Session 1 of the Progressive Terrorism Studies Webinar Series. “The Persistent Online Presence: The Shift in Platform Exploitation Over Time”
How the Salafi-Jihadi movement has been able to exploit the internet to distribute their message has been a key concern of those seeking to challenge these narratives. The first webinar in the Progressive Terrorism Studies Webinar series provided a data-driven update on how the Arabic speaking core of the Salafi-Jihadi information ecosystem has continued to evolve. This is not a new phenomenon – nor restricted to the pop cultural and pseudo-scientific hype regarding al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya – rather, jihadists have been exploiting all means possible on the Internet for decades.
This research comprises over 6.4 million Telegram updates collected in near real-time since June 2017. These updates were collected from channels and groups confirmed to be part of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, stemming from Jihadist exploitation of the internet for over a decade, but focused here on their operation on Telegram. From within this vast archive of material a collection of 4 million instances of URL sharing were recorded for analysis.
The session emphasised the importance of robust design and data collection in the study of Salafi-Jihadi groups.
The subject of study needs to be identified by someone able to:
recognise the theological references and imagery,
join online groups by passing the vetting conducted by the Salafi-Jihadi movement in Arabic. If a researcher cannot respond to Q&A in Arabic, it is a sure sign they cannot enter the core of the movement.
Similarly, for analysis which examines change over time the data collection needs to occur in near real-time, as downloading weeks, months, or years after the event does not provide a credible dataset for analysis. This is because the attempted disruption from outside, internal purging of some groups, and the activity of bots, all combine to undermine confidence in time-series analysis of Telegram data collected using a retrospective approach.
The large-scale analysis provides a strategic level overview of the way the Salafi-Jihadi movement has operated since Telegram became its primary platform for communicating with supporters and acting as a core platform for their media output – in combination with other platforms since Europol’s claim of they had removed IS from the internet in November 2019. By examining the URL they share, the analysis shows the breadth of the Salafi-Jihadi presence across platforms and provides an overview into whether there are detectable patterns in their use of different online services.
A reduced version of the domain tool used in the time-series analysis shows the engagement profile of various domains in the study.
The tool can be viewed here and more detail on the analysis can be found on github.
The analysis showed:
Some platforms experience persistent engagement profiles, while others experience sudden spikes in use, or short-term exploitation.
Correlations between the use of different platforms could be used to develop a rapid alert system to locate material.
Co-citation style network analysis can be used to detect clusters of platforms which are used collectively. This would allow clusters of platforms which are being exploited in a similar way to be supported or work collectively.
The session built on 2019 the publication by Emily Winterbotham, Dr Ali Fisher and Dr Nico Prucha. This is the largest ever study of traffic between the online platforms that comprise the Jihadi information ecosystem. This study included 24 months of data from the core of the Salafi-Jihadi Telegram network and revealed the inner workings of their multiplatform communication paradigm. The paper demonstrated the different roles that platforms play within the multiplatform information ecosystem, including Telegram, Tamtam, and Matrix.
This I have resolved on … to run when I can, to go when I cannot run, and to creep when I cannot go.
Pilgrim’s Progress – Part 2 Chapter 6.
The role of the Feeble-mind character in Bunyan’s religious allegory Pilgrim’s Progress is to highlight the importance of continuing to make progress towards an identified goal.
A more progressive approach to Terrorism Studies could focus on extending the depth at which the Salafi-Jihadi movement is understood. This would be based on robust data science and human expertise, a focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement – Arabic – and the extensive archive of theologically inspired thought which the movement has produced.
It is the archive of theology as expressed and interpreted by the core of the movement which provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. In contrast, some researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies claim to see artefacts of their western habitus in Salafi-Jihadi material – the focus on crime, rap music, and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’.
Since the 1980s research has shown that the study of terrorism has struggled with availability, handling and analysis of data. Despite the length of time and frequent observations about the problems with data, rather than making progress, these problems within orthodox Terrorism Studies have remained. In addition, “the dispersed nature of much of the more rigorous, ‘critical’ and conceptually innovative research on ‘terrorism’” means that level of rigor in research is conducted outside the orthodoxy.
Over a decade ago Magnus Ranstrop highlighted the ongoing problem, which Alex Schmid and Berto Jongman originally identified back in 1988; that ‘there are probably few areas in the social science literature in which so much is written on the basis of so little research’. As a result, much of the writing in Terrorism Studies is “impressionistic, superficial, and at the same time often also pretentious, venturing far-reaching generalisations on the basis of episodal evidence”.
Rüdiger Lohlker recently recently continued this theme when he highlighted, the tendency for orthodox Terrorism Studies to contain “an empty fog of words without inner content”. Quoting German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The section quoted by Rüdiger Lohlker continues:
This sort of chatter, though lacking the idea of philosophy, gains for itself a kind of authority through its very prolixity and arrogance. Partly this is because it seems almost incredible that such a big shell should be without a kernel…
G. W. F. Hegel
Such is the coagulation of mediocrity within a section of orthodox Terrorism Studies that unscientific, methodologically flawed and statistically unsound commentary is talked up as ‘data science’ and ‘groundbreaking research’, while the evidentiary basis goes unquestioned within the mainstream scholarship and peer review. Over the last decade – rather than being addressed – these issues have become systemic.
As noted in the development of Critical Terrorism Studies, “it is not enough to simply point out what is lacking in current research; a clear and realistic alternative must be provided”. Sections of the orthodox Terrorism Studies, and offshoots in the CVE industry, have an opportunity to break from the contemporary stagnation and develop a strong data culture and emphasis on evidence-based research. A progressive approach to analyzing the complex, theologically driven, Salafi-Jihadi movement, will move away from the contemporary obsession with finding so-called ‘gaps’ in the largely superficial and stagnant orthodox literature.
Many of the criticisms highlighted at the start of CTS remain within sections of the orthodoxy. CTS itself – with a focus on Western policy and Western academia – has struggled to break free from the Western frames of reference, among other challenges. The framing of Terrorism, with 9/11 as a moment of temporal rupture, still dominates CTS. This inhibits the deeper understanding of the Salafi-Jihadi movement which maintains different temporal reference points to those which dominate CTS and traditional approaches to Terrorism Studies, both in relation to time in the physical world and in relation to this world (Dunya) as an abode through which a soul passes.
To address the superficial, orientalist and neocolonialist tendencies of the orthodoxy, and the temporal framing of CTS, a progressive movement within Terrorism Studies would probe the intended meaning of Salafi-Jihadi content in their understanding of the world, rather than in a Western-centric English language dominated habitus. Critique of the orthodox Terrorism Studies has highlighted “its poor methods and theories, its state centricity, its problem-solving orientation and its institutional and intellectual links to state security projects”. Many of these problems have also concerned scholars within terrorism studies “who have long acknowledged the deficiencies and limitations of current research”.
In addition, a progressive Terrorism Studies approach would uphold standards for the appropriate use of statistical data to produce a clear break from the systemic malaise in data handling which have existed within orthodox Terrorism Studies. With a strong data culture and robust research design, a dynamic approach to Terrorism Studies could utilise the changes in the technological environment for research. This is not dissimilar from the way Salafi-Jihadi groups have adapted to the opportunities which evolving technology has created.
The way the object of study, such as the groups who make up the Salafi-Jihadi movement, choose to operate has evolved:
The evolving concept of the electronic ribat. Since 2011, members of jihadist forums have issued media strategies that encourage the development of a media mujahideen. This encouragement has been accompanied by the release of guides to using social media platforms, which often include lists of recommended accounts to follow.
By 2013, Jihadists had aggressively expanded their use of Twitter, in addition to Facebook and YouTube, especially since the outbreak of violence in Syria. This propagation effort by the “media mujahideen” was approved and sanctioned by movement leaders and contributed to the interconnected jihadist zeitgeist.
Learning from each interaction on the electronic ribat, the media mujahidin rapidly developed to maintain a persistent presence based on the speed, agility, and resilience of the Swarmcast.
In this struggle for survival, the media mujahidin have benefited from collective approaches and emergent behaviors, these have allowed a decentralised network to thrive in the face of increasingly aggressive content removal.
The media mujahidin frequently use widely available software for media production – this software would also be easily accessible to researchers to provide a window into the production methods.
In addition the current technological environment provides many opportunities for research:
Servers are cheap and easy to access – for example if you use Amazon for shopping, then that is enough to access cloud computing through AWS.
Processing power and RAM are cheaper than they have ever been, allowing relatively complex calculations and data analysis to be produced rapidly.
Most modern personal laptops and desktops have hardware sufficient to run the analysis required for many data science projects which would extend current research into the use of the internet by Salafi Jihadi groups, or ‘extremist’ groups more broadly. Of note, most contemporary material published by salafi Jihadi groups is produced on the same widely available hardware / software (more on that in a later post).
While there are many commercially available and hugely powerful ‘data systems’ which integrate a range of data storage and analytical processes within a single platform, there are also many open source programs which can be used to conduct academic research. These open sources software options may not permit all the analysis to be conducted within one platform, requiring the researcher to use a range of approaches to achieve the desired analysis.
There are many ‘how to’ guides for those aspiring to become better at using python, java, or any of the other popular coding languages. Similarly, resources are freely available which researchers can use to learn more about data science or using specific open source software more generally in their work, whether in the form of walkthroughs or articles packed with quick tips and tricks.
To build a stronger data culture will mean;
Acknowledging the problems with evidence and data which have to date beset orthodox Terrorism Studies,
Reviewers and editors robustly enforcing actual standards for statistical analysis, for example,
if you are going to claim something such as a correlation or a long-term trend – it will need to be backed up by a statistical calculation using data acquired through a scientifically appropriate method.
if the analysis is based on subjective ‘coding’ of data – is there an appropriate intercoder reliability score. If there is not, there is little reason for readers to be confident that the research presented would be repeatable, that coding remains unchanged over time, and that other researchers would apply the same coding definitions in the same way. Without intercoder reliability there is little reason to have confidence in the resulting ‘analysis’ rendering it largely unpublishable.
Editors and publishers insisting on clear conflict of interest reporting,
The Terrorism Studies community putting methodology above attention grabbing headlines and tweetable pseudo-metrics.
If the methodology is flawed or the statistical analysis unsound – no matter if the ‘findings’ are appealing or even intuitively correct – the study lacks the necessary basic elements to be considered publishable research.
If research is claiming to have analysed a sample, to what extent can the sample be considered representative of the whole?
Was that sample derived from a consistent methodology, or a hodgepodge of pieces cobbled together?
How was the sample identified and collected? In effect research design (architecture) and data collection (acquisition) to use two of Jeffrey Stanton’s four A’s of data science.
If you cannot do the calculation to produce a statistical result, do not use the word related to that calculation e.g. correlation, trend etc.
When an author claims correlation – a range of questions should spring to mind; do you mean a positive or negative correlation?
how strong a correlation?
Did you use Pearson, Spearman, or Kendall?
If a trend / trendline is claimed, what is the R-squared value? Is your line a good representation of the data?
A trend requires more than two or three data points.
Do you mean one point in time has fewer of ‘x’ than another? This is not a trend, upward or downward, one point just has fewer than the other.
Based on what is currently being published within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies there are a range of issues, including;
Journals specifically focused on terrorism research, a range of journals in related disciplines which have hurried to do ‘special issues’ on ISIS, and ‘research centers’ self-publishing special reports, which have published articles as if they are either unaware of the basic scientific and statistical standards or are content to publish material that they know falls short of the minimum acceptable scientific standards.
Senior researchers, including Professors, who will cite work that falls short of scientific or statistical standards without commentary or critique, some even talking it up as ‘ground breaking’ or ‘data science’.
The current state of orthodox Terrorism Studies must be judged on the behaviour of those in the discipline. Such is the coagulation of mediocrity in orthodox Terrorism Studies, senior researchers have not questioned unsound methodologies, and journals through their peer reviewers and editors, have not upheld standards. The previously observed problems of data and data analysis within some sections of orthodox Terrorism Studies have now reached systemic levels.
In a scientific discipline,
If the relevant scientific or methodological information is not present in an article submitted to a journal, then that paper is going in the bin because it does not reach minimum standards for undergraduate level work, let alone peer review.
When individuals deliver presentations, which make statistical claims about trends or correlation without any calculations, or use substandard / misleading data visualisation to support their argument, they could expect to be laughed out of the building.
If statistical and data analysis in Terrorism Studies do not adopt the standards adopted by other fields, it cannot take full advantage of the potential offered by increasing integration of data science or forms of statistical analysis into the study of Salafi-Jihadi groups.
The following series of posts examines specific tangible reasons why robust data science and evidence-based analysis is important and offers a critique of contemporary uses of data within orthodox Terrorism Studies.
A progressive focus on what events and material means to Salafi-Jihadi groups – Da’wa As Constant on the Path of Jihad:
The purpose of research is to develop deeper understand the object of study. While Western-centric interpretations of ‘utopia’ and claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are defeated may be easier to produce and more comfortable for policymakers to read, they do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes. The message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump and echoed by researchers including the authors of the ISIS Reader. Yet, while it is possible to produce a definition of ‘defeat’ to back such a claim, that definition is unlikely to be a useful indicator of the current state nor future behaviour of the group. Far from defeated al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.
In addition to expedient notions of ‘defeat’, the focus on concepts such as ‘Utopia’ are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens. A progressive approach would focus on understanding what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and be able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.
Progressive commitment to scientific methods to escape the impressionistic and statistically unsound representations of data in orthodox Terrorism Studies:
The failure to uphold statistical methods in orthodox Terrorism Studies has become systemic. Methodologically flawed, statistically unsound, unpublishable garbage is now talked up within the orthodoxy of Terrorism studies as ‘data science’ by professors and published in journals or circulated as ‘special reports’. This section provides a critique of the unscientific approaches to data and statistics considered acceptable within orthodox Terrorism Studies. The adoption of a progressive approach to Terrorism Studies would demand a clear break from this flawed research, putting robust methodology above tweetable headlines.
Orthodoxy claims decline – time for a reality check:
While production of media content by IS has fluctuated, some commentators have sought to coerce the data into a linear direction – a so-called decline. This section examines how the narrative has been constructed and shows that committing to the decline narrative has meant overlooking some serious methodological flaws and fluctuation in content. The decline narrative was built by shifting the goalposts both in terms of definition and time-periods rather than robust statistical analysis. In fact, while some claimed consensus around the decline narrative – a robust statistical analysis reveals average weekly video output increased in both quantity and longevity of production between 2017 and 2019.
Neo-Colonialist tendency to devalue ideas in Arabic:
This section unpacks some of the methods widely accepted within orthodox Terrorism Studies to show how they devalue material in Arabic in favour of English language sources and Western-Centric interpretations. A progressive Terrorism studies would focus on the primary language of the Salafi-Jihadi movement (Arabic).
Decline narrative as strategic communication tool:
The so-called decline has been more than a narrative deployed in commentary; it has also been used as a strategic communication tool. This section highlights the need for genuine scientific methodologies, appropriate statistical analyses, and robust conflict of interest reporting to ensure the field can escape the current coagulation of mediocrity and rebuild confidence in the academic output.
Progressive commitment to robust statistical analysis; the end to Mc_Data:
Scientific methodologies and robust statistical approaches can lift orthodox Terrorism Studies out of the current malaise of mediocrity, and enable the field to embrace the opportunity available through evidence-based research and a stronger data culture.
A progressive Terrorism studies, using robust data science and evidence-based analysis, is important because contrary to the dominant narratives of IS having collapsed or been in terminal decline, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) used the time on the open front in Iraq and Syria as an educational opportunity, to build a base of supporters running into the thousands. This is why al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”.
As such, the theology which groups such as al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote, will remain, will endure and, when given the opportunity of fertile soil, it will expand visibly when it suits their strategic cause.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Where are consumers most likely located – VPN use distorts yet nobody uses a VPN to switch to a restricted country.
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.
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?” 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. 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. 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
 Abu Mawadda (Al-‘Uqab al-Masri), “Wa-madha idha saqatati l-khilafa(tu)?” Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, March 28, 2016.
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. 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.” 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.” He started to follow the “electronic releases of the Islamic State and was overwhelmed by the refutations and revelations of doubt disseminated against IS. 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, hijra, and combat. Especially the hadith relating to Sham [historical Syria] 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
When Abu Anwar’s initial attempts failed, 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, 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. 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,  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.”
 Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.
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.
 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.
 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.””
 Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.
 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!”
 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.
 Hafid al-Khattabi, “Qissat nafir Abu Anwar al-Kuwaiti,” Mu’assassat al-Wafa‘, December 2015.
Many column inches of commentary have been dedicated in recent months to the purported shift from Telegram to other platforms. We have shown previously that despite efforts to ‘cull’ jihadi channels on Telegram, disruption did not have a meaningful impact on the core network. This core allowed jihadi groups to maintain a persistent presence. The greatest impact of that attempted disruption appears to have been the much tweeted about inconvenience caused to pundits and commentators who had only been able to access the peripheral Jihadi channels and Nashir News network that were deleted in the disruption effort.
In this post we look at the content sharing network between January and May 2019. This produces a strategic overview of the network, to assess whether the network has been forced to evolve how they use the platform.
The analysis shows that at present the Jihadi network on Telegram is vast and remains functional. The URL sharing in core groups indicates core users are not currently preparing to make the jump to another platform.
The primarily Arabic Jihadi
Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has
produced over 1.7 million updates.
al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ,
Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network
which also draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
This network has shared
over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between
January and May 2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface
web, despite punditry to the contrary.
By contrast there are very
few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the
surface web is for the Jihadi movement.
The most frequently used domains
do not offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the
behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram of
mass link sharing to the accounts on the new platform is not currently being
A model of the information
flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem continues
to exhibit a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and
Tech resources, such as apps,
disposable phone numbers, encrypted email, and VPN are an important part of
both the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem.
Using the curated feed of human verified jihadi channels and groups archived by BlackLight between January and May. This dataset contains 1.7 million updates of which 878,795 (approximately 50%) were forwarded from other channels and groups.
Analysis of these messages
produced a network of over 85,000 connections (content sharing or cross
posting). The network is made up of 9,000 accounts and groups. The connections
between nodes show that groups of channels form specific clusters, each of
which containing some common theme or allegiance to a Jihadi group.
As discussed in previous posts
there is a dispersed network with many accounts that have some importance to
the network (rather than one or two very important accounts – which would make
the network vulnerable to disruption).
As in previous analyses, ISIS,
AQ, and Taliban channels all appear in the same interconnected network. This is
they draw on similar other
channels (those with a specific historical or theological focus for example) or
pro-Jihadi channels /
groups who share the overarching theology and purpose, but do not have specific
organizational allegiance, aggregate material from both al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya
The network structure and
emergent communication architecture of the clusters indicates that they will
likely remain resilient to the removal of even a large proportion of the
channels and groups. Of the different clusters, those closest to the al-Dawlat
al-Islamiyya have the most dispersed network architecture – providing the
greatest resilience, while Taliban appear to have adopted the distributed
structure to a lesser extent.
This section examines over 1 million
(1,048,575) URL identified in messages and captions. Within this million URL
sample the research found 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains.
Calculating the number of times
URL representing content on specific domains had been observed, Telegram links
appeared most frequently in posts. It is
a common observation that the domain on which data is being collected is also
the most frequently linked to domain in the dataset, as users often include the
link for a channel or chat in their posts.
Looking at the number of unique
URL gives an alternative perspective. It shows that while Telegram links appear
frequently, they are a relatively small number of URL appearing frequently. In
contrast, there are relatively higher numbers of URL from other domains, each
of which appear relatively infrequently. This is logical, as many URL outside
Telegram host a specific piece of content, and hence it is shared when it is
released and subsequently falls out of use.
Examining the URL from outside
Telegram provides an overview of the other locations within the Jihadi
information ecosystem. This shows the number of times domains were observed in
Similarly, analysing the domains
by the number of different URL shared from that domain, shows how the
information ecosystem combines branded content from jihadi groups, located on
content stores and aggregators, with a wide range of other material including
mainstream news sites.
From this we find:
Despite the claims Jihadi
groups have not been driven off the surface web, sites such as archive.org,
telegra.ph, and justpaste.it are frequently used as Jihadi content stores and
None of the most observed
domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period of adjustment,
which occurred in the autumn of 2015 and Spring 2016, Jihadi twitter accounts
regularly shared links to Telegram channels to allow sympathisers to maintain
access to the Jihadi information ecosystem. In the period to May 2019, the
behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not
currently being repeated.
Flow across the Ecosystem.
In examining the flow of users across the ecosystem in 2019 we
find there are two distinct clusters, one focused on tech and the other on
Jihadi content and related news. This uses the same method as was discussed
during the GRNTT
conference at Brookings.
The tech cluster on the lower portion of the graph fulfils
an important role for the movement, as it provides access to services such as VPN,
disposable / free phone numbers and a range of communication programmes
distributed as .apk files (Andriod Package File).
The content cluster features platforms from the three main
roles in the Jihadist information ecosystem:
The signposts including
Telegram and Facebook,
Content stores such as
Archive.org, Google Drive, imgur, and Files.fm
Aggregators such as
Justpaste.it and Telegra.ph
Other findings of note;
Obedient Supporters and Nashir 1440 are content aggregators which provide content downloads on the surface web.
Tgho.st – is a file sharing system native to Telegram. Tgho.st operates by users sending the file to a Telegram Bot, the bot subsequently returns a URL where that file can be downloaded by anyone using the download link in a browser. The service advertises that “These files are not deleted and will always be available for download”.
Videopress – URL to Videopress were frequently extracted from videos posted on the earlier version of Jihadology, although without the full Jihadology page / URL. Such a finding illustrates the importance of focusing on the Jihadi primary language, Arabic, rather than drawing conclusions from fringe languages, particularly English. However, this is likely to fall out of use following the recent update to the site.
The primarily Arabic Jihadi
Telegram Network is very large, spanning 9,000 channels / groups and has
produced over 1.7 million updates.
al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, AQ,
Taliban and pro-Jihadi supporters all connect into a single network which also
draws on theological content at the Salafi-Jihadi Nexus.
This network has shared
over 31,489 Unique URL from 486 domains / subdomains between January and May
2019. Active content sharing is still occurring on the surface web, despite
punditry to the contrary.
By contrast there are very
few links to the dark web, highlighting how important remaining on the surface
web is for the Jihadi movement.
None of the most observed
domains offer a serious alternative to Telegram. In the period to May 2019, the
behaviour previously seen in the transition between Twitter and Telegram is not
currently being repeated.
A model of the information
flow between platforms which are used within the jihadi information ecosystem
highlights a dispersed network comprised of beacons, content stores and
Tech resources, such as
apps, disposable phone numbers and email, and VPN are an important part of both
the Telegram network and the entire information ecosystem.
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 with partially having been able to establish proto-states, 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. 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.” 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.” 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. The martyr-stories are an integral part of the jihadist literature. Documents in Arabic outline individual biographies from 1980s Afghanistan to the 1990s Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, to the 2000s with Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 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. ‘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.
Whereas past AQ generations, in particular in Saudi Arabia, 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 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. 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.
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.” 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.
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.”
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. 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), with a change of modus-operandi), 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.
 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,
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.
 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
 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.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi-Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
 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.
A thousand men who fear not for their lives are more to be dreaded than ten thousand who fear for their fortunes.
The evidence based approach to analysing the Jihadi movement includes how the movement creates their visual images. Deconstructing these images into their components demonstrates that many of the different elements are included deliberately to communicate specific things. These elements must be interpreted within the appropriate habitus.
In part, as the late Reuven Paz noted, this means recognising that;
The Jihadi militancy is … almost entirely directed in Arabic and its content is intimately tied to the socio-political context of the Arab world.
Reuven Paz, Reading Their Lips: The Credibility of Jihadi Web Sites as ‘Soft Power’ in the War of the Minds
The other part of interpreting images within the appropriate habitus, is an appreciation of the Jihadi culture, in the sense as-Suri used “the cultural level of the mujahidin“.
At times, it is possible to heighten the cultural level of the mujahidin, and it is also possible to heighten the level of preparation and acquired skills, and this will contribute to refining the talent …
The trainers and those supervising the foundation of Resistance cells must discover those talents and refine them with culture and training so that they find their place in leading terrorist operations in this type of blessed jihad…
Later in the text as-Suri notes:
..one of the most important fundaments for training in our jihadi Resistance Call is to spread the culture of preparation and training, its programs and methods, with all their aspects, by all methods of distribution, especially the Internet, the distribution of electronic discs, direct correspondence, recordings and every other method.
as-Suri, Global Islamic Resistance Call
The socio-political and cultural elements of the habitus in which Jihadi media is created are fundamental to evidence based research into what this material intended to communicate. When this evidence based approach is applied, notions of “jihadi cool”, going from zero-to-hero, crime and gangsta rap, along with claims of utopia and ‘utopian narratives’ all become unsustainable as interpretations of what Jihadi groups intend to communicate.
Jihadi culture has drawn influences from theology, the history of muslims, history of Jihadi groups and draws on experiences from earlier iterations of the movement. Jihadi culture is inextricably linked to their understanding of evidence and scholarship, specifically the vast archive of text, audio, and video which precedes the emergence of the contemporary al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
Evidence based approach
This image has been part of the Jihadi information ecosystem and is part of a wider genre of images.
These images are composites of numerous elements, the inclusion of which are intended to communicate concepts which have also been referenced in earlier jihadi material.
Deconstructing the image
The original image ‘training the brothers in street fighting’ was produced by hadrawmawt Yemen. This training session depicts the practical application of theology in meeting the obligation to prepare for Jihad and life on ribat. This obligation is emphasized by the quote from Surah al-Anfal (Quran 8:60) which features in the final sawa’iq media image.
And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged.
Surah al-Anfal 8:60
Like the interconnection between contemporary jihadi material and historic precursors, the original image of the training session also appears in other content. Here it is used in combination with another image of training, also referring to Quran 8:60, emphasizing the mujahidin are obligated to prepare for combat.
The importance of preparing (training) appears frequently in documents from previous iterations of the Jihadi movement, including those by as-Suri (quoted above) and discussed in detail in Zaad e Mujahidin. For example;
Generally the military training ought to be acquired by every healthy Muslim. Even the disabled Muslim could perform various military duties, due to the modern method of warfare….
After the compulsory requirement of the Imaan and the Taqwa, the Mujahid ought to pay careful attention to the following three points: – Highest standard of military training. – Obedience. – Prudence and Contrivance.
Zaad e Mujahidin
Our battle today is a battle of attrition – prolonged for the enemies. They must come to terms that jihad will last until judgement day. And that god commanded for us jihad while not decreeing for us to win. Therefore, we ask god for steadfastness, determination, guidance, righteousness, and success for us and for our brothers.
The Jihadi movement is clear about their aim and purpose, these are constants in their material not ‘latest trends’. As Reuven Paz quoted Indian scholar, Dr. Om Nagpal,
The Mujahidin do not hide their intentions. They do not use diplomatic or apologetic language. On various occasions they have used aggressive language. Repeatedly from the different corners of the world, they have proclaimed in categorical terms that their mission is Jihad. Jihad inspires them. Jihad invigorates them. Jihad gives them a purpose in life. Jihad for them is a noble cause, a sacred religious duty. Jihad is a mission
Once the theological underpinning of the Jihadi movement is recognised, interpretation of the imagery can focus on the framework (or Habitus) within which it is created and the concepts which it is intended to communicate.
The dominant narrative among Western governments, policy experts and the mainstream media has been that Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups embrace a violent “ideology,” rather than specific religious doctrines that pervade and drive their agenda.
Rüdiger Lohlker continues,
It is crystal clear to virtually anyone who has the linguistic capacity to grasp and the opportunity to witness what jihadists are actually saying, writing and doing, both online and offline, that religion matters.
The Jihadi movement interprets waging jihad as a religious duty and they consider innovation in religion unacceptable. As a result, Jihadi culture is based on what they consider evidence; evidence rooted in a long tradition of theological writing, divine comandment and historical human acting (i.e. tales of the sahaba and selective readings of the Sunna).
That evidence is the key to an authentic interpretation of the imagery the movement produces. If commentary and academic interpretations cannot explicitly site the evidence and connect their interpretation to the long history of Jihadi theological writing, it risks becoming significantly more about what Western researchers imagine they see; an interpretation trapped in a western habitus rather than an authentic interpretation of the Jihadi movement.
Many Telegram channels and groups operated by Jihadi groups, distribute lengthy Arabic documents.
An analysis of the content shared by one such channel, ‘The Caliphate Library’ Telegram Channel shows how the Jihadi movement thrives on lengthy documents that sets out their theology, beliefs, and strategy.*
Overview of findings:
This individual library contained 908 pdf documents, which collectively contain over 111,000 pages. This is far from what one might expect from a movement which thinks in 140 characters, as some Western commentators suggest.
In addition to the material produced by Dawlat al-Islamiyya, the channel;
republished earlier writing through Maktabat al-Himma, a theological driven publication house of Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
shared earlier work produced by al-Qaeda
distributed historical and contemporary Salafi writing which intersects with their theology.
ISI era is an important part the identity for Dawlat al-Islamiyya – over 15% of the pages in ‘IS media products’ category originate from that period.
While 10% of PDF were encrypted, most documents were produced using tools easily available on most modern laptops.
Not one of the texts envisages a ‘Jihadist Utopia’ nor proposes a ‘Utopian narrative’. The idea of a ‘Utopian Narrative’ is an artefact of Western misinterpretation. It is not rooted in the texts of of Dawlat al-Islamiyya nor their predecessors.
The following infographic summerises the analysis of over 1000 documents in this Caliphate Library.
*The Caliphate Library is a loose translation of its actual name, as at time of writing the Channel is still live.
#exclusive for the supporters (munasireen) and companions (ashab) of the raids (al-ghazawat) on #platforms of social media:
More than 500 links to electronic releases (isdarat) of the Islamic state that are not eligible for #deletion by the will of god, we ask god to anger the kuffar, the apostates, the hypocrites.
These links by the will of god do not get deleted all the while these will help the munasireen in their raids of social media platforms.
Share and deem the reward (ajr) and we advise you [to place these links] in the comment section on YouTube.
We warn you after placing your trust in god to use a VPN and to ensure to enforce technical security measures for the protection for the raiders on the social media sites. (raiders in Arabic is stated as ashab of the raids).
We will continuously renew [this collection of links protected from removal] until we have more than 1000 links, god willing
Experiment with the links, share them and reap your reward.
The release of this collection of ‘500 links’ through pastethis.to highlights the theological underpinning of the actions taken by the media mujahidin.
The nature of
rewards in the Jihadist belief system.
underpinning – reaping your reward, ajr
Ghazwat and the Ribat.
Jihad – Media
– Activism – Militancy – Documenting the Struggle Online to Influence Target
Isdarat – the
groundwork of Online Jihad by AQAP, first generation
roles platforms play within the ecosystem.
The role of
the website jihadology within the jihadist ecosystem.
in the Jihadist Belief-System
“Conveyed by ‘Ali, may god be pleased with him: “whoever inspires his brother to jihad will be rewarded likewise upon every step of this endeavor of the worship of the Sunna.”
Cited by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, “Join the Caravane”, January 4, 2004, citing in length ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s “Join the Caravane”, referenced furthermore in jihadist literature to historical scholar Ibn Nahhas.
To give readers a deeper nuanced insight
into the above statement issued on Telegram, we will decipher a few keywords / concepts
that are in most cases absolutely clear and easily understood when issued by
Arabic native speakers, born as Sunni Muslims, to their core target audience:
Arabic native speakers, born as Sunni Muslims. The message was transmitted across
Jihadists are religious people (if we like
it or not) who over the past 40 years have been prolific writers to craft a
specific theology. The
theology of Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (AQ) and any other Sunni extremist
groups, is based on Arabic-language religious scriptures, not just Qur’an and Sunna, but also references elements of
the rich 1,400-year long tradition of Islamic writings. Yet, as penned by
Rüdiger Lohlker, there is a lack of willingness to deal with the writings and
motivations of jihadist subcultures and their inherent theology. The term theology
is provocative, referring to the specific type of rhetoric and thinking
regarding the relationship between humans and god. While it may be comforting for
some to describe al-Baghdadi as ‘monstrous’, or a female follower as a ‘witch’,
academic study can make greater progress if focusing less on the moral outrage
and instead focusing on how Sunni extremists actually articulate, pitch, and
project their messages.[i]
the ecosystem of jihadist writings, including historical authors that matter
for modern jihadist groups, many theological concepts are identifiable – if you
are able, and so inclined, to read the easy findable electronic PDFs. With
the apparent inability to read basic Arabic jihadist texts or fully understand
videos (which are 99% in Arabic in the case of IS), the majority of keywords
and textual content remains behind a veil.
for any Arabic reader versed in Arabic-language jihadist writings, the speeches,
audios, images and videos they produce clearly contain key theological
concepts. Similarly, for those with an understanding of the socio-cultural
context of the intended audience, even the non-Arabic language products have a
clear theological meaning. Unfortunately, these theological concepts have passed
largely unnoticed in the pop-science analysis of English-only magazines such as
AQ’s Inspire, Dawlat al-Islamiyah’s Dabiq and the multi-lingual Rumiyya
dominates the ‘research’ output have created an absolute win-win situation for
the neglect to either treat Arabic language extremist sources as primary data[ii]
or entering it into evidence to relate the use of language for non-Arabic IS
products, Sunni extremist propaganda (including the pro-jihadist ‘salafist’
materials) targeting a non-Arab(ic) audience, attacking open, inclusive
societies, continues without much interruption. Hardcore texts of violence
include lengthy citations, textual references and include sources of Qur’an and
Sunna used by contemporary ‘Salafist’ text books projected via the Internet in
respective languages into European societies.
art of the jihadist pen, or “scholars of jihad”, as extremist scholars of this
subculture refer to themselves, is to express a coherent theology, referencing
historical authors such as Ibn Taymiyya or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and to
embed citations or references to Qur’an and Sunna. With the establishment of
over 300,000 pages of Arabic text since the 1980s, all available online if you
know where to look يا لغوي, jihadists have developed a specific
hermeneutical reading of scripture and project their actions as the active
application of what is defined in writing as divine law, the will of god, the
commandments, absolute rulings that must be enforced to be a ‘pious believer’ –
and be eligible for paradise.
Texts authored by the “scholars of jihad” include
references and citations of linguist dictionaries such as Lisan al-Arab, tafsir
works and sometimes ridicule religious curricula taught in MENA schools
claiming the references of jihad (for example) are either omitted or taught in
a wrongful way. In order to understand groups such as IS, you must be literate
in Arabic and be able to comprehend the propaganda that is often well versed in
religious references and sources – this is the habitus that extremist groups
exploit to address their primary, single most important key target audience:
Arab native speakers.
Religious extremists have no easy, cozy relationship with an intervening
deity that to them is real, this is not limited of course to this context. For
religious extremists in general, the relationship to god is personal and
intimately – while socially re-enforced based on human interpreted divine
How most of
the intended audience orders their reality is that;
an intervening deity is real,
articulated in the jihadist framework, this is a world they pass through, referencing an authentic hadith,
after this world they hope their actions will be deemed such that the intervening deity permits them entrance to paradise, reference – among many – i.e. Qur’an 3:169.
Hence statements of those either passively ‘martyred’ by air
strikes, or during combat when not having actively sought it, as well as the
istishhadi operatives, suicide or ‘martyrdom’ bombers who deliver their
explosives actively to their targets, are often introduced by Qur’an 3:169:
“Think not of those, who are slain in the path of God, as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, they are bestowed with provision.”[iii]
This mind-set is further sanctioned by citing Qur’an 2:154, to
back up the above statement:
“Do not say that those who are killed in God’s cause are dead; they are alive, though you do not realize it.”[iv]
The stories of ‘martyrs’ enable the narrator to present the
individual as a ‘true’ Muslim who indeed lived, fought, and sacrificed for
implantation of the divine definition as set in Qur’an, 3:146 to widen the
conviction of “being alive with God” in the afterlife (akhira):
“Many prophets have fought, with large bands of godly men alongside them who, in the face of their suffering for God’s cause, did not lose heart or weaken or surrender: God loves those who are steadfast.”[v]
The jihadist, in his self-perception, is part of “bands of godly
men” and as such have remained steadfast, reluctant of their own physical safety
or lives – after all, humans are tested by god in this world to decide who will
be rewarded in what way in the next world. Furthermore, the jihadist sources
emphasize that individual believers are expected to have “spent” their lives
and their wealth “on the path of God”. Qur’an 9:111 is cited to provide an
alleged theological and judicial framework:
“God has purchased the persons and possessions of the believers in return for the Garden – they fight in God’s way: they kill and are killed – this is a true promise given by Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an. Who could be more faithful to his promise than God? So be happy with the bargain you have made: that is the supreme triumph.”[vi]
of the theological distinctions come in deciding which actions will gain ajr –
a form of reward – and which will not, i.e. lead to “sin” or tribulations.
A shared broad mental construct, and socio-cultural context is laid out in the religious coded, Arabic language corpus of jihad – the distinction comes from how one must behave to obtain reward, which may subsequently cause you to be permitted entrance to paradise. Thus, from a linguist perspective, the jihadist language is clear and easy to comprehend. Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, most Sunni jihadist groups had been quick to issue statements ensuring that bin Laden was a human (and not a prophet or the like), having invested his life for the worship of god by his actions and sacrifice. Following a classical jihadi-lingual ductus, he was referred to as “the shaykh, the martyr – as we deem him to be – Osama bin Laden.”[vii]
In other releases, i.e. the death of Hamud b. ‘Uqla’ al-Shu’aybi, died in late 2001 and having been cited by bin Laden but also having had an important influence on Saudi jihadists of the 2000s, the full reference of the martyr in this framing is expressed: “we deem him to be a martyr, god is the measure of all things” (al-Jarbu’, 2002, shared in AQ forums as word document at the time). This wording was later used throughout the 1500 page strong The Voice of Jihad AQ magazine to refer to their members who had been ‘martyred’.
Steadfastness is another way of earning ajr,
and is an integral element of jihadist literature and videos. Steadfastness is
the expression of maintaining a sincere intention towards god, as your actions
of this world in the service for god will be judged to determine your status, reward,
in the afterlife.
Theological underpinning – reaping your reward, ajr
“Reward”, or ajr in Arabic, in the mindset
of modern jihadist groups and thinkers, however, is based on the ancient
understanding thereof and is two-fold:
The reward must be earned based on one’s deeds and actions for god in this world to be eligible to enter paradise after death. This is one of the main literal elements of the textual corpus of jihad. As for jihadists, jihad means an active form of worshipping and serving god, with a sincere intention, driven to fight for the protection, revenge or for the security of the jama’a ahl al-sunna; reward is earned along this way in this world with death as the new stage of life in mind. Hence popular slogans of this subculture, expressed in writings and placed in active application in many of its audio-visual releases, embody this with further theological reference points. A popular propaganda-slogan thus states that the Mujahid seeks one of the two most precious things (al-husayn): victory (nasr) or attaining the shahada, exiting this world and dwelling in paradise. This is a citation of Qur’an 9:52 and used by al-Zarqawi in the beheading video of Olin “Jack” Armstrong in 2004. The Chechen hostage takers of the musical Nord Ost in Moscow in 2002 also put up a black banner on the wall, reading in Arabic the Islamic shahada complemented by allahu akbar and ihda l-husnayyin, the reference to Qur’an 9:52. IS used this slogan, for example, in the last videos that had emerged from Mosul before the fall, framing the expected reward despite worldly – or physical loss – as a win for what comes after life in the conviction of humans who see themselves as enablers of divinity.
Reward is also a historical reference to
the physical world that early Muslims obtained as a result of raiding the
caravans of the Quraish. The “spoils” or “booty of war” are filled with
Qur’anic references to surat al-Anfal and surat al-Tawba. A physical reward
thus is based on receiving a share of the “spoils of war”, often referred to as
in Arabic as ghanima. Yet jihadists warn of focusing on the potential to make ghanima
through jihad, rather than having a sincere intention.
A 2003 article in “The Voice of Jihad”,
the first regular electronic magazine released online by AQ on the Arab
Peninsula, warns of prioritizing “taking ghanima as reward of one’s jihad”,
thus neglecting a complete understanding of the concept of jihad and the spoils
of war by omitting “when raiders take ghanima a third is their reward.” The
article continues: “the ahadith provide clear evidence whoever seeks to embark
on his jihad solely for the purpose of gaining worldly presentation, will not
receive any ajr.”[viii]
The reference of ajr in this context is
strictly related to what the Mujahid, having a sincere intention, will receive
when killed. This hadith is also used by ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam in his “Declaration
of Jihad” and further contextualized with another hadith sources: “Conveyed by
al-Nisa’i based on a stable isnad[ix] by
Abu Usama who said: “a man came to the prophet, peace and blessings upon him,
he said: “have you [ever] seen a man raiding looking for ajr, thinking about
financial gain?” The messenger of god, peace and blessings upon him said: “god
will not acknowledge anyone [as a martyr] except those who are pure and sincere
in their desire.”[x]
Ajr: Rewards in the afterlife for deeds
and actions in this world, a jihadist Telegram channel member asking for reward
for his Jaysh al-‘Izza brethren for having slain mercenaries, for their jihad
and to receive their martyrs.
The reward is also contingent on the
context in which action is taken. Anwar al-Awlaki described in Allah is
Preparing Us for Victory, when times are hard, the reward for taking action
If it comes at a
time when things are easy then the ajr is reduced. But if the time is
one of difficulty, then the ajr is increased.
Ajr is in accordance
to the difficulty.
Comprehending the meaning and importance of ajr within the Jihadi understanding,
shows that claims in Western commentary that ISIS seeks to pursue a ‘utopian
project’ or present a ‘utopian narrative’ are based on a fundamental misunderstanding
of jihad. It is life on the ribat that is the life revered by the jihadist
movement. The reward they seek is ajr, which, if sufficient, may permit access
chapter on the virtues of life on the ribat, Ibn-Nahas highlights why behavior
on the ribat is among the best livelihoods.
narrated, the messenger of god said:
“Among the best livelihoods of people is that of a man holding the
rein of his horse in the path of Allah, flying on its back whenever he hears
the call. He flies in search of killing or being killed. And a man on top of a
mountain peak or on the bottom of a deep valley, establishing prayers, paying
his zakah, and worshiping his Lord until death visits him. People see nothing
from him but good.”
Those who spend the night on the ribat are murabitin. The image of murabit on the classical ribat is important to the
understanding of the identity and approach of the media mujihidin today, as it
is the self-image of those on the electronic ribat. As noted:
Murabita, according to the British Orientalist, translator and
lexicographer, Edward Lane, “also signifies a company of warriors; or of men
warring against an enemy; or a company of men having their horses tied at the
frontier in preparation for the enemy; or keeping post on the frontier; and in
To translate and conceptualise the Arabic term ribat can be very contentious. The term
is frequently referred to in both jihadist videos and in print / online
literature in the context of religiously permissible warfare; in a modern
meaning it could loosely be translated as “front”.
Ribat is prominent due to its reference in the 60th verse of the eight
chapter of the Qur’an, the Surat al-Anfal
(“the Spoils of War”). It is often used to legitimize acts of war and among
others found in bomb making handbooks or as part of purported theological
justification in relation to suicide operations – for decades. Extremists consider
the clause as a divine command stipulating military preparation to wage jihad
as part of a broader understanding of “religious service” on the “path of god.”
Ribat as it appears in the Qur’an is referenced in the context of
“steeds of war” (ribat al-khayl) that
must be kept ready at all times for war and hence remain “tied”, mostly in the
Islamic world’s historic border regions or contested areas. In order to “strike
terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah”, these “steeds of war” are to
be unleashed for military purposes and mounted (murabit – also a sense of being garrisoned) by the Mujahidin.
The relevant section reads:
“Prepare against them whatever
forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses,[xii] to
frighten off [these] enemies of God and of your, and warn others unknown to you
but known to God. Whatever you give in God’s cause will be repaid to you in
full, and you will not be wronged,” Qur’an 8:60.
has two main aspects in contemporary jihadist thinking. First, the complete
60th verse of the Qur’an is often stated in introductions to various
ideological and military handbooks or videos. While some videos issue ribat in connection with various weapons
and the alleged divine command in the jihadist reading thereof. As the real-world fighting Mujahidin are considered “strangers” (ghuraba’) in this world fighting at the
very edge of worldly perception, thus being ‘mounted’ at the front (ribat) and the borders (thughur), the background networks of the
‘media Mujahidin’ must be accredited
likewise. Thus, in the past fifteen years, ribat
has migrated and expanded into the virtual “front”, as the murabit who is partaking in the media work has been equated with
the actual Mujahid fighting at the
frontlines. In a similar understanding, the physical “frontier” or “border” has
shifted to the ‘arm-chair jihadists’, the professional media teams embedded
with fighting units as well as the global network of media supporters as the
value of the media jihad is
understood and used on a tactical and strategic level by militants to further
The advantage exploited by the muribiteen in early Islamic history is
the ability to move rapidly, have a heavy impact on the target, and move on.
This is encapsulated by the concept of Ghazwa (غزوة), a raid or expedition.[xiii]
Jihadist groups around the world have used the word to describe their physical
operations such as “ghazwat al-asir”, a campaign by the Islamic State of Iraq
(ISI) to avenge the imprisonment of Muslims.[xiv] In
2006, IED attacks in Bouzareh near Algiers, was valorised as “Ghazwa Bushawi”
by the “the Media Council of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le
Combat” before the group merged with AQIM.[xv]
Today these raids occur on online, Channels on Telegram act as
coordination points through which these raids are organised. In one approach,
Jihadi groups post the time and target for the raid that day. They provide
supporters with pre-prepared tweets or URL which supporters can copy and post
directly onto platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.[xvi]
These raids seek to cause sudden spikes in activity to spread their message
broadly, there is no attempt at permanence as they know the accounts they use
will be removed. In fact, they plan for it. Just as the self-image of horse
backed warrior, the users in the online ghazwa arrive suddenly, have an impact
but do not intend to stay around.
A longer discussion of these concepts appears in: Ali Fisher, Netwar
Jihad – Media – Activism – Militancy – Documenting the Struggle Online to Influence Target Audiences
Incitement to jihad is well established within the online dominions, where media activism can be achieved from any place, in- or outside of conflict zones. With a ring of decentralized media workers supporting those who are ‘embedded’ with fighting elements, the jihadi media has in the past two decades greatly improved in providing professional made videos and writings from real-life combat zones for computer-, tablet-, smartphone-, and television-screens throughout the world. The ‘media mujahid’ as a role model promotes those ‘embedded’ front-line cameramen in particular, without whom the quality and quantity of jihad groups worldwide would not have a lasting impact or relevance. In the jihadists’ self perception, the;
“media [worker] has become a martyrdom operative without an explosives belt, for they are entitled to these merits [of jihad]. Furthermore, haven’t you seen how the cameramen handle the camera instead of carrying Kalashnikovs, running in front of the soldiers during attacks, defying death by exposing their chests to the hails of bullets!?’[xvii]
media worker in the field has turned into a role model of adoration just like
any hardcore fighter or martyrdom operative, and is portrayed by the jihadi
media likewise and accredited as an istishhadi,
as someone who actively has sought out and attained the shahada. The wish to become a martyr, having a “clear intention” (as
described above) as proof of their piety and their loyalty to god, being ‘true’
practitioners of Islam expecting compensation in the afterlife.
new role model is backed by the accreditation of the value of the quantitative
and qualitative online propaganda:
“Haven’t you seen the cells responsible for expanding the electronic media files (isdarat), how they enter the most dangerous and most fortified areas and how they disseminate the isdarat of the Mujahideen in the heartlands of the hypocrites (munafiqin)!?”[xviii]
workers, on the other hand who are not directly embedded with fighting units,
are not of lesser importance. For they ensure the process, editing, the layout,
translating and subsequent publication.
Isdarat – the groundwork of Online Jihad by AQAP, first generation
Since the early 2000s with the first
generation of AQAP being active in Saudi Arabia while ISI used the power vacuum
in Iraq, the Internet has become the medium of communication and
exchange of information for Jihadis. In that time, the Internet has been
increasingly used on a very efficient and professional basis. Countless online
Jihad communities had come into existence. Not only have a number of online
forums been established, but there had been (and still are to a certain extend)
blogs and traditional websites available, which spread and share a broad
variety of documents and data in general. Jihadis often refer to the Arabic term
isdarat for data, that consists of general publications, videos (suicide
bombings and last testimonies, roadside bomb attacks etc.), sermons or general
statements and declarations – but also technical information such as
bomb-making, weapons guides or chemical crash courses. Since the early 2000s
the Internet has become a 24-hour online database, where any user with
sufficient knowledge of the Web (and Arabic) is able to access, understand
and/or download these isdarat. In an interview with al-Qa’ida’s first
online magazine (2003), Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), Abu Jandal
al-Azdi explains the reasons for these isdarat and states that „these [isdarat]
guide the youth of Islam and they [the Mujahidin and their leaders] have
published books, statements, audio-files, and videos.”[xix] Today
the users exchange useful tips and practical hints, discuss ideological and
theological issues and allow an insight into their tactics and strategies
within the online forums. The usage of the Web has been systematically funneled
by the al-Qa’ida cells on the Arabian Peninsula and provided the framework for
extensive online operations as of writing (2019).
Isdarat was also the name
of one of the most prominent early IS websites. It has been a website and
telegram channel where users could access the content. For IS, with the
changing circumstances of being able to mainstream “jihad” more due to the
acquisition of territory on an unprecedented level, videos are a key element to
convey what AQ projected in writings in a more compelling audio-visual format.
The different roles
platforms play within the ecosystem.
Websites such as Isdarat, exist within an ecosystem of content stores, aggregators
and beacons. Since the emergence of the media mujahidin on social media in 2013,
the different elements have formed part of a multi-platform
Likewise, the telegram post (above) shows how the interconnectivity
between platforms continues to allow jihadi groups to share information and
avoid disruption on social media and the surface web.
The message is shared on Telegram (beacon), directing users to
Pastethis.to which functions as the aggregator for the links. The aggregator gives
the location of each individual file (or content store). Traffic between
platforms can be harder to locate because often all that is visible on the
aggregator is the URL rather than the actual content.
The PasteThis.to page contained a list of video titles and URL where these
are stored. In this case the content store is most often Videopress or WordPress,
with many of these originally posted on Jihadology.
Jihadology in the ecosystem of online jihad
Analysis of the URL made available via the Pastethis.to pages, shows
a clear tendency toward using particular content stores.
Advertised as unlikely to be removed, the most common links lead
to Videopress. Videopress is notable for being used by Jihadology to store
material. As discussed previously,
the videos are not only accessible via the site but via the underlying
videopress URL which opens the video in a browser rather than on the site.
Having located the underlying videopress URL jihadi sympathizers are able to
share the location of the content via the aggregator, benefiting from the stability
of content posted on Jihadology, but without the user having to visit the site.
Similarly, where subdomains appear in the URL, the most common
subdomain is azelin.files, followed by videos.files. This image shows how the
videopress link which was shared on pastethis.to can be found in the source
code for Jihadology.
This is not a
one-off example, another aggregator (still available using Google cache) shows
an audio file available via the azelin.files subdomain.
other links are dead (apart from the archive.org) content posted on Jihadology
and hosted on WordPress is still available.
Pastethis.to aggregator, features the video No Respite. The shortcode used in
the aggregator is the same as the one available via Jihadology.
This video is
also notable as Abdul Hamid was arrested
… “after he posted a four-minute-long Isis propaganda video called No Respite”,
which was viewed more than 400 times on his Facebook page”. Hamid subsequently
“pleaded guilty to disseminating a terrorist publication” according to the Evening
this release has shown,
The theological underpinning of the actions taken by the media mujahidin, and the theological aspects cannot be separated from their strategy. They are integral parts of jihadi thought and cannot be treated as window dressing to be stripped away at the whim of Western researchers.
The persistent presence of the Swarmcast is in part due to the agility of the media mujahidin. They use a diverse range of platforms and share the location of specific content stores via beacons and aggregators.
The Jihadology website, as shown previously, is exploited within the jihadist ecosystem as a content store. URL of the videos are extracted from the site to be shared with jihadi sympathizers. These links are shared in such a way that the video plays in the browser rather than on the site – ensuring the individual accesses the content in a Jihadi context.
[i] Rüdiger Lohlker, Theologie der Gewalt. Das
Beispiel IS, Facultas: Vienna, 2016.
Schuuhrman, Terrorism studies and the struggle for primary data, November 5,
All following verses of the Quran are quotations of: Muhammad A. S.
Abdel-Haleem, The Qurʾan (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2004).
See for example Mu’awiyya al-Qahtani, “The Biography of the Hero Abu Talha
al-Ansari”, Mu’assasat al-Mas’ada
For a contextual reading, Nico Prucha, “Abdallah ‘Azzam’s outlook for Jihad in
1988 – “Al-Jihad between Kabul and Jerusalem””, Research Institute for European
and American Studies (2010), http://www.rieas.gr/images/nicos2.pdf.
For example in the as-Sahab video release la tukallafu ila nafsak, June 2011.
This part of the sawt al-jihad (no.3, Ramadan 1424), is the exact same as
provided here: https://library.islamweb.net/newlibrary/display_book.php?ID=3&startno=0&idfrom=2&idto=8&bookid=81&Hashiya=3#docu
and also referenced by, for example, Yusuf al-Qaradawi: https://www.al-qaradawi.net/node/2072[ix] Chain
‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, I’lan al-jihad, electronic version, 1997.
Prucha, Nico, “Jihadists‘ use of Quran’s ribat concept”, in: Janes Islamic
Affairs Analyst, August 2009
Ghazwa is also the name of a magazine distributed by Lashkar-e-Taiba in
Hanley Jr, John T., et al. The Anatomy of Terrorism and Political Violence
in South Asia Proceedings of the First Bi-Annual International Symposium of the
Center for Asian Terrorism Research (CATR) October 19-21, 2005, Denpensar,
Bali, Indonesia. No. IDA-P-4096. INSTITUTE FOR DEFENSE ANALYSES ALEXANDRIA VA,
For discussion of bombings linked to ghazwat al-asir
Prucha, Online territories of terror: how jihadist movements project influence
on the Internet and why it matters off-line, PhD Thesis, Universität Wien |
Philologisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche Fakultät (2015) (p. 280)
Prucha, Nico. “IS and the Jihadist Information Highway–Projecting
Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram.” Perspectives on Terrorism
Al-Manhajjiyya fi tahsil al-khibra al-i’lamiyya, first part, 18. This
ideological handbook is part of a lengthy series sanctioning the media work in
general, published by the media groups Markaz al-Yaqin and al-Furqan in May
sawt al-jihad number 11, 17.