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How ISIS Disseminates Propaganda over the Internet Despite Counter-Measures and How to Fight Back

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Authors: Lorand Bodo, M.A. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]s ISIS is rapidly losing its territory in Syria and Iraq they continue to win on the digital battlefield, maintaining a strong recruiting presence in the digital space[1]. As ISIS cadres inspire and even direct terrorist attacks on different continents, the West must realize that it is long past due to mount a strong and resolute digital battle against ISIS—to stop them radicalizing and guiding the world’s terror plots from afar[2].

To fight terrorist propaganda on the Internet, social media companies, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have all instituted take down policies[3] and teamed up with Microsoft to create a database of unique ‘fingerprints’ to automatically detect terrorist propaganda in the form of images and videos[4]. Additionally, Facebook has recently announced that it would develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) software to review content on their social network[5]. Likewise, Jigsaw—Google’s technology incubator and think tank—came up with a clever approach by utilizing the so-called ‘Redirect Method’[6]. That is, once certain keywords and phrases are typed into Google’s search box, links appear that redirect the user to content that is deemed as effectively countering ISIS’ propaganda[7]. Despite these efforts, however, ISIS still continues to successfully disseminate its propaganda on the internet.

A recent study did find a productivity drop of approximately 36 percent as in contrast to ISIS’ productivity height in the summer of 2015,[8] yet intelligence professionals credit ISIS with five new recruiting videos a week and there was a bump in ISIS propaganda following the London attacks[9]. Likewise, in two recent studies ICSVE research fellows located over the space of only a few hours over 50 English and 70 Albanian speaking ISIS endorsing, spreading and following Facebook accounts.[10] YouTube also continues to host for months at a time numerous ISIS promoting testimonies and videos as documented by a researcher following ISIS propaganda on YouTube.[11] Likewise, as ISIS has found it more difficult to operate in the non-encrypted space they have learned to coax their followers into the encrypted spaces of Telegram, WhatsApp etc. where they are further lead down the terrorist trajectory—encouraged to travel or stay at home to mount terror attacks.

It’s imperative to understand ISIS’s current social media and Internet-based dissemination process before we can judge the effectiveness of existing counter measures. To do so, we conducted a small study on the dissemination of ISIS propaganda on the Surface Web – that is the proportion of the World Wide Web, which is indexed and thus searchable with standard search engines such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo etc.[12]

Based on our previous Facebook research, we used hashtags, keywords and phrases in English and Arabic known to identify ISIS followers, endorsers and distributers on social media. Once again we quickly identified several social media accounts, websites and forums hosting ISIS propaganda. Most interestingly, however, we found that all these sources link back to a single source—what we call the ’Daily Harvester’.

The ‘Daily Harvester’ is a person or group of people that collects official ISIS propaganda, creates and shares a 40 to 80 page ‘daily briefing’ containing everything from pictures to videos to news bulletins. These summaries intend to ‘inform’ ISIS supporters on a daily basis by providing a summary of yesterday’s events, news and media releases. However, these daily briefings have also the potential to radicalize others as well as foster the existing belief system of already radicalized individuals.

In this case, the Daily Harvester is called Abu Abdellah Al-Ifriqi [أبو عبد الله الإفريقي][13] and even has created his own logo (see Figure 1). We assume that Abu Abddellah is an official ISIS representative.

abuAbdellah

Figure 1

We monitored Abu Abdellah for approximately one month (March 16 to April 16, 2017) to identify the key phases and tools he uses in the dissemination process (Fig.2).

ClusterChart4

Figure 2 (Created in Lucidchart)

Four distinct and consecutive phases emerged in observing his activities. First, the Daily Harvester monitors official ISIS media outlets, such as Amaq News Agency or Al-Hayat Media, for example. Second, he then collects published audios, documents, news, photos and videos and puts everything together into a single document. Third, he uploads the briefing onto only two websites – justpaste.it and addpost.it. These ‘paste-websites’ allow anyone to simply paste and publish content on the Surface Web by providing a unique link that can be shared. Finally, the harvester uses the generated link and shares it via social media platforms, forums and other websites to reach out to as many people as possible with a vast compendium of current ISIS propaganda.

Abu Abdellah is not the only Daily Harvester. Daily Harvesters are incredibly dangerous because they spread a huge quantity of ISIS propaganda at the click of a link, making it accessible to anyone. Put differently, anyone who knows how to use Google will be able to find these briefings and it’s a simple matter using Google Translator to read and view them in ones own language. For this reason, we need to take action against these simultaneous compilers and distributors of ISIS materials. If we don’t do that we will see repeats of what happened in London, Stockholm, Nice and Toronto, to name but just a few—as these attacks occurred as a result of Internet enticement into ISIS ranks and thinking.

There is no doubt that this will be an incredibly difficult task, however, based on our analysis, we recommend two strategies for the digital battlefield: First, we need to disrupt the dissemination process and second we need to counter their propaganda by pushing counter-narrative materials that will appeal to ISIS followers and endorsers into the digital spaces where they lurk and currently imbibe of ISIS poison.

Counter-narratives: Using emotionally evocative and strong counter-narrative materials, preferably that rely on ISIS insiders denouncing the group as ICSVE is producing in multiple languages—because we know that ISIS followers narrow their attention to listening only to ISIS insiders[14], we recommend using the same hashtags as used by the ‘Harvester’ to reach out to those who are looking for the daily briefings. Likewise, we recommend using justpaste.it and addpost.it to upload and publish counter-narratives as this would be appealing to those who regularly visit these websites to access the Harvester’s briefings.

Disruptive measures: We recommend the development and use of an automated and artificial intelligence based detection software for social media platforms, in particular Twitter and Facebook. This searches, amongst others, for three things: First, hashtags used by the Daily Harvester and secondly, links provided, such as justpaste.it and addpost.it. Abu Abdullah, the Daily Harvester we studied for example, uses only these two websites. Lastly, we discovered social media that accounts on Twitter and Facebook that disseminated the link, were not permanent and in fact, changed on a daily basis. Therefore, as a final point, we recommend integrating the age of an account as an important indicator for potentially being a disseminator.

Disrupting the link between the website that hosts the content and potential ‘customers’ is more effective than trying to directly take down the Harvesters themselves or the hosting websites. That is due to several reasons: first, Daily Harvesters can be easily replaced. Second, daily briefings can be published on millions of other websites; hence, tackling websites would result in a cat and mouse game. Third, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. are popular social media platforms and there are little to no alternatives in terms of reaching out to millions of people, which also implies that ISIS will continue to covertly and cleverly attempt to exploit these platforms.

Additionally, fake ‘daily briefings’ could also be uploaded to these sites following the Daily Harvester’s protocols with malware to enable law and intelligence forces to gather sensitive information on those who download the briefings.

ISIS is losing on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, but is winning in the digital space – we need to adapt and fight back.


Reference for this Article: Lorand Bodo, M.A. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. (April 22, 2017) The Daily Harvester: How ISIS Disseminates Propaganda over the Internet Despite Counter-Measures and How to Fight Back. ICSVE Brief Reports. http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/the-daily-harvester-how-isis-disseminates-propaganda-over-the-internet-despite-counter-measures-and-how-to-fight-back/

[1] McDowell-Smith, A., Speckhard, A., Yayla, A. S. (2017). Beating ISIS in the Digital Space. Focus Testing ISIS Defector Counter-Narratives with American College Students. Journal for Deradicalization, Spring 2017, No. 10, pp.50-76.

[2] Callimachi, R. (2017, Feb 4). Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/world/asia/isis-messaging-app-terror-plot.html

[3] Twitter (2016, Aug 18). An update on our efforts to combat violent extremism. Retrieved from https://blog.twitter.com/2016/an-update-on-our-efforts-to-combat-violent-extremism

[4] Associated Press (2016, Dec 5). Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube team up to fight terrorist propaganda. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-internet-terrorism-20161205-story.html

[5] BBC (2017, Feb 16). Facebook algorithms ‘will identify terrorists’. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-38992657

[6] Unknown Author (2017, Apr 17). The Redirect Method. Retrieved from https://redirectmethod.org/

[7] Greenberg, A. (2016, Jul 6). Google’s Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2016/09/googles-clever-plan-stop-aspiring-isis-recruits/

[8] Winter, C. (2017, Mar 23). ICSR Insight: The ISIS Propaganda Decline. Retrieved from http://icsr.info/2017/03/icsr-insight-isis-propaganda-decline/

[9] Speckhard personal communication from Belgian Intelligence/OCAM, March 17, 2017

[10] Speckhard, A., Bodo, L., and Shajkovci, A. (under review). Fighting ISIS on Facebook-Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narratives Project; Speckhard, A., Fazliu, H., Bodo, L., and Shajkovci, A. (under review). Bringing Down the Digital Caliphate-Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narratives Intervention with Albanian Speaking Facebook Accounts.

[11] Mehdi Zograib personal communication to Anne Speckhard, March 11, 2017.

[12] Weimann, G. (2016). Going Dark: Terrorism on the Dark Web, in: Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol.39(3), pp.195-206.

[13] Thereafter referred to as ‘he’

[14] http://www.icsve.org/research-reports/beating-isis-in-the-digital-space-focus-testing-isis-defector-counter-narrative-videos-with-american-college-students/

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New strategy of U.S. counter-intelligence: Real and unreal threats

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The newly published US Counter-Intelligence Strategy for 2020-2022 puts Russia and China at the top of the list of countries that pose a threat to the USA. “Russia and China are operating throughout the world, using all power instruments at their disposal against the United States, resorting to a wide variety of modern intelligence methods”, – the document says.

The strategy formulates five objectives for the counter-intelligence service: to protect the critically important infrastructure, cut the number of threats to basic supply chains, counteract the exploitation of American economy, defend the American democracy against foreign influence, and repulse cyberattacks and technological disruptions that could come from foreign intelligence.

The US has made public only a brief 11-page version of the strategy, whereas its full, classified variant will be submitted to members of intelligence committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate, to White House officials, heads of corresponding agencies and other officials with access to classified information. The mere list of goals for counter-intelligence gives rise to questions such as whether they are fully grounded or whether they are all but tribute to the current political trends in the USA.

As we read «protect the American democracy against foreign influence» we understand what they mean by ‘foreign’ – both Democrats and Republicans keep talking about Russian interference in American elections. Although this talk has long been dismissed by many as inconsistent with reality, it nevertheless, continues unabated.

The strategy, published on the website of the US National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center, is a renewed version of the 2015 document. The Center’s Director, William Ivanina, said as he presented the report that modern technology – artificial intelligence, encryption technology, internet of things – make the work of counter-intelligence more complicated. According to CBS, W. Ivanina has been saying since 2014 that China poses the most serious long-term threat to US security. In his words, the theft of American intellectual property, allegedly committed by the Chinese, cost the US 400 billion dollars annually.

Statements about stealing intellectual property are not new and are being exploited by the Americans to justify a trade war they are waging against China. It is not for the first time that the Trump administration is resorting to “banned methods” adding the country’s economic problems to the list of national security threats, which makes it possible to introduce restrictive measures against China.

The strategy in question is seeing light just as the debates on a new American budget are getting under way. This is not accidental given that documents of this kind can justify budgetary spending. In 2021 the US government is planning to spend $1.5 billion to counter “China’s influence” and another $596 million to establish “diplomatic cooperation for securing the strategy in regions of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A statement to this effect is part of the press release circulated by the US State Department and published after the White House submitted to the Congress a draft budget for the next fiscal year.

However, proposals on the budget, though reflecting the position of the US administration, do not always become law. In most cases, the US Congress approves the budget depending on the political situation at home. Now that they have sustained defeat on Trump’s impeachment, the Democrats have a good chance to take it out on the budget. Democratic minority leader in the Senate Chuck Schumer has described the draft budget submitted by the incumbent administration for the next year as “a plan to destroy America”.

Considering that these are all but domestic political games, it is not immediately clear what Russia and China have to do with them.

From our partner International Affairs

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Modi’s extremism: Implications for South Asia

Sonia Naz

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Hindutva is a main form of Hindu nationalism in India this term was popularized by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in the 20th century. It is reinforced by the Hindu extremist volunteer organization Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and Hindu Sena. Hindutva movement has been expressed today as almost fascist in the classical sense (sticking to a disputed idea of homogenized majority and dominance of culture).  The Hindutva moment has gained enormous momentum under the government of Modi (Zaman A. , 2019). Under the Modi’s government dozens of Muslims have been killed for the protection of cows. Most of them are those who allegedly slaughtering cows. These attacks indicate that Hindu extremism has increased. Even, lower caste Hindus also faced violence from hardliner Hindu extremists. (Zaman A. , 2019) .

The prevailing extremism in India is no longer a national issue, but is spilling over to become a regional flashpoint and has worldwide implications. The regional stability is endangered due to the current situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK) (Qureshi, 2019). Since the Modi’s extremist policies revoked article 370 of the constitution of India in which special and independent status had been given to the Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK). This kind of extreme move of a fanatical ruler was expected, whereas, such kind of unconstitutional effort of a democratic government was not expected. Moreover, it is not only a violation of India’s constitution, but it is also a breach of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, which confirmed Kashmir as a disputed territory.

Furthermore, Article 370 and 35-A cancellation changed the demographic structure of IoK. Article 35A prevented the outsiders from staying, buying properties, getting local government jobs or scholarships in IoK than it annulment permitted outsiders to buy properties there.  Hindutva forces are trying to conquer the IoK territory with its 800000 military crowd, which is making the situation more instable there. It would not have lasting consequences for India, but for the whole region (Jaspal, 2019). The Kashmir imbroglio should be the concern of the entire world because it is a perilous flashpoint that could lead to a catastrophic war between two nuclear powers. If this happens, it would not engulf the region, but the entire world. The International community is insensitive towards the recent brutal developments have taken place in IoK. The brutalities boldly committed by the more than 500,000 Indian troops in the occupied valley. There should be a strong response of big powers and the international community towards the atrocious changes in India (Elahi, 2019). 

It is not the first time, Narendra Modi’s administration has involved in many disputes with the regional countries which has put the regional security at risk. Like, the Modi government relationship is not just deteriorated with Pakistan, but other neighbouring states too. In 2015, Madhesi Crisis in Nepal and border issues tensed the India Nepal relations. However, India restricted the flow of trade at the check posts whereas; India did not accept this blame. India also has not good relation with Sri Lanka since 2014 as Sri Lanka has been more disposed towards China with the signing of the infrastructure projects of belt road and initiatives. Moreover, New Dehli was concerned about the harbouring of Chinese submarines in Colombo and ruler of Maldives Abdulla Yameen signed fee trade treaties with China, which was not digestible for India (Wong, 2017).

India’s offensive nuclear posture towards Pakistan and increased violation of the Line of Control (LoC) has made the situation more adverse. India holds Pakistan responsible for every attack on its territory and its attitude towards Pakistan is very hostile. The Pathankot attack in 2016 and Pulwama attack in 2019 increased the resentment as Modi government blamed the attack on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad. Pakistan asked India to provide evidence so that Pakistan can take action, but no evidence had been given. The Indian air force claimed launching air strikes on the camp of Jaish-e Mohammad mountainside in the Balakot region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa . While, following the attack international media and local media disgraced Indian claim of launching the attack and killing many militants. Next morning, Pakistan shot down an Indian MIG 21 fighter and captured the pilot who violated the Pakistan airspace. Still, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan showed peace gesture and released the captured pilot.  (Shoukat, 2019).

The Indian airstrike’s that were launched in response to Pulwama attack were clear a breach of Pakistan’s space sovereignty. It was a clear perspective of war, however; India has continued to justify its position by calling it non-military strike. It was extremely reckless behaviour of a nuclear state. Even, history shows that such events are very rare between nuclear weapons states while the US and Russia never engaged in direct airstrike’s (Jan, 2019). Afterward, an Indian submarine also detained by the Pakistani Navy, which tried to infringe Pakistani water.  India blames Pakistan for every attack and defies the Pakistan air, space and land territory itself. Besides, India is also responsible of sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan through its spies as one of them is Kulbushan Yadav (Shoukat, 2019).

 India’s nuclear doctrine also changed from No First Use (NFU) to First use. The false description of surgical strikes and attacks on non-state base points has demonstrated the uncertain security environment in South Asia.  The Indian nuclear doctrinal change increases the security risks in the region, particularly for Pakistan and China. At Pulwama, Pakistan clearly exposed India’s long-held fable of conventional superiority. At the same time, it is obvious that India would keep its behaviour hawkish towards Pakistan under the radical Hindutva mindset (Nawaz, 2019).

Additionally, India took another major step against the Muslims as it passed a bill on December 9, 2019 that would give the nationality to those migrants who want to become citizens of India except Muslims. This step of Prime Minster would increase the Modi Hindu-nationalist agenda. It would modify the India secular status, preserve by its founders in 1947. The Citizenship Amendment Bill passed by the lower house, the Lok Sabha with 311 votes. Now, it would be presented in the upper house and would become law soon. Hindu extremist agenda deeply unsettled the Muslims with this new law as they would make more than 200 million Muslims second class citizens and many of them stateless. It is not first extremist step of Modi, he also stripped away the autonomy of Kashmir, which was Muslim majority Indian occupied state.

 Furthermore, Hindu fundamentalist build a new temple over the remains of the demolished mosque in the Ayodhya. According to Modi this would protect the maltreated Hindus, Christians and Buddhists who want to migrate from Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, this brutal legislation would extradite innocent Muslim residents, even those whose families have been in India for generation, if they cannot provide evidence of citizenship. Under the Modi’s leadership, attacks and intimidation against Muslim community have augmented and anti Muslim sentiment has become deliberately more mainstream. The people of Assam are protesting in the streets and hoisting placards again the bill because it is against their rights and identity (Gettleman & Raj, 2019).

Besides, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen cancelled his visit for two days Indian Ocean Dialogue and Delhi Dialogue XI, to India. He also rejected a statement by Indian home minister Amit Shah that the new citizenship law will provide safety to “persecuted minorities” from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.  An official visit to India by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been delayed due to the unrest in Assam. Following the protests began in Assam, a curfew was forced in four of the main cities in the state and the internet was shut down. Two paramilitary battalions were deployed to contain the demonstrations. (News, 2019).

In a nutshell, as evident from the aforementioned  brutal developments, it seems that India aspires to increasingly showcase itself  hegemon and potential big power in the region. The Prime Minister Modi government is impressed by the Hindu extremist ideology and making IoK its integral part by forcefully. Its hawkish policies towards Muslims in India and IoK has once again put at stake the peace and stability of the entire region of South Asia. Indian government not only targeting Muslims everywhere, but it is also seizing their identities which is dismantling secularism foundations of India. Moreover, Indian hawkish nuclear posture increases arms race in the region and it is not only threat for Pakistan but the entire region.

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Emerging Cyber warfare threats to Pakistan

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The potential for the next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyber-attack.” -Leon Panetta

In the modern era, war has been revolutionized due to rapid advancements in technology. As a result, cyber security along with its pros and cons is contributing increasingly to modern warfare. Pakistan, however, is still in the developmental phase of cyber security. Although Pakistan has passed its first law related to cyber-crimes, in the form of the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, the overall legislation related to cyber security is still vague and not as strong to deal with the dynamic and broad-ranging nature of threats that emanate from the realms of cyber security.

In recent years, the government has taken some initiatives in order to build capacity amongst the general public such as through PAK-CERT, Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence & Computing (PIAIC), Skills for all Hunarmand Pakistan, Kamyab Jawan, and National Vocational & Technical Training (NAVTTC).Yet, as has been the case for quite some time, most of these initiatives are aimed simply at spreading greater awareness to help lay the foundations for a more robust cyber security architecture. Amidst such developments, the question that arises for Pakistani policymakers is thus where their country currently stands in the cyber domain and how cyber warfare is posing threats to its national security.

In this era of innovation and connectivity even major powers such as the U.S, Russia, China, Israel and the United Kingdom remain vulnerable to an evolving spectrum of cyber threats. Across the world, states are now increasingly dependent on cyber technology which has greatly increased their chances of vulnerability. The most known example is 2015 Stuxnet virus, whereby a devastating cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities wreaked havoc such as at the Nantaz Nuclear facility, significantly rolling back the Iranian nuclear program. Similarly, the WannaCry outbreak in 2017 caused mass disruption by shutting down vital computing systems in more than 80 NHS organizations in England alone. This resulted in almost 20,000 cancelled appointments, 600 GP surgeries having to return to pen and paper, and five hospitals simply diverting ambulances, unable to handle any more emergency cases. Widely attributed as being state sponsored, the attack set another devastating precedent testifying to the wide-ranging vulnerabilities that exist even in some of the world’s most advanced countries. 

Pakistan’s cyber space too is insecure for many reasons because Pakistan is dependent on others for technology. According to leading global cyber security firms such as Symantec, Pakistan is among the ten most targeted countries in the world. Main targets include Pakistan’s nuclear and other critical installations, with publicly revealed assaults on an assortment of media houses, as well as the communications networks, of key government departments including, transport and, basic utilities. Such threats for instance were further confirmed by the Snowden documents released between 2013-2014 that had showed how the NSA was keeping an eye on Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders, utilizing a malware called SECONDATE.

Recently in the year 2019, Rising Security Research Institute has captured the attack launched by the internationally renowned Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) organization “Rattlesnake” through the Rising Threat Intelligence System. This time, the organization had targeted the Pakistani Navy via Target collision hijacking method. Specifically targeting the Pakistan Naval Public Relations Bureau, the attempt was aimed at stealing vital information from secure military networks while planting misleading documents masquerading as official statements from the Pakistan Navy regarding its regional neighbors such as China and India.  Based on such threats, Pakistan must be readily prepared for any kind of cyber espionage and take steps towards establishing a strong national cyber policy to protect its civilian and military infrastructure.

Therefore, at this stage it is imperative that Pakistan seriously focus on the development of a robust cyber war apparatus. This would especially help mitigate the numerous threats being posed to its banking system, as well as major government networks such as its ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as other military networks that have been previously targeted such as in the case shown above. As such Pakistan can take a number of initial steps by developing strategies to prevent malwares and denial of service (DOS) attacks to reduce such threats at least to a certain level.

Yet, Pakistan has still not developed a cohesive Cyber Command or any National Cyber Policy to deal with the regional cyber threats being posed to Pakistan. Even though Pakistan has recently developed a cyber-security auditing and evaluation lab, it is still in its formative stages. There is still immense space to develop advanced tools and research technologies to protect Pakistan’s cyberspace, sensitive data, and local economy from cyber-attacks while restricting illegal penetrations in it. Especially such as the initiative taken by the newly setup National Centre for Cyber Security which aims increase the number of indigenously trained cyber security professionals within the public sector.

Keeping to this trajectory Pakistan should emphasize more on indigenously developing its own cyber security industry so that in the near future it could benefit both its civilian and military infrastructure in the long run. Hence, while Pakistan may be limited in its ability to wage a strong offensive campaign within the realm of cyber warfare at the moment, such steps would go a long way in helping lay the foundations to build something greater on.

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