The increasing frequency of terrorist attacks in the West, but also the consequences of the military offensive that is seen to bring about the end of the Daesh (ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State) terrorist group brought to the attention the power of the jihadist propaganda, which is increasingly seen as one of the main factors that favored the recent wave of attacks in the Western countries.
Recent developments
a) The three recent jihadist attacks in Great Britain have led to a flood of suggestions about how to fight terrorism, from more police and harsher jail sentences to new legal powers. One of the most frequent ideas was that internet firms are favoring jihadist propaganda. Technology giants, such as Google and Facebook, are accused of turning a blind eye to violent online propaganda and other platforms of allowing terrorists to communicate with each other out of reach of the intelligence services.
For as long as there have been data networks, people have exploited them to cause harm. The French mechanical telegraph system was subverted in 1834 in a bond-trading scam that went undetected for two years. Now the most powerful network of all, the internet, with billions of users and unlimited processing power has already become the focus of wrongdoers.
In mid-March 2017, major companies began halting or reducing advertising deals with Google (the owner of YouTube) because it had allowed their brands to become intertwined with terrorist and extremist content on YouTube. These companies have, so far, included AT&T, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, the car rental company Enterprise Holdings, and drug manufacturer GSK. According to media reports, ordinary ads have been appearing alongside user-uploaded YouTube videos promoting hatred and extremism.
Following the London attacks of 3 June 2017, Google came under even more pressure. When UK media reported that Google was refusing to remove from YouTube some extremist videos that inspired the attackers, it was reported that Britain’s three main political parties had pulled their campaign ads on YouTube because they were promoted next to extremist videos.
b) Communications analysts noted a new trend in Daesh’s campaign that may be connected to the group’s military defeats in Iraq and Syria.
As part of this strategy, Daesh’s media wing has already begun to repurpose videos, images and messages from its massive collection for new propaganda releases that depict the ­Islamist state it sought to establish as an idyllic realm destined to be restored. If compelled to, the group’s true believers will simply retreat into the virtual world, where they will use the vast archive of propaganda assembled by the group over these past few years to keep themselves buoyant with nostalgia.
The plan is another example of the group’s innovative approach to using the Internet and social media – first to draw recruits to the fight in Iraq and Syria and now to preserve the loyalties of its dispersed followers. According to experts, the plan to maintain its online following could enable Daesh to re-emerge much the way its predecessor did when Syria fell into civil war.
As Al-Qaeda’s main affiliate in Iraq avoided extinction a decade ago, by backing away from military engagements and moving the remnants of its network underground until its re-emergence, Daesh is devising a modified survival strategy that may involve surrendering control of its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria but seeks to preserve a virtual version of it online.
c) A similar trend was observed in a video released last June by Al Muhajirun, a media organization linked to foreign jihadists in Syria, which highlighted the supposed degradation of Western society.
Al Muhajirun appeared on line in mid-June 2015, claiming to represent foreign fighters in Syria, and posted its first statement in several languages on Twitter. The message mentioned that Al Muhajirun is not a new organization, but instead represents “a community” of foreign fighters and hopes to unite them under one banner. A high-quality video subsequently released by Al Muhajirun demonstrated that it is a front for al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Ahrar al Sham and other allied jihadist groups. Al Muhajirun’s constituents are opposed to both Daesh and Bashar al Assad’s regime.
The video, which offers insight into how jihadists, especially foreign jihadists, view the West, is entitled “Fitra – The West – Behind the Mask” and features a German fighter, identified as Andreas Muller, explaining the alleged difficult situation of children, mothers, and the elderly in Europe. Muller also discusses the role of drugs and alcohol in the suicide and divorce rates in the West. Toward the end of the video, the jihadist discusses an alleged conspiracy against Muslims in the West, particularly in Europe. This plot, according to Muller, feeds on and supports growing far-right sentiment in Europe. 
d) The shutting down of the media group al-Jazeera was included among the demands that Saudi Arabia and its allies recently outlined for Qatar to fulfill in order to end the current crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The 2017 demands go further than a similar list of requests that was presented to Qatar in 2014 to defuse the previous crisis with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Then, Qatar was asked to rein in hostile media outlets “inside and outside Doha”, but the new list includes specifically the shutdown of al-Jazeera and not just affiliated media outlets.
In the same context, at the beginning of June, the Saudi authorities ordered the Saudi journalists working for al-Jazeera to return home, after the Qatari news agency posted a speech on behalf of the country’s emir that appeared friendly to Iran and Israel. Afterwards, the official representative of the Qatari Foreign Ministry said that the agency’s site was hacked and the emir’s speech was published by hackers and had nothing to do with the Qatari leader.
According to U.S. investigators, Russian hackers breached al-Jazeera and planted the fake news report that contributed to the crisis.
The early stages
In his 1945 essay You And The Atom Bomb, George Orwell argued that sophisticated weapons such as tanks, battleships and planes favor tyrants and oppressors, whereas accessible weapons such as rifles strengthen the weak.
In the same manner, big and expensive cameras were only available to movie and television studios. As they became cheaper and more available, ordinary people have gained control of the media narrative. This shift roughly coincided with the Gulf wars. The first was reported virtually exclusively by CNN. By the second, al-Jazeera was providing an alternative viewpoint (and was “accidentally” bombed by the US military as a result).
Al-Jazeera: a pioneer
Al-Jazeera, launched in 1996 with a 150 Mln $ grant from the Emir of Qatar, is the first example of how television in the Middle East became a transnational phenomenon, basically during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. At first mostly ignored in the West, al-Jazeera set out to counter the formula of state-supported television and its one-sided news reportage. After September 11, 2001, al-Jazeera’s formula of presenting all sides of an issue was interpreted as supporting terrorism.
In contrast to al-Jazeera, Saudi TV channel al-Arabiya, established on March 3, 2003 and based in the UAE, has a news coverage influenced by the Western-allied UAE government.
Currently al-Jazeera is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with 80 bureaus around the globe, which produce extensive news coverage online and via TV channels in a number of languages, including Arabic and English.
While at its birth, al-Jazeera Arabic (AJA) had a profound effect on Middle Eastern media, ushering in a new form of antiestablishment broadcasting in a region long dominated by state propaganda, it also reported some stories in a way that reinforced rather than undermined the region’s existing system of ideas.
After the 2001 attacks, al-Jazeera Arabic broadcast its first Osama bin Laden tape, an admission of responsibility for the slaughter. The clip was the first of about ten audio and video statements AJA would broadcast of the al-Qaeda leader over the same number of years. In the wake of those attacks, bin Laden was al-Jazeera’s unchallenged star, with the channel’s graphics assigning him a lead role.
Al-Jazeera was one of the principal beneficiaries of the Arab uprisings, being praised for the English and Arabic channels’ comprehensive coverage of the revolts. However, analysts noted the big differences between the channel’s English version from the Arabic, which continues to promote of anti-Americanism, Sunni sectarianism and, in recent years, Islamism.
Over the past decade, al-Jazeera’s sectarian impulse has been moving closer to Sunni Islamism. The field reports became negative with violent footage played over and over, highlighting Arab defeat and humiliation, with a clear underlying message: that the way out of this spiral is political Islam.
Al-Jazeera has also been accused of being pro-Wahhabi and pro-political Islam, even of supporting terrorism, as well as of never broadcasting anything even remotely critical of Qatar’s ruling family, being considered an apparatus of the Qatari elites to exert influence over the region.
In 2002, AJA promoted Wadah Khanfar, a reporter widely believed to have close Muslim Brotherhood ties, as managing director. Three years later, Khanfar was promoted to director general of the overall al-Jazeera network, overseeing both language channels. On both occasions, he replaced relatively secular-minded journalists. Khanfar resigned as director general in September 2012, following the release of WikiLeaks cables showing he had met with U.S. officials and agreed to tone down Iraq war coverage Washington deemed inflammatory. The choice of Khanfar’s replacement (an oil executive who belongs to the ruling al-Thani dynasty) was seen as another sign that despite U.S. pressure, Qatar intended to keep Al Jazeera a wholly-owned family business.
Kosovo: traditional propaganda with worrying results
Since the American-led intervention, traditional propaganda facilitated mostly by Saudi money has transformed Kosovo, a once-tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe, into a font of Islamic extremism and a pipeline for jihadists.
Kosovo now finds itself, like the rest of Europe, fending off the threat of radical Islam. Between 2014 and 2016, the police identified 314 Kosovars – including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children – who have gone abroad to join Daesh, the highest number per capita in Europe. In the same period, the police have charged 67 people, arrested 14 imams and shut down 19 Muslim organizations for acting against the Constitution, inciting hatred and recruiting for terrorism.
According to the local investigators, they were radicalized and recruited by a corps of extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab gulf states using an obscure network of donations from charities, private individuals and government ministries.
Some of the main agents were among the about 200 Kosovars who took advantage of scholarships after the war to study Islam in Saudi Arabia and returned with a missionary zeal to spread Wahhabism. From the outset, the newly arriving clerics sought to overtake the Islamic Community of Kosovo, an organization that for generations has been the custodian of the tolerant form of Islam that was practiced in the region. By the mid-2000s, Saudi money and Saudi-trained clerics were already exerting influence over the Islamic Community of Kosovo. According to some critics of the organization, its leadership quietly condoned the drift toward conservatism.
All around the country, the new breed of radical preachers was setting up in neighborhood mosques, often newly built with Saudi money. In some cases, centuries-old buildings were bulldozed, including a historic library in Gjakova and several 400-year-old mosques, as well as shrines, graveyards and Dervish monasteries, all considered idolatrous in Wahhabi teaching. Within a few years of the war’s end, the older generation of traditional clerics began to encounter aggression from young Wahhabis.
From their bases, the Saudi-trained imams propagated Wahhabism’s tenets: the supremacy of Sharia law as well as ideas of violent jihad and takfirism, which authorizes the killing of Muslims considered heretics for not following its interpretation of Islam.
The Saudi-sponsored charities often paid salaries and overhead costs, and financed courses in religion, as well as English and computer classes. But the charitable assistance often had conditions attached. Families were given monthly stipends on the condition that they attended sermons in the mosque and that women and girls wore the veil.
The influence of the radical clerics reached its apex with the war in Syria, as they extolled the virtues of jihad and used speeches and radio and television talk shows to urge young people to go there.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia appears to have reduced its aid to Kosovo. Kosovo Central Bank figures show grants from Saudi Arabia averaging €100,000 a year for the past five years. Instead, money from Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – each averaging approximately €1 million a year – propagates the same hard-line version of Islam. Consequently, critics say that the Islamic Community of Kosovo has been so influenced by the largess of Arab donors that it has seeded prominent positions with radical clerics.
Kosovo has over 800 mosques, 240 of them built since the war and blamed for helping indoctrinate a new generation in Wahhabism. They are part of what moderate imams and officials describe as a deliberate, long-term strategy by Saudi Arabia to reshape Islam in its image, not only in Kosovo but around the world.
This infrastructure of jihad has been exported all over the Muslim world to replace plural, liberal traditions of Islam with Wahhabism.
Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2015 revealed a system of funding for mosques, Islamic centers and Saudi-trained clerics that spans Asia, Africa and Europe. In New Delhi alone, 140 Muslim preachers are listed as on the Saudi Consulate’s payroll. In the Philippines, Wahhabism has spawned Abu Sayyaf, designated a terrorist organization by the UN and UK, among others. Wahhabism made inroads into Pakistan in the early 80s. In the Saudi-sponsored madrassas of Afghanistan, Islamic extremists from Malaysia, Thailand, Chechnya and central Asia have received instruction in hard-line Islam.
Developing a creative new media strategy
As in the case of traditional propaganda, the creative use of strategic communications by jihadists is not new. In the 1980s, the Afghan mujahidin used printed journals, audio cassettes and videotapes to attract fighters and secure donations; in the 1990s, this smattering of propaganda transformed into a global cottage industry, with the emergence of battlefield films from Bosnia, audio wills from Kashmir and pamphlets on the plight of the Rohingya; in the 2000s, jihadist messaging finally met mass media, becoming characterized by grainy clips disseminated on Internet forums showing gory beheadings, suicide bombings and stultifying statements from senior ideologues.
Osama bin Laden was the first terrorist to embrace Internet technology as early as 1997. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, stated in 2005, “…we are in a battle and more than half of this battle is in the media. In this media battle we are in the race for the hearts and minds of our Umma.” Al-Qaeda affiliates, especially al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with its Inspire magazineand Al Shabaab with its use of Twitter, closely followed in their footsteps.
From September 11 on, jihadist groups have resorted to increasingly sophisticated communication in order to accompany and influence the reception of their violent deeds. For jihadists it was not sufficient to perpetrate violence and instigate terror. It was equally fundamental to let the world know that violence had been committed, and what was the appropriate cognitive, emotional, and pragmatic interpretation of it.
While in the first years after the 9/11 attacks jihadist groups would create messages to be transmitted by mainstream media (e.g., Osama Bin Laden’s videos broadcast by al-Jazeera), from the second half of the 2000s on, these groups have increasingly aimed at developing their own media. The shift has been also a consequence of the world-wide diffusion of social media. Through them, terrorist jihadist groups not only reach large audiences, but also learn how to become increasingly proficient at it.
Moreover, whereas in the past a temporal gap would occur between perpetration of a terror act and communication interpreting it for the global audience, nowadays the gap has practically disappeared. While in the past war acts were accompanied by rolling of drums, today jihadist violence is simultaneously ushered by drones of Tweets and YouTube videos.
The target of such communication has also changed. Osama Bin Laden’s videos were primarily addressed to an Arabic-speaking and Muslim audience. Most Westerners could access their content only through the linguistic and cultural mediation of translators and interpreters.
In 2004, when Daesh was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), it earned substantial notoriety by releasing videos showing beheadings of captives. This novel propaganda tactic worried Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon who was then the top deputy to al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. He wrote a letter to AQI’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in which he urged him to be mindful of how depictions of extreme bloodshed might damage al Qaeda’s reputation. He asked Zarqawi to refrain from future beheadings, lest the masses be turned off by images of such cruelty.
But Zarqawi ignored Zawahiri’s request. His videos, spread via Internet forums and email, made their way onto the hard drives of aspiring jihadists who were energized. Zarqawi believed that attracting such vicious fighters was the key to fulfilling his fantasy of creating an Islamic state.
Using the “deceptive media halo”
As Zarqawi was pioneering his video strategy, a jihadist theorist who wrote under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji published an e-book that argued that jihadist groups should venture into regions beset by anarchy, where local populations would welcome their ability to institute basic governance and Islamic Sharia law. Over time, these regions, like inkblots, would expand and coalesce into a contiguous Muslim empire, or caliphate.
To facilitate this process, Naji urged jihadists to combat the “deceptive media halo” that the West had supposedly created. He argued that if the jihadists had their own media capabilities that were able to provide the ‘truth,’ it would undermine the deceptive media halo. To that end, Naji advised his readers to study the West’s media so they could understand how best to mimic its methods of persuasion.
Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Daesh took advantage of Syria’s civil war to put Naji’s theories in action: It swept into cities where chaos reigned and brought some semblance of order through a combination of administrative competence and raw brutality. At the same time, it exploited sectarian tensions in Iraq to capture a significant chunk of that country.
As it established the rudiments of a functioning state, Daesh also was building a decentralized media syndicate. Each wilayat, or province runs its own media office, staffed by camera operators and editors who churn out localized content from Nigeria to Afghanistan. The provincial media offices are also responsible for managing “media points” that distribute indoctrination materials to the residents of newly conquered cities (usually on USB drives or SIM cards). Since Daesh tightly restricts access to the Internet or mobile networks, the group’s audio and video become the only legal digital information in the region.
The media jihad
The ‘media jihad’ was evoked by a number of ideologues, starting with Osama bin Laden who mentioned in 2002 that “There is a group of media operatives and companions of the pen that has a prominent and important role in steering the war, shattering the morale of the enemy and raising the spirits of the ummah.” Bin Laden also considered that information warfare is one of the most important components of the “Crusader campaign” against Islam; an onslaught to which jihadist media activists had to respond with such vigor that the “enemy does not differentiate between this group [media operatives] and any other [militants].”
The role of the Internet as a driving force in terror attacks was dramatically brought to light by the cases of Roshonara Choudry, a university student who, in November 2010, stabbed with a kitchen knife Stephen Timms, a Member of United Kingdom’s Parliament, and the Tsarnaev brothers who planted bombs at the Boston marathon in April 2013. Both the Tsarnaev brothers and Choudry were radicalized by online content which inspired them to conduct acts of terror.
It was not, however, until the rise of Daesh that the jihadist brand went truly mainstream, a result of the fact that, for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, propaganda is intrinsic to its jihad.
Daesh has brought cyber jihad to a whole new level, evolving from static websites, chat forums, and online magazines to making efficient use of the social media platforms. While al-Qaeda and its affiliates see the Internet as a place to disseminate information and meet anonymously, Daesh followers are loud and noisy, tweeting, streaming and Instagramming their exploits. Terror is being transmitted across the globe in real time. Daesh is an active user of blogs, instant messaging, video sharing sites, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tumblr and Ask FM. Their media campaign underscores that terror can be sold, with graphic images, audio messages and music. This campaign is an effective tool for psychological operations and for recruitment.
Especially from the second half of 2014 on, communication developed by Daesh has had a different communicative agenda: it addresses Westerners not only as targets of terrorist threats, but also as potential affiliates.
Made by Western affiliates for other potential Western affiliates, the current Daesh communication seems to more and more bridge the gap between state war propaganda and terrorist communication; social media have enabled terrorists to directly reach a global audience as effectively, and sometimes even more, than traditional state broadcasting propaganda.
Daesh is using the west’s media tools and techniques against it. It has proved fluent in YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, internet memes and other social media. Amateur videos and images are being uploaded daily by its foot soldiers, which are then globally disseminated, both by ordinary users and mainstream news organizations hungry for images of a conflict their own cameras cannot access.
The group is in competition with western news channels, Hollywood movies, reality shows, even music video, and it has adopted their vocabulary. According to media experts, its productions are “a generation ahead” of other groups, using a range of sophisticated themes as well as techniques to heighten the power of its visuals, from care in choosing starkly contrasting colors to the use of multiple cameras, tight focus, “subjective” angles and intimate sounds to create an eyewitness effect.
Powerful media centers
The official media wing of Daesh is al-Furqan, which posts messages from the leadership and retweets material from other Daesh media sites.
The full extent of Daesh’s media ambitions can be seen in the output of its “Al Hayat Media Center”, which began in 2014. Not to be confused with the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, Al Hayat Media is specifically aimed at non-Arabic speakers, particularly younger viewers, and its output is closer to mainstream broadcast standards. Like a conventional broadcaster, it has its own logo, not dissimilar to that of al-Jazeera: a teardrop-shaped logo of Arabic script materializing from a digital cascade of water. Its broadcasts invariably feature this logo or a fluttering black-and-white Daesh flag in the top corner of the screen. It makes programs in several languages – primarily German, English and French – and multiple formats, from minute-long, Twitter-friendly “Mujatweets” to an hour-long “documentary” entitled The Flames Of War, which was heralded by its own Hollywood-style trailer. It also publishes audio content and an English-language PDF magazine, Dabiq.
While the personnel behind Al Hayat Media Center are unknown, one of the coordinators may be Abu Talha al-Almani, AKA Denis Cuspert, AKA “Deso Dogg”, a gangsta rapper in Germany who publicly converted to Islam in 2010 and began writing nasheeds not dissimilar to those put out by Al Hayat. He was known to be fighting with Daesh in Syria, but was apparently wounded and, around the time Al Hayat Media became active, he announced he had taken a new role in Daesh’s propaganda arm.
Another coordinator of the media campaign is said to be Abu Amr al Shami, a Syrian born in Saudi Arabia, who was previously Daesh’s leader in Aleppo. The media effort also acts as liaison with religious leaders in the region and abroad.
Daesh has also created a global media branch, the Amaq News Agency. Amaq prepares and disseminates short statements, infographics, and battlefield footage to shape the information environment. The majority of the information produced by Amaq is text in graphic format. This format is used to protect texts from being recognized and blocked by automated Internet robots, and they are convenient for social media circulation.
In 2015, Daesh also established the Zora Foundation, a media wing dedicated to luring women. Twitter is a favorite media tool of the so-called Umm network, referring to an honorific name in Arabic used to address women as a mother figure. These websites are mixed with ideological indoctrination coupled with seduction for those who are seeking to marry. The content in the Umm accounts are meant to make extremism a normal lifestyle decision. Pictures of kittens and designer footwear are tweeted as well as extremist rhetoric and descriptions of the “good life” in Syria. The network gives nursing and cooking advice for those wives who want to keep their jihadists happy, and it provides information on Shariah, weapons use, and social media tools so that they can contribute to the recruitment campaigns.
The Anjad Media Foundation, another Daesh global media branch, specializes in nasheeds, Jihadi songs that include a mixture of religious and social narratives (jihadist music sung a cappella). The organization believes that nasheeds can be used to reach audiences who cannot be reached any other way or do not have time to read booklets and fatwas. Daesh is well aware that young people are susceptible to this kind of engagement, so most of the nasheeds are prepared for them.
Through the popularization of such products, Daesh wants to create a Jihadi culture, which can be perceived as a sense of life.
Openness and crowdsourcing
The most significant example of Daesh’s media expertise is its embrace of openness. Unlike al-Qaeda, which has generally been methodical about organizing and controlling its terror cells, Daesh crowdsources its social media activity out to individuals with whom it has no concrete ties. And it does so openly in the West’s Internet, co-opting the digital services that have become woven into Western daily life. This has allowed Daesh to rouse followers that al-Qaeda was never able to reach. Its brand transformed itself into a vague ideological platform upon which people can elaborate personal narratives of persecution or rage. Some individuals become so engrossed in those narratives that they scheme to kill in Daesh’s name, in the belief that doing so will help them right their troubled lives. While rare, such jihadists come from Western life, creating a new kind of domestic threat, small in scale but enormously difficult to counter.
Among Daesh’s techniques for boosting user engagement there is the so-called narrowcasting (creating varied content that caters to niche audiences). Only a fraction of Daesh’s online output depicts the sadism for which the group is notorious: more common are portrayals of public-works projects, economic development and military triumphs, frequently aimed at specific Muslim enclaves throughout the world. This content is meant to convince prospective recruits that its empire is both stable and inexorably growing (illustrating Daesh’s slogan “Baqiya wa Tatamaddad”, Remaining and Expanding). Digital propaganda of this sort has helped motivate more than 30,000 people to journey into dangerous lands, where they’ve been told a paradise awaits.
Jihadi media strategy has also taken a cue from the tech world’s affinity for transparency. While in the past, jihadist groups tended to prefer using password-protected Arabic-language forums to share and exchange ideas, groups like Daesh encourage adherents to operate on the Internet’s most public networks, having determined that it’s worth sacrificing secrecy in exchange for publicity.
Ordinary fighters and media operatives as main heroes
Daesh’s media output places the stories of ordinary fighters front and center –a sharp break from the approach favored by al-Qaeda, whose media has typically focused on elite figures like Zawahiri, moving the focus to jihadis who speak the street language. That shift in narrative perspective has put the Islamic State in sync with a generation that is accustomed to creating and sharing its own content. When young viewers check out Daesh’s videos, they can imagine themselves right there on the screen.
Another “winning card” is the concept of the online volunteer as having a similar importance and value as a ground fighter, as presented in a document titled Media Operative, You Are a Mujahid, Too. It was circulated in April 2016, on Daesh’s official propaganda channel on the social networking platform Telegram and it is a “revised and updated” edition of an al-Himma Library booklet that first appeared in a video produced the year before.
The document reveals Daesh’s propaganda strategy, based on the principle that the mainstream media is an effective weapon that, if leveraged correctly, has “far-reaching” power that can exceed that of the most powerful bombs. As the document attests, in its eyes, propaganda production and dissemination is at times considered to be even more important than military jihad. By venerating information warfare in a manner unparalleled by any other jihadist actor, Daesh incites activism, whether from offline operatives or online volunteers.
The central point of this strategy is its flexible definition of what constitutes a “media operative.” As the document attests, the line between official and unofficial activism is deliberately blurred, something that renders the organization’s offer of participation all the more alluring.
The term ‘media operative’ is used with extreme flexibility, referring to frontline cameramen as well as to self-appointed social media disseminators. “Everyone,” the document’s authors hold, “that participate[s] in the production and delivery” of propaganda should be regarded as one of the Islamic State’s “media mujahidin.” This nebulous definition enables Daesh to empower its diffuse supporters with minimal effort, furnishing them with ideological, theological and emotional rewards in the place of material compensation. As has become clear in recent years, this promise of active, lower-risk participation in jihad (also called jihad-lite) has proven to be an intoxicating idea for many thousands of individuals around the world.
For the jihadist propaganda theorists, the media can be a powerful psychological weapon, if manipulated correctly. The document notes that, since they offer a way to “shatter the morale” of the enemy, “media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs”. While the physical military aspect of jihad is important, the media jihadhas “far-reaching potential to change the balance in respect to the war between the Muslims and their enemies” and, for that reason, “is no less important than the material fight.” Not only does it offer a way to “intimidate and threaten the enemy with violence,” it can make adversaries act irrationally by “infuriating them” and ensnaring policymakers into ill-conceived knee-jerk politics. To this end, Daesh uses offensive information warfare to attack not only military targets, but civilian ones, too.
This form of narrative-led terrorism – in which the jihadist propaganda can be more impactful than the attacks – has emerged as the foremost component of its asymmetric arsenal. Through it, portions of the global media and even some within the analyst community unwittingly end up being used as a conduit for the transmission of its media weapons.
Propaganda of the winner and post-modern “cool”
In addition to war and murder, Daesh’s propaganda includes a range of themes such as mercy, victimhood, belonging and Utopianism. Whereas previous jihadist narratives were about “resistance” to imagined enemies, Daesh promotes “the propaganda of the winner”. Building on well-worn grievances of political Islam, it does not just talk about creating a caliphate but actually does so. It doesn’t merely speak of eradicating colonial borders but physically bulldozes them. And it does not merely aspire to reintroduce “full Sharia”, but imposes the cruelest version of Islamic law. Many of Daesh’s messages were not about war, but about the caliphate and its Islamic virtues, showing hospitals opening, schoolchildren smiling and citizens eagerly pledging loyalty to the caliph. In both Syria and Iraq, Daesh presented itself as both an army and an alternative “state” to defend against and replace repressive or failed political systems perceived as oppressive to Sunni Muslims. This approach has allowed the group to put down roots that could help it survive for a long time.
Another example of the genius of jihadist propaganda is the manner in which it imbues the idea of jihad not only with traditional notions of honor and virility, but also a strong undercurrent of oppositional, postmodern cool.
Among the traditional icons, the Japanese samurai is the best example: he is unflinching in the face of danger, strong and energetic, cunning in tactics though honorable, proficient with his weapons as well as in the arts of unarmed combat, self-controlled, self-confident and sexually virile. The cross-cultural appeal of this figure is obvious, since all over the world, men are sent out to sacrifice and to die, motivated by what they and the community expect honorable men to do. There is a romance and an allure to the Masai warrior, the Druze tribesman, the Sioux Indian, the Scottish chieftain etc.
Similarly, there is an allure to the jihadist warrior, from which a wider “jihadi culture” of fashion, music, poetry, and dream interpretation developed. Jihadi culture comes with the nasheed music, as well as with its own sartorial styles. In Europe, radicals sometimes wear a combination of sneakers, a Middle Eastern or Pakistani gown and a combat jacket on top. It’s a style that perhaps reflects their urban roots, Muslim identity and militant sympathies, and it generated a seductive subculture.
The use of social media: getting into daily Western life
Social media has emerged as this decade’s ‘radical mosque’. While radicalization for the most part begins offline, Daesh, along with other groups, has created a situation in which the curious are able to have direct contact with former or current fighters, hear first-hand accounts from the battlefield and swap logistical advice. In decades gone by, this was a function served by so-called ‘radical mosques’. In the digital era, social media platforms are the space where this happens. However, most researchers noted that social media platforms are not the reason for radicalization or recruitment, just as ‘radical’ mosques and bookshops were never the reason.
Nearly all jihadist groups, from West Africa to South East Asia, use the Internet to spread their message. The Syrian war, however, has presented a paradigm shift. Indeed, this “most socially mediated civil conflict in history” plays out almost in real time on computer screens across the world, as myriad groups – armed and unarmed, loyalist and opposition – compete for hegemony in the online marketplace of ideas.
Daesh recognized the power of digital media when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi discovered the utility of uploading grainy videos of his atrocities to the Internet. As the group evolved, its propagandists maximized its reach by exploiting social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, peer-to-peer messaging apps like Telegram and Surespot, and content sharing systems like JustPaste.it. More important, it decentralized its media operations, keeping its feeds flush with content made by autonomous production units from West Africa to the Caucasus.
Daesh has fuelled the growth of its social media freelancers by parsing out information in a strategic manner. The group permits select (and presumably trusted) people within the caliphate to form relationships with Western supporters, usually through the messaging apps Telegram or Surespot; the chosen emissaries, in turn, become celebrities in their online circles because they have the inside scoop on the supposed day-to-day realities of life in Raqqa or Mosul. These elite users place exclusive content on their social media networks, thereby creating buzz and allowing Daesh to maintain a modicum of influence over its crowdsourced partners.
By outsourcing its propaganda dissemination, Daesh has insulated itself from government-led schemes to censor its content. Its disseminators are, most of the time, self-appointed and have no official position in the organization, virtual or otherwise. They receive no reward for their activism other than gratification from within the Daesh echo chamber.
The group uses a very successful strategy of having an “online battalion” or the so-called “the mujtahidun (industrious)”, that is likely a small group of 500-2,000 active online members who post and retweet certain tweets to make these messages trending, increasing the group’s exposure and outreach.
Jihadist “keyboard warriors” take pride in their ability to return to the service again and again, for that is how they achieve status within their tight-knit community. Having suspended accounts are a badge of honor and a means by which an aspirant can bolster legitimacy. In most suspension cases, a new (and often more than one) account with a variation of the previous username is created within hours. Daesh assures individuals that they will receive divine rewards for their endeavors on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook for “hitting the kuffar (unbelievers) where they live.”
Facebook pages are being used by foreign fighters in Syria to recruit their friends to join Jihad. Twitter is also used widely by Daesh. Islamists are using Twitter to engage in real-time discussions to organize, provoke and debate. Twitter feeds of popular Islamist groups are written in perfect English, sometimes being paired with social feeds in other languages and other times messages are bilingual to reach a wider audience.
YouTube attracts globally upwards of 1 billion unique users each month; over 6 billion hours of video are watched each month, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. YouTube is attractive, it’s visual, there is no need for Arabic language proficiency or high levels of Internet literacy and it lends itself easily to copying and dissemination.
The phenomenon of jihadist videos posted on YouTube has been growing for some time. Such videos feature prominent sheikhs, well-known writers on online jihadist forums, and rank-and-file fighters from many different terrorist/jihadist organizations, originating from the Middle East and other countries, including some in the West. These YouTube videos are also being disseminated by jihadis, jihadist groups, and jihadi sympathizers on social media, such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, to promote jihadist organizations.
YouTube remains a leading repository of such videos, with thousands present on the website. While YouTube managed to remove Daesh videos, it has neglected to remove al-Qaeda videos, such as those of and by Anwar Al Awlaki. Although it is supposed to block such videos, according to a recent survey made by the Middle East media research Institute (MEMRI), from 115 videos flagged in 2015, 69 were still active after two years.
Before the spread of jihadist content on Twitter, Facebook, and the encrypted messaging app Telegram, YouTube had emerged as the leading website for online jihad, replacing and surpassing websites administered by jihadis themselves, primarily al-Qaeda, previously the leaders in online jihadist efforts.
Daesh propaganda activities took a significant turn in September 2015 when the group’s official media outlets took to the messaging app Telegram. The move to the encrypted messaging service came after a long-running conflict with Twitter, which regularly shut down Daesh accounts, and some experimentation with less well-known platforms from which it was also expelled.
The timing was significant because that was the moment when Telegram set up the “channel” feature, letting users broadcast to an unlimited number of other users – a tool that many online jihadists were quick to exploit.
The move to Telegram did not go unnoticed and Daesh went underground in August 2016 after its official accounts were repeatedly suspended. However, its media operatives set up separate channels that repeated or mirrored what appeared on the official channel, including its self-styled news agency Amaq.
Since the mirror channels, called the Nashir News Agency, have also regularly been suspended, their administrators use a stealthy approach in which they set up a user or channel and allow it to build up a substantial following before suddenly switching it to the easily recognizable Daesh mirror brand. The channels continuously promote new join-up links for their proliferating replica versions, calling on Daesh supporters to distribute them further.
Some channels, whose promotion on popular social media platforms is prohibited, are designed to maintain a lower profile to avoid suspension. This enables them to attract a significant number of followers but the channels are usually removed before this exceeds 1,000. Such numbers suffice to get Daesh’s message out for distribution by online supporters.
While Telegram does not allow comprehensive searches of public content, so the number of pro-jihad users cannot be accurately estimated, in mid-April, the Nashir agency announced that 100 mirror accounts were set up and currently their number exceeds 130. The announcement was followed by a campaign to celebrate 12 months of Nashir agency’s operation. As part of the campaign, the outlet called for admirers and readers to send in articles and images praising its work, which they did in large numbers. In another recent move, Nashir agency urged its followers on Telegram to spread content via Twitter and Facebook.
It has advertised its own accounts on those platforms, which have repeatedly been suspended. It has also launched accounts on Instagram and set up English-language feeds for the first time. The outlet now posts Daesh material in Arabic and English translation, the latest step of an initiative to post in English that began after the Westminster attack on 22 March.
Helping other groups
Daesh’s social media expertise is also a marketable skill that it can provide to other jihadist groups. In several cases, jihadist groups have shown a perceptible improvement in the quality of their propaganda content immediately after (or sometimes just before) joining Daesh, indicating that the group offers social media assistance as a perk of joining its network. Boko Haram, for example, received a major boost in its propaganda immediately before the group pledged allegiance to Daesh. In early January 2015, Boko Haram established al-Urhwa al-Wutqha, the Nigerian jihadist group’s first-ever Twitter account. Until that point, Boko Haram’s media capabilities had been remarkably crude, but the quality of the group’s propaganda improved considerably following the creation of Urhwa al-Wutqha.
After that Twitter account’s establishment, Boko Haram’s propaganda also began to more closely resemble that of Daesh. Boko Haram began providing subtitles in multiple languages in its videos and started using sleek graphics and other special effects. The similarities between the propaganda produced by Boko Haram and Daesh led analysts to conclude that Daesh was providing social media assistance to Boko Haram.
The virtual caliphate
Daesh embraces web forums and social media to create a wireless caliphate – fighting enemies on the ground as well as on the web. While chat rooms and discussion forums were widely used in the early 2000s, many extremist forums now take place within the dark web where membership, authentication and passwords are required. Pathways to chat rooms can be found on social media accounts of extremist groups and their supporters. Younger audiences are more likely to arrive at forums through social media.
According to internet and media researchers, being aware of the fact that its “caliphate” could not survive for much longer, Daesh developed a new strategy that aims for a so-called virtual caliphate, open to anyone with an internet connection and an interest in sacrificing their own life in the name of radical Islam. Such an amorphous organization would be almost impossible to destroy.
The architect of this strategy is supposed to have been Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the Syrian-born official spokesman of the Islamic State, recently killed during the fights, who called, in an audio message in September 2014, for attacks against Western civilians in the light of the military campaign that was being accelerated against Daesh. ‘Kill him in any manner or way however it may be,’ he advised. ‘Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.’ The following years showed that some young Europeans took his advice quite literally.
The aggressive approach to social media is valuable to the jihadist organizations as a tool to stoke a particular kind of paranoia in the West: since the West society is using social media it tends to overemphasize the jihadi effectiveness because they use it too. The medium has become the message: the mere fact that the jihadists have infected Twitter, itself an object of wonder and mystification, dupes the West into giving them far too much credit.
Present and future threats
Daesh’s internet propaganda is not simply a military afterthought, but a powerful new weapon of war. This so-called ‘jihadi web’ is impossible to shut down and very easy to reach. It is a Pandora’s box of encrypted internet applications and anonymized chatter, which includes advice on everything from how to improvise bombs to how to drive a car into pedestrians with deadly effect.
Getting in touch with Daesh link men is made by using encrypted messaging applications like WhatsApp and Telegram, which cannot easily be spied upon by the security services. Daesh’s leaders know that, inflamed by propaganda, anyone can become a ticking time-bomb, ready and willing to be “detonated”, as if by remote control from thousands of miles away.
Exploited vulnerabilities
Daesh’s self-selected, self-appointed and self-gratifying missionaries are the key components of an outreach strategy that resembles a wide-knotted net, the interwoven strings of which are propaganda. Most of those who do arrive at it simply pass through, but some of them get caught. Once fully encircled, they are enveloped in an intense feeling of organic, but carefully fostered, camaraderie. Like supporters of a football team, these missionaries are bound together by a sense of being and a need to express – almost competitively – their commitment to the cause. Such a situation could only ever emerge in the presence of social media, which not only enables but fosters this kind of “passive participation obtained through propaganda”.
Dissemination through social media fosters something akin to a symbiosis, where there is no longer a clear division between the audience and the content producer, in a far more potent manner than traditional media does: it not only catalyses the target’s dependence on the propagandist, but also has the potential to launch them into an active role.
While self-radicalization and self-recruitment via the Internet with little or no relation to the outside world is still an anomaly, the Internet can facilitate, intensify and accelerate the process of radicalization. Open forums and chat rooms can act as an engine of transformation because they can help validate existing ideas and facilitate support from like-minded people. Extremists can amplify their message in real time and with global reach. Today, jihadist and extremist sympathizers freely post videos, tutorials, and religious propaganda with the aim to recruit, cultivate and solidify online partisanship and brotherhood in order to conduct terror.
However, it takes more than the internet to explain why a regular Western citizen of Muslim faith gets to give up his life and kill others. Many of them are unlikely to have spent much time at the mosque, but rather joined one of the Islamist sects that prey on broken, lost, often disturbed men in need of an identity. Research on recruits to jihad also suggests that many are the ‘second-generation’ offspring of immigrant families whose relatively secular parents are happy to call themselves Western. The attraction of Daesh propaganda for such men might have been a revolt against their parents’ willingness to integrate in what they regard as an infidel nation.
Also, a growing number of Muslims are suffering from an identity crisis unlike any experienced in modern Islamic history. Since 11 September 2001, Muslim millennials have grown up with the word “Islam” or “Muslim” on the front pages of newspapers and have suffered intense scrutiny because of their religion. This has driven some of them to look inward, forcing them to question what it means to be a modern Muslim and finding a response to what constitutes the difference between culture and religion. In the past, a close-knit family circle within a larger community could offer a response. In today’s insular communities there is less religious support, leading some young Muslims to turn to the Internet for answers, where they encounter recruiters who offer specifically tailored answers that are appealing and offer real meaning to this troubled generation.
No more “lone wolfs”
Extremist content online does not recruit and radicalize in a vacuum; rather it tends to complement offline efforts to radicalize and it enhances the ability of recruiters and self-identified radicals to accelerate the process to extremism and ultimately terror. Today, a 20-year-old living in any city in the world can go online and find a peer to talk about Jihad. If they are interested in the path they need to take to fight jihad, they can engage on AskFM and be linked to offline resources that can finalize their entry into jihadism.
By using the social media, jihadist groups created a significant security problem for the open Western societies: the so-called lone actors may be inspired by the recruitment videos and hashtag campaigns delivered by the terrorist groups, but they move to action on their own, without direct communication with terrorist groups’ leadership. They select their own targets, choose their own weapons, determine their own timing, and, increasingly, record their own press releases.
In fact, Daesh’s unique manipulation of modern communications technologies is leading to the end of the so-called “lone-wolf” terrorism. The group’s media strategy attracts certain individuals because it holds out the promise of no longer being alone. By taking up arms for its cause, getting behind the wheel of a truck, or building a pressure cooker bomb, these men become part of a community, part of something bigger than themselves, and indeed part of history.
Daesh thus offers a chance to those who feel alone, who may lack opportunities or who may simply disagree with the politics or mores of the society around them, not to be lone actors. In fact, there is also a pro-Daesh Telegram channel dedicated to “lone wolves” on which the group has disseminated a “handbook” for lone-wolf terrorists. By communicating with fellow supporters through Telegram and sharing a handbook of bomb-making tips, Daesh builds a virtual community of hundreds or thousands of sympathizers and recruits. This type of broad community formation goes beyond the virtual enabling of specific plots by the group’s central leadership. Even terrorists who receive no specific direction are no longer really alone, nor do they consider themselves to be.
On the other hand, the notion of “homegrown violent extremists” looses from its content in today’s digital age. Daesh brings its portrayal of the marketplaces of Raqqa in Syria directly to computers and iPhones everywhere, its attacks in the cafes of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the streets of Nice in France directly to the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of the whole world. The current-day “lone wolfs” do not, themselves, feel “homegrown” at all; they feel grown of Raqqa and at war with what they see as their false homes in the West.
Already, other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen and Syria, have begun emulating Daesh’s manipulation of modern communications technologies to reach those who would feel alone, offer a sense of community, and provide inspiration and just enough direction to spark attacks that fulfill those groups’ own strategic purposes.
Virtual plotters and remote-controlled attacks
The social media also facilitated what counterterrorism experts are calling enabled or remote-controlled attacks: violence conceived and guided by operatives whose only connection to the would-be attacker is the internet. In such an operation, the jihadi handlers act as confidants and coaches, coaxing recruits to embrace violence. The virtual coaches are providing guidance and encouragement throughout the process, from radicalization to recruitment into a specific plot.
For the most part, the operatives who are conceiving and guiding such attacks are doing so from behind a wall of anonymity. Because the recruits are instructed to use encrypted messaging applications, the guiding role played by the terrorist group often remains obscured. As a result, remotely guided plots in Europe, Asia and the United States were initially labeled the work of “lone wolves.”
Close examination of both successful and unsuccessful plots carried out in Daesh’s name over the past years indicates that such enabled attacks are making up a growing share of the operations of the group.
One of Daesh’s influential recruiters and virtual plotters was known as Abu Issa al-Amriki, and his Twitter profile instructed newcomers to contact him via the encrypted messaging app Telegram. By 2015, Amriki was one of close to a dozen cyberplanners based in Syria or Iraq who were already actively recruiting volunteers abroad, according to a tally based on investigation records from North America, Europe and Asia. While at first they were discounted as mere ‘cheerleaders’ for the terrorist group, by the late spring of 2015, they were considered enough of a threat that both American and British intelligence began tracking their movements, methodically targeting them with airstrikes and killing several since then. Amriki himself was killed on April 22, 2016, being identified by the Pentagon as a Sudanese citizen also known as Abu Sa’ad al-Sudani, one of the Daesh’s “external attack planners” who “actively sought to harm Western interests.” The Department of Defense’s account showed, moreover, that the handler had been involved in planning attacks on three continents. Amriki was grooming attackers in Canada and Britain, as well as at least three other young men in suburbs across America, according to court records.
Other investigation documents from Europe show that a growing share of attacks bears signs of contact with Daesh’s stronghold, even though the attacker was initially described as acting alone. The first time that officials in Europe described an attack as having been remote-controlled was in the spring of 2015 after a young information technology student named Sid Ahmed Ghlam tried to open fire on a church in the Paris suburb of Villejuif. Instead, he shot himself in the leg. When the police searched his car, they found his laptop containing a series of messages that showed how he had been guided by a pair of handlers who provided both the weapons and the getaway car. Later, French investigators said that Ghlam’s handlers were French citizens who had travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State.
Wiretaps, interrogation records and transcripts of chats recovered on other suspects’ phones and laptops showed that this level of guidance has occurred all over the world. In several, a pattern has emerged: the attacker initially tries to reach Syria, but is either blocked by the authorities in the home country or else turned back from the border. Under the instructions of a handler in Syria or Iraq, the person then begins planning an attack at home.
The Amn al-Kharji and the 2016 Ramadan campaign
In late May 2016, Daesh released an audio statement featuring the group’s chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, celebrating the upcoming lunar month of Ramadan. Adnani exhorted the group’s supporters to make Ramadan “a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers” and urged everyone considering migrating to the caliphate to instead carry out attacks in their home countries.
Consequently, militants acting in Daesh’s name struck in over 10 countries during the group’s Ramadan offensive. Highly visible attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, Orlando, and Baghdad together left hundreds of civilians dead as operatives targeted airports, restaurants, night clubs, and shopping centers.
While observers expressed skepticism about the extent of the organization’s involvement, a growing body of evidence suggests that the Ramadan offensive was largely a coordinated and deliberate Daesh campaign. Though some militants may have acted of their own accord, it is probable that Daesh as an organization played a pivotal role in organizing and directing the majority of attacks during Ramadan 2016. Some attacks, such as the Istanbul and Baghdad bombings, were centrally directed by attack networks, with the organization deploying trained operatives. Other operations were the product of collaboration between local networks and Daesh operatives based in Syria and Iraq, who helped to organize and coordinate the attacks remotely.
The Ramadan offensive bears the hallmark of the Amn al-Kharji, Daesh’s external operations wing responsible for planning espionage activities and terrorist operations outside the caliphate’s core territory. Under the guidance of an enigmatic Frenchman known by his nom de guerre, Abu Sulayman al-Faransi, Amn al-Kharji built an infrastructure that enables it to coordinate and direct attacks across the globe. Faransi, who is believed to have played an essential part in planning the November 2015 Paris attacks, directs a group of commanders responsible for coordinating terrorist operations in different regions. These theater commanders are the center of gravity within Amn al-Kharji and featured prominently in the Ramadan campaign, directing operations and providing guidance to local networks. The leadership of the Amn al-Kharji has maintained direct contact with its cells abroad, and the Ramadan campaign highlighted Daesh’s ability to mobilize these networks as a part of a coordinated campaign.
Though Daesh sacrifices some command and control over attacks through this approach, the virtual planning model greatly expands the group’s operational reach. Virtual planning has become a cornerstone of the Amn al-Kharji’s strategy and a key element of the Ramadan campaign. Daesh’s success in mobilizing cells in countries thousands of miles from the caliphate underscores the utility of the virtual planning model.
Countering violent extremism: almost “mission impossible”
The so-called “countering violent extremism” (CVE) efforts are focused on “countering the pull of terrorist recruitment and influence by building resilience among populations vulnerable to radicalisation.” The U.S. and the UK have established public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations to support their national and counter-terrorism politics.
In 2003, the United Kingdom Home Office created CONTEST, its counter-terrorism strategy. CONTEST is split into four work streams that are known as the ‘four P’s’: pursue, prevent, protect, and prepare. As part of the UK government’s Prevent Strategy, CT police officers are going to schools to teach about the dangers of extremism. Digital literacy is becoming increasingly important, because people must be trained with skills that involve critical consumption of online content in order to develop a natural resiliency to online extremist propaganda.
The U.S. created its first Federal CVE strategy in 2011, which revolves around countering the radicalization of all types of potential terrorists with a “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism.” Also in 2011, the US State Department created the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) which attempts to engage violent extremists in online debate, contesting their claims in an attempt to dissuade others from joining them. It established a Twitter account, “Think Again Turn Away,” where it engages in rhetoric with jihadist fighters and their supporters.
The British Army are creating a special force – the 77th Brigade – the ‘Facebook Warriors’, skilled in psychological operations. The French Ministry of Interior have produced a new counter-jihad website aimed at discouraging young people from joining IS with graphic images and messages that state, “They say: sacrifice yourself with us, you will defend a just cause. In reality: you will discover hell on earth and die alone, away from home.”
In the last couple of years, an increasing number of public and private initiatives have been created to strengthen CVE. Even non-state actors have become active; most recently Anonymous, the global “hacktivist” organization, has declared war on Daesh in cyberspace, sending tweets stating that its objective was to “ice ISIS.” Two days after the 7 January 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Anonymous declared war on Islamic extremists worldwide, vowing to track and shut down all websites and social media networks linked to the terrorists. These online declarations mark the first recorded wars conducted by non-state actors battling it out in cyberspace. In February 2015, Anonymous claimed responsibility for targeting nearly 800 Twitter accounts and 12 Facebook accounts. In addition, they released a video warning Daesh, “you will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure. We own the internet.”
Financial considerations rather than moral responsibility are prompting Internet companies to take more vigorous measures to purge their platforms of jihadist propaganda. Social media companies are beginning to lose advertising revenue due to the hateful content that appears on their sites. According to reports, major advertisers (Johnson & Johnson, Toyota, General Motors, Walmart, AT&T, HSBC, and others) are pulling ads from social media platforms because they have found their ads placed alongside terrorist videos. YouTube alone may find itself losing $750,000,000 in ad revenue.
Government pressure on the companies is mounting as well. In Germany, Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) is introducing new legislation imposing huge fines of up to 50 million Euros on companies that fail to remove hate speech from their sites. In Britain after the recent Westminster terrorist attack, Home Secretary Amber Rudd summoned executives from Google, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft to a summit at the Home Office, at which they agreed to “create new technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda” from their platforms.
In addition, the families of terror victims are beginning to sue Internet companies for carrying the incitement that radicalized the terrorists and thus led to the killing or injury of their loved ones. One successful lawsuit of this sort will trigger a torrent of further lawsuits, entailing huge losses for the companies.
MEMRI’s counter-offensive
The U.S.-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) – which provides English translations of film and print media stories originating in Arabic, Iranian and Turkish media, as well as analysis of cultural, political and religious trends in the Middle East – warned about the threat of jihadist propaganda on the Internet and social media as early as a decade ago.
Over the years, MEMRI developed a vast archive of materials on jihadis and jihad organizations, and its Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor Project (JTTM) has published reports demonstrating the Internet companies’ failure to prevent incitement to terrorism. It also offered to place its expertise at the service of the companies that host websites, free of charge, by reviewing websites they were hosting and informing them about the jihadist organizations behind them. MEMRI has briefed the U.S. Congress on the need to hold Internet companies accountable, and even directly confronted some of the companies, such as Google.
So far, most attempts to neutralize Daesh’s media offensive have proven inefficient, mainly because they failed to grasp what makes the organization’s content and distribution method so distinctive. Daesh’s propagandists are now as adept at social media as the West’s, by diligently analyzing how the West manufactures and consumes information. Moreover, while Twitter, Youtube and Facebook are suspending accounts held by Daesh and its supporters, the group fights back. It recently called on jihadis around the world to kill Twitter employees stating that: “Your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you.”
A recent significant incident in this context was recorded in 2016, when Facebook was accused of putting at risk the safety of its content moderators, after inadvertently exposing their personal details to suspected terrorist users of the social network. The security lapse affected more than 1,000 workers across 22 departments at Facebook who used the company’s moderation software to review and remove inappropriate content from the platform, including terrorist propaganda.
Of the 1,000 affected workers, around 40 worked in a counter-terrorism unit based at Facebook’s European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland. Six of those were assessed to be “high priority” victims of the mistake after Facebook concluded their personal profiles were likely viewed by potential terrorists. Facebook moderators first suspected there was a problem when they started receiving friend requests from people affiliated with the terrorist organizations they were scrutinizing.
Facebook confirmed the security breach in a statement and said it had made technical changes to “better detect and prevent these types of issues from occurring”. The bug in the software was not fixed until 16 November 2016.
Propaganda is essential to Daesh’s survival, both as a group and as an idea; it has been an invaluable mechanism with which to enforce acquiescence in its proto-state and a penetrating weapon with which to assert its terrorist hegemony abroad.Daesh has systemically used propaganda to cultivate digital strategic depth[1] and, due to this, the caliphate’s ideas will be able to exist long after its proto-state collapses. In years to come, this resilience will enable the Islamic State to prolong and perhaps even worsen the terrorist menace it already presents.
According to terrorism experts, violent Islamist activity in the West may increase further, and the consequences of the war in Syria will play out until the 2020s and 2030s. Such a trend would be favored by the expected growth in the number of economically underperforming Muslim youth, the expected growth in the number of available jihadist entrepreneurs, the persistent conflicts in the Muslim world and the continued operational freedom for clandestine actors on the Internet.
While more intense web monitoring could help prevent such a trend, measures have to be taken to address the basic social problems that generated the phenomenon, mainly better education in immigrant-dominated areas, more money for youth jobs, as well as harsher legislation against terror-related crimes, such as recruitment, and special laws against “foreign warriors”. However, all of these measures will only mitigate the problem and jihadism will only go away once a distinct mood shift in the Muslim world takes place and militant Islamism is rejected.
As for the threat represented by jihadist propaganda both the governments and the Internet companies need to understand that the use of the Internet by jihadist movements poses a threat to global security. This would amount to an emergency situation requiring them to act accordingly – namely, to make vast financial investments, to develop new technologies, and, most importantly, to fundamentally change their approach and the criteria they employ in removing content from the net.
The arguments about terrorism and extremist content are a stark reminder that the lawless, freewheeling era of the early internet is over. Technology firms may find that difficult to accept, but they must, as part of the responsibility that comes with their new-found power and as part of the price of their success.
As with car accidents or cyber-attacks, perfect security is unattainable. But an approach based on “defense in depth”, combining technology, policy, education and human oversight, can minimize risk and harm.
[1] The term traditionally applies to a mountainous region or other terrain that a nation can retreat to and defend

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