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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

Kashmir puts Chinese counterterrorism on the defensive

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Heightened tension in Kashmir and evidence of a Chinese military presence on the Tajik and Afghan side of their border with China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang are putting on display contradictions between the lofty principles of the People’s Republic’s foreign and defense policies and realities on the ground.

The escalating tension between Pakistan and India puts to the test what Pakistan and China tout as an “all-weather friendship.” The test will likely occur when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, debates an Indian demand that the South Asian nation, already grey-listed, be put on the organization’s black list.

With the attack and its aftermath unfolding as FATF this week concluded a meeting in Paris, the Kashmir incident is expected to really play out in June when the group is certain to discuss a report that is expected to provide what India considers evidence of Pakistan’s alleged culpability for this month’s attack on a bus in Kashmir that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary personnel as well as Pakistani backing for the group believed responsible for the assault and other militant organizations.

Pakistan has denied the allegations and offered to help investigate the Kashmir incident.

China, however, despite refusing to prevent FATF from grey-listing Pakistan last year, will find it increasingly difficult to defend its shielding of Pakistan in the United Nations and could be caught in the crossfire as it continues to protect Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group believed responsible for the Kashmir attack.

Like in the past, China this week rejected an Indian request that it no longer block designation of Mr. Azhar by the UN Security Council as a global terrorist. China asserts that Indian evidence fails to meet UN standards.

Nonetheless, China’s shielding of Mr. Azhar risks it being perceived as violating the spirit of the 2017 summit in Xiamen of BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – that for the first time identified Pakistan-backed militant groups as a regional security threat.

Question marks about China’s approach to the countering of political violence and militancy also reflect on China’s justification of its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

Concern that militant Uyghurs, the predominant Turkic Muslim minority in Xinjiang, including foreign fighters exfiltrating Syria and Iraq, could use Central Asia as an operational base has prompted China to violate its declared principle of not wanting to establish foreign military bases.

China has been believed to be involved for several years in cross-border operations in Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, both of which border on Xinjiang.

A Washington Post report this week, based on a visit by one of its correspondents to the Tajik-Chinese border provided evidence of China’s military presence on the Tajik side of the dividing line. “We’ve been here three, four years,” a Chinese soldier told the reporter.

Evidence of the long-reported but officially denied Chinese military presence in Tajikistan comes on the back of China’s increasing effort to put in place building blocks that enable it to assert what it perceives as its territorial rights as well as safeguard Xinjiang and protect its mushrooming Diaspora community and overseas investments that are part of its Belt and Road initiative.

The evidence in Tajikistan, moreover, follows the establishment of a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and facilities in the South China Sea that bolster China’s disputed territorial claims.

Beijing is quietly establishing a security presence in CA (Central Asia) that is broader and deeper than just facilities or hundreds of PLA (People’s Liberation Army) soldiers on the ground,” said Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Alexander Gabuev.

Potentially, China’s military expansion into Central Asia could complicate relations with Russia that sees the Eurasian heartland, once part of the Soviet Union, as its backyard. Continued expansion would call into question a seeming Chinese-Russian division of labour that amounted to Russian muscle and Chinese funding.

Like China, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to be nibbling at the edges of that understanding on a visit to Central Asia this month in which he dangled investment, economic assistance and security guarantees.

Mr. Lavrov’s travels followed a visit to Uzbekistan in October by President Vladimir Putin that produced US$27 billion in commercial deals.

“Russia would be smart to rethink its policy towards CA, and base new approach on support for sovereignty of local states. If Russia won’t view the 5”(Central Asian) states as its subjects, they are likely to seek greater engagement with Moscow to balance Beijing’s econ/sec influence,” Mr. Gabuev said, referring to China’s economic and security interests.

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Pulwama Attacks: Pakistan takes on India again

Sisir Devkota

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The attacks by Jaish-e-Muhammed on Indian security forces has come at a tricky time; Modi led government’s reaction to the killings, and the preparations for the 2019 general elections, are two events, that are going to intrigue imagination of wide possibilities. Forty men lost their lives, in the kind of barbarism that India expects from Pakistani non-state actors. Mind the assertion; if media sources in India can prove that Masood Azhar-the master mind, controlled the entire event from a military hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan has landed itself in a great limbo. Masood Azhar is no longer a non-state actor in Pakistan; instead he is a Pakistani non-state actor. Pay attention, there is a difference.

The fact that India failed to anticipate such an attack, again, is beyond sound logic. Terrorist attacks on armed convoys over bordering highways, is but a chilling script that keeps the Indian administration on their toes. Mind the lapse. What a miss!

What happened?

Nobody in India and elsewhere predicted this. PM Narendra Modi did not see this coming. Not the intent, but the magnitude of casualties. For this alone, Pakistani non-state actor(s) calculated brilliantly. They intercepted a psychological lapse of a strong, yet busy Prime Minister. Let us also pretend that there was a rare moment of blunder by the Indian intelligence. That leaves us to the only realistic assumption of what might have happened.

For many years, India has maintained the vocal discourse of Pakistan’s deceitful personality in dealing with transnational issues. The Pulwama killings would have choked Narendra Modi, reminding him the lesson of how a wild animal can never be tamed. More so, not when they promise to not hurt you. Imran Khan is an icon, but no excuses this time, the blood is in his hands. From an observatory perspective, one cannot help but conclude that there is an element of serious political assurance turning into fraudulence.

After-effects

Two months prior to the 2019 general elections, the Indian Prime Minister has woken up to the challenges, that nobody in India would have not predicted. Still, the Pulwama attacks has placed him in a very awkward position. It is a well-documented fact that India can carry out surgical strikes, just like it has in the recent past. Equally, it can only be fair to assume that Pakistan will be ready this time. The story will lose all plot, if Pakistan, like India fails to anticipate another precision attack on its border. Mind the context, it actually means something more.

Reportedly, PM Modi threatened against Pakistani aggression; however, India stands on crossroads. From the Pakistani logic, time has subsided India’s options. Imagine another strike gone wrong in the enemy’s territory. Imagine a full-fledged war, overtaking the carousal of national elections. Islamabad is ready this time. In the worst case, they have managed to manufacture a predictable excuse to penalize India’s confronting military creativity. Pay attention, there are little choices. And the consequences are alarming.

Pakistan’s credibility

Regardless of all legitimate Indian accusations, Pakistan would be less worried, by Indian threats to isolate them diplomatically. While the current Indian rhetoric might be another disguise before their jets ignite for a military crackdown; Pakistan has and will operate with their elements of non-state actors. Hence, there is no question about credibility. Mind the change in Pakistani attitude. Before, non-state actors were merely a means to their ends. Now, the Pakistani military is on the front foot, itching for an Indian reaction. Calculations have been made. The Pulwama attacks are a testimony to their intentions. The international community will be hoping that India will let go this time; take it under their chin, once again. There is an acute wish to avoid a situation of hypocrisy. Given a foreseeable Indian aggression, Pakistan will seek international assurance based on equality. The rules apply the same for everyone.

Distinctive

For good reasons, the Pulwama killings will presumably lead to a peaceful solution. The Indian reaction will be gold for academic books, that are based on solving inter-state disputes. India owes a reaction to all kinds of anticipative communities, on a platform that Pakistan has calculatedly fished for their arch-rivals. The ball is in India’s court. A moment of magnifique for Narendra Modi, or a strategic tit for tat for Pakistan? Mind the set-up. Evenly poised!

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Terrorism

ISIS Smuggler: Sleeper Cells and ‘Undead’ Suicide Bombers Have Infiltrated Europe

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci & Hamid Sebaly

Europe is bracing for a new wave of jihadist attacks by terrorists affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, what “you might call ISIS 2.0,” as Interpol chief Jürgen Stock recently told reporters. Some previously imprisoned jihadists are being released from jail, others are returning to Europe—and to prison—while still others, we have learned, have never been known to police and operate as “sleeper cells” waiting to be mobilized.

It is in the face of such concerns that U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned, despite President Donald Trump’s assertions to the contrary, that ISIS is still far from defeated.

Last week, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) interviewed 18 ISIS cadres held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) closely allied with U.S. coalition forces in Syria. Two of the prisoners interviewed were former members of the ISIS intelligence operation known as the “emni,” sometimes also written as “amni.”

One of them, a Tunisian named Abdel Kadr, was a 35-year-old athletic-looking and obviously clever individual, who had illegally smuggled himself into Europe in 2008 and then managed to get legal residency, to live and work there, by marrying a German. Abdel Kadr claimed to have “found religion” and also, like many foreign fighters, to have been moved by the plight of Syrians assaulted by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which caused him to leave Germany for Syria in 2014, driving an ambulance loaded with humanitarian supplies.

Abdel Kadr ultimately joined and served ISIS until he was captured by the YPG last year. He appears to have had high-level access in ISIS and was open to discussing what he knows while also seeking not to incriminate himself.

Regarding the ISIS emni, Abdel Kadr says there are both internal and external emni networks in ISIS, the former enforcing security within the self-declared caliphate and the latter sending operatives outside of it, to be sleeper cells organizing attacks in Europe and globally. They are not police but intelligence operatives, he said. “They live 24 hours per day with a mask. They are chosen specially for this. They have their own houses, special families. They have been chosen specially, and many were sent back to Europe.”

People smuggling

Prior to joining ISIS, Abdel Kadr had been a human and goods smuggler based in Germany, working between Turkey and Europe. He said he joined the Islamic State alongside his friend Dominic, a white German convert to Islam. Dominic wanted to return to Germany to work as an undercover operative for ISIS and, being fair-skinned with no known criminal history, he believed he could do so undetected. (He should not be confused with Dominic Musa Schmitz, a Salafi who wrote a book in German in 2016 about his disillusionment with Salafi Islam.)

“There are a lot of those who were trained by ISIS to go into Europe,” said Abdel Kadr. The emni member who trained and facilitated many of them was also a white European, an Austrian who went by the kunya, or pseudonym, of Abu Musa al-Almani.

“He was in charge of Germany,” Abdel Kadr explained. “He spoke around seven languages: German, Dutch, French, Arabic, and German with the accent of Austria. He was an Austrian native with long hair and a red beard,” Abdel Kadr said. “He was from a wealthy family in Austria and a convert from Christianity. I met him in Syria, but he was moving everywhere.” He was traveling back and forth via Turkey.

“I heard about this wave that they prepared for Europe,” Abdel Kadr told us. “They asked me if I’d like to go back to Germany. They were saying to me if you want to go back don’t worry about money, but they don’t know how I think.”

Abdel Kadr was content at that time inside ISIS doing business on the side and making considerable profits. And he had a ready excuse for begging off from such a mission. “I have seven pieces of shrapnel in my body,” he explained. “If I pass through an airport they will catch me.” Also, he looks like the Arab he is, and is liable to fall prey to profiling. “They were sending athletic guys who look European back into Europe,” Abdel Kadr told us.

The ISIS emni asked Abdel Kadr to return to his former human smuggling trade. “They wanted me to make logistics and coordination because before I joined ISIS and came, I was smuggling people between Turkey and Greece.” That was when Abdel Kadr was living in Germany with his German wife, making thousands of dollars smuggling Bengalis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans who had already made their way into Turkey on into Europe. The back trails across the border were primitive and rough, he said, but he knew them. “Our bridge to cross the river was a tree we cut for that purpose.”

ISIS intelligence “knew I was a people smuggler. All my German friends knew I was a smuggler,” Abdel Kadr explained. “Abu Musa al-Almani, who was in charge of Germany, came to me in Raqqa with Dominic and asked me about the smuggling. He said, ‘Dawlah [the State, ie. ISIS] needs you. The whole nation of Islam needs you.’”

The emni asked Abdel Kadr to help them smuggle trained operatives back into Europe following the routes from Turkey into Greece that he had previously exploited. Abdel Kadr claims he refused. “I took my injuries as an excuse to escape from this, I have a screw in my leg, shrapnel [from a bomb attack]. It took seven kilometers walking to get across to Greece. My role was five kilometers up to the tree [bridge]. Someone else took them inside, an Algerian guy.”

Abdel Kadr claims that he told ISIS he was no longer fit enough to do it. It may be true that he refused, as he was at the time engaged in a smuggling and trade operation inside ISIS, enriching himself there, or he may in fact have re-engaged in his former trade but did not want to tell us.

The Undead

According to Abdel Kadr, when the emni was going to send a European back to attack they would first falsely announce inside ISIS, and on their external media, that he had been killed fighting or in a bomb attack. But later, it would be revealed that he was actually alive and had successfully attacked in Paris or Brussels, for instance, and had been “martyred” there.

In the case of most suicide attacks in Europe, according to Abdel Kadr, the death of the operative is announced by ISIS a few months earlier, when in fact, “they took them to a camp to train them. Then after you get a communiqué about their action in Europe. The communiqué on this date stated he died in France or Belgium, but for ourselves, seven or eight months before [we had heard] they were announcing his death.”

The same was true of Dominic, according to Abdel Kadr. “ISIS said he was killed, but it wasn’t true. He lived next to me and when I went to see his wife and children inside the ISIS area [in Tabqa, near Raqqa], they told me, ‘He is not killed, but we don’t know where he is.’” Abdel Kadr already knew Dominic’s desire to return to Europe to serve ISIS.

“He’s alive somewhere,” Abdel Kadr told us. “Up to now, there is no communiqué [about his actions in Europe].” Abdel Kadr, who is imprisoned by the YPG and says he is now totally disillusioned with ISIS, claims to have tried to thwart any possible attack by Dominic by alerting German and European intelligence about his friend’s “disappearance” and fake death announcement inside of ISIS.

“There are 1,000 partisans in Europe,” Abdel Kadr claims. “They have a big plan to introduce hundreds of refugees from all nationalities of the world,” he claims, saying ISIS was able to insert them into the refugee streams flowing into Europe. Many are sent to Europe with false passports. “They are processed by surgery, training and language and they send them as sleeping cells. In Turkey they give them hair transplants, surgically change their eyes, even the eye color.” (Presumably that would be with contact lenses.)

At least two of the attackers who struck Paris in November 2015 had entered Europe among refugees and carried false papers.

In 2015, Harry Sarfo, a German whose family originally was from Ghana, and who’d grown up in Britain, working as a postman there before he joined ISIS, was pressured by the ISIS emni to train and return to attack in Germany. He told the authorities, and later Der Spiegel and The New York Times, about his training and knowledge of these ISIS emni activities.

ISIS was telling Europeans to book short vacations in resorts in the south of Turkey, take many pictures, and then come to train for a short time with ISIS to be sent back to join sleeper cells in Europe. Without overstaying their Turkish visas and with the strong alibi of the resort booking and pictures to confirm it, they passed suspicions if questioned by security about their activities.

Abdel Kadr confirmed that this indeed was happening. “They are able to bring a youth into ISIS and then back into his family without the knowledge of his parents. They send him home to Europe after one year in training with ISIS,” he states. “There are some people who came with European faces for a short time and went back through Turkey,” he explains. “Like my friend, Dominic. I think he’s living in Europe,” Abdel Kadr concludes.

When asked about this case and others like it, a high-level YPG security official explains that his organization is doing everything it can to stop such operations. The YPG says it has caught and now holds in its prisons over 3,500 foreign fighters, many of them Europeans.

But the Kurds feel frustrated knowing that these foreigners streamed in through Turkey, some of them received medical help inside Turkey when injured, and most of the logistical supplies and extra food supplies for ISIS were delivered across the Turkish border.

Although the YPG has provided the core ground force working with the Americans to defeat ISIS, President Trump’s decision to withdraw some 2,000 U.S. troops providing logistical and other support leaves the organization in a vulnerable position. The Turkish government insists that the YPG is a branch of the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, which Ankara and many other governments, including the U.S., deem a terrorist organization.

The YPG says the Turks have actually been complicit with ISIS. “They call us the terrorists” another YPG military intelligence officer told us, “but we are fighting terrorism every single day, losing our lives by the thousands doing so and trying to keep Europe safe from such people. We are fighting terrorism, while others are helping them to come and go, in and out of Syria, across our borders.”

Author’s note: Article first published in The Daily Beast

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