A more progressive Terrorism Studies

This I have resolved on … to run when I can, to go when I cannot run, and to creep when I cannot go.

Pilgrim’s Progress – Part 2 Chapter 6.

The role of the Feeble-mind character in Bunyan’s religious allegory Pilgrim’s Progress is to highlight the importance of continuing to make progress towards an identified goal.

A more progressive approach to Terrorism Studies could focus on extending the depth at which the Salafi-Jihadi movement is understood. This would be based on robust data science and human expertise, a focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement – Arabic – and the extensive archive of theologically inspired thought which the movement has produced.

It is the archive of theology as expressed and interpreted by the core of the movement which provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. In contrast, some researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies claim to see artefacts of their western habitus in Salafi-Jihadi material – the focus on crime, rap music, and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’.    

Since the 1980s research has shown that the study of terrorism has struggled with availability, handling and analysis of data. Despite the length of time and frequent observations about the problems with data, rather than making progress, these problems within orthodox Terrorism Studies have remained. In addition, “the dispersed nature of much of the more rigorous, ‘critical’ and conceptually innovative research on ‘terrorism’” means that level of rigor in research is conducted outside the orthodoxy.

Over a decade ago Magnus Ranstrop highlighted the ongoing problem, which Alex Schmid and Berto Jongman originally identified back in 1988; that ‘there are probably few areas in the social science literature in which so much is written on the basis of so little research’. As a result, much of the writing in Terrorism Studies is “impressionistic, superficial, and at the same time often also pretentious, venturing far-reaching generalisations on the basis of episodal evidence”.

Rüdiger Lohlker recently recently continued this theme when he highlighted, the tendency for orthodox Terrorism Studies to contain “an empty fog of words without inner content”. Quoting German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The section quoted by Rüdiger Lohlker continues:

This sort of chatter, though lacking the idea of philosophy, gains for itself a kind of authority through its very prolixity and arrogance. Partly this is because it seems almost incredible that such a big shell should be without a kernel…

 G. W. F. Hegel

Such is the coagulation of mediocrity within a section of orthodox Terrorism Studies that unscientific, methodologically flawed and statistically unsound commentary is talked up as ‘data science’ and ‘groundbreaking research’, while the evidentiary basis goes unquestioned within the mainstream scholarship and peer review. Over the last decade – rather than being addressed – these issues have become systemic.

Making progress

As noted in the development of Critical Terrorism Studies, “it is not enough to simply point out what is lacking in current research; a clear and realistic alternative must be provided”. Sections of the orthodox Terrorism Studies, and offshoots in the CVE industry, have an opportunity to break from the contemporary stagnation and develop a strong data culture and emphasis on evidence-based research. A progressive approach to analyzing the complex, theologically driven, Salafi-Jihadi movement, will move away from the contemporary obsession with finding so-called ‘gaps’ in the largely superficial and stagnant orthodox literature.

Many of the criticisms highlighted at the start of CTS remain within sections of the orthodoxy. CTS itself – with a focus on Western policy and Western academia – has struggled to break free from the Western frames of reference, among other challenges. The framing of Terrorism, with 9/11 as a moment of temporal rupture, still dominates CTS. This inhibits the deeper understanding of the Salafi-Jihadi movement which maintains different temporal reference points to those which dominate CTS and traditional approaches to Terrorism Studies, both in relation to time in the physical world and in relation to this world (Dunya) as an abode through which a soul passes.

To address the superficial, orientalist and neocolonialist tendencies of the orthodoxy, and the temporal framing of CTS, a progressive movement within Terrorism Studies would probe the intended meaning of Salafi-Jihadi content in their understanding of the world, rather than in a Western-centric English language dominated habitus. Critique of the orthodox Terrorism Studies has highlighted “its poor methods and theories, its state centricity, its problem-solving orientation and its institutional and intellectual links to state security projects”. Many of these problems have also concerned scholars within terrorism studies “who have long acknowledged the deficiencies and limitations of current research”.

In addition, a progressive Terrorism Studies approach would uphold standards for the appropriate use of statistical data to produce a clear break from the systemic malaise in data handling which have existed within orthodox Terrorism Studies. With a strong data culture and robust research design, a dynamic approach to Terrorism Studies could utilise the changes in the technological environment for research. This is not dissimilar from the way Salafi-Jihadi groups have adapted to the opportunities which evolving technology has created.

The way the object of study, such as the groups who make up the Salafi-Jihadi movement, choose to operate has evolved:

  • The evolving concept of the electronic ribat. Since 2011, members of jihadist forums have issued media strategies that encourage the development of a media mujahideen. This encouragement has been accompanied by the release of guides to using social media platforms, which often include lists of recommended accounts to follow. 
  • By 2013, Jihadists had aggressively expanded their use of Twitter, in addition to Facebook and YouTube, especially since the outbreak of violence in Syria. This propagation effort by the “media mujahideen” was approved and sanctioned by movement leaders and contributed to the interconnected jihadist zeitgeist. 
  • Learning from each interaction on the electronic ribat, the media mujahidin rapidly developed to maintain a persistent presence based on the speed, agility, and resilience of the Swarmcast.
  • In this struggle for survival, the media mujahidin have benefited from collective approaches and emergent behaviors, these have allowed a decentralised network to thrive in the face of increasingly aggressive content removal.
  • The media mujahidin frequently use widely available software for media production – this software would also be easily accessible to researchers to provide a window into the production methods.

In addition the current technological environment provides many opportunities for research:

  • Servers are cheap and easy to access – for example if you use Amazon for shopping, then that is enough to access cloud computing through AWS.
  • Processing power and RAM are cheaper than they have ever been, allowing relatively complex calculations and data analysis to be produced rapidly.
  • Most modern personal laptops and desktops have hardware sufficient to run the analysis required for many data science projects which would extend current research into the use of the internet by Salafi Jihadi groups, or ‘extremist’ groups more broadly. Of note, most contemporary material published by salafi Jihadi groups is produced on the same widely available hardware / software (more on that in a later post).
  • While there are many commercially available and hugely powerful ‘data systems’ which integrate a range of data storage and analytical processes within a single platform, there are also many open source programs which can be used to conduct academic research. These open sources software options may not permit all the analysis to be conducted within one platform, requiring the researcher to use a range of approaches to achieve the desired analysis.   
  • There are many ‘how to’ guides for those aspiring to become better at using python, java, or any of the other popular coding languages. Similarly, resources are freely available which researchers can use to learn more about data science or using specific open source software more generally in their work, whether in the form of walkthroughs or articles packed with quick tips and tricks.

To build a stronger data culture will mean;

  • Acknowledging the problems with evidence and data which have to date beset orthodox Terrorism Studies, 
  • Reviewers and editors robustly enforcing actual standards for statistical analysis, for example,
    • if you are going to claim something such as a correlation or a long-term trend – it will need to be backed up by a statistical calculation using data acquired through a scientifically appropriate method.  
    • if the analysis is based on subjective ‘coding’ of data – is there an appropriate intercoder reliability score. If there is not, there is little reason for readers to be confident that the research presented would be repeatable, that coding remains unchanged over time, and that other researchers would apply the same coding definitions in the same way. Without intercoder reliability there is little reason to have confidence in the resulting ‘analysis’ rendering it largely unpublishable.  
  • Editors and publishers insisting on clear conflict of interest reporting,
  • The Terrorism Studies community putting methodology above attention grabbing headlines and tweetable pseudo-metrics.
    • If the methodology is flawed or the statistical analysis unsound – no matter if the ‘findings’ are appealing or even intuitively correct – the study lacks the necessary basic elements to be considered publishable research.  
      • Sample:
        • If research is claiming to have analysed a sample, to what extent can the sample be considered representative of the whole?
        • Was that sample derived from a consistent methodology, or a hodgepodge of pieces cobbled together?
        • How was the sample identified and collected? In effect research design (architecture) and data collection (acquisition) to use two of Jeffrey Stanton’s four A’s of data science.   
    • If you cannot do the calculation to produce a statistical result, do not use the word related to that calculation e.g. correlation, trend etc.  
      • Correlation:
        • When an author claims correlation – a range of questions should spring to mind; do you mean a positive or negative correlation?
        • how strong a correlation?
        • Did you use Pearson, Spearman, or Kendall?
      • Trend:
        • If a trend / trendline is claimed, what is the R-squared value? Is your line a good representation of the data?
        • A trend requires more than two or three data points.
        • Do you mean one point in time has fewer of ‘x’ than another? This is not a trend, upward or downward, one point just has fewer than the other.

Based on what is currently being published within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies there are a range of issues, including;

  • Journals specifically focused on terrorism research, a range of journals in related disciplines which have hurried to do ‘special issues’ on ISIS, and ‘research centers’ self-publishing special reports, which have published articles as if they are either unaware of the basic scientific and statistical standards or are content to publish material that they know falls short of the minimum acceptable scientific standards.
  • Senior researchers, including Professors, who will cite work that falls short of scientific or statistical standards without commentary or critique, some even talking it up as ‘ground breaking’ or ‘data science’.  

The current state of orthodox Terrorism Studies must be judged on the behaviour of those in the discipline. Such is the coagulation of mediocrity in orthodox Terrorism Studies, senior researchers have not questioned unsound methodologies, and journals through their peer reviewers and editors, have not upheld standards. The previously observed problems of data and data analysis within some sections of orthodox Terrorism Studies have now reached systemic levels.

In a scientific discipline,

  • If the relevant scientific or methodological information is not present in an article submitted to a journal, then that paper is going in the bin because it does not reach minimum standards for undergraduate level work, let alone peer review.
  • When individuals deliver presentations, which make statistical claims about trends or correlation without any calculations, or use substandard / misleading data visualisation to support their argument, they could expect to be laughed out of the building.  

If statistical and data analysis in Terrorism Studies do not adopt the standards adopted by other fields, it cannot take full advantage of the potential offered by increasing integration of data science or forms of statistical analysis into the study of Salafi-Jihadi groups.

The following series of posts examines specific tangible reasons why robust data science and evidence-based analysis is important and offers a critique of contemporary uses of data within orthodox Terrorism Studies.  

  • A progressive focus on what events and material means to Salafi-Jihadi groups – Da’wa As Constant on the Path of Jihad:

The purpose of research is to develop deeper understand the object of study. While Western-centric interpretations of ‘utopia’ and claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are defeated may be easier to produce and more comfortable for policymakers to read, they do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes. The message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump and echoed by researchers including the authors of the ISIS Reader. Yet, while it is possible to produce a definition of ‘defeat’ to back such a claim, that definition is unlikely to be a useful indicator of the current state nor future behaviour of the group. Far from defeated al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.

In addition to expedient notions of ‘defeat’, the focus on concepts such  as ‘Utopia’ are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens. A progressive approach would focus on understanding what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and be able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.

  • Progressive commitment to scientific methods to escape the impressionistic and statistically unsound representations of data in orthodox Terrorism Studies:

The failure to uphold statistical methods in orthodox Terrorism Studies has become systemic. Methodologically flawed, statistically unsound, unpublishable garbage is now talked up within the orthodoxy of Terrorism studies as ‘data science’ by professors and published in journals or circulated as ‘special reports’. This section provides a critique of the unscientific approaches to data and statistics considered acceptable within orthodox Terrorism Studies. The adoption of a progressive approach to Terrorism Studies would demand a clear break from this flawed research, putting robust methodology above tweetable headlines. 

  • Orthodoxy claims decline – time for a reality check:

While production of media content by IS has fluctuated, some commentators have sought to coerce the data into a linear direction – a so-called decline. This section examines how the narrative has been constructed and shows that committing to the decline narrative has meant overlooking some serious methodological flaws and fluctuation in content. The decline narrative was built by shifting the goalposts both in terms of definition and time-periods rather than robust statistical analysis. In fact, while some claimed consensus around the decline narrative – a robust statistical analysis reveals average weekly video output increased in both quantity and longevity of production between 2017 and 2019.

  • Neo-Colonialist tendency to devalue ideas in Arabic:

This section unpacks some of the methods widely accepted within orthodox Terrorism Studies to show how they devalue material in Arabic in favour of English language sources and Western-Centric interpretations. A progressive Terrorism studies would focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement (Arabic).

  • Decline narrative as strategic communication tool:

The so-called decline has been more than a narrative deployed in commentary; it has also been used as a strategic communication tool. This section highlights the need for genuine scientific methodologies, appropriate statistical analyses, and robust conflict of interest reporting to ensure the field can escape the current coagulation of mediocrity and rebuild confidence in the academic output.

  • Progressive commitment to robust statistical analysis; the end to Mc_Data:

Scientific methodologies and robust statistical approaches can lift orthodox Terrorism Studies out of the current malaise of mediocrity, and enable the field to embrace the opportunity available through evidence-based research and a stronger data culture.  

A progressive Terrorism studies, using robust data science and evidence-based analysis, is important because contrary to the dominant narratives of IS having collapsed or been in terminal decline, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) used the time on the open front in Iraq and Syria as an educational opportunity, to build a base of supporters running into the thousands. This is why al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”.

As such, the theology which groups such as al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote, will remain, will endure and, when given the opportunity of fertile soil, it will expand visibly when it suits their strategic cause.

Dawn is coming.

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

٢٠١٩٠١٣٠_٢٢٣٠٠٥

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.

15111111

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.

Theological drivers of online ghazwat and the media mujahidin

Exclusive for the supporters (message on Telegram)
Text reads:
#exclusive for the supporters (munasireen) and companions (ashab) of the raids (al-ghazawat) on #platforms of social media: More than 500 links to electronic releases (isdarat) of the Islamic state that are not eligible for #deletion by the will of god, we ask god to anger the kuffar, the apostates, the hypocrites. These links by the will of god do not get deleted all the while these will help the munasireen in their raids of social media platforms. Share and deem the reward (ajr) and we advise you [to place these links] in the comment section on YouTube. We warn you after placing your trust in god to use a VPN and to ensure to enforce technical security measures for the protection for the raiders on the social media sites. (raiders in Arabic is stated as ashab of the raids). We will continuously renew [this collection of links protected from removal] until we have more than 1000 links, god willing Experiment with the links, share them and reap your reward.
The release of this collection of ‘500 links’ through pastethis.to highlights the theological underpinning of the actions taken by the media mujahidin. This includes:
  • The nature of rewards in the Jihadist belief system.
    • Theological underpinning – reaping your reward, ajr
    • Murabitin, Ghazwat and the Ribat.
    • Jihad – Media – Activism – Militancy – Documenting the Struggle Online to Influence Target Audiences
    • Isdarat – the groundwork of Online Jihad by AQAP, first generation
  • The different roles platforms play within the ecosystem.
  • The role of the website jihadology within the jihadist ecosystem.

Rewards in the Jihadist Belief-System

“Conveyed by ‘Ali, may god be pleased with him: “whoever inspires his brother to jihad will be rewarded likewise upon every step of this endeavor of the worship of the Sunna.”
Cited by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, “Join the Caravane”, January 4, 2004, citing in length ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s “Join the Caravane”, referenced furthermore in jihadist literature to historical scholar Ibn Nahhas.
To give readers a deeper nuanced insight into the above statement issued on Telegram, we will decipher a few keywords / concepts that are in most cases absolutely clear and easily understood when issued by Arabic native speakers, born as Sunni Muslims, to their core target audience: Arabic native speakers, born as Sunni Muslims. The message was transmitted across the Jihadi Telegram network. Jihadists are religious people (if we like it or not) who over the past 40 years have been prolific writers to craft a specific theology. The theology of Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (AQ) and any other Sunni extremist groups, is based on Arabic-language religious scriptures, not just Qur’an and Sunna, but also references elements of the rich 1,400-year long tradition of Islamic writings. Yet, as penned by Rüdiger Lohlker, there is a lack of willingness to deal with the writings and motivations of jihadist subcultures and their inherent theology. The term theology is provocative, referring to the specific type of rhetoric and thinking regarding the relationship between humans and god. While it may be comforting for some to describe al-Baghdadi as ‘monstrous’, or a female follower as a ‘witch’, academic study can make greater progress if focusing less on the moral outrage and instead focusing on how Sunni extremists actually articulate, pitch, and project their messages.[i] Within the ecosystem of jihadist writings, including historical authors that matter for modern jihadist groups, many theological concepts are identifiable – if you are able, and so inclined, to read the easy findable electronic PDFs. With the apparent inability to read basic Arabic jihadist texts or fully understand videos (which are 99% in Arabic in the case of IS), the majority of keywords and textual content remains behind a veil. Conversely, for any Arabic reader versed in Arabic-language jihadist writings, the speeches, audios, images and videos they produce clearly contain key theological concepts. Similarly, for those with an understanding of the socio-cultural context of the intended audience, even the non-Arabic language products have a clear theological meaning. Unfortunately, these theological concepts have passed largely unnoticed in the pop-science analysis of English-only magazines such as AQ’s Inspire, Dawlat al-Islamiyah’s Dabiq and the multi-lingual Rumiyya dominates the ‘research’ output have created an absolute win-win situation for Jihadist groups. With the neglect to either treat Arabic language extremist sources as primary data[ii] or entering it into evidence to relate the use of language for non-Arabic IS products, Sunni extremist propaganda (including the pro-jihadist ‘salafist’ materials) targeting a non-Arab(ic) audience, attacking open, inclusive societies, continues without much interruption. Hardcore texts of violence include lengthy citations, textual references and include sources of Qur’an and Sunna used by contemporary ‘Salafist’ text books projected via the Internet in respective languages into European societies. The art of the jihadist pen, or “scholars of jihad”, as extremist scholars of this subculture refer to themselves, is to express a coherent theology, referencing historical authors such as Ibn Taymiyya or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and to embed citations or references to Qur’an and Sunna. With the establishment of over 300,000 pages of Arabic text since the 1980s, all available online if you know where to look يا لغوي, jihadists have developed a specific hermeneutical reading of scripture and project their actions as the active application of what is defined in writing as divine law, the will of god, the commandments, absolute rulings that must be enforced to be a ‘pious believer’ – and be eligible for paradise. Texts authored by the “scholars of jihad” include references and citations of linguist dictionaries such as Lisan al-Arab, tafsir works and sometimes ridicule religious curricula taught in MENA schools claiming the references of jihad (for example) are either omitted or taught in a wrongful way. In order to understand groups such as IS, you must be literate in Arabic and be able to comprehend the propaganda that is often well versed in religious references and sources – this is the habitus that extremist groups exploit to address their primary, single most important key target audience: Arab native speakers.
Religious extremists have no easy, cozy relationship with an intervening deity that to them is real, this is not limited of course to this context. For religious extremists in general, the relationship to god is personal and intimately – while socially re-enforced based on human interpreted divine commandments etc. How most of the intended audience orders their reality is that;
  • an intervening deity is real,
  • articulated in the jihadist framework, this is a world they pass through, referencing an authentic hadith,
  • after this world they hope their actions will be deemed such that the intervening deity permits them entrance to paradise, reference – among many – i.e. Qur’an 3:169.
Hence statements of those either passively ‘martyred’ by air strikes, or during combat when not having actively sought it, as well as the istishhadi operatives, suicide or ‘martyrdom’ bombers who deliver their explosives actively to their targets, are often introduced by Qur’an 3:169:
“Think not of those, who are slain in the path of God, as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, they are bestowed with provision.”[iii]
This mind-set is further sanctioned by citing Qur’an 2:154, to back up the above statement:
“Do not say that those who are killed in God’s cause are dead; they are alive, though you do not realize it.”[iv]
The stories of ‘martyrs’ enable the narrator to present the individual as a ‘true’ Muslim who indeed lived, fought, and sacrificed for implantation of the divine definition as set in Qur’an, 3:146 to widen the conviction of “being alive with God” in the afterlife (akhira):
“Many prophets have fought, with large bands of godly men alongside them who, in the face of their suffering for God’s cause, did not lose heart or weaken or surrender: God loves those who are steadfast.”[v]
The jihadist, in his self-perception, is part of “bands of godly men” and as such have remained steadfast, reluctant of their own physical safety or lives – after all, humans are tested by god in this world to decide who will be rewarded in what way in the next world. Furthermore, the jihadist sources emphasize that individual believers are expected to have “spent” their lives and their wealth “on the path of God”. Qur’an 9:111 is cited to provide an alleged theological and judicial framework:
“God has purchased the persons and possessions of the believers in return for the Garden – they fight in God’s way: they kill and are killed – this is a true promise given by Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an. Who could be more faithful to his promise than God? So be happy with the bargain you have made: that is the supreme triumph.”[vi]
Many of the theological distinctions come in deciding which actions will gain ajr – a form of reward – and which will not, i.e. lead to “sin” or tribulations. A shared broad mental construct, and socio-cultural context is laid out in the religious coded, Arabic language corpus of jihad – the distinction comes from how one must behave to obtain reward, which may subsequently cause you to be permitted entrance to paradise. Thus, from a linguist perspective, the jihadist language is clear and easy to comprehend. Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, most Sunni jihadist groups had been quick to issue statements ensuring that bin Laden was a human (and not a prophet or the like), having invested his life for the worship of god by his actions and sacrifice. Following a classical jihadi-lingual ductus, he was referred to as “the shaykh, the martyr – as we deem him to be – Osama bin Laden.”[vii] In other releases, i.e. the death of Hamud b. ‘Uqla’ al-Shu’aybi, died in late 2001 and having been cited by bin Laden but also having had an important influence on Saudi jihadists of the 2000s, the full reference of the martyr in this framing is expressed: “we deem him to be a martyr, god is the measure of all things” (al-Jarbu’, 2002, shared in AQ forums as word document at the time). This wording was later used throughout the 1500 page strong The Voice of Jihad AQ magazine to refer to their members who had been ‘martyred’. Steadfastness is another way of earning ajr, and is an integral element of jihadist literature and videos. Steadfastness is the expression of maintaining a sincere intention towards god, as your actions of this world in the service for god will be judged to determine your status, reward, in the afterlife.

Theological underpinning – reaping your reward, ajr

“Reward”, or ajr in Arabic, in the mindset of modern jihadist groups and thinkers, however, is based on the ancient understanding thereof and is two-fold:
  • The reward must be earned based on one’s deeds and actions for god in this world to be eligible to enter paradise after death. This is one of the main literal elements of the textual corpus of jihad. As for jihadists, jihad means an active form of worshipping and serving god, with a sincere intention, driven to fight for the protection, revenge or for the security of the jama’a ahl al-sunna; reward is earned along this way in this world with death as the new stage of life in mind. Hence popular slogans of this subculture, expressed in writings and placed in active application in many of its audio-visual releases, embody this with further theological reference points. A popular propaganda-slogan thus states that the Mujahid seeks one of the two most precious things (al-husayn): victory (nasr) or attaining the shahada, exiting this world and dwelling in paradise. This is a citation of Qur’an 9:52 and used by al-Zarqawi in the beheading video of Olin “Jack” Armstrong in 2004. The Chechen hostage takers of the musical Nord Ost in Moscow in 2002 also put up a black banner on the wall, reading in Arabic the Islamic shahada complemented by allahu akbar and ihda l-husnayyin, the reference to Qur’an 9:52. IS used this slogan, for example, in the last videos that had emerged from Mosul before the fall, framing the expected reward despite worldly – or physical loss – as a win for what comes after life in the conviction of humans who see themselves as enablers of divinity.
  • Reward is also a historical reference to the physical world that early Muslims obtained as a result of raiding the caravans of the Quraish. The “spoils” or “booty of war” are filled with Qur’anic references to surat al-Anfal and surat al-Tawba. A physical reward thus is based on receiving a share of the “spoils of war”, often referred to as in Arabic as ghanima. Yet jihadists warn of focusing on the potential to make ghanima through jihad, rather than having a sincere intention.
A 2003 article in “The Voice of Jihad”, the first regular electronic magazine released online by AQ on the Arab Peninsula, warns of prioritizing “taking ghanima as reward of one’s jihad”, thus neglecting a complete understanding of the concept of jihad and the spoils of war by omitting “when raiders take ghanima a third is their reward.” The article continues: “the ahadith provide clear evidence whoever seeks to embark on his jihad solely for the purpose of gaining worldly presentation, will not receive any ajr.”[viii] The reference of ajr in this context is strictly related to what the Mujahid, having a sincere intention, will receive when killed. This hadith is also used by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam in his “Declaration of Jihad” and further contextualized with another hadith sources: “Conveyed by al-Nisa’i based on a stable isnad[ix] by Abu Usama who said: “a man came to the prophet, peace and blessings upon him, he said: “have you [ever] seen a man raiding looking for ajr, thinking about financial gain?” The messenger of god, peace and blessings upon him said: “god will not acknowledge anyone [as a martyr] except those who are pure and sincere in their desire.”[x]
Ajr: Rewards in the afterlife for deeds and actions in this world, a jihadist Telegram channel member asking for reward for his Jaysh al-‘Izza brethren for having slain mercenaries, for their jihad and to receive their martyrs. The reward is also contingent on the context in which action is taken. Anwar al-Awlaki described in Allah is Preparing Us for Victory, when times are hard, the reward for taking action is increased. If it comes at a time when things are easy then the ajr is reduced. But if the time is one of difficulty, then the ajr is increased. Ajr is in accordance to the difficulty. Comprehending the meaning and importance of ajr within the Jihadi understanding, shows that claims in Western commentary that ISIS seeks to pursue a ‘utopian project’ or present a ‘utopian narrative’ are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of jihad. It is life on the ribat that is the life revered by the jihadist movement. The reward they seek is ajr, which, if sufficient, may permit access to janna.
Murabitin In his chapter on the virtues of life on the ribat, Ibn-Nahas highlights why behavior on the ribat is among the best livelihoods. Abu Hurairah narrated, the messenger of god said: “Among the best livelihoods of people is that of a man holding the rein of his horse in the path of Allah, flying on its back whenever he hears the call. He flies in search of killing or being killed. And a man on top of a mountain peak or on the bottom of a deep valley, establishing prayers, paying his zakah, and worshiping his Lord until death visits him. People see nothing from him but good.” Those who spend the night on the ribat are murabitin. The image of murabit on the classical ribat is important to the understanding of the identity and approach of the media mujihidin today, as it is the self-image of those on the electronic ribat. As noted: Murabita, according to the British Orientalist, translator and lexicographer, Edward Lane, “also signifies a company of warriors; or of men warring against an enemy; or a company of men having their horses tied at the frontier in preparation for the enemy; or keeping post on the frontier; and in like manner”.[xi] To translate and conceptualise the Arabic term ribat can be very contentious. The term is frequently referred to in both jihadist videos and in print / online literature in the context of religiously permissible warfare; in a modern meaning it could loosely be translated as “front”. Ribat is prominent due to its reference in the 60th verse of the eight chapter of the Qur’an, the Surat al-Anfal (“the Spoils of War”). It is often used to legitimize acts of war and among others found in bomb making handbooks or as part of purported theological justification in relation to suicide operations – for decades. Extremists consider the clause as a divine command stipulating military preparation to wage jihad as part of a broader understanding of “religious service” on the “path of god.” Ribat as it appears in the Qur’an is referenced in the context of “steeds of war” (ribat al-khayl) that must be kept ready at all times for war and hence remain “tied”, mostly in the Islamic world’s historic border regions or contested areas. In order to “strike terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah”, these “steeds of war” are to be unleashed for military purposes and mounted (murabit – also a sense of being garrisoned) by the Mujahidin. The relevant section reads: “Prepare against them whatever forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses,[xii] to frighten off [these] enemies of God and of your, and warn others unknown to you but known to God. Whatever you give in God’s cause will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged,” Qur’an 8:60. Ribat Ribat has two main aspects in contemporary jihadist thinking. First, the complete 60th verse of the Qur’an is often stated in introductions to various ideological and military handbooks or videos. While some videos issue ribat in connection with various weapons and the alleged divine command in the jihadist reading thereof. As the real-world fighting Mujahidin are considered “strangers” (ghuraba’) in this world fighting at the very edge of worldly perception, thus being ‘mounted’ at the front (ribat) and the borders (thughur), the background networks of the ‘media Mujahidin’ must be accredited likewise. Thus, in the past fifteen years, ribat has migrated and expanded into the virtual “front”, as the murabit who is partaking in the media work has been equated with the actual Mujahid fighting at the frontlines. In a similar understanding, the physical “frontier” or “border” has shifted to the ‘arm-chair jihadists’, the professional media teams embedded with fighting units as well as the global network of media supporters as the value of the media jihad is understood and used on a tactical and strategic level by militants to further their cause.
Ghazwa The advantage exploited by the muribiteen in early Islamic history is the ability to move rapidly, have a heavy impact on the target, and move on. This is encapsulated by the concept of Ghazwa (غزوة), a raid or expedition.[xiii] Jihadist groups around the world have used the word to describe their physical operations such as “ghazwat al-asir”, a campaign by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to avenge the imprisonment of Muslims.[xiv] In 2006, IED attacks in Bouzareh near Algiers, was valorised as “Ghazwa Bushawi” by the “the Media Council of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat” before the group merged with AQIM.[xv] Today these raids occur on online, Channels on Telegram act as coordination points through which these raids are organised. In one approach, Jihadi groups post the time and target for the raid that day. They provide supporters with pre-prepared tweets or URL which supporters can copy and post directly onto platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.[xvi] These raids seek to cause sudden spikes in activity to spread their message broadly, there is no attempt at permanence as they know the accounts they use will be removed. In fact, they plan for it. Just as the self-image of horse backed warrior, the users in the online ghazwa arrive suddenly, have an impact but do not intend to stay around. A longer discussion of these concepts appears in: Ali Fisher, Netwar in Cyberia

Jihad – Media – Activism – Militancy – Documenting the Struggle Online to Influence Target Audiences

Incitement to jihad is well established within the online dominions, where media activism can be achieved from any place, in- or outside of conflict zones. With a ring of decentralized media workers supporting those who are ‘embedded’ with fighting elements, the jihadi media has in the past two decades greatly improved in providing professional made videos and writings from real-life combat zones for computer-, tablet-, smartphone-, and television-screens throughout the world. The ‘media mujahid’ as a role model promotes those ‘embedded’ front-line cameramen in particular, without whom the quality and quantity of jihad groups worldwide would not have a lasting impact or relevance. In the jihadists’ self perception, the;
“media [worker] has become a martyrdom operative without an explosives belt, for they are entitled to these merits [of jihad]. Furthermore, haven’t you seen how the cameramen handle the camera instead of carrying Kalashnikovs, running in front of the soldiers during attacks, defying death by exposing their chests to the hails of bullets!?’[xvii]
Rather, the media worker in the field has turned into a role model of adoration just like any hardcore fighter or martyrdom operative, and is portrayed by the jihadi media likewise and accredited as an istishhadi, as someone who actively has sought out and attained the shahada. The wish to become a martyr, having a “clear intention” (as described above) as proof of their piety and their loyalty to god, being ‘true’ practitioners of Islam expecting compensation in the afterlife. This powerful new role model is backed by the accreditation of the value of the quantitative and qualitative online propaganda:
“Haven’t you seen the cells responsible for expanding the electronic media files (isdarat), how they enter the most dangerous and most fortified areas and how they disseminate the isdarat of the Mujahideen in the heartlands of the hypocrites (munafiqin)!?”[xviii]
Media workers, on the other hand who are not directly embedded with fighting units, are not of lesser importance. For they ensure the process, editing, the layout, translating and subsequent publication.

Isdarat – the groundwork of Online Jihad by AQAP, first generation

Since the early 2000s with the first generation of AQAP being active in Saudi Arabia while ISI used the power vacuum in Iraq, the Internet has become the medium of communication and exchange of information for Jihadis. In that time, the Internet has been increasingly used on a very efficient and professional basis. Countless online Jihad communities had come into existence. Not only have a number of online forums been established, but there had been (and still are to a certain extend) blogs and traditional websites available, which spread and share a broad variety of documents and data in general. Jihadis often refer to the Arabic term isdarat for data, that consists of general publications, videos (suicide bombings and last testimonies, roadside bomb attacks etc.), sermons or general statements and declarations – but also technical information such as bomb-making, weapons guides or chemical crash courses. Since the early 2000s the Internet has become a 24-hour online database, where any user with sufficient knowledge of the Web (and Arabic) is able to access, understand and/or download these isdarat. In an interview with al-Qa’ida’s first online magazine (2003), Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), Abu Jandal al-Azdi explains the reasons for these isdarat and states that „these [isdarat] guide the youth of Islam and they [the Mujahidin and their leaders] have published books, statements, audio-files, and videos.”[xix] Today the users exchange useful tips and practical hints, discuss ideological and theological issues and allow an insight into their tactics and strategies within the online forums. The usage of the Web has been systematically funneled by the al-Qa’ida cells on the Arabian Peninsula and provided the framework for extensive online operations as of writing (2019). Isdarat was also the name of one of the most prominent early IS websites. It has been a website and telegram channel where users could access the content. For IS, with the changing circumstances of being able to mainstream “jihad” more due to the acquisition of territory on an unprecedented level, videos are a key element to convey what AQ projected in writings in a more compelling audio-visual format.

The different roles platforms play within the ecosystem.

Websites such as Isdarat, exist within an ecosystem of content stores, aggregators and beacons. Since the emergence of the media mujahidin on social media in 2013, the different elements have formed part of a multi-platform zeitgeist. Likewise, the telegram post (above) shows how the interconnectivity between platforms continues to allow jihadi groups to share information and avoid disruption on social media and the surface web.
The message is shared on Telegram (beacon), directing users to Pastethis.to which functions as the aggregator for the links. The aggregator gives the location of each individual file (or content store). Traffic between platforms can be harder to locate because often all that is visible on the aggregator is the URL rather than the actual content. The PasteThis.to page contained a list of video titles and URL where these are stored. In this case the content store is most often Videopress or WordPress, with many of these originally posted on Jihadology.

Jihadology in the ecosystem of online jihad

Analysis of the URL made available via the Pastethis.to pages, shows a clear tendency toward using particular content stores.
Domains in URL shared on Pastethis.to
Advertised as unlikely to be removed, the most common links lead to Videopress. Videopress is notable for being used by Jihadology to store material. As discussed previously, the videos are not only accessible via the site but via the underlying videopress URL which opens the video in a browser rather than on the site. Having located the underlying videopress URL jihadi sympathizers are able to share the location of the content via the aggregator, benefiting from the stability of content posted on Jihadology, but without the user having to visit the site.
Sub-domains in URL shared on Pastethis.to
Similarly, where subdomains appear in the URL, the most common subdomain is azelin.files, followed by videos.files. This image shows how the videopress link which was shared on pastethis.to can be found in the source code for Jihadology.
URL in Jihadology source code
This is not a one-off example, another aggregator (still available using Google cache) shows an audio file available via the azelin.files subdomain.
Now deleted aggregator accessed via google cache
While the other links are dead (apart from the archive.org) content posted on Jihadology and hosted on WordPress is still available. The Pastethis.to aggregator, features the video No Respite. The shortcode used in the aggregator is the same as the one available via Jihadology.
This video is also notable as Abdul Hamid was arrested … “after he posted a four-minute-long Isis propaganda video called No Respite”, which was viewed more than 400 times on his Facebook page”. Hamid subsequently “pleaded guilty to disseminating a terrorist publication” according to the Evening Standard.

Conclusion

Analysis of this release has shown,
  1. The theological underpinning of the actions taken by the media mujahidin, and the theological aspects cannot be separated from their strategy. They are integral parts of jihadi thought and cannot be treated as window dressing to be stripped away at the whim of Western researchers.
  2. The persistent presence of the Swarmcast is in part due to the agility of the media mujahidin. They use a diverse range of platforms and share the location of specific content stores via beacons and aggregators.
  3. The Jihadology website, as shown previously, is exploited within the jihadist ecosystem as a content store. URL of the videos are extracted from the site to be shared with jihadi sympathizers. These links are shared in such a way that the video plays in the browser rather than on the site – ensuring the individual accesses the content in a Jihadi context.

Notes:

[i] Rüdiger Lohlker, Theologie der Gewalt. Das Beispiel IS, Facultas: Vienna, 2016. [ii] Baart Schuuhrman, Terrorism studies and the struggle for primary data, November 5, 2018, https://www.sv.uio.no/c-rex/english/news-and-events/right-now/terrorism-studies-and-the-struggle-for-primary-dat.html [iii] All following verses of the Quran are quotations of: Muhammad A. S. Abdel-Haleem, The Qurʾan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). [iv] See for example Mu’awiyya al-Qahtani, “The Biography of the Hero Abu Talha al-Ansari”, Mu’assasat al-Mas’ada al-I’lamiyya, 2012. [v] Ibid. [vi] 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. [vii] For example in the as-Sahab video release la tukallafu ila nafsak, June 2011. [viii] This part of the sawt al-jihad (no.3, Ramadan 1424), is the exact same as provided here: https://library.islamweb.net/newlibrary/display_book.php?ID=3&startno=0&idfrom=2&idto=8&bookid=81&Hashiya=3#docu and also referenced by, for example, Yusuf al-Qaradawi: https://www.al-qaradawi.net/node/2072 [ix] Chain of transmission. [x] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, I’lan al-jihad, electronic version, 1997. [xi] Prucha, Nico, “Jihadists‘ use of Quran’s ribat concept”, in: Janes Islamic Affairs Analyst, August 2009 [xii] Ribat al-khayl [xiii] Ghazwa is also the name of a magazine distributed by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. Hanley Jr, John T., et al. The Anatomy of Terrorism and Political Violence in South Asia Proceedings of the First Bi-Annual International Symposium of the Center for Asian Terrorism Research (CATR) October 19-21, 2005, Denpensar, Bali, Indonesia. No. IDA-P-4096. INSTITUTE FOR DEFENSE ANALYSES ALEXANDRIA VA, 2006. [xiv] For discussion of bombings linked to ghazwat al-asir see: https://onlinejihad.net/2010/04/11/isi-embassy-bombings-in-baghdad/ [xv] Nico Prucha, Online territories of terror: how jihadist movements project influence on the Internet and why it matters off-line, PhD Thesis, Universität Wien | Philologisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche Fakultät (2015) (p. 280) [xvi] Prucha, Nico. “IS and the Jihadist Information Highway–Projecting Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram.” Perspectives on Terrorism 10.6 (2016). [xvii] Al-Manhajjiyya fi tahsil al-khibra al-i’lamiyya, first part, 18. This ideological handbook is part of a lengthy series sanctioning the media work in general, published by the media groups Markaz al-Yaqin and al-Furqan in May 2011. [xviii] Ibid. [xix] sawt al-jihad number 11, 17.

How Jihadist Groups exploit Western researchers to promote their theology

And why this exploitation allows Jihadists to maintain a persistent information ecosystem.

This is the second in a series of posts that uses data science to sort the anecdotal observation from evidence-based research. After the hype, what about the data? Part 2.

The recent reports of UK government pressure on Automattic and WordPress to remove content posted on Jihadology, has resulted in plenty of opinionated tweets and longer form commentary.

As the UK government has claimed that Jihadology could be used as a convenient platform by extremists, the first past of the post looks at;

  • Whether this is a theoretical possibility, or if there is evidence that Jihadology is used by jihadist groups, and if so, how and for what purpose do they use it?  

The second part of the post examines whether this is an isolated case;

  • is there evidence that individual pieces of Jihadist material which pundits and researchers post on social media and the surface web are subsequently exploited by Jihadist groups.  
  • Is there evidence that when the aggregated impact of individual tweets and surface web posts are analysed as a collective behaviour, rather than as isolated events, that this creates a resource which is exploited by Jihadist groups – resulting in pundits unwittingly becoming part of the Jihadist information ecosystem?

The evidence shows that Jihadology:

  • is used by jihadist groups as a convenient platform through which to share access to videos, and text documents.
  • is a source of media to feed JihadistContent Aggregators, allowing material to be shared within a Jihadist context while not being subject to removal.    
  • is recommended to fellow Jihadist sympathisers as a good place to find content, emphasizing the content on Jihadology does not get banned or removed.  

The data further shows:

  • More broadly, there is a network of researchers and commentators who are publishing Jihadist material on the surface web. The aggregated result of these individual actions is the unwitting creation of an online resource which has been exploited by Jihadist groups and has become part of the Jihadist information ecosystem.  

It is perhaps the greatest irony that Government sessions to discuss how to make it harder for Daesh to spread their message online, are often attended by researchers who frequently publish that same content on the surface web and social media.

Introduction

Jihadology describes itself as a ‘clearinghouse’ for jihadi primary source material, original analysis and translation services. As a result, it allows researchers who lack the expertise or experience to find content themselves to publish research.

For those with genuine access, Dawlah al-Islāmiyah, recently released an archive of over 5,200 Media Foundation and Wilayat produced video files (which included multiple language versions of some videos).

They have also followed the tradition of jihadist media groups of releasing numerous astuwanat [barrels / أسطوانات] of content. Each “barrel” contains a collection of material organised by theme, organisation, or specific media production. While previously astuwanat were made available via CD, DVD or ISO file, they are now more often released via torrent or direct download in Telegram – although the banner images promoting them often still contain an image of a disk. 

In combination with the ‘Archive’ channels on Telegram, policy professionals and researchers with requisite knowledge, language skills and experience, should be able to access Jihadist material without using Jihadology as a crutch with which they can limp through what should be basic research tasks for those doing more than an undergraduate research essay.   

Afterall, given their inability to master the simple task of finding content, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect those leaning on the Jihadology crutch to provide an authentic interpretation of what they find on the site.  Furthermore, basing analysis on what is found on the site, leaves the researcher studying what is posted on Jihadology (which is not exhaustive), rather than the range of material extremist groups actually produce.    

European Context

The current discussion of Jihadology and pressure on WordPress, occurs within the context of the UK government position that:


“It is reckless to publish terrorist propaganda online without safeguards to stop those vulnerable to radicalisation from seeing it”.

It should perhaps be needless to state that those who are vulnerable to the message of Jihadist groups must as some point become consumers of jihadist material or messages, if they are to be anything other than theoretically vulnerable.

For Jihadist groups da’wa is given via printed material, images, audio, video, speeches, conversations or communicated through specific behaviours. Through this range of delivery methods, individuals are provided with role models and theological guidance for actions, and in which they can use online platforms to gain unfiltered access to the universe of content that is of great importance to jihadist groups.

It is in this context that a report from the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) criticised social media companies for not acting fast enough to remove content. Furthermore, the FT reported that UK security officials argue Jihadology:

could be used as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda”. (emphasis added).

However, various European countries take different views on what to do about sharing content from groups they deem illegal or extreme. At the time of writing, in France Jihadology is unavailable.

Germany threatens fines for companies not reacting quickly enough to content posted, and the UK imposes prison time for those sharing this content. For example:

  • December 2018 – Abdulrahman Alcharbati (diagnosed as bipolar according to the BBC report) was jailed for seven years, for offences including posting ISIS videos on Facebook.
  • December 2016 – Abdul Hamid, who Judge Peter Rook QC accepted had ‘significant physical and mental health problems’ was sentenced to two years in prison for posting the video ‘No Respite’.

At this point, in the UK while two men with mental health problems have been sentenced to years in prison for posting ISIS videos, another man is lauded by academics for making the same videos freely available.

This raises important and complex issues as global communication networks exist alongside international borders, and the extent to which Jihadist groups and sympathisers use Jihadology as a platform to access content, and furthermore, the role Jihadology plays within the jihadist information ecosystem.

Reusing individual links

In the New Netwar, we observed that Jihadist groups and their supporters locate individual URL of videos posted on Jihadology and reuse those links within the context of their own channels and groups.

Jihadist Telegram channels re-purposing individual URL from Jihadology

A similar theme was picked up in recently in the Twitter discussion, following the story in the Financial Times, noting it is not just the videopress links (which have previously appeared on Jihadology) but references to the site itself. As @Charlie_KDN noted in a tweet;

Each week 100’s of @Jihadology_Net links are published on ISIS TG chans and groups to rebroadcast suspended content on other platforms.

@Charlie_KDN

For example, links to videos including ‘Honor is in Jihad’ and issues of al-Naba that have been posted on Jihadology are shared on pro-ISIS Telegram channels (as are links to a site run by Pieter van Ostaeyen).


Jihadist Telegram channels re-purposing individual URL from Jihadology

Once the videos are neatly archived by Jihadology – the links are then shared as collections. For example, on a single day in October 70 unique Videopress URL were observed being shared a total of 1,125 times via core Telegram channels.


Jihadist Telegram channels re-purposing individual URL from Jihadology

A potential additional advantage to sharing the Videopress links is that it opens a video player in a web browser, providing a seamless experience for the viewer and ensuring the content is shared in a pro-Jihadist context rather than with a research focus.  

Feeding Content Aggregators

In addition to using individual links to content, Jihadist supporters use Jihadology to feed material to their content aggregators. For example, a PasteThis.at link shared in a pro-ISIS Telegram channel, provided a single page from which users could access over 100 issues of al-Naba.


PasteThis.at page re-purposing individual URL for al-Naba up to issue #147 posted on Jihadology

The actual files from which this PasteThis.at page link to were stored on azelin.files.wordpress.com. Using this method Jihadist groups and supporters can provide access to content from within the context of their own discussions, Telegram groups, and theological worldview.

In addition, when Jihadist supporters build individual websites to aggregate content, they have been observed using Jihadology as a source of content. In this example the aggregator was built using Cloud9 which operates as part of Amazon AWS.

The al-Ajnad and al-Furqan options both direct uses to the pages on Jihadology for those entities. Those links have been clicked over 350 and 240 times respectively.

Content aggregator directs users to Jihadology

This cloud9 based aggregator also contained a section in which users could select videos by clicking on the banner advertising their chosen video. Many of the links made available in this section were to videopress files, the link for which had previously been shared on Jihadology. 

Clickable banners using videopress URL many originally posted on Jihadology

As in the previous example, Jihadology is used to provide a stable source for much of the content. However, the way the site is built a user may be unaware of the actual file location – allowing the aggregator to promote a Jihadist worldview

Why Jihadists use Jihadology:

In addition, to re-using individual links or feeding content aggregators, pro-jihadist or pro-IS Telegram users have been observed posting recommending Jihadology as a source of material. Much of these comments follow a similar theme.

In this example, the Arabic reads.

“and I prefer links to the site jihadology which is specialized in studying jihadists as it states, therefore it neither gets deleted nor any content it hosts gets banned

Within core IS channels links to the main IS category on jihadology are shared, leading to videos, video series, or the weekly editions of the al-Naba’ magazine:

كامل اعداد صحيفه النبأ من واحد إلى 110 ماعليك الا بالنقر على الرقم وتتحمل. برابط غير قابل للحذف لن يفتح الرابط الا بعد تشغيل ألفي بي ان vpn

#نشر

The text reads:

“All editions of the al-Naba’ magazine, from edition 1 to 110, just change the number in the link and download it. This link will not be deleted and do not open this link without employing a VPN.”

Another message advised:

هنا في هذه الروابط صفحات #لكامل_إصدارات_الدوله_الاسلاميه_من_ولاية_حلب_بروابط_غير_قابله_للحذف

“this site gives you all the links of the releases from wilaya Halab of the Islamic State, the link does not get deleted.”

Conveniently, for the author of this message in a core IS channel, viewers can quickly get the current videos by IS from the province of Aleppo.

It is important to the author of the Telegram message, that while content may be removed elsewhere it is kept in a safe and orderly manner on sites like Jihadology. This allows IS to project their content in an orderly manner, allowing placement of – in this case – geographic located collections to the benefit of ISIS.

This evidence demonstrates it is not that users theoretically “could’ use Jihadology as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda” … Jihadists supporters and sympathisers do use it to access individual URL, feed their content aggregators, and recommend it to their peers because the content is not removed. Unfortunately, the recommendation that users adopt VPN to access Jihadology may blunt the efficacy of traffic analysis, a problem which may also be compounded by the many commentators and policy professionals who have recently claimed to be regular users.  

This means that while tech and social media companies are pressured, and threatened with fines, the content is still findable and IS supporters and sympathisers know it. As a result, ISIS (and other Jihadist groups) do not have to struggle to maintain a persistent presence for their content online, in addition to using Telegram, they can release the content and then allow sites like Jihadology to archive it for them.

The defence of Jihadology:

In defence of Jihadology, there have been many commentators saying a version of:

“the site is a vital research portal that provides a valuable service for academics, policymakers and journalists researching Islamist extremism”.

There have been numerous researchers who have recently been tweeting that they regularly use Jihadology – effectively announcing they rely on Jihadology as a crutch for their inability to locate or access Jihadist content. Penetrating Jihadist networks (beyond the entry level Nashir type channels) relies on being able to recognise the theologically encoded references and follow the content. As such, one wonders if in future those publicly stating they use Jihadology regularly may reflect on why they consider themselves qualified to conduct the complex task of analysing content when they can’t complete the simple task of locating that content by themselves. The inability to find content, and thereby having to rely on what is posted on Jihadology, may perhaps explain why Arabic language jihadist materials are so rarely referenced or cited in research.

As locating content is a significant part of research production, and given the number of people currently claiming they use Jihadology to find content, it appears Aaron Zelin deservers credit on many more research papers than he is currently recognised as making a significant contribution.

One wonders why commentators on Twitter talk of the valuable contribute made by Aaron and Jihadology, only to reduce that contribution to a reference to jihadology.net in a URL buried in a footnote when that same author publishes their research?

Others steer away from the ‘value’ of the contribution, and instead take the view that the “Content by itself does jack shit”. This follows the rationale that;

“How the message is received and incorporated into a broader worldview and acted upon is one aspect of what we, perhaps too vaguely, call the “process of radicalization”.

This particular researcher visits Jihadology several times a week – one assumes to view content disconnected from “the process of radicalisation” and thereby to study it doing “jack shit” if he follows his own logic, but who knows.

The description of what is broadly an ideational model of behaviour change highlights wider factors in the process. Nobody lives in a vacuum, but ideational models still require an idea to fulfil a fundamental role in this type of behaviour change process.  As demonstrated above, links are not shared in a vacuum. Jihadist supporters have become adept at accessing the content posted on Jihadology and sharing it via Telegram channels and through Content Aggregators which project and reinforce their theologically driven worldview. It is in this context that potentially vulnerable people may access Jihadist media production. It is naïve to imagine the content posted on Jihadology can only be accessed by visiting Jihadology.net and searching the site for content.   

While Jihadology was never intended to be a platform for jihadist groups, the data shows Jihadology has become a repository for video and written material exploited regularly by ISIS / Jihadist supporters and sympathisers. The links to specific videos or collections of material are shared within the context of aggregators or Jihadist Telegram channels, where the meaning of the content is discussed and Jihadology is recommended as a source that can be relied upon as it is not be deleted.  

Just Jihadology?

The data show users in Arabic language Telegram channels recommend Jihadology to their peers as a location for them to view or download content. However, is Jihadology an isolated case or is it unfair for European governments to pick on Jihadology and Aaron Zelin specifically? Is this an example of a wider research sub-culture which actively publishes Jihadist content across social media and the surface web?   

Wider Research Sub-culture

Rumiyah

To test whether there is evidence that Jihadology is an isolated case, we turn to the releases of the multilingual magazine Rumiyah using the #Rumiyah hashtag. If Jihadology is an isolated case, we would expect the initial release of each edition of the magazine, to be met with a surge of tweets about it on Twitter from ISIS accounts and supporters. The example below shows that the surge of tweets occurred.

Spikes in traffic around releases

Closer analysis of the data reveals that there are relatively few original tweets, but many retweets. This tends to indicate that there is less emphasis on conversation / interpretation and instead a greater focus on spreading information.

If these spikes were driven by ISIS supporters tweeting until their accounts are suspended one would expect to see many accounts being active for one release and a separate network active for the next release. One would not expect there to be a network infrastructure to span numerous releases. The way this would happen is if accounts were able share news of the release, without being suspended.  

To examine nature of the network of retweets (which make up a large proportion of the overall tweets), we used Social Network Analysis (SNA) of the retweets. SNA shows the structure of the network through which news of the magazine release flows. In the case of Rumiyah releases, SNA shows that there was a network of accounts which spans numerous releases.

While Twitter suspends many pro-ISIS accounts, this prominent cluster is able to maintain a persistent presence. A closer examination of this persistent cluster shows it is populated by Academics, Commentators, Reporters and organisations selling monitoring services.

Network of accounts tweeting / retweeted about Rumiyah

However, are these accounts coincidentally engaged in discussion of the meaning of ‘Rome’ and ‘Romans’ within Jihadist theology, lacking deeper Arabic connectivity, or is this announcing the release of the magazine and / or sharing content from it?

  • Note: the coincidental appearance is not as ludicrous as it first sounds. One of the ‘Lend me your ears’ series of videos featuring John Cantlie was released on the same day as an entirely disconnected toga party. Both just happened to use the hashtag #lendmeyourears at the same time. And both ISIS and toga partiers were surprised by the juxtaposition of content.      

In reality a review of the tweets shows that this is not coincidental. The network of academics is publishing announcements about the release of the magazine, including the banners ISIS created to promote the release, and sections of the magazine, such as text and graphics.

Tweets featuring Rumiyah announcement or content

The sharing of content likely provides greater reach for the content than ISIS could have achieved alone. Reaching as many people as possible was after all one of the main purposes of producing and releasing the magazine, and media material more broadly.

The release of Rumiyah issues was not the only times academics and commentators have probably provided greater reach and longevity for Jihadist content than ISIS could have achieved alone. Looking back over data from recent years, across a range of video announcements, audio releases, and claims of attacks a pattern emerges.

Speeches:

al-Zawahiri – April 2017

In April 2017, al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri released a new speech. After an initial tweet by Elizabeth Kendall, covering the key points from the speech @marypgkeating responded posting a link to the speech on YouTube with ‘English subtitles’, while others join in retweeting.

Tweets sharing al-Zawahiri speech details

al-Baghdadi

In November 2016, al-Furqan released a speech by al-Baghdadi. The release was greeted by: “Wow – it’s Baghdadi” from Mr Winter, followed by the name of the audio so others could find it and comments on the contents of the speech.

Could this type of tweeting be used to find content? To test this and mimic a ‘naïve searcher’ trying to find content, a search on Google.co.uk in May 2017 (six months later) used the title of the speech as tweeted.

In the results,

  • an English translation posted by al-Naba on archive.org,
  • a swath of other related ISIS documents including an English translation of a speech by the Abu Muhammad al-Adnani; Official spokesman for the Islamic State and
  • an ISIS video from the province of Ṭarabulus which had a similar name. That link lead to the video posted on Jihadology.net.  

The test shows that this information could lead uninitiated users to access ISIS content. In addition, the data highlights that individual unwitting actions rapidly combine to provide easy access to a range of genuine ISIS content. 

Battle footage and executions

Mosul

In addition to speeches, there were numerous ISIS videos of the fighting in Mosul. For example, the image from this video release from Ninewe province, would have allowed those able to read Arabic or Latin characters to search for the title of the video.

Tweet announcing video release

The ‘naïve searcher’ test was conducted in May 2017, using google.co.uk with the English title. This returned both the first and second parts of this series. At the time, ten of the top fifteen results provided a link to the video.

The same test in December 2018 still returned the video via Jihadology.net. This despite the same researcher (who now receives funding from Facebook) giving a bullish claim about the difficulty of finding IS content on social media and surface web.

He recently claimed;

“It isn’t just a case of googling “IS propaganda” and seeing what comes up (any more). This stuff isn’t readily available on the surface web like it used to be. If you’re not on Telegram or in a forum, the options are increasingly limited.”

Beyond the parochialism and evident Western habitus which leads a researcher to imagine the go-to search terms used by Jihadist supporters would include the word ‘Propaganda’, he is also apparently oblivious to the evidence that is available to anyone who bothered to do even the simplest research.

Just putting the content of one of his own tweets into a search engine delivers … IS propaganda. His assurances sound bold, but like many others that circulate within the field, it could not be considered “research-based in any rigorous sense” to use Alex Schmid’s phrase. That is “a very polite, typically academic way of putting it”, Nafeez Ahmed would likely suggest another.

Just like the previous insistence on media ‘decline’, fully fledged collapse, content production correlated to territory, and the ‘naïve notion’ of Utopia, claims about the findability of content have joined the list of claims which have turned out to be, as Rüdiger Lohlker recently highlighted, “an empty fog of words without inner content”. Quoting German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, the section quoted by Rüdiger Lohlker continues:

This sort of chatter, though lacking the idea of philosophy, gains for itself a kind of authority through its very prolixity and arrogance. Partly this is because it seems almost incredible that such a big shell should be without a kernel…

G. W. F. Hegel

While those at institutions with links to Facebook insist content is hard to find, the actions of ‘experts’ who publish Jihadist content enable even uninitiated individuals to locate the content about the fighting in Iraq and Syria (and elsewhere). In this particular case, the publishing of announcements, pictures, statements and other ISIS material was not an isolated to a couple of examples. The Twitter timeline documented here shows the extent to which publishing of ISIS content made widely available. 

Attacks

Responsibility and da’wa

One of the ways in which terrorist groups, of almost all types, have sought to extend their influence, is through claiming responsibility for attacks. Announcing attacks and recognising those responsible for them is important for ISIS and the Jihadist movement. As Abu Mus’ab al-Suri wrote in his Call for a Global Islamic Resistance;

The issue of individual jihad was a great da’wah success. It had great influence on awakening the spirit of jihad and resistance within the ummah, and it transformed unknown individuals such as al Diqamsa, Salman Khatir, Sayyid Nusayr and Ramzi Yusuf into becoming symbols of a nation. The crowds cheer their names, people’s thirst for revenge is satisfied, and a generation of youth dedicated to the Resistance follow their example

Similarly, Anwar al-Awlaki explained (while discussing the seventh meaning of victory);

Prevail here means the prevailing of their da’wah and not always their battles. They could loose (sic) the battle but their da’wah will achieve victory and be available. Nobody can stop their da’wah. The idea is that it will keep this group strong from generation to generation.

Seventh Meaning of Victory, Yusuf al ‘Uyayree Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad (Constants on the Path of Jihad) Lecture series delivered by Imam Anwar al Awlaki (Quoted as transcribed)

For jihadist groups, statements claiming an attack or detailing a battle are not simple information updates, they are part of da’wa; spreading their theology by retelling the actions of the believers. Afterall, as Abdullah Azzam argued, “Jihad is da’wah with a force”.  

Following the 2017 attack on the Manchester Arena ISIS issued statements in Arabic and English. A review of data from the time shows a range of researchers, including those based in the UK, either tweeted or retweeted the actual announcement, with collectively 100 retweets of just the four versions identified below.

Tweets sharing announcements of the attack in Manchester

A snapshot from Twitter on the day following the attack at the Manchester Arena, finds the OSCE held the World Counter Terrorism Conference in Vienna. The conference included discussion of how to make it harder for terrorist groups to spread their message, while some of those at the event were also publishing ISIS content on social media.

One of the attendees tweeted;

  • about the OSCE event,
  • the OSCE response to the attack in Manchester,
  • republished the ISIS claim of the attack,
  • before returning to the content of the OSCE event. 

The tweeting of announcements was not a single ephemeral event, claims of responsibility were also shared for the attack on the Champs Elysees.

This has also continued in 2019, the current Director of ICSR published ISIS claims of responsibility for the bombing which killed US personnel in Manbij, Syria  

Claims by Islamic State published on Twitter

The tweeting of this material from Rumiyah to speeches, videos and announcements, has the potential to increase the reach of Jihadist messages. In addition, as shown with the reuse of links to content on Jihadology, Jihadist supporters can also reuse that URL for their own purposes. In the example below from January 2019, an account with a username referencing ISIS responds to a story of Troop withdrawal by posting a link to a section of an ISIS video.

ISIS video with 35k views

Among the numerous notable elements:

  • this specific clip from an ISIS video has 35,600 views on Twitter, despite claims by researchers this material is difficult to find (for them).
  • the original video clip was not posted by an ISIS, or Jihadist, account. It was an OSINT focused account, which a supporter subsequently used. This is one of the ways in which Jihadist groups exploit content sharing by commentators and pundits.

What this indicates is an increasingly sophisticated approach in which a user can create a seemingly pro-ISIS account, find a version of an ISIS video posted by an OSINT commentator and subsequently exploit the reticence of Twitter to remove such content from non-jihadist accounts by reposting the URL to the tweet containing the video.       

An approach fit for a 21st Century Sisyphus, Yes Minister or Monty Python

Tech companies are understandably reticent to remove content published by researchers. Yet while European governments pressure social media companies to remove content, and try to create upload filters and image hash databases etc. European governments are also giving things of value (salaries, grants, travel, and hotels) to researchers who publish this same material on social media.

As a result, while CTIRU, EUROPOL, Twitter and social media companies more broadly were making efforts to reduce circulation of ISIS content on social media – academics and for-profit organisations publish and republish jihadist content on the same social media platforms, and to an audience beyond that which ISIS could achieve alone.

It is perhaps the greatest irony that Government sessions to discuss how to make it harder for Daesh to spread their message online, are attended by researchers who frequently publish that same content on the surface web and social media. 

It is an approach fit for Yes Minister, Monty Python or a 21st Century Sisyphus.     

Why this matters to Jihadist groups:

First the evidence above shows that jihadist groups recognise the opportunity to give da’wa by aggregating links to content posted by pundits and researchers. Second, when Western organisations and pundits immediately repost jihadist content, this is then re-posted in pro-ISIS Telegram channels and used to galvanize the mujahid vanguard.

Third, part of their theological understanding of da’wa is to spread their message as widely as possible. This goal of broad dissemination is considered successful if others hear the message of their theology.  This has been covered in numerous documents written by a range of leaders of the jihadist movement. These documents have emphasized that spreading their theology as widely as possible is an important component of jihadist activity.

For example, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi recorded in his Constants on The Path of Jihad,

  • Jihad will continue until the Day of Judgment (or as referenced in numerous ISIS videos, ‘Until the final hour’), which also connects it to Sahih Muslim / Book 41 / Hadith 6924
  • Jihad is not dependent on a particular land, but Jihad must be part of your life,  
  • Seventh meaning of victory: victory of your idea (Anwar al-Awlaki’s translation is quoted above)

Viewed collectively, in the context they are used by Yusuf al-‘Uyairi, these points recognised that there will always be people to reach, both those to fight and those to give da’wa. Therefore, spreading the message is a constant for the Jihadist movement. 

The importance of this task was also covered by ibn Nuhaas, who highlighted the The Virtues of Encouraging Jihad. He quotes Surah al Nisa 84,

“So fight, [O Muhammad], in the cause of Allah; you are not held responsible except for yourself. And encourage the believers [to join you] that perhaps Allah will restrain the might of those who disbelieve. And Allah is greater in might and stronger in punishment.”

Surah al Nisa 84

The phrase “you are not held responsible except for yourself” is interpreted by Jihadists within the context of da’wa to mean that they will be individually judged on whether the individual sought to spread the word, not on whether those who heard that message subsequently responded. Therefore, their interpretation of the duty is to find ways to spread their theology. The purpose of the da’wa effort was also noted by Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his General Guidelines for Jihad, (as-Sahab media) there were two elements to the communication or media work.

First: Educating and cultivating the Mujahid vanguard, which shoulders, and will continue to shoulder, with the permission of Allah, the responsibility of confronting the Crusaders and their proxies, until the Caliphate is established.

Second: Creating awareness within the masses, inciting them, and exerting efforts to mobilize them so that they revolt against their rulers and join the side of Islam and those working for its cause

In more specific guidance he wrote:

Focus on spreading awareness amongst the general public so as to mobilize it. Similarly, focus on spreading a greater level of awareness and understanding amongst the Mujahid vanguard to create an organized, united, ideological, and aware Jihadi force that strongly believes in the Islamic faith, adheres to its rulings, shows humbleness to the believers and deals with the disbelievers with firmness. At the same time, full effort should be put in immediately to ensure that people with scholarly and propagational abilities come forth from within the ranks of the Mujahideen so that our message & belief set may be preserved and the call to Jihad may be spread amongst Muslims.

Researchers publishing the announcements are, in the eyes of jihadist groups who produced the original statements, spreading the da’wa which these acts were intended to give. 

In the jihadists mindset, these researchers are tools for their divine mission. The reposting of links to Jihadology clearly indicates the Jihadist mindset on the issue – these are not two separate worlds but one interconnected ecosystem, however unwitting some of the participants are within it.

Why Pick on Aaron?

The data on content releases, from magazines to speeches, to videos and announcement of attacks, shows that Jihadology is not alone in publishing Jihadist content.

The data analysis shows a research sub-culture has developed in which posting jihadist content on social media is an acceptable norm; Aaron Zelin is just one part of a much wider network of researchers publishing ISIS and jihadist content on social media and surface web.

Given the extent to which publishing jihadist content on social media and the surface web has become a norm for pundits who make up this research sub-culture, it seems both unfair and entirely ineffective for European governments to target Jihadology and Aaron Zelin as if he and his website are an aberration distinct from the research sub-culture of which he is part.

To what extent can European governments threaten social media companies with fines (or individuals with prison time), when those same governments work with, give things of value to, or employ the researchers and commentators who post that same content on the same social media platforms?

Ethical approaches and leadership.

The kneejerk censorship vs. academic freedom arguments move nothing forward. It merely provides more time for Jihadist groups to distribute their material by exploiting the current way . 

Researchers who publish ISIS theologically driven content (and almost invariably without real analysis) often claim to offer these materials to a wider audience for the ‘greater good’. The evidence shows, they are complacently enabling the jihadist movement to remain a coherent online presence – a situation inevitably to the advantage of the movement.

Years ago, when I had the privilege of working on a project with researchers at CEOP, their professionalism, integrity and approach eclipsed that which currently passes as the norm in what might loosely be termed Terrorism Studies.

They had a robust approach to mental health. Upon finding new material or images of child exploitation they did not franticly tweet them. Upon hearing of an attack, they did not reach for their phone to alert journalists to their availability for interview. Finding indecent images of children on a new platform, they did not begin pitching the story of the ‘next big thing’ to whoever would take it. When serious events caused the issue to make the headlines, they did not use it as a reason rush to the TV studios and tweet about being on TV.

These researchers did not spend any time on how many Twitter followers they had, and they certainly didn’t tweet about how many followers they had. From my limited experience of working with researchers from CEOP, they avoided behaviours that could make the situation worse, that could make the content more widely available, or could exacerbate the suffering of victims. From the evidence above, the study of terrorism is generations behind their example.