Archive for the ‘Social Media Sunni Extremist Activism’ category

ISIS: Sunset on the ‘decline narrative’

June 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So, how did we know?

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

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

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

 

How did we do it?

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

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

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

These clandestine networks are protected by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all content is created equal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Authenticity

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

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

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

Metrification:

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

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

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

Specifically, the tendency toward:

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

 

Unprecedented and exceptional

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

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

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

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

 

Descriptive over-generalisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Risks of being an uncritical mouthpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

As Rüdiger Lohlker wrote in September 2016,

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Online Jihad: Data Science

November 10, 2017

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

Digital_war

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

DOT_AR

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

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

‘Doubt Upon The Strength Of al-Mujahedeen’

The Media War Upon The Islamic State claims:

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

‘Media Blackout’

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

The Media War Upon The Islamic State claims:

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

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

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

FCO_daesh

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

ansar 1000 tweets are 1000 arrows

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

photo_2017-10-16_18-56-26

Online Jihad: Data Science

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

In 2017, highlighted in an earlier blog post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Part 6: Substituting the Jihadist Twittersphere for Islamic State Telegrams

October 10, 2017

part 6 sub TW4TG

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

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

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

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

ISIS overview

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

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

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

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

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

Part 6 Telegram operation wide network

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

 

 

[1] www.telegram.org

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

[3] Al-Naba’ Magazina no. 54.

Part 5: Influence and information campaigns: from Twitter to Telegram

September 17, 2017

Header IS Briefing Part 2

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

In the West, policy makers are struggling to cope with the massive quantity and often times high quality productions issued by groups such IS who continue to draw in new recruits from western societies each month. Although slowly recognized by policy-makers that the so-called “counter narratives” are failing, as outlined in a New York Times article 2015.[1] IS has proven it’s resilience on the battlefield and the West has so far employed half-hearted “counter-narratives”, that usually neither touch on the Arabic propaganda content nor the messages conveyed by non-Arab foreign fighters who explain their reasons for joining the cause in their own words. Due to the tactical focus of both “counter-narratives” and takedowns, the U.S. and its Western allies are being drawn into open warfare online, on a battlefield chosen by their jihadist adversaries. And it is those jihadists who will thrive in the chaos that results. As outlined with Ali Fisher in the article “ISIS is Winning the Online Jihad Against the West” for The Daily Beast in October 2014 , the ideology/theology of IS, offering a coherent worldview while gaining and consolidating territory, has proven time and again to be resilient on all layers on the Internet.[2]

As of 2017, with the partial loss of territory and the de-population of Sunni urban centers in Syria and Iraq as a consequence, IS has withdrawn to the countryside, to continue the fight – and to maintain and upkeep their greatest weapon: media work as means of long-term influence and resistance.

From 2011 onwards, the main layer for Sunni jihadists online was Twitter, in addition to Facebook and YouTube, especially since the outbreak of violence in Syria. This propagation effort by the so-called “media mujahidin” has been approved and sanctioned by lmovement leaders, and now contributes to the interconnected jihadist zeitgeist.[3] For example, jihadist groups had been using Twitter to disseminate links to video content shot on the battlefield in Syria and posted for mass consumption on YouTube.[4] Since 2011, members of jihadist forums have issued media strategies that encourage the development of media mujahidin. This encouragement has been accompanied by the release of guides to using social media platforms, which often included lists of recommended accounts to follow.[5] With relatively little effort, IS was able to maintain massive networks on Twitter. This gave the media operations a whole new and unprecedented situation: releasing videos from within what is defined as “Islamic territory”, liberated from their enemies to a massive number of active or passive followers.[6]

Twitter did an excellent job in preventing IS from upkeeping their massive networks, despite the commitment and dedication of some of the media mujahidin to re-open in some cases hundreds of new accounts. This changed when Twitter became more effective at banning IS content by adjusting their spam settings, severely weakening the jihadist’ network on their platform. The degradation of IS networks on Twitter led many Western observers on Twitter to believe IS in general is in decline. However, while the ‘Twitter ship’ was sinking for IS, the online swarm simply turned to a new social media platform.

Early 2016 we witnessed a massive shift from Twitter to Telegram among IS militants and sympathizers. Until then IS was able to maintain a persistent network on Twitter, despite a massive rate of account suspensions. Because media mujahidin are highly dedicated – as much as they are on the battlefield – IS Twitter users usually reappeared on the platform using a different account – once they had been banned. From a user perspective, all you needed to be aware of was a good set of Arabic and non-Arabic key words to find IS content on Twitter, and then start following the  accounts. At the same time, the IS network on Twitter was not taken down at once, and the remaining accounts keenly promoted the new Twitter handles of those who came back.

With the massive move to Telegram, where IS now has settled in full, Twitter is used as a secondary platform to post specific – not all – content. On Telegram IS users and sympathizers are among themselves and in order to initiate new members, these have to undergo a process of vetting or simply have to know the Arabic theology after being invited to a couple channels to manually get into the deeper networks.

The community has migrated from Twitter to Telegram, yet Twitter is used by the community to stage “media raids” from Telegram. This is not about community building, rather it is about posting current event driven content on Twitter and by the time these temporary accounts are either taken down or obsolete otherwise, IS has new event driven content that is then pushed into Twitter and elsewhere from the IS core on Telegram.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon, ISIS is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes, The New York Times, June 13, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/13/world/middleeast/isis-is-winning-message-war-us-concludes.html?_r=0

[2] Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha, ISIS is Winning the Online Jihad Against the West, The Daily Beast, October 1, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/01/isis-is-winning-the-online-jihad-against-the-west.html

[3] Al-Manhajiyya fi tahsil al-khibra al-i’lamiyya, Mu’assasat al-Furqan & Markaz al-Yaqin, part 1,” Markaz al-Yaqin and al-Furqan, May 2011. Two jihadist media departments from Iraq published this Arabic language handbook, part of a greater series. Jihadist activity is sanctioned through the existing core fatwa (authoritative religious ruling or decrees) based on historical scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), the famous Hanbali scholar, and enriched by the senior leadership of al-Qaida and now ISIS. Thus, any local jihadist, al-Qaida- or ISIS-affiliated action can fall under this umbrella approbation, thus increasing its appeal. See Prem Mahadevan, “The Glocalisation of al-Qaedaism,” Center for Security Studies, 22 March 2013.

[4] Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha, “Tweeting for the Caliphate: Twitter as the New Frontier for Jihadist Propaganda”, CTC Sentinel, June 2013, West Point.

[5] Discussed in Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha, “Jihadi Twitter Activism – Introduction”; Nico Prucha, “Online Territories of Terror – Utilizing the Internet for Jihadist Endeavors,” Orient 4 (2011). Members of the Ansar al-Mujahidin forum and Shumukh al-Islam have posted advice encouraging fellow users to develop social media profiles to disseminate their message to a wider group of users. See, for example: “The Twitter Guide: the Most Important Jihadi Users and Support Accounts for Jihad and the Mujahideen on Twitter:” http://www.shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=192509

[6] For a discussion on the themes of content and networks, including visualized Twitter IS networks:

Ali Fisher, Nico Prucha, Turning up the volume to 11 is not enough: Why counter-strategies have to target extremist clusters, Jihadica, February 9, 2015,

http://www.jihadica.com/turning-the-volume-up-to-11-is-not-enough-why-counter-strategies-have-to-target-extremist-clusters/

Ali Fisher, Nico Prucha, Turning up the volume to 11 is not enough: Networks of influence and ideological coherence, Jihadica, and March 23 2015,

http://www.jihadica.com/turning-the-volume-up-to-11-is-not-enough-part-2-networks-of-influence-and-ideological-coherence/

Part 3: Controlling territory – applying theology as absolute public and private governance

August 15, 2017

Header IS Briefing Part 3

Unlike AQ, IS controls swathes of territory in the Sunni Arab heartlands, primary in Iraq and Syria; despite loss thereof after its power peak. The theology which was largely theoretical in the case of AQ is now applied in full by IS – making the “state” a real and attractive alternative where the imaginative “real-Islam” promoted by AQ has now become a reality with IS and embodied by the “caliphate upon the prophetic methodology”. Sunni extremism – as much as any religious form of extremism or orthodoxy – is driven by an absolute belief in God whereas the application of absolute formalized religious rule is the desired final objective (and the only solution to minimize the threat of living in a state of sin, which would send you to hellfire). For over three decades, jihadists in their own words, both in writing and on film, have been yearning for the creation of an Islamic State and, ultimately, the return of the Caliphate. The power of the self-designated “Islamic State” nurtures on this desire, and the extremist tradition of calling for this restoration of power, as a driving force and an identity marker.

The application of theological concepts written since the 1980s gives IS the power to claim to have restored the “abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam) and clearly demarcate who is a Sunni Muslim and part of the Sunni community – and who is not. Apostates or traitors, who thus are excommunicated (takfir) and executed as alleged spies[1] or “wizards” who conduct black magic[2], homosexuals who are dealt with as “the people of Lot” and pushed from rooftops to death[3] signify a clearly implemented theology IS openly advocates online – and enforces offline.

 lut and rajm

“Islam” has been restored and is now embodied by the “state”. In their own words, responding in September 2015 to the refugee crises, IS presents itself as the only legitimate zone where Sunni Muslims can exercise their duties to God accordingly as,

“the whole world, from east to west, became dar al-kufr, the “abode of the disbelievers”. Therefore God set in motion the establishment of the Islamic State. This state consists of numerous elements that make it dar al-Islam. Therefore, the rule of shari’a law returned as well as the implementation of physical punishment (al-hudud),[4] cutting off the hands of thieves, punishing adultery by stoning to death and beheading wizards. The establishment of the Islamic State as a reaction to those who commit injustice, governed by “commanding right and forbidding wrong”[5] while driving a jihad against the disbelievers – thus the might of the Islamic community has been restored. Muslims living in the state openly manifest the rituals of their religion[6], not fearing anything apart from God – therefore the state of Islam is the abode of Islam in this era. It is obligatory for every Muslim to support and protect it, to openly display dissociation and enmity to the enemies of the Islamic State.”[7]

For IS this means there is only one Islamic state in the world and it is every Muslims’ obligation to support this project. The element of applied theology, however, is often expressed in IS videos where the filmed executions or applied punishments are backed by writings. An execution video released on October 18, 2015 from the IS-province (wilaya)[8] Nineveh shows a mujahid armed with a sword mounted on a horse chasing towards a prisoner kneeling on the desert ground. The executioner arrives in a setting deliberately re-enacting the early Muslims on a raid, being a murabit, a horseman ready for war while spiritually tuned to defend his territory and being willing to enter paradise.[9]

 Part 3_Pic3

A 13-page-document released about a year later by the Ashhad Media foundation took a screenshot of the October 2015 video to project visual coherence[10] to those who have seen the movie: this is a theological booklet justifying and explaining “the ruling on those who support the rafida [derogatory for Shiites] against the Ahl al-Sunna”, written by Abu ‘Ali al-‘Iraqi.

Al-‘Iraqi alludes to what is generally applied in such IS execution videos – the Sunni jihadist argumentation concerning who has pledged loyalty to God and who has violated this pledge. It engulfs the concept of “dissociation” (al-bara’) from disbelievers and the absolute loyalty (wala’) to God that was made popular by AQ ideologues, including writings by Osama bin Laden.[11] In the video, several men are beheaded for their betrayal of the ahl al-Sunna (as embodied by IS) as they are accused of having conducted espionage against Shiite militias and the Iraqi government, considered a Iranian-Shiite proxy by IS. As the “caliphate” has been re-established, the obligatory pledge of allegiance (bay’a) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi means per definition that all loyalty is to God, via al-Baghdadi, as the human representative (khilaf) in the “state” (dawla).

As second sample of applied theology spread via Telegram are the hundreds of IS videos showing the amputations of hands.

 Part 3_Pic4

On the left, a cover of a 20-page- book gives the readers a detailed analysis on the permission to exercise physical punishments against transgressors.[12] The arguments are exclusively referring to historical scholars, selected passages from Qur’an and Sunna as well as precedents from historical role models.

On the right side are two screenshots from the video “the ruling of the creator (God) upon the thief”, released by the IS province Nineveh in mid-2015.[13] They show, prior to the act of amputating the two thieves hands in public, religious references appearing as texts to sanction and fully validate this act of punishment according to sharia law. This is a highly appealing message that IS wants to exploit in its videos: the “Islamic State” is based on religious scripture and thus is the only true community of Sunni Muslims, and: IS is acting on behalf of God.

[1] For example: Tahalafuhum wa-irhabana, wilayat Nineveh, July 20, 2016 shows the execution of alleged Kurdish spies by French foreign fighters who avenge killed civilians resulting from airstrikes and praise the lone wolf attack in Nice. The attack on Bastille Day by a lone wolf driving a truck into crowds on the Promenade des Anglais resulted in the death of 86 people.

[2] La yuflih al-sahir haythu ati, wilayat Barqa, December 5, 2016

[3] ‘Am ‘ala l-fath, wilayat Nineveh, June 11, 2015.

[4] i.e. the amputation of hand and/or feet as punishment for crimes. This form of jurisdiction is also documented by IS videos to showcase being a functioning state: iqama hadd ‘ala sariqayn, wilayat gharb Ifriqiyya, November 2, 2015.

[5] IS has released several documents and videos, sanctioning and showing the destruction of, for example, Shiite mosques, churches, Yazidi shrines, graveyards, or the total obliteration of pre-Islamic statues as well as museums housing these artifacts. “Commanding good and forbidding evil” is the theological legitimacy for the Islamic police, who apart from safeguarding the Sunni integrity by systematically removing sites of veneration that violate the Sunni extremist theology also police communities and, for example, ensure the illicit trade and consumption of tobacco is persecuted. For details: Nico Prucha, Reformatting Space: The Self-Proclaimed “Islamic State’s” Strategy of Destroying Cultural Heritage and Committing Genocide, European Union National Institutes for Culture, http://washington-dc.eunic-online.eu/?q=content/reformatting-space-0, November 2015.

[6] Which had been previously banned or could only be taken care of in secrecy under secular Arab regimes to avoid being arrested for possible Islamist oppositional work.

[7] Suhayl al-Najdi, Luju’ al-Muslimin ila ard al-salibiyyin wa-l iqama fiha, Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, September 2015.

[8] Wa-in ‘uddatum ‘uddna, 2, wilaya Nineveh, October 18, 2015.

[9] The comprising theological concept of ribat is discussed in: Nico Prucha,  Jihadists’ Use of Quran’s ribat concept,” Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, August 2009.

[10] Abu ‘Ali al-Iraqi, hukm a’an al-rafida ‘ala ahl al-Sunna, Mu’assassat Ashhad li-l ‘ilami, October 9, 2016.

[11] Osama bin Laden, tawjihat al-minhajiyya, Minbar al-Tawhed wa-l Jihad, 2006.

[12] Abu Bakr Khalid bin Muhammad al-Shami, Daf’u iham al-tadarruj bi l-tadbiq, Mu’assassat al-Wafa’, 2016.

[13] Hukm al-khaliq bi haqq al-sariq, wilaya Nineveh, June 4, 2015.

 

 

 

Part 2: “Upon the prophetic methodology” and the media universe

August 1, 2017

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IS publishes a rich blend of propaganda on a daily basis, ranging from text documents to professionally produced videos. Any release by IS – as much as the intention of AQ media – seeks to inform, educate and convince the consumer that the jihadists are the only “true” Muslims, following the correct “prophetic methodology.” For jihadists, the heavy use of the media is part of their war for the “hearts and minds” – and the quest for authority, to be acknowledged as the only sincere representatives of ‘true’ Sunni Islam.

Among the major successes IS was able to reclaim for itself was the tearing down of the border between Syria and Iraq. While AQ has been theorizing about liberating and re-uniting Islamic territory for years without end, it was the “Islamic State” in 2014 that was physically able to implement what AQ claimed to fight for. The texts, published in classical print magazines of the 1980s and 1990s and later on the Internet have been enriched by Sunni extremist videos – with the same modus operandi (from off-line media to digital since the early 2000s). Anyone who knows the Sunni extremist literature, can read the videos in full, understanding all embedded codes, visual language, the habitus of the propagated Sunni Muslim identity etc.

evolution of jihadist magazines

IS turned the tables. By applying a great deal of Sunni extremist literature upon real territory, a population and having the space to document what was unprecedented (such as the execution of alleged homosexuals by plunging to death from roof tops), IS was able to establish a repository of videos in mainly Arabic but also other languages, where theology has been applied – and where the lesser initiated can become followers even without reading the massive amount of Sunni extremist materials available online. The videos bridge the language gap and serve as a pull factor into the mindset of Sunni extremism: those who do not speak Arabic and have questions about the Sunni Muslim identity offered by IS can find answers themselves by tuning into – for example – English language explanations of shirk (loosely translated as “polytheism” for now) by foreign fighters from Cambodia[1], or get a picture of the importance of the tearing down of the border between Syria and Iraq by a foreign fighter from Chile.

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Without reading the Arabic core documents, however, theological nuances that echo into contemporary IS motifs and mindset is missing. This is where non-Arabic language translations and tabloid-styled magazines come into play and provide further explanations – yet serving as a further opening for the non-Arabic able consumers to dig deeper into the electronic treasure trove of Sunni extremist books and videos of the past 35+ years, including dedicated English, German, French, Russian, Bahasa etc. materials (including said books and videos). And these are the very documents that make up the Sunni extremist mindset and that lead IS to the application thereof where they can derive the theological framework for their non-combat actions or governing rules (from destroying museums to systematic destruction of Shiite mosques or enslaving Yazidis). Liberating territory defined as “Islamic” and enforcing shari’a rule carried out by the extremists, who would then establish special police units to assure any violation of religious commandments will be punished. This, naturally, targets the local population in an attempt to “reformat” or replace local Islamic customs and give religion the space it did not have before. Most of these theological concepts, parameters and nuances can be referred to the “prophetic methodology” – if we follow the extremists in their words. Thus the “caliphate upon the prophetic methodology” as a slogan represents in sum what jihadists and their sympathizers struggle for. This too, is not new if you recall AQAP slogans of the 2000s such as “akhriju l-mushrikin min jazirat al-‘Arab” and the deployment of the first bi-weekly electronic magazine “sawt al-jihad”.[2] These materials serve as a legacy for IS to establish itself in the 2000s and to unfold in 2013/4 onwards. In turn the legacy of IS and the massive quantity of contemporary materials will be the legacy for future Sunni extremist groups that are operationally sometimes but theologically always connected. With the demise of parts of IS-held territory, the coherent audio-visual narratives – nearly all of the over 2,000 videos are in full-HD, 16:9 – remain and serve as inspiration to restore rule by the “prophetic methodology” for future generations. This is where the nostalgia will kick in with all the jihadist legacy expressed by the texts, videos, nashid, poetry, even humor.[3]

IS was able to enforce theological authoritative texts and religious decrees using a solid basis by “AQ scholars” and consequently document the output by audio-visual means, which then on top had been consistently released on social media. At first massively on Twitter[4] before moving on to Telegram.[5] And of course there is the strategy to spray IS materials on all levels of the Internet. Telegram has replaced Twitter as the core and is the first line of dissemination from which onwards specific content gets pushed out. On Telegram not all content is being disseminated outside the core IS-groups into the ‘open net’, (might do an extra post on this sometime).

Hence, nothing of what IS does is new – however, the scale and pace of enforcing these theological parameters physically (and filming and disseminating this online) is new, with the exception of execution of alleged spies, hostages or “apostates” (as had been outlined by – of the many – Abu Yahya al-Libi, 2009). This is partly why the ‘narratives’ of IS are highly coherent and attractive. AQ often referred to ‘aqida (creed) and minhaj/manhaj (methodology) when outlining what defines a Sunni Muslim. This ranges from proper prayer conduct to destroying graves of holy men (awliya’) whenever possible. AQ was only able in a limited way to enforce this “prophetic methodology” when in control of pockets of territory in Iraq and especially in Yemen and partly in Mali and when AQAP 1.0 was active in Saudi Arabia targeting the “mushrikin”. The claim to re-enact the lives of early Muslims under the command of prophet Muhammad, acting on said “prophetic methodology” and applying divine laws as opposed to man-made laws is a core element of Sunni extremist theology and hence part of the wider mindset tied into the “Muslim identity” – by the standards of the extremists. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (2004) romanticized about this as one of the objectives for any mujahid in his 1600 page long book “Global Islamic Resistance Call” (pages 42, 92). Al-Suri referenced a popular hadith, predicting “the return of the caliphate upon the prophetic methodology.” Ayman al-Zawahiri in his “fourth open interview” (2007), conducted online and published by al-Sahab – back in the day that communication took place within vBulletin community forums –, demanded that Sunni jihadist organizations in Iraq ally with “the Islamic State in Iraq” to liberate territory and consequently re-establish the “abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam) by introducing the “prophetic methodology”. End of July 2014, the al-Furqan Media Foundation (which was founded over a decade ago) released a video entitled ‘ala minhaj al-nubuwwa.

alamn

Claiming “prophetic conduct” means claiming infallibility. Dozens of IS videos in the past years show the enforcement of shari’a law regulations and applied theology – not only the hard power side such as the execution of spies, the amputation of hands, but also the collection of taxes, the enforcing of health regulations at food markets or state provided dental care. A great deal of this is carried out by the al-Hisba, the religious police, which not only enforces proper Islamic clothing but is also often seen in videos where contraband such as alcohol and tobacco are burned or items related to shirk) are destroyed.

From Theory to Practice & the On-/Off-Line Relationship

Religious references to the ahl al-Sunna wa-l jama’a are often made[6], meaning the Sunni Muslims who act according to the prophetic tradition (Sunna), emulating prophet Muhammad and his companions. Sunni extremists claim to be in the closest proximity to God by re-enacting the example and guidance, as set by the Sunna of prophet Muhammad and his companions (sahaba). IS has taken this concept to a new level by popularizing their slogan “upon the prophetic methodology” (ala minhaj al-nubuwwa). This means that they justify every action, ranging from the destruction of Shiite mosques to the execution of non-Sunni Muslims, with reference to certain, selectively chosen parts of divine scripture and the prophetic tradition.

Jihadist media operatives document all of these actions, who then produce professional, full high definition 16:9 videos. These videos are released on social media platforms that, in turn push contents onto the mobile devices and desktop computers of users.

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The billboard above reads: “the messenger – peace be upon him said: “between a man and shirk and disbelief  stands the abolishing of [ritual] prayer.”

As IS applies a great deal of theological documents and theories penned by generations of AQ theologians, argumentatively, AQ remains most important and has regained an active role by offshoot groups and individuals who subscribe to this monopoly of truth. The theological parameters and interpretations of Islamic sources give out a highly coherent set of ‘narratives’. While the role model of the ‘proper’ Sunni Muslim according to these principals of faith (‘aqida) and religious methodology (manhaj/minhaj) is embodied by the jihadists who claim purity and absolute proximity to god. The doctrine of Sunni extremism provides a clear identity of what it should mean to be a ‘true’ monotheistic Muslim (muwahhid) and how to profess the divine laws of God (shari’a) as based on the authoritarian interpretations and guidelines freely available on the Internet – giving answers to real life grievances in zones of conflict across diverse Islamic countries. Fighters and clerics likewise and sometimes in rotating roles relate the written ideology into actions and fierce emotional sermons conveyed by the extremist’s most powerful platform: Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and more; jihadi forums and dedicated websites. These role models, the corpus of texts, and most important the jihadi-affiliated and hijacked iconography most prominently represented and identifiable by the black banner with the imprinted shahada,[7] has successfully manifested within majority Sunni Islamic societies, and has even more so gained visibility within the Arab public space amid the chaos and aftermath of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.[8] Perhaps even more so in times of upheaval and (re-) spawning of militant groups throughout the countries affected by the ‘Arab Spring’, first and foremost Syria, the emphasis of jihadist media advisors, strategists and contributors is set to emphasize their own role and importance:

“We are indeed convinced that the battlefields of the media jihad are of the most important streams of jihad and a elementary front thereof in this raging war with our enemies. Therefore, we [media workers] commit ourselves just as any jihadi brigade, working correspondingly with our brothers in the fields of war, directly encountering the enemies.”[9]

The media in principal is used on a tactical level, not only to incite and recruit individuals worldwide, but to create theological denominators and operational paradigms with policy guidelines for various jihadist groups. While “jihad” is first and foremost agreed to as being implemented by militant and violent means in general, or in short linked to “combat” (qital), the media thereof follows the rationale of propagating Islam (da’wa) and the proper religious methodology (manhaj/minhaj). This propagation thus is part of the overall objective to “establish the rightly guided caliphate” while uniting various Sunni fighting groups and individuals under this particular propagated manhaj.[10]

part 2 pic1

With the Islamic State having endured for years as the “established rightly guided caliphate”, stretching across Syria and Iraq as its core area, and the day-to-day application of the “prophetic methodology”, the legacy it already leaves behind for future jihad theaters is part of the many challenges to overcome modern-day global terrorism.

[1] Markaz al-Hayyat li’-l ‘ilam, Stories from the Land of the Living – the Story of Abu Khaled the Cambodian from Australia,

[2] Nico Prucha, Die Stimme des Dschihad “Sawt al-gihad”: al-Qa’idas erstes Online-Magazin Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovač, 2010

[3] See the statements by Thomas Hegghammer: https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/23/the-culture-that-makes-a-jihadi-thomas-hegghammer-interview-poetry-militancy

[4] Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha: The Call-Up: The Roots of a Resilient and Persistent Jihadist Presence on Twitter, Global Ecco, CTX vo.4 no.3, August 2014, https://globalecco.org/nl/the-call-up-the-roots-of-a-resilient-and-persistent-jihadist-presence-on-twitter

[5] Nico Prucha: IS and the Jihadist information Highway – Projecting Influence and Religious Identity via Telegram, Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 10, no. 6 (2016), http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/556

[6] For example the major IS video release “The Clanging of the Swords, part 4”, published in May 2014. The video shows IS in the early stages of conquest and consolidating territory in the al-Anbar province of Iraq. Ali Fisher, Nico Prucha, Is this the most successful release of a jihadist video ever?, Jihadica, May 2014, http://www.jihadica.com/is-this-the-most-successful-release-of-a-jihadist-video-ever/

[7] The black flag comprises a centric grey circle imprinted with (from down upwards) “Muhammad – rasul – allah”, a reference to the Islamic creed “There is no God (allah) but God and Muhammad is the messenger (rasul) of God.” The symbolic is amplified as this exact layout and wording had been the seal of the prophet (khatim al-nabawiyya) whereas the contemporary jihadists further seek to position a monopoly of truth by signing documents and by placing the flag as an expression of divine will and power. The use of the Prophetic seal, placed not only on the flag but also to sign ‘official Islamic State’ documents and rulings, is served as a nonnegotiable authority, backed by the interpretation and application of Qur’an and Sunna – speaking in the name of God and His messenger, Muhammad, furthering the belief of being in a direct lineage to divinity and expressing the entitlement of the soldiers of God (jund allah).

[8] The manifestation of pro-AQ styled jihadist groups, exercising violence or ‘soft-power’ such as restoring basic infrastructure and handing out supplies to the Sunni population is evident by the trans-national appearance of the Ansar al-Shari’a network. The Ansar al-Shari’a groups propagate openly jihadist iconography and a similar rhetoric based on the fundamental teachings of AQ. The Libyan branch based in Bengazi and Derna as well as the chapter in Tunisia had been declared by the U.S. State Department as “foreign terrorist organizations” and “global terrorist entities” following the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, September 11, 2012. Thomas Joscelyn, State Department designates 3 Ansar al Sharia organizations, leaders, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/01/state_department_des_2.php, January 10, 2013.

[9] Mu’assasat al-Ma’sada al-I’lamiyya / Fursan al-Balagh al-I’lam (eds.), Bayan nusrat al-ansar li-ikhwanihim al-Mujahidin al-abrar, https://shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=212520, October 10, 2013. This statement is signed by the most influential contemporary jihadi media key figures.

[10] Mu’assasat al-Ma’sada al-I’lamiyya / Fursan al-Balagh al-I’lam (eds.), Bayyan nusrat al-ansar li-ikhwanihim al-Mujahidin al-abrar, 3-5.

 

 

“Islamic State” Briefing

July 16, 2017

This is a mini-series on the “Islamic State” – from the perspective of the Arabic language materials. Often times, the Arabic language output of Sunni extremist groups is not reflected sufficiently. Analysts are quick to claim that IS is in decline, yet do not acknowledge the continuous output of Arabic materials, no matter if in writing or videos. These aspects will be briefly addressed as well in this short series entitled “Islamic State” Briefing.

Part 1: The “Islamic State” & Social Media – from Theory to Implementation

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Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida (AQ) and the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) use the Internet as a communication hub to broadcast their messages. Online jihad is a phenomenon that has spread on a massive scale and at fast pace over the past sixteen years. IS in particular, puts much effort into its online operation, including maintaining and re-establishing accounts and networks on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram. Huge amounts of jihadist audio, video and written content can be found on these networks, mostly in Arabic.

IS has moved from Twitter to Telegram, after a mass amount of account suspensions and more effective spam filters limited the group’s appearance on Twitter. However, the move to Telegram allows IS to operate from the “dark web”[1] and orchestrate media raids and sting attacks into the “surface web”, such as Twitter and Facebook. Several hundred IS channels on Telegram ensure that the content, the videos and writings, of IS are disseminated without much interruption.

This content conveys a coherent jihadist worldview, based on theological texts penned by AQ ideologues as far back as the 1980s. The jihadists’ need for spreading theological writings has driven the development of audio-visual productions as far back as the 1980s. The purpose, back then as today, is to document who the “mujahidin” are, what they are fighting for, and who they are fighting against. It is important to stress, that no single political narrative and enemy perception exists among the militants. Rather, groups such as IS and AQ enforce a coherent theology, that makes up the foundation of what is often referred to as “ideology” in Western discourse, as outlined by Rüdiger Lohlker: “Indeed, 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.”[2]

Following 9/11, the Internet became the general platform for AQ to spread its brand of Sunni extremist theology. This theology, carved out by AQ in the 1980s, entered a new evolutionary phase in 2014 when ISIS declared a “Caliphate.”[3] This AQ offshoot then became the central organization’s primary rival, developing a massive foothold on social media sites, first Twitter[4], now Telegram, while AQ lost significant support, both online and offline.[5] AQ has the ideological seniority, projected by senior jihadist scholars (shuyukh al-jihad) such as Abu Qatada al-Filistini or Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisis, who criticized IS’ declaration of an Islamic state and disagreed with the killing of the captured Jordanian combat pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba. IS has proven time and again practicality, having managed to translate territorial control and alleged governance into a coherent and highly professional structured online output. IS uses AQ’s theology on two ends: (i) applied theology documented by the massive amount of videos released throughout the past three years. What AQ theorized IS puts into practice and films it, while (ii) either re-publishing AQ theological writings (lengthy books, articles, religious guidelines, legal binding documents (fatwas), military handbooks etc.) or by simply releasing a second, third edition of an AQ book.

Jihadist videos are a powerful tool – even more so when echoing from within territory that is defined as “Islamic”. Such definition is proven by IS videos by, for example, claiming to document the application of sharia law and enforcing upon society to abide to a lifestyle romanticized in salafi/ salafi-jihadist writings. The massive production and release of videos on Twitter (2013-2015) was a game changer acknowledged by a Ahrar al-Sham sympathizer on Twitter: “#dangers on the path of jihad; my knowledge on jihad is based on professional produced jihadist videos affecting the youth more than a thousand books or [religious] sermons.”[6]

Under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS[7] adopted al-Qaida’s iconography and doctrine, without being subject to its formal leadership.[8] The Internet served as a powerful tool that allowed the jihadist network to morph and spread in many directions. IS dedicates time and resources to maintain a persistent output of videos and other items – with Telegram being the primary hub to strategically dispatch new content since early 2016.

[1] The name “dark web” is often used to refer to the part of the Internet which is neither indexed nor visible by search engines such as Google and not accessible by using standard browsers such as Microsoft Edge or Apple’s Safari. Most dark websites are part of the onion network, can only be accessed using the Tor Browser which provides a high degree of anonymity to users to access websites in general. Andy Greenberg, Hacker Lexicon: What is the Dark Web? Wired, September 19, 2014,

https://www.wired.com/2014/11/hacker-lexicon-whats-dark-web/

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

[3] “Statement regarding the Relationship of the Qa’idat al-Jihad group to ISIS” (in Arabic) Markaz al-Fajr li-l I’lam, https://alfidaa.info/vb/showthread.php?t=92927. Accessed February 2, 2014. Al-Qaeda Central issued this statement distancing themselves from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham with the refusal of ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to pledge allegiance (bay’a) to AQ-amir Ayman al-Zawahiri. As a consequence, the Syrian revolution against al-Assad was further divided with various ‘rebel’ factions turning on each other – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the official branch of AQ turning on ISIS and vice versa. The clash – or fitna (tribulation) – between ISIS and JN as well as other factions is the manifestation of two torrents: the claim of seniority posed by AQ and its Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra versus the practicality of theIslamic State” which advanced what AQ pledged to fight for: the establishment of a Caliphate. Joas Wagemakers refers to ISIS as the Zarqawiyyun, practical military orientated individuals who seek to implement their principles of faith by brute force versus the Maqdisiyyun, adherents of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who criticized the “Islamic State” for its apparent rapid move in declaring a Caliphate. For further reading: Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi – The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, 2012.

Cole Bunzel referred to this rift as “two tendencies predominate among jihadis insofar as the Syrian war is concerned: one favoring the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and cooperation with all rebel groups, and another favoring ISIS and its exclusionary political designs as the reborn Islamic state, or proto-caliphate.” Cole Bunzel. “The Islamic State of Disunity: Jihadsim Divided.” Jihadica, January 30, 2014, http://www.jihadica.com/the-islamic-state-of-disunity-jihadism-divided/.

See also: Khalil Ezzeldeen and Nico Prucha. “Relationship between ISIL and local Syrian rebels break down, IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Islamic World Web Watch, April 2014.

[4] Ali Fisher. “How Jihadist Networks Maintain a Persistent Presence Online.” Perspectives on Terrorism, July 2015. http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/426. Accesed August 1, 2015.

[5] Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the Syrian AQ affiliate was first to use Twitter on a noticeable scale and facilitated the social media platform to disseminate propaganda videos and writings. The JN-IS divide caused JN to lose members, fighters, and media activists to the “Islamic State”. Further reading: Nico Prucha and Ali Fisher. “Tweeting for the Caliphate – Twitter as the New Frontier for Jihadist Propaganda.” CTC Sentinel (Westpoint), June 2013, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/tweeting-for-the-caliphate-twitter-as-the-new-frontier-for-jihadist-propaganda

[6] Khalid Abu Anas (@khaled852111), October 10, 2015. All Arabic translations by author.

[7] At the time the “Islamic State” referred to itself as dawlat al-Islamiyya fi l-‘Iraq wa-l Sham (ISIS), then shortened its name after the declaration of the Caliphate to IS or dawlat al-khilafa.

[8] See Cole Bunzel, The Islamic State of Disobedience: al-Baghdadi Triumphant, Jihadica, October 5, 2013, http://www.jihadica.com/the-islamic-state-of-disobedience-al-baghdadis-defiance/