamiyya – over 15% of the pages in ‘IS media products’ category originate from that period.
  • While 10% of PDF were encrypted, most documents were produced using tools easily available on most modern laptops.
  • Not one of the texts envisages a ‘Jihadist Utopia’ nor proposes a ‘Utopian narrative’. The idea of a ‘Utopian Narrative’ is an artefact of Western misinterpretation. It is not rooted in the texts of of Dawlat al-Islamiyya nor their predecessors.

The following infographic summerises the analysis of over 1000 documents in this Caliphate Library.

*The Caliphate Library is a loose translation of its actual name, as at time of writing the Channel is still live.