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ISIS Online: The Internet presence of a brutal and international Islamic militant group

Daniel N. Abramson

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Within what seems like the very bowels of the internet, there lies a fully functional and multifaceted propaganda arm of one of the most brutal militant groups ever seen. The so-called Islamic State (or “ISIS”, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is not only ruthless in person, but in its virtual presence as well.

The element of the ISIS media arm that lies closest to the ‘surface’ of the internet is its usage of Twitter. It has been reported that thousands of Twitter accounts suspected of being affiliated with ISIS have been identified by the Twitter team, and the US Government has even requested information from Twitter on as many as 1,918 ISIS Twitter accounts in the first half of 2014. Most of these accounts, due to Twitter’s policy against violence, have been manually suspended/deleted by Twitter admins. However, once these accounts are suspended, additional accounts suddenly appear to take their place. Most notably to the Western world, when ISIS released its propaganda film entitled A Message to America in which the gruesome execution of American journalist James Foley was shown, Twitter and YouTube administrators sprang into action in order to thoroughly delete all uploads of the video and prevent its further distribution. Still though, due to the nature of the worldwide web, plenty of ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts still manage to fly under the radar and get their messages out. These accounts frequently tweet photos, video, and text glorifying and supporting ISIS’s actions. Some of these accounts even appear to belong to in-country ISIS militants themselves, often tweeting themselves on the battlefield, Kalashnikov in hand. In more notable instances, US-based accounts have even directly threatened or ‘trolled’ the United States, such as a tweet showing a picture of the ISIS flag in front of the White House with a threatening message.

 

    Twitter, however, is only the tip of the virtual Islamic State iceberg. Where ISIS really asserts itself online comes in the form of internet forums. These message-boards serve as the primary place where ISIS members (and more importantly, potential recruits), can somewhat inconspicuously communicate and distribute full-length ISIS-produced propaganda films. When terror/militant groups publish and distribute these films (as many Islamic militant groups have done, including the Taliban and Hamas), they are seeking not only to terrorize the outside world through fear, but also to reach those who may be seeking to join the group. Because there is no independent reporting from inside the Islamic State itself, these propaganda films offer a rare and exclusive glimpse into the Islamic State; and the glimpse is horrifying.

 

    As these films are actively deleted by YouTube and other online video-upload sites, it is fairly difficult to track down and watch ISIS-made film. It took some digging for me to find the places where these videos are dumped to be distributed to the outside world. I finally came across an Arabic-language forum which does just that. Through the use of Google Translate, as well as surfing through the English-language section of the forum, I was able to not only find ISIS-produced media, but also to find the virtual recruiting grounds for the organization. On the message boards were everything from religious advice on health and sex, to information on travelling to the Islamic State, and even to encouragement and suggestions for the planning of ‘revenge’ attacks within the Western world (one lengthy post even went on about the “success” of the 9/11 attacks and the relative “disappointment” with the small scale of the 2013 Boston Marathon Attacks).

 

    The videos themselves, which usually come in the form of episodes within several different ‘series’, can only be described as horrific, with normal human and Islamic activities playing only a sideshow/filler role. I do not exaggerate when I say that nearly every single film/episode includes at least one militant operation, suicide mission (“martyrdom”) or cold-blooded killing. For ethical reasons I will not post any links to videos here (if one wishes to find and watch these videos, they can easily do so on their own).  As I am sure an agent of any government intelligence/counterterrorism agency, who are undoubtedly researching these films would say, these videos are hard to watch and can indeed take a psychological toll on any human being. Nonetheless, I do personally believe that it is important to get the details of these videos out, even if that means only describing them in sanitized words to keep within good ethics and taste.

 

     Each video/episode generally begins with a sermon from an imam in front of a mixed crowd of fighters and local townspeople. In the few videos that are translated into English the sermons are fiery; they frequently agitate the audience in some way or another to wage jihad against any and all of the elements opposed to the lofty aspirations of the Islamic State. A special focus is placed on the most immediate ‘threats’ to ISIS: the Shiite and Christian minorities of Iraq and Syria (including the militaries of both Assad in Syria and Maliki in Iraq, which are both largely Shia), the various Kurdish factions, and the less-defined takfiri’s, whom Sunni Islamic doctrine defines as deviators from what it sees as “true” (Sunni) Islam, and thus are deemed enemies. Militants are often shown rummaging through the personal belongings of their dead enemies, excitedly showing items to the camera such as Christian crosses or Shia pamphlets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei superimposed on them. The result is the powerful ideological justification of organized and rampant terrorist operations that transcend the long-standing international borders of Iraq and Syria, consuming considerable swathes of territory within the two countries allowing ISIS to take on its current appearance of an actual, sovereign state. As one translated video titled The End of Sykes-Picot (borders established during the colonial period by the British and French) demonstrates, the ideological aims of ISIS are inspired by Medieval Islamic history; the Islamic Caliphate. In other words, what ISIS seeks to do is to physically reestablish the Islamic Empire(s) of old, which at its height extended eastward from Arabia into what is now Pakistan, and as far westward as southern Spain. In a segment titled “Live the Cause”, supplemented by background audio of English sermons given by the late American jihadi Anwar al-Awlaki, ISIS clearly explains to the outside world that it seeks “the transcendence of the Caliphate from words/theory to action and real-world results.” What we have here is the most basic explanation of ISIS ideological aims and its narrative.

 

Because most, of these videos are un-translated and strictly in Arabic, much of what is being said is lost on the typical Westerner. The clear and threatening message of ISIS’s brutal tactics of violence and terrorism, however, needs little translation. The videos are sadistic (ISIS terrorists show a consistent propensity to shoot dead bodies 10+ times), with footage of operations ranging from drive-by highway shootings of what appear to be random civilian vehicles, to the rounding up and summary execution of both combatant captives and regular unarmed civilians (there was one scene where militants literally flagged down three trucks on a highway, questioned the drivers briefly, and then lined up and shot them point-blank before yelling Allahu Akhbar and denouncing the corpses as Nusayri’s, a term for members of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam). Apart from its seemingly random and brutal treatment of unarmed civilians, ISIS also shows an ability and willingness to attacking military targets. There are even segments where ISIS militants, disguised by the use of captured Iraqi Army uniforms and equipment, conduct raids on the homes of senior Iraqi officers during the night. Night-vision HD camera and all, the footage shows the militants first deceptively questioning the men before they realize what’s going on. After enthusiastically revealing to their target that they are “Daw’lat Islam” (“Islamic State”) they proceed to execute the men with a silenced pistol shot to the head. Mission after mission is shown throughout each video series, leaving the viewer feeling extremely sorry for the innocent human beings unfortunate enough to cross paths with ruthless ISIS militants.

 

Against the background of the vast and cloudless Iraqi-Syrian Desert skies, the actions of ISIS produce an image sure to impact any Western audience. Perhaps even more frightening still are how such acts of violence are mixed in with scenes of average townspeople assembling in ISIS-occupied towns to meet their new ‘government’. Women, children and the elderly all appear amongst the men of the Islamic State and for the most part don’t seem distressed at all. It is strikingly odd to see men commit the aforementioned acts of brutality, and then afterward mingle with the common folk in such a casual way. Among propagandistic portrayals of ‘hearts and minds’ efforts by the Islamic State, one segment of interest involves an assembly of about 60-70 children from “emigrant families” that appear to be of Indonesian/Malaysian (two Muslim-majority nations in SE Asia) ethnicity. The children, whose ages appear to range from 2 to 12 years old, are shown reciting verses from the Qur’an. The young girls who are shown are all in hijab (headscarf), and some are even in full niqab (full burka showing only the eyes). Fighting-aged South Asian men, some apparently the fathers of the children, also appear among Arab fighters, all brandishing assault rifles. It is of interest to note here that translated ISIS media is always translated into languages such as Indonesian/Malaysian, Bosnian, Urdu (Pakistan), and Chechen; all Islamic-majority nations from which non-Arab foreign jihadists have traditionally originated.

 

It is rather unsettling to know that people from all over the world are ‘emigrating’ to the Islamic State, including people from Western countries, as has been well documented. It is well known to Western intelligence services that foreign fighters are a key element of ISIS, and indeed these foreigners are also heavily featured in these propaganda productions, for practical reasons. The example of the use of a man with a British accent in the executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff comes to mind. Some videos feature these foreigners participating in military actions against ISIS adversaries, including a white Canadian man called Abu Muslim al-Canadi who reveals he is a Muslim convert who “left his family and life of luxury and kufr (un-Islamic culture) to perform jihad for the sake of Allah.” When all of these propaganda elements combine, the result is an intimidating virtual presence that does not seem like it will be disappearing anytime soon. More videos are released all the time, and ISIS has no doubt made its virtual presence felt across the globe, far beyond its physical reach.

Daniel Abramson is a 2014 graduate of the University of North Florida (B.A., History). He specializes in the affairs, history, and geopolitics of the Middle East and Africa, with a particular focus on the Levant region, especially Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Lebanon.

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Terrorism

Turkey begins the return of ISIS fighters to Europe

Iveta Cherneva

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Today, Turkey started sending ISIS fighters back to Europe, as it promised last week.

Europe needs to take responsibility for its ISIS fighters. US President Trump is right on that.

As Turkey’s minister of internal affairs said last week, Turkey is not a hotel for foreign terrorists. Europe’s jihadists are its own problem to deal with.

What is interesting however is that Turkey has been releasing ISIS fighters from the region that it held in custody. But not when it comes to European jihadists.

With this move, Turkey’s aim is to actually punish Europe. Erdogan is doing this out of spite because he knows that this is what Europeans fear the most. It is not Erdogan’s priority to try ISIS, as he has shown previously. To piss off the Europeans, yes, that’s a different story.

This recent development comes to remind us that Western Europe has a big problem to deal with. The evidence from conflict zones will not hold in European courts which means that authorities might have to let ISIS fighters that still have their citizenship walk free. That is a European nightmare.

This serves to remind French President Macron that France not Bosnia is the biggest jihadist force in Europe. Macron called Bosnia a jihadist ticking bomb in that unfortunate Economist interview but France is the real problem. No other European country has such a high number of jihadist fighters in the Middle East.

Today a Greek ISIS fighter whose citizenship had been stripped was not allowed in Greece upon return from Turkey. We will see that a lot in the coming weeks. The situation of no citizenship will create a legal question of statelessness which will make the return of ISIS fighters also a human rights question.

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Terrorism

The Rise OF ISIS and its Aftermath in Afghanistan

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“I will see you guys in Newyork”.Abu Du’a, the leader of ISIS, whose nom de guerre (war name) was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, told his American captors as he was released from a brief detention during Iraq war. After American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Baghdadi joined the Arms Resistance against the U.S led coalition troops in Iraq but he was captured and detained in a US. – run Iraqi prison in 2006. Following al Baghdadi’s release in the late 2000s, he joined the predecessor to ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq(ISI). This group initially affiliated themselves with AL- Qaeda, but was later rejected by AL Qaeda due to their brutal acts and it became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). IN 2010, al Baghdadi became the leader of ISI and changed the name of the organization to Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013.

On 29 June 2014, ISIS declared the worldwide caliphate under the leadership of “caliph Ibrahim” with publishing a statement of supporting al Baghdadi’s designation as caliph.  This concept of caliphate is mainly based on the universal religion and its ultimate goal is the establishment of Islamic state. This political idea of Islamic state is embodied in the concept of the ummah (community) which says that all the Muslims wherever they reside are bounded by a common faith which transcends all geographical, political or national boundaries.

Many other groups had pledged allegiance to ISIS like the Boko haram in Nigeria, the bait al Maqdis in Egypt, the Islamic movement in Uzbekistan, andthe previous leader of TTP Hafiz Saeed, also pledged allegiance to al Baghdadi in Oct, 2014 renaming themselves as the Islamic state of Khorasan (ISK) in Afghanistan. IS-K’s early membership included a contingent of Pakistani militants who emerged in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province around 2010, just across the border from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.  Many of these militants were estranged members of TTP and Lashkar-e Islam, who had fled from Pakistan to escape pressure from security forces.

ISK emerged in different provinces of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan but outnumbered in the eastern province of Ningarhar, Achin district, due to some specific reasons. Achin district is one of the backward, underdeveloped and illiterate regions of Afghanistan which makes its population vulnerable to recruitment as new militants. Moreover, peopled welling in this district joined and supported this new group not only for their Islamic ideology but also for the high salaries of $500 paid by this organization.In the beginning of their journey in the region, ISK dealt people in a soft manner and always refrained from offensive language to encourage and inspire the people to join this militant group.

But with the passage of time, ISK changed its behavior and started the forceful imposition of sharia law. People were prevented from the cultivation of opium which was the main source of revenue for the locals of that region, seized drugs and sentenced drug addicted people, however, majority of their own militants were drug addicts and sold drugs seized from the locals to meet their own financial needs. They introduced numerous fabricated laws that were neither in conformity to national, Islamic nor in conformity with the locals laws. The militants of the group were indoctrinated to such an extent that they were willing to sacrifice everything for the interest of the group. One of their militants, involved in a robbery case, accepted his crime in front of the group’s judicial committee. As per the Islamic rules, anyone involved in the robbery would have their hands cut off. Therefore, When the militants were cutting hands, he was chanting ‘’Allah ho Akbar’’-Allah is the greatest.

Taliban and Afghan forces have attacked the Achin district many times  but no one of them succeeded in retaking the district from ISK. This region was completely monopolized by this group and they ruled the people according to their own so called sharia law. People started displacement from the region towards Jalalabad, the provincial capital because they were unable to abide by these brutal laws and tolerate the atrocities. Following is a short story which a person told in anonymity about the excessive brutalities perpetrated by ISK in Achin.

“We all flocked outside after Friday prayer, according to announcement in sermon. They brought seven detainees belong to Emirates a Taliban group, Afghan national Army member and spies. All were covered with black ski masks. Meanwhile, an ISIS militant rode on a trained horse, having sharp sword in hands and reached to the spot. He decapitated all of them and shouted “Allah ho Akbar”. With the sound of Allah ho Akbar, we all scattered like flies in the air and no one knows what happened. But later on it was realized by people who delivered us to hospital that the place was targeted by a US drone. Many people were injured, and the ISIS militant who was beheading the prisoners was burned by drone attack. I still have the scene in my mind which has really affected me mentally and can’t take out those thuds of the sword from my mind when he was beheading those innocent people”.

Furthermore, they knelt innocent elders of the Shenwari nation belong to the same district on the bombs accused of in affiliation to the Taliban.  A gruesome video also uploaded by them to the YouTube. These kind of brutal acts were the routine of everyday in Daesh or ISK controlled areas.

Afghan Commando assisted by US special forces have been fighting with the ISK in Achin for the last few years and have made significant progress contributing to the liberation of some villages but there are speculations that united states itself is assisting this militant group and supplying food and weapons to them through helicopters which has put the Afghans in doubt.  US dropped the ” mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal formally known as GBU-43/B massive ordnance air blast on 13 April 2017 on ISIS Khorasan cave complex in Achin district, Ningarhar.  According to a statement from the United States military in Afghanistan, the bomb hit a tunnel complex but they didn’t say how many militants were killed or whether the bombing caused any civilian casualties. The fact is that it was only an experience of their conventional bomb which is clear from the following statement of the Ex-president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai:

“This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons”. This claim of Ex-president was further forged by the locals of Achin who stated that there was neither weapons depot nor any single ISIS fighter in the targeted region.

Currently Achin district has been cleared by Afghan Forces from this group but there are opportunities of their return to the region. Afghan Forces should show their strong presence, build the region and rehabilitate former militants. We are the veterans of many regions where US and Afghan forces have operated and lost hundreds of their soldiers for clearing the region but have left the region vulnerable to the insurgents return. Moreover, America should equip Afghan forces with sophisticated weapons to counter these threats. Afghan National Directorate can play a vital role in the dissolution of this group by infiltration of their own spies in disguise.

 Moreover, in comparison to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which have oil resources of about $2 billion and financed by different Arab states, this group is very much dependent on local revenues and neighboring state Pakistan. Pakistan may not be able to support two insurgent groups-Taliban and ISK-simultaneously for a single goal. And the so called jihad vacuum is also filled by Taliban which never want any rival jihadi group in Afghanistan.

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Terrorism

Imprisoned ISIS Wives and Children Have Nowhere to Run To, Nowhere to Hide

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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The guards have said if the war comes close, then they will leave here,” a Western ISIS wife texted me today from Camp Roj in far northeastern Syria, a detention center that houses 500 ISIS wives and 1,200 of their children.  “What to do if we are left alone?” she asks. “There’s nowhere to go and too risky to get caught by Bashar [al-Assad].”

As she writes, I’m in Belgium sitting next to an FBI agent. I ask him what she should do, but amid all of this chaos, he doesn’t have an immediate answer.  

The ISIS wife continues: “I like how America thinks it’s too dangerous for them [the U.S. military] to be here but safe for us to remain with Assad.”

Over the past two years I’ve been in and out of the northeastern territory of Syria held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) six times with staff from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). We have conducted in-depth interviews with 217 ISIS men and women, 100 of them in SDF held territory, for our project countering the ISIS brand, which the SDF has supported fully. 

The woman texting me today gave us an interview last year and has managed to stay in touch via illicit phones other detainees allow her to use.

At the same time she is texting me, our Kurdish translator texts that they are living under the sound of bombs and troops advancing. Assad’s troops are marching eastward, while Turkey is barreling in from the north. Which soldiers will reach Camp Roj first and what the women should do if the Kurdish YPJ-Women’s Protection Units guarding them decide it’s too dangerous to remain in place, is something the guards have told the inmates to think about. 

The female inmates of Camp Ain Issa, farther west, faced a similar dilemma earlier in the week when the Turks began shelling. Until Sunday, Ain Issa Camp housed a total of 12,000 women and children, but according to one Belgian woman, it descended into “complete chaos” as fires broke out, the guards left, and the women escaped in the hundreds. 

Among the women housed there, 265 were wives of foreigner terrorist fighters, alongside 1,000 of their children. On the second day of the Turkish air assault, Belgian ISIS wives Bouchra Abouallal and Tatiana Wielandt decided it was better to go on the run with their small children than remain in place to learn what next disaster might befall them.

We interviewed Bouchra Abouallal in September 2019.  Completely exhausted from her experience with ISIS, she said that life inside the Caliphate was “the best possible deradicalization program ever.” Already prosecuted in absentia and facing a five-year sentence in her home country of Belgium, she told ICSVE researchers she would prefer to return home even to serve a 20-year sentence rather than remain in the camp under the menace of the cruel ISIS-inmate enforcers who threatened all European women who no longer wanted anything to do with the ISIS Caliphate.

Now Bouchra Abouallal is on the run with her three small children. In audio messages punctuated in the background by shelling she told a Belgian journalist that she was headed toward the front lines in hopes she could make it to safety in Turkey, where she wishes to turn herself into the Belgian consulate and make her way home. 

While European officials here in Brussels have stated that Turkey agrees to help any escaped ISIS cadres that end in their hands to be returned to their homelands, up until recently, Belgium was refusing to let her come back. Instead of seeing her as someone victimized by the Islamic State’s propaganda and lies, and fooled by the “Shariah for Belgium” group that had radicalized many in her native city of Antwerp, Belgian politicians see her as a threat.

But it is not difficult for Belgian authorities to turn past posts on her social media accounts against her.

“Your system has failed oh Belgian state,” Bouchra’s Facebook page read after she slipped out of Belgium to go live under the Islamic State. Referring to the way the Belgian police had hassled her upon her first return home from Syria, her posts taunted them, saying “You were watching us 24/7 and you still haven’t managed to stop us. Why? Because Allah is the best planner (…)” Her threats continued with, “We have left because we believe that it is a duty for every Muslim. To the policeman who threatened to take our children away, I can say that my children will turn yours into orphans, with the will of Allah.”

Bouchra claims that it wasn’t she, but one of her ISIS husbands, who authored these hate-filled posts. She says he used to lock her up at home and post on her Facebook page without her permission. Indeed, when we interviewed Bouchra in September she spoke gently as she denounced ISIS, giving us permission to use both her image and her name in a counter narrative video—this, while knowing the ISIS enforcers in the camp would likely punish her for it.

The woman texting me today from Camp Roj does so fearing that if it becomes known it was her texting she will be punished by her YPJ guards. Yet pure terror drives her to try to stay connected with the outside world as she makes wrenching decisions for herself and her young child. 

Americans are also in this camp. We have interviewed two American passport holders—Canadian dual-citizen Kimberly Pullman and disputed American citizen Hoda Muthana. 

When I ask today’s texter about Americans in the camps, she tells me there are five in all, two more in Camp Roj and another in Camp Hol. She states that there are also two American children in Camp Roj. We’ve met one of them, Adam, the two-year-old son of Hoda Muthana. Both times we interviewed his mother, Adam was struggling with chronic bronchitis. Today the woman texting me from Camp Roj tells me that the air is thick with fumes from the bombings, which is causing many of the children to have breathing difficulties.

“Going to jail right now won’t be great,” this woman writes as she imagines her future in the West—if she can ever manage to get home. Then she envisions another future: “I could get lost among all of this trouble.” Then again she realizes that fleeing the camp, if her guards do abandon their posts, might also prove disastrous. 

“Please let the governments know that we are not happy with the escape of the women [who have left the camps]. We are actually scared and want to just be safe in our own embassies,” she texts. “We don’t want to keep running away. We want to be tried. I’ve already had the chance to run away before and I decided to be tried in my own country.”

Now the pressing question, amid all of this chaos unleashed by Trump greenlighting the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria: Is anyone going to do anything to get these former ISIS wives and their children back home where they can face justice and live in safety or do we just leave them to face whatever fate turns up as hostile armies converge?

Author’s note: first published in the Daily Beast

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