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Terrorism

Online Trolling as a strategy for terrorists

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It is not new that the presence of terrorist groups in cyberspace has increased every year. Almost every terrorist group has its own niche on the Internet, which provides endless opportunities in terms of mobilization, radicalization, the dissemination of radical ideas, training, the gathering of useful information, financing, etc. Nonetheless, the Islamic State’s approach to the use of the Internet has become revolutionary and versatile compared to the online activities of other terrorist groups.

ISIS’s unprecedented reliance on social networks transformed this organization into not only the most dangerous entity, but the new jihadist global movement and brand. Its propagandist apparatus, which consists of numerous ISIS media teams, targets a particular language group of the population. As a result, under this brand name, many militants and passive supporters, who refrain from moving to ISIS held territories, have gathered around the world. Producing plenty of video, audio, and text materials on a daily basis, ISIS’s activists act as very inventive and skillful players, trying to avoid traps and barriers on social networks; thus, their skills outpace the traditionally oriented approach of security agencies.

Recently, ISIS online propagandists have adopted and implemented “online trolling” to win hearts and minds, which takes advantage of online anonymity. In fact, anonymity has a high correlation with accountability, eroding the latter. Trolling allows the infliction of a wide range of harm from posting controversial content to harassment of users. ISIS online activists have dedicated several telegram accounts to serve the following tasks: 1). organize collective reporting actions on particular public accounts on telegram, which belong to ideological competitors; 2). encourage and channel collective “comments” attacks on particular articles of media outlets in order to disrupt debates by advancing shocking ideas.

The administrators of the telegram groups create a set of rules in order to make attacks more effective. Every trolling action is conducted at a particular time, and the administrators announce daily the exact time for the next collective attack, for example, 4 pm at Mosul time. To be visible to each other, a participant of a trolling attack is advised to write the hashtag “#Islamicstate” before or after a post. This inner visibility is crucial in terms of the fulfilment of another important rule. Participants have to “like”   and/or respond to each other’s posts in order to push their comments to the top.

Conducting trolling campaigns, ISIS activists target articles in accordance to several criteria. First of all, an article has to cover ISIS related or Muslim community issues. Secondly, all articles have to be written in English. Thirdly, Facebook serves as a platform for the attacks: ISIS propagandists target media outlet Facebook accounts. As a preparatory measure, the administrators have instructed group members about how to outwit Facebook policy and establish a personal Facebook account without providing a phone number.

So far, there are several media outlets which underwent these attacks: CNN, Russia Today (RT), Al Jazeera (English), Daily Mail, and Dr Zakir Naik’s Official Fan Page.

Table: “Online Trolling attacks from May 3rd to June 6,2016”

Media outlet Number of attacks
RT 5
Daily Mail 1
Dr Zakir Naik’s Official Fan Page 4
Al Jazeera (English) 10
Mufti Ismail Menk 1
Dr. Bilal Philips 1
CNN 1
Zee News 1
FRANCE 24 English 1
Total: 25

According to the analysis of operations conducted between May 3, 2016 and June 6, 2016, the overwhelming majority of attacks (40%) targeted Al Jazeera’s (English) Public Facebook page, while 20% of trolling campaigns were conducted against the Russia Today Facebook Page. CNN attracted ISIS’s sympathizers only once on May 20th, 2016, after publication of the article “What does Trump want in a VP? His top execs take a guess”. The frequency of attacks on Facebook pages is not very high, approximately, one trolling action per day. Given the fact that it is just the first experience of trolling activities in the foreseeable future, we have to expect a rise in the number of these attacks and their brazenness.

The number of comments under each targeted articles ranges from one to fifteen. Undoubtedly, to invigorate regular group members, administrators of the telegram groups participate in these attacks. However, it is hard to determine who takes a leading role in trolling attacks: administrators or group members. Some ISIS trolls make comments, whereas others limit their participation by pushing “like”. An article posted on the Zee News Portal on May 21st, 2016, received only one comment, marked by the ISIS hangtag and six likes. Needless to say, not all people who liked this pro-ISIS post belong to the telegram group. Some articles, which administrators picked for collective attacks, failed to attract members’ interest. For example, issued on May 25th, an article which depictured the security of Euro 2016 on the news channel “France 24” did not evoke enthusiasm among group members, who refrained from commenting anything whatsoever.

In general, comments express admiration towards the Islamic State and its ideology. The content of comments may vary depending on the topic of the article, however their gist remains the same. In comments, ISIS trolls try to instill the fear and helplessness of any counterterrorist effort, predicting the expansion and intensification of jihad on non-Muslim countries. Calling for Muslim consolidation all over the world, they underline the exceptional mission of ISIS, which is forced to battle crusaders alone. Western states – the UK, the US, Israel, and Russia are repeatedly presented as   the main reason for issues within Muslim society. Some attackers even observe a connection between the contemporary open- door- immigration policies in the European Union and the attempt to prevent natural disasters in European states; the presence of Muslims in non-Muslim states helps to cure these infidels’ societies. Also, ISIS trolls underline the need of physical elimination of apostates, crusaders, and Jews.

To conclude, this trolling initiative has vast potential due to the malicious character of its content, easy Internet access, and the effortless nature of trolling actions, which do not demand full devotion and considerable time spending. Pro-ISIS commenting under online news articles has a collective character. While it helps consolidate ISIS’s online passive sympathizers on behalf of the Islamic State and maintains a sense of solidarity, these trolling actions help ISIS to reach and influence new audiences and extend the Islamic State’s online presence dramatically.

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Terrorism

Who are the Real Terrorists in North East Syria?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Earlier this week President Trump abruptly changed course and green-lighted a Turkish incursion into north east Syria with disastrous results. The subsequent invasion has unleashed a hellish nightmare of carnage and chaos in what was a dangerous, but relatively peaceful, area governed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who had just defeated ISIS territorially.

In recent days, over 30 civilians—including Kurds, Christians and minorities, and very young children—have been killed in indiscriminate Turkish bombings and mortar fire. Likewise, the UN reports that over 130,000 Syrians have suddenly become displaced, fleeing Turkish violence. In addition to these massive displacements, Turkey insists that it will forcibly repatriate 1 to 2 million of the 3 million Syrian refugees it is currently housing back into the SDF-held areas it is now overtaking. That 83% of these Arabs never lived in the areas they are to be forcibly resettled in, begs the question of whose homes and lands will they be overtaking? 

Turkey claims to be fighting a terrorist group and wanting to clean their border area of terrorists, but the pictures coming out of northeast Syria instead make Turkey look like the terrorist aggressor. Countless photos and videos, many of them validated, circulate of Syrian civilians lying bloodied and dead on the ground while their family members wail unconsolably. Hevrin Khalaf, a female, and the Secretary-General of the pro-Kurdish Future Syria Party, is reported to have been dragged from her car and assassinated by Turkish-hired thugs who said while filming her corpse, “this is the corpse of pigs.” Likewise, video footage of bearded mercenary soldiers backed by the Turks, shooting their Kurdish captives while calling them “kufar scum” (unbelievers) are said by U.S. forces to appear authentic. If so, these actions are war crimes.

These bearded assassins, backed by Turkey are likely the same unemployed ISIS, al Nusra, and other former jihadists still happy to kill in the name of Allah, who Turkey used to clear Afrin in 2018. Indeed, they have shown a brutality akin to their mother groups, some even shouting ISIS slogans as they kill, such as “Baqiya wa tatamadad!” meaning we (ISIS) will remain forever, and expand. 

That Turkey would use former ISIS cadres to fight the Kurds is no surprise, given they worked closely with ISIS to try to quell the Kurds early on in the Syrian conflicts and continue to see their interests in destroying Kurdish power to lie with militant jihadist and Islamist groups. An ISIS emir that ICSVE interviewed in 2019 went into great detail about his work on behalf of ISIS, about how he negotiated with the Turkish MIT and military regarding border entry for the 40,000+ foreign fighters that streamed across Turkey into ISIS-controlled areas of Syria, agreements for sending wounded ISIS fighters back into Turkey for medical treatment, supplying water for the Tabqa dam to provide electrical power for ISIS, and so on. According to this emir, even then, Turkey was insisting on a buffer security zone. Now it appears they will go to any lengths to get it.

Meanwhile, General Mazloum Kobani Abdi told U.S. Ambassador William Roebuck, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS “You have given up on us. You are leaving us to be slaughtered.” He also asked in confused despair how the U.S. could also insist that the Kurds not turn to others, like the Russians for support, effectively boxing them in for slaughter.

When ISIS foolishly attacked Kobani in 2014, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) rose up and fought valiantly and since 2015, they fought with U.S. military backing, to defeat ISIS.  They have been our “boots on the ground”, sustaining most of the casualties and doing all the heavy lifting in defeating a global foe. While U.S. forces lost less than 20 troops after they aligned with the Kurds to fight ISIS in Syria, our hardy allies lost 11,000 male and female brave fighters who faced down this global foe.

Indeed, while ISIS was an active force on the ground in Syria, it external emni (intelligence arm), threatened the globe, mounting and inciting attacks in many major cities from New York, to Brussels (where two Americans were killed), to Paris, Nice, Stockholm, London and Istanbul to name but a few.

In serving as our “boots on the ground” forces for the territorial defeat of ISIS, and continuing to battle the remnants of ISIS, the Kurds saved, and continue to save, countless Americans and Westerners from being slaughtered by a heinous force willing to attack, anywhere, at any time.  

Yet their current aggressor, Turkey, calls these Kurds terrorists. That picking up arms against ISIS gave them the sudden opportunity to rule a considerable swathe of Syrian land that they had liberated from ISIS is no one’s fault, except those who supported ISIS in the first place—Turkish government officials among them. No doubt, the Kurds once in power, made some mistakes, but it is notable how quickly they moved to incorporating minorities into their ranks and transitioning to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have had a good record of building a grassroots democracy amidst the ashes of war. That their majority Kurdish leadership may have long-term aspirations to one day become a fully independent Kurdish state should be no surprise, but that they were acquiescing to all U.S. demands upon them to remain within Syria and negotiate some kind of governance agreement with Assad also needs to be noted. The trouble in that regard, is Assad wants to appoint top-down leaders in the area and thereby destroy the grass-roots nature of the Kurdish democracy building. From a position of strength and good governance, with U.S. backing behind them, the SDF had a chance of becoming a real island of democracy, perhaps even one day spreading such, within the Syrian state.

In the meantime, with ISIS defeated territorially, ISIS is still far from total defeat. In recent months ISIS has been attacking on a weekly basis in both Syria and Iraq, and the SDF were busy rounding up ISIS sleeper cells while also holding more than 70,000 ISIS prisoners and their family members, thousands of which are from European and Western countries who have refused to repatriate and bring them home to justice.

Now, amidst the chaos unleashed by Turkey, up to 800 ISIS cadres have escaped when their prison was shelled, with hundreds more ISIS women and children escaping from their bombed and burning camps. Where they will run to amidst the chaos is uncertain, but Turkey and beyond, is certainly a possibility given that when cornered in Hajin, and later Baghouz, SDF leaders told ICSVE that ISIS leaders were asking to be bussed out of Syria into Turkey—presumably believing they would be welcomed into a country that had helped them in the past. 

500 of the worse ISIS cadres are said to have been transferred by U.S. forces from Syria, into Iraq, and possibly more will befall the same fate. For those of us who still believe in human rights and rule of law, even when applied to ISIS cadres, it’s unfortunate that in Iraq these prisoners—many of them Westerners—can expect forced confessions, hurried court proceedings and almost certainly sentence of life imprisonment, or death, based on very little, if any, evidence presented against them. Whereas, in our ISIS interviews conducted in SDF territory, with 100 of the ISIS foreign terrorist fighters, the prisoners stated that they were not being subjected to torture and were fairly treated by the SDF. Likewise, the SDF was working patiently, including in efforts with ICSVE, to gather testimonies and data to prod Western countries into action that have been reluctant to take their ISIS citizens home for prosecution.

While the SDF could only do its important work with U.S. support, this support was not costing us much. Few troops were deployed on the ground and our air support was operating out of Iraq, where it is likely the U.S. forces will stay for some time. That we should not involve ourselves in endless wars or that the troops need to come home is something most agree with, but how and when is also of great importance.

Any U.S. withdrawal of support for the SDF should only occur because they are no longer serving our interests and must take place in a planful and secure manner without allowing for an all-out slaughter of civilians or of the allied forces who, by fighting ISIS, saved Americans countless lives.

Given that the Kurds sacrificed greatly to defeat ISIS territorially on the ground, and when in power, began at once to build one of the only democracies in the middle east that is respecting minority rights and following Western rule of law, while being surrounded by dictatorial and corrupt regimes, it seems we should have continued to give them our full support. Instead Trump has unleashed Turkish forces on a group that Turkey universally treats as terrorists and is willing to violently displace and kill. This sudden betrayal of our loyal allies is a matter that needs to be quickly resolved in Washington, D.C. 

Our American ideals, and our reputation as stalwart and reliable allies, are at stake right now, and this disastrous decision needs to be reversed immediately.  

From our partner ICSVE Brief Reports.

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Strategies for combating international terrorism in Central Asia

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After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has been cast as the site of a new “great game”. Central Asia has been largely influenced by international developments and the emergence of persistent sources of instability and tension in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and North Africa. Some states in the region have succeeded in expanding their relationships with other actors. For example, Kazakhstan has tried to advance its goals by participating in important international issues and designing appropriate policies. Although Kazakhstan has succeeded in this path, most of the countries in the region face major challenges.

At the moment, Central Asian states are facing serious menaces to their security from various challenges like drug trafficking, water disputes, religious fundamentalism and expansion of terrorist and takfiri groups such as ISIS.

Given the increased risk of terrorist groups infiltrating the region, the key question is: “What strategies exist to counter international terrorism in the Central Asian region?” This study suggest that an integrated long-term strategy is an effective and comprehensive way to combat international terrorism.

Central Asia and international terrorism

The war in Syria and Iraq has significantly altered modern terrorism, with radical Islamic militants from Central Asia being no exception. Most importantly, for the first time travelling outside of the region to fight in the ranks of militant and terrorist organisations became a mass phenomenon. In Syria, the radical Islamic militants from Central Asia have established terrorist organisations of their own. These terrorists have Salafi-Wahhabi inclinations and are among the backers of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and Daesh Takfiri groups. They have turned into a potential threat for countries in Central Asia as these international and organized terrorists may one day find their way to other regions and states after Syria. 

Activities of extremist networks which send their members and devotees to Syria have a determining role in the region. Many of the foreign rebels operating in Syria had links to these groups in their own countries. A portion of them are being encouraged by their relatives and friends in Syria to join the ranks of the Takfiri militants, especially older brothers motivate the younger ones to join the terrorists.

The terrorists’ method for recruiting forces is almost the same in most of the countries in the Central Asia. They usually do this through local sources and Islamist groups and organizations that have close ties with al-Qaeda, Salafists and Wahhabists. However, this is not done openly.

A number of terrorist groups are tasked with recruiting individuals to send them to fight in Syria. In fact, all terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the al-Tahrir Party are busy with the recruitment. The Takfiri groups of al-Nusra Front and the so-called Islamic Jihad Union are also employing nationals from Central Asia. In some countries, the process of employment is done through indigenous people. For instance, one-third of all Kyrgyz people who have traveled to Saudi Arabia in pursuance of religious education have turned into extremist Salafi-Wahhabi preachers in Kyrgyzstan. That is why today the Kyrgyz are employing their people to prevent this. 

The Challenges of Combating Terrorism in Central Asia

Fighting terrorist threats in Central Asia is a complex issue. To counter these threats, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian governments have been reevaluating their national counter-terrorism strategies. Counter-terrorism cooperation under the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has its limits because not all the Central Asian governments are members of the organizations. Also these strategies have been mainly established to counter-terrorism within the member states, not the ones stemming from other regions. 

On the other hand, some external actors play a destructive role in improving the security situation in the region. Indeed none of the great powers are not serious fight against terrorism. At present, the security conditions of the region can be made more complicated for several reasons:

First, the spread of terrorism and extremist groups;
Second, U.S. competition to increase penetration;
Third, ISIS’s willingness to be present in the region;
Fourth, the presence of people from the countries of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the ranks of ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria;

Iran and Fighting Terrorism in Central Asia

The rising threats of extremism in Central Asia represent a strong menace for Iran interests. Due to the increasing presence of ISIS forces in Afghanistan, the security of Central Asia remains a top priority on the Iran security agenda. The Iran-Central Asia Strategy should include in its objectives the challenges of foreign fighters and radicalization, drug trafficking and organized crime, and conflicts that require cooperation between Central Asia and Iran.

No one and no country can deny the constructive and positive role of Iran in fighting the scourge of terrorism in the region and the world. Iran’s efforts and assistance to regional countries have helped reign in the violence and bloodshed of ISIS terrorist group in various parts of the world by bringing the self-proclaimed statehood of ISIS to an end in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to advocate dialogue, cooperation and trust among regional countries as the only viable way to end terrorism and devastating wars in the Middle East. In result no country would benefit from weakening Iran in the region.

In the past years, Iran has acted as a buffer zone and has prevented the entry of terrorist groups from Middle East to Central Asia. Iran has always tried to fight with terrorist and takfiri groups. Among foreign actors in the region Iran and Russia have a good cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Iran and Russia are winning the Fight against Terrorism in Syria. Undoubtedly Iran and Russia can offer their experience in combating terrorism to Central Asian countries.

Conclusion

No doubt, security, peace and respect for the sovereignty of countries, as well non-interference in their internal affairs, and an effective fight against terrorism without double standards will be in the interest of all countries in the world.

Fight against Terrorism Requires a holistic and coordinated approach. For the implementation of the international Counter Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia need a Regional Joint Action Plan. Integrating counter-terrorism strategy to political, economic and social development policies is an important part of the comprehensive approach.

In order to combat terrorism in Central Asia, there are a few issues to consider:

1. All States in region to combat terrorism must take coordinated action.

2. Fighting terrorism in Central Asia will not succeed without creating peace and stability in Afghanistan.

3. Combating terrorism requires the formation of a regional and international coalition with States that really have a concern for countering terrorism, not the countries that have been sponsors of terrorist groups.

4. The fight against terrorism requires the use of past experiences in this regard. Iran and Russia have considerable experience in combating terrorism.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Fighting Terrorism Online: EU Internet Forum committed to an EU-wide Crisis Protocol

MD Staff

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The participants of the 5th EU Internet Forum, hosted by Commissioners Avramopoulos and King, have committed to an EU Crisis Protocol – a rapid response to contain the viral spread of terrorist and violent extremist content online. The Commission, Member States and online service providers, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, JustPaste.it and Snap have committed to working together on a voluntary basis within the framework set out by the Crisis Protocol, while ensuring strong data protection and fundamental rights safeguards. The EU Internet Forum also discussed the overall progress made in ensuring the removal of terrorist content online since its last meeting in December 2018 as well as how to strengthen cooperation on other challenges, such as child sexual exploitation online.

Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “Since I launched the EU Internet Forum 4 years ago, it has gone from strength to strength, offering Member States and online platforms an effective framework to work together to tackle terrorist content online. We have managed to build a strong relationship of trust and mutual understanding with the internet platforms. I am pleased with the progress we are making and the remarkable results we have achieved. Today, we are taking this cooperation another step further with an EU Crisis Protocol. With this, we will be ready to act quickly, effectively and in a more coordinated way to stop the spread of terrorist content.”   

Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King added: “The events in New Zealand earlier this year were a stark reminder that terrorist content spreads online at a tremendous speed. While our response might be quick, it isn’t quick enough. The Protocol is an EU response to contain the havoc created by such events – in a coordinated way.”

In the aftermath of the terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, government leaders and online platforms agreed on the Christchurch Call for Action. On this occasion, President Juncker announced the development of an EU Crisis Protocol in the context of the EU Internet Forum. The EU Protocol will allow Member States and online platforms to respond rapidly and in a coordinated manner to the dissemination of terrorist content online in the event of a terrorist attack.

The EU Crisis Protocol endorsed by the EU Internet Forum today will:

    Provide a coordinated and rapid reaction: Member States’ authorities, together with Europol, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and online service providers will be able to respond quickly, in a coordinated manner to ensure that the spread of terrorist or violent extremist content is swiftly contained.

    Facilitate public and private sector cooperation: In the event of a crisis, law enforcement authorities and online service providers will share relevant information on the online content (e.g., URLs, audio-visual media, and metadata) on a voluntary basis, in a secure way and in real time.

    Facilitate a voluntary arrangement: The Protocol does not replace national legal frameworks or existing national crisis management mechanisms. It should apply only to extraordinary situations where those national measures are no longer sufficient to coordinate a rapid and cross-border response.

The EU Internet Forum also discussed the overall progress made in ensuring the removal of terrorist content online since its last meeting in December 2018 and looked at the emerging challenges. This included, for the first time, a discussion on the global threat of online child sexual abuse and exploitation. Cooperation between public authorities and online platforms is key to fight against these horrible crimes effectively. Participants also took stock of the work to tackle the challenges presented by right wing extremism and the radicalising effect of violent political discourse.

Background

The EU Internet Forum was launched by Commissioner Avramopoulos in December 2015 to address internet misuse by terrorist groups. It brings together EU Home Affairs Ministers, the internet industry and other stakeholders who work together voluntarily to address this complex issue. Since its creation, the EU Internet Forum meets annually to take stock of the progress made in removing terrorist content online and to discuss emerging challenges. In 2015, an efficient referral mechanism to flag and remove terrorist content online was created at Europol.

In 2016, at the EU Internet Forum, the industry announced the creation of the “database of hashes” to make removals permanent and irreversible. The database is a critical tool in stemming the spread of terrorist content online. Since its launch, the database has gathered over 200,000 hashes (pictures, videos, etc.) and has helped both large and small platforms to remove such content quickly.

President Juncker announced the development of the EU Protocol in Paris earlier this year when he attended a meeting of government leaders and CEOs of major online platforms that was co-hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

A first exercise to operationalise the Protocol already took place at Europol on 11 September 2019.

The EU Crisis Protocol will contribute to efforts undertaken at global level in the context of the Christchurch call, in particular the Crisis Response Protocol as announced in September at the margins of 2019 UNGA.

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