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.
‘Unprecedented terrorist violence’ in West Africa, Sahel region
The top UN official in West Africa and the Sahel updated the Security Council on Wednesday, describing an “unprecedented” rise in terrorist violence across the region.
“The region has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets,” Mohamed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), told the Council in its first formal meeting of the year.
“The humanitarian consequences are alarming”, he spelled out.
In presenting his latest report, Mr. Chambas painted a picture of relentless attacks on civilian and military targets that he said, have “shaken public confidence”.
A surge in casualties
The UNOWAS chief elaborated on terrorist-attack casualties in Burkina Faso Mali and Niger, which have leapt five-fold since 2016 – with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone as compared to some 770 three years earlier.
“Most significantly,” he said, “the geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening West African coastal States”.
He also flagged that the number of deaths in Burkina Faso jumped from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 last year.
And displacement has grown ten-fold to about half a million, on top of some 25,000 who have sought refuge in other countries.
Mr. Chambas explained that “terrorist attacks are often deliberate efforts by violent extremists” to engage in illicit activities that include capturing weapons and illegal artisanal mining.
Terrorism, organized crime and intercommunal violence are often intertwined, especially in peripheral areas where the State’s presence is weak.
“In those places, extremists provide safety and protection to populations, as well as social services in exchanged for loyalty”, he informed the Council, echoing the Secretary-General in saying that for these reasons, “counter-terrorism responses must focus on gaining the trust and support of local populations”.
The Special Representative outlined that governments, local actors, regional organizations and the international community are mobilizing across the region to respond to these challenges.
On 21 December, the ECOWAS Heads of State summit “adopted a 2020-2024 action plan to eradicate terrorism in the sub-region”, he said.
Calling “now” the time for action, Mr. Chambas drew attention to the importance of supporting regional Governments by prioritizing “a cross-pillar approach at all levels and across all sectors”.
Turning to farmer-herder clashes, which he maintained are “some of the most violent local conflicts in the region”, the UNOWAS chief highlighted that 70 per cent of West Africa’s population depend on agriculture and livestock-rearing for a living, underscoring the importance of peaceful coexistence.
The Special Representative also pointed to climate change, among other factors, as increasingly exacerbating farmer-herder conflicts.
“The impact of climate change on security also spawns a negative relationship between climate change, social cohesion, irregular migration and criminality in some places”, he upheld.
Stemming negative security trends
The UNOWAS chief noted that in the months ahead, Togo, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Niger would be democratically electing their leaders and maintained that “all-too-worrying” security trends must not distract from political developments.
“Unresolved grievance, incomplete national reconciliation processes and sentiments of manipulation of institutions and processes carry risks of tensions and manifestations of political violence”, he warned.
In the months ahead, Mr. Chambas stressed that UNOWAS would continue to work with partners on the national and regional levels to promote consensus and inclusiveness in the elections.
“As UNOWAS’ mandate is renewed, we count on the Council’s continued full support”, concluded the Special Representative.
New Report Proposes Global DNA Synthesis Screening System to Counter Biotech Terror
Rapid advancements in commercially available DNA synthesis technologies – used for example to artificially create gene sequences for clinical diagnosis and treatment – pose growing risks, with the potential to cause a catastrophic biological security threat if accidentally or deliberately misused.
A new World Economic Forum and Nuclear Threat Initiative report, “Biosecurity Innovation and Risk Reduction: A global Framework for Accessible, Safe and Secure DNA Synthesis,” gathers opinion from a group of global public- and private-sector experts who propose standardized screening practices to counter the threat.
Since scientists demonstrated the means to create a full viral genome in 2002, DNA synthesis technologies have become increasingly available and frequently used by scientists and engineers around the world. These technologies support myriad advancements in synthetic biology, enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of industries including energy, food, agriculture, health and manufacturing. Further advances in technology hold great promise for sustainable development and a safer and more secure society.
At the same time, new approaches to DNA editing and synthesis have made it easier to manipulate biological agents and systems, increasing the risk of a catastrophic accidental or deliberate biological event. These technologies make it possible to create pathogen or toxin DNA that could be misused. For example, in 2018 researchers published work detailing the synthesis of horsepox virus, an extinct virus related to smallpox, using synthetic DNA fragments purchased from a commercial provider. This demonstrated the potential for creating other viruses via commercially available technologies.
Although many DNA providers practice screening procedures, this approach is voluntary and is becoming increasingly expensive. As access expands and the cost of DNA synthesis declines, more DNA is likely to reach the market via additional providers, significantly expanding the user base. In the next two to three years, a new generation of benchtop DNA synthesis machines, enabled by enzymatic DNA synthesis methods, could become available without guidance or norms to prevent misuse.
This report, endorsed by an international expert Working Group, recommends a global system for synthetic DNA screening practices by developing an international, cost-effective, and sustainable mechanism to prevent illicit practices and misuse. The new framework improves the existing voluntary guidelines because it standardizes screening processes, is accessible to new players in the market, and provides valuable feedback data to evaluate the screening – all at lower cost.
“Biotechnology is at the centre of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To deliver on the promise of the biotechnology revolution, we must seize opportunities to develop and deliver life-advancing innovations while simultaneously and urgently addressing potential risks associated with a growing and democratized bio-economy,” said Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Shaping the Future of Health and Health Care at the World Economic Forum.
The report also proposes that companies, international organizations and governments should explore options for the sustainable oversight and the maintenance of this proposed DNA sequence screening mechanism. DNA synthesis capabilities, in addition to other emerging technologies, can benefit from a larger system of common global life-science norms overseen by a globally recognized entity.
“Global DNA synthesis screening can be a critical tool to reduce the risk that life-science technologies could be deliberately misused to carry out biological attacks or accidentally result in a high-consequence or catastrophic biological event. The time is now,” said Ernest J. Moniz, Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Pensacola Rampage, Counter-Terrorism and Power Over Death
“’I believe’ is the great word against metaphysical fear, and at the same time it is a promising avowal of love.”-Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West
On December 6, 2019, Mohammed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force deployed at a US Naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, opened fire with a 9-millimeter handgun, killing three service members, and injuring eight others. Although the shooter’s precise motive and ideology have not yet been fully established, there is tangible evidence that only hours before his murderous rampage, Alshamrani had railed against the United States for its support of Israel and also for stationing troops in Saudi Arabia. Also plausible is that he fully expected to be killed during the shooting melee, a welcome expectation that suggests a sought-after status of “martyrdom.”
More than likely, recalling certain earlier insights of Oswald Spengler, “I believe” was integral to the shooter’s core Jihadist ideology, a presumed avowal of God’s anticipated grant of immortality or power over death. Hence, Alshamrani’s slaughter of certain “others” was actually an “avowal of love.”
Going forward, what matters most in this violent episode is what can be learned from the standpoint of improved US counter-terrorism practice. Above all, the lesson is as follows: There can be no greater form of power in world politics than a divinely promised power of immortality. Until now, this always preeminent form of power has remained essentially unrecognized by both scholars and policy-makers. In effectively all Jihadist terrorism-vulnerable countries, counter-terrorist strategies remain tangibly detached from what is most important.
There will be various pertinent concepts and theories to be systematically pondered. For Jihadist terrorists, the ultimate rationale of every operation must concern a presumed power over death. Without such a core presumption, prima facie, there could be no rational purpose in ever launching “martyrdom” operations. This means, inter alia, that any government interested in more effective counter-terrorism must first learn how to suitably obstruct such a far-reaching terrorist presumption.
Whatever particular answers may be reached in these complex matters, the task involved must always be approached as an intellectual one. Or, as the ancient Greeks and Macedonians wrote about the art of war, it is always, necessarily, a multilayered task of “mind over mind” rather than just “mind over matter.”
Here, too, there will be certain corollary and convergent considerations of legality. Without exception, those Jihadist insurgents who would seek to justify willful injury and execution of noncombatants (e.g., American, European, Israeli, etc.) in the name of “martyrdom” are defiling authoritative international law. Even if the murderous terrorist calls were somehow grounded in jurisprudence – that is, they would have recognizable elements of “just cause” – these criminals would still be guilty of wrongdoings.
Absolutely egregious and unjustifiable wrongdoings.
To wit, under binding law, insurgents, even those with a more-or-less defensible “just cause,” must nonetheless satisfy assorted jurisprudential limits on permissible targets and permissible levels of violence.
In all such law-based matters, the ends can never justify the means.
There is more. Under international law, even the most presumptively “sacred” rights of insurgency exclude the intentional targeting of civilians and/or a use of force designed to inflict gratuitous suffering. Whatever else might be said of any particular insurgent resort to force, it is always an impermissible insurgency (i.e., terrorism) when fighters choose to murder individuals in their homes or automobiles by stabbing and shooting. It is also always terrorism when such “martyrs” more systematically deposit nail-filled bombs in hotels, airports, buses or school playgrounds, or when they choose to heighten their odds of achieving immortality by opening fire at allied soldiers “on base.”
Sometimes, more or less explicitly, Jihadist insurgents have advanced a long discredited legal argument known as tu quoque. This formal argument maintains that because the other side (e.g., “infidels,” “apostates,” “blasphemers”) is allegedly guilty of an equivalent or greater criminality, the Jihadist side is free ipso facto of any consequent legal wrongdoing. Such a disingenuous argument is always more-or-less inventive, but it is also always invalid.
Apropos of this unchanging invalidity, one need only be reminded of the postwar judgments rendered by the Nuremberg and Far East (Japan) international tribunals. Both landmark tribunals refused to accept any defense of tu quoque.
There is more. Regarding conventional armies and insurgent forces, the residual right to use armed force can never supplant the peremptory rules of humanitarian international law. Such utterly primary or jus cogens rules are correctly referenced as the law of armed conflict orthe law of war.
Today, especially in parts of Asia and the Middle East, supporters of terror-violence against selected noncombatants insist wrongly that the ends somehow justify the means. Leaving aside the ordinary ethical standards by which any such specious argument must be regarded as indecent, the ends can neverjustify the means under binding international law. Appropriately, for more than two thousand years, conspicuous legal principles have specified that intentional violence against the innocent is prohibited.
In law, such violence is malum in se, or “evil in itself.”
In law, one man’s (or woman’s) terrorist, can never be another man’s (or woman’s) “freedom-fighter.” Although it is true that certain insurgencies can sometimes be judged lawful or law-enforcing, even such presumptively allowable resorts to force must still conform to the longstanding laws of war.
Jurisprudentially, it comes down to this: Whenever an insurgent or insurgent group resorts to unjust means, these actions constitute terrorism. For example, even if now ritualistic Palestinian claims of a hostile “occupation” were to be accepted as reasonable and lawful, any corollary claims of entitlement to “any means necessary” would nonetheless remain false.
International law always displays variously specific and determinable forms. Accordingly, it cannot be casually invented and reinvented by individual terrorists, terror groups or their state patrons in order to justify selective interests. This is especially true where terror violence intentionally targets a designated victim state’s most fragile and vulnerable civilian populations.
National liberation movements that fail to meet the test of just means are never correctly described as lawful or legitimate. Even if authoritative law were to accept the questionable argument that PA, Hamas and assorted sister groups had fulfilled the accepted criteria of “national liberation,” they could still not satisfy the equally relevant legal standards of discrimination, proportionality, and military necessity. More precisely, these critical standards were applied to insurgent or sub-state organizations by the common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and (additionally) by the two 1977 Protocols to these Conventions.
Standards of “humanity” are also binding upon all combatants by virtue of certain broader customary and conventional international law, including Article 1 of the Preamble to the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907. This rule, commonly called the “Martens Clause,” makes all persons responsible for the “laws of humanity,” and for the associated “dictates of public conscience.”
There is more. Under international law, going back to the “classical” writings of Hugo Grotius and Emmerich de Vattel (legal scholars embraced by the American Founding Fathers in writing both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), terrorist crimes always mandate universal cooperation in apprehension and punishment. As punishers of “grave breaches” under international law, all states are expected to search out and prosecute or extradite individual terrorists. In no conceivable circumstances are governments ever permitted to treat terrorist “martyrs” as legitimate “freedom fighters.”
This is emphatically true for the United States, which incorporates international law as the “supreme law of the land” at Article 6 of the Constitution, and which was formed by its Founding Fathers according to timeless principles of Natural Law. Although generally unrecognized, even by US lawyers, core legal authority for the American republic was derived from Blackstone’s Commentaries.
There is more. In law, rights can never stem from wrongs. Even if American or Israeli Jihadist adversaries continue to insist on identifying themselves as “martyrs,” such treatment can have no exculpatory or mitigating effect on subsequent terrorist crimes.
Ultimately, Jihadist insurgents are in search of the most plainly supreme form of power on earth – power over death. Derivatively, counter-terrorism policy-makers in the United States, Israel, or Europe ought never lose sight of immortality as a prime driver of terrorist crimes. Though not usually apparent or self-evident, it is the incomparable promise of power over death that could soon drive Jihadist operatives to certain “higher-order” or WMD forms of destruction.
At that point, which could become nuclear and/or biological, the key counter-terrorism struggle of “mind over mind” will already have been conclusively and irretrievably lost.
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