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Iran’s military activity strengthens al Qaeda in Syria

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Iranian proxy Shi’a militias in Syria

Iran’s dangerous play in the Levant

The analysis of the activities of Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham and his Central Asian allies Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari and the Turkestan Islamic Party, affiliated with Al Qaeda, testifies that the recent military successes of the Assad regime forces and Iranian-backed foreign Shi’a militias helped al-Qaeda strengthen its ideology among the Sunni part of the population in the south-west of the country.Inter-confessional contradictions between Sunnis and Shi’asand peculiar ethno religious diversities of Syria, where the civil war has not ceased for more than seven years, created unique conditions for al-Qaeda to establish here, its the newest and most important safe haven.And it is the government of Syria and the Iranian regime, who actively use the Iranian proxy Shi’a militias, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Lebanese Hezbollah, Zainebiyoun Brigades and Fatemiyoun Brigades in order to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s bloody regime and to exterminate the Sunni majority, are directly responsible for creating socio-political favorable conditions for strengthening the ideology of Al Qaeda in Syria.

Iran, Russia and Syria are spearheading operations to gain territory in Syria and wrestle with al-Qaeda backed Salafi-jihadi groups. Backed by Russian air-power, Iranian-led Shi’a jihadists including Lebanese Hezbollah, Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigades and Iraqi militias and allies are the main boots on the ground.

Liwa Fatemiyoun is the biggest military unit deployed by Iran in Iraq and Syria. It draws recruits from Afghan refugees in Iran and Syria, and from the Hazara Shi’a minority in Afghanistan. Iran offers citizenship to the families of foreign fighters “martyred” in Syria and Iraq, and offers a year’s residency for a three-month deployment to Syria.The Fatemiyoun Brigade has about 20,000 active fighters according to accounts provided by Iranian officials. The Iranian authorities maintain the fighters are volunteers. According to the top Fatemiyoun Brigade’s official, at least 2,000 Afghan Shi’as have been killed and 8,000 more injured in the Syrian conflict.

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps recruits destitute and undocumented Afghan Shi’a refugees who ran from the war in Afghanistan, by offering them permanent residency, financial aid, and other incentives for their families. Other Shi’a refugees were forced to join Iran’s war in Syria to escape prison sentences. Of some 2.5 million Afghans living in Iran, a third are registered as refugees while the remainder are mostly illegal economic migrants.The salaries of Iranian recruits range from $500 to $1,000 a month. Many captured by Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham Afghan Shi’as say that they are attracted to Syria by the promise of a financial reward. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, using the hopeless situation of Afghan Shi’a refugees, cynically and mercilessly sends them as cannon fodder to the conflict points in Middle East to fight Sunni Muslims, whose goal is to create a large Shi’a arc from the Central Asia to the Western Maghreb.

Iran actively carries out extensive ideological indoctrination among the Shi’a militia from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Recruits are told that the war in Syria is a defense of the holiest shrines of the Shi’a faith from attack by Sunni terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, which their recruiters then describe they as a creation of the United States to destabilize the Middle East.

The Iranian authorities keep strictly in secret how much money Tehran spent on financing the pro-Iranian Shi’a fighting groups throughout the Middle East, which have become key players in political and military scenes in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. But the amount of financing is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, which are spent not only to satisfy Iran’s geopolitical ambitions, but this money contributes to increasing Sunni-Shi’a hatred and strengthens Al Qaeda in the Levant, situated in the heart of the most important geography in the Muslim world.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in Syria

Al Qaeda backed Central Asian jihadists in the Shia-Sunni conflict

In the ideological doctrine of the al-Qaeda backed Central Asian Salafi-jihadi groups, who have taken the safe haven in Syria, have recently undergone radical changes in anti-Shia and anti-Iranian trends. While earlier in the propaganda materials Sunni fundamentalists from the Fergana Valley emphasized the struggle with the “unbelieving regimes” of Central Asia and the protection of Islam from the Western crusaders, after the bloody clashes with the Iranian proxy Shia militias in Syria, they equated Iran as the main enemies of Sunni Islam.Since 2015, the Central Asian jihadists’ propaganda has begun to focus on the mass terror of Shias that they commit in the Sunni provinces of Syria after the carpet bombing of Russian Air Force.The information agency Ebaa in Arabic, which is the propaganda mouthpiece of Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham, and the Central Asian jihadists Media Center “Voice of Sham” in Uzbek and Russian languages regularly show on the Internet photos of captured and destroyed Afghan Shia military formations Fatemiyoun Brigade, Iraqi Shia militias LiwaZulfiqar and Harakat al Nujaba, the Lebanese Shia militias Hezbollah, which are controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In their religious sermons during the Juma namaz, the leaders of the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Uygur Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria began to agitate to lead the jihad with “Shia invaders that vilify the sacred name of Islam.”The most wanted Islamic terrorist from Kyrgyzstan, the leader of the Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Abu Saloh, who is a loyal supporter of Al Qaeda, in his audio message, distributed via the Telegram on March 18, 2018, says that: “despite the fact that Iran calls itself Islamic Republic, it was and remains the enemy of Islam.”He then quotes the words of the medieval Sunni Muslim theologian Taqi ad-Din ibn Taymiyyah that “Shias are asses of the Jews, whom they will ride in any trouble”. “And today, when in Sham the Mujahideen defend Islam from the bloody Nusayri regime, the Shias of Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq came to help Bashar al Assad and declared jihad to us, to the Sunnis.Therefore, the expulsion of Shia devils from the Levant is a sacred duty of every Sunni Muslim,”says Abu Saloh.

The analytical department of the Voice of Sham in Idlib, which highlights the activities of the Central Asian Sunni Jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda, wrote on April 15, 2018: “The Shi’a’s Jihad begins when the Sunnis go to Jihad. That is, against the Sunnis. So this time. Iran is an animal, brainless, ugly. He is kept in a cage for a suitable occasion. And he was let off the leash when Jihad began in Sham. But now the animal must be driven back to its lair, otherwise it can bite its owners. That’s why the so-called “Israel” attacks the bases of the Iranians. It’s time to put the beast back on the chain.”

The leader of another Uzbek group, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari Abu Yusuf Muhojir, who was designated by the US State Department to the list of global terrorist organizations on March 22, 2018, firmly supported Al-Qaeda’s position in trying to spread the jihadist ideology among the Sunni part of the Levant.As is well known, Al Qaeda’s Sunni ideology regards Shi’as as heretics and describes them as dogs and a thorn in the throat of Islam from the beginning of time. In his religious speeches before the Sunni Mujahideen from Central Asia, he regularly narrates the typical ideology of al Qaeda. According to Abu Yusuf Muhojir the Shias are conspiring to destroy Islam and to resuscitate Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and ultimately the world.In his video message entitled “The Dignity of Ribat” on May 27, 2018, he says that “Shias are traitors to Islam and accomplices of Russian infidels in Syria.They together help Nusayri’s lieder Bashar al-Assad, whose policies harm the country’s Sunni majority».He on Telegram described Shia as a gathering of devils, whom Allah will punish for their betrayal to the American Zionist-Crusaders in Iraq yesterday and to the Russian Christians in Levant today.

Uighur jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party, which are the military unit of Al Qaeda from Western China, regularly issue statements in which they position themselves as a true defender of Sunni Islam.On June 27, 2018, TIP announced its “full readiness to support the appeal of Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham to protect the province of Dara from the attacks of the Nusayriregime and its Iraqi Shia henchmen.”Recall that at the end of June, the army of Bashar al Assad and the Russian aviation launched an offensive on the southern province of Daraa, a zone that was under a Russian-American ceasefire.American analysts confirmed that they received the first evidence of the participation of the Iraqi Shia militia Liwa Zulfiqar, which is controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Who will force Iran to leave Syria?

As this analysis has shown, Iran’s escalation in Syria, and its mobilization and widespread deployment of ideologically extremist sectarian Shi’a militias from Afghanistan and from throughout the greater Middle East to assist the Assad government is helping Al-Qaeda backed Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham to acquire the title of a true defender of Sunni Islam.The Media Center of Central Asian jihadists “Voice of Sham” described the leader of HTS Abu Muhammad al Julani as “an indestructible mountain that defending the Sunnis from the powerful attacks of Iran’s Shi’a devils and the Nusayri’s army.”

The destruction of predominately Sunni communities by Assad’s army, with the assistance of Iranian-imported, sectarian Shi’a militias, gave al-Qaeda an opportunity to expand its roots in the local Sunni communities.This was facilitated by two factors. First, the fall of the Islamic state who was Al-Qaeda’s ideological competitor in the struggle for leadership in the jihadist world.Secondly, when the international coalition was engaged in the fight against the ISIS, Al Qaeda’s structural units in the Levant restored strength and continued to introduce their ideology among the population.

Today, al-Qaeda’s ideologists have put forward a new thesis that the Assad’s armed forces are helping the Khawarij of ISIS to commit the attacks against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham. One of HTS’s ideologues Abdulfattah Farghaly wrote on Telegram that: “Khawarij again launched an offensive from the Nusayrite territories to the sacred lands of the Sunnis to overthrow these territories in favor of the Assad’s regime, which is evidence that they work for Nusayrites, Shi’as and Russians. Khawarijs are foot soldiers for Shi’a.”In this connection, one of the ideologists of modern Salafism Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al-Tarifi issued the Fatwa that “the Sunni Mujahideen killed by the Khawarijs and Shi’as in paradise will have more reward from Allah than those who were killed by Nusayrites.”

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri subtly feels the changing sentiment of the Sunni majority of Syria and their discontent with the military expansion of the pro-Iranian Shi’a military formations.Al-Qaeda backed Sunni jihadist groups Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari and the Turkestan Islamic Party put forward the idea of fighting the Shi’a invaders and protecting the Sunni territories as the main slogan in their propaganda.

The escalation of Iranian-imported, sectarian Shi’a militias, in the Levant, helps drive recruitment of new Salafi-jihadi fighters for al Qaeda’s military structures.Leaders of jihadist groups from Turkey, Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang have stepped up video, audio and text appeals to recruits to come to join the jihad to protect Islamic lands from Shi’as.My sources in the Fergana Valley reported that the ideology of Al Qaeda is actively spreading among the youth in the region.

After the brutal activity of Iran and its proxy Shi’a militias in Syria and Iraq, the profound transformation took place in the ideological views of Ayman al-Zawahiri about the Shi’as. At the beginning of the Syrian war, he was very tolerant of Iran.On September 6, 2013, in his message “General Guidelines for Jihad” he asked Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to refrain from attacking the Shi’a sanctuaries and their mosques, bazaars, and killing Shi’a women and children, and concentrate their attacks on the military, intelligence agencies and police.ISIS accused al-Zawahiri of being venal to Shi’as and Christians for his calling “Avoid fighting the deviant sects such as Rawafidh, Ismailis, Qadianis, and deviant Sufis” in this guidelines. After Iran’s activity in the Middle East, the leader of Al Qaeda in August 2016 called Sunnis to jihad against the Shi’a and Crusaders, and to prepare for guerrilla war in Iraq and Syria.

Zawahiri has ambitions to make al-Qaeda’s Salafi-jihadi ideology the guiding principle and normative experience of Sunni Muslims in the Levant.While there is a threat of armed expansion of pro-Iranian Shi’a formations, the growth and influence of Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology in the Levant will be difficult to stop.Therefore, Russia and Iran, which allowed Bashar Assad to play a Shi’a adventure, are fully responsible for the reincarnation of Al Qaeda in the region.

The problem is that by military methods alone it is impossible to defeat Al Qaeda in Syria.Unlike the ISIS, al Qaeda does not hold the defense of a particular territory: it does not have its own state with its own management system.Al-Qaeda is a network project that leads a subtle ideological struggle for the minds and hearts of Sunnis in the world.The strength of Al Qaeda is in the skillful adaptation to local conditions, which avoids the advertisement of scenes of cruel executions, as ISIS did.Thanks to skillful propaganda work, the group today acquired the image of a defender of the oppressed part of the Sunni majority in Syria.Iran’s Shi’a expansion and the bloody cruelty of the Assad’s regime, which violated the religious and ethnic balance of Syria, is grist to Zawahiri’s mill.

In this situation, only the withdrawal of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxy Shi’a militias from Syria can knock out the support of al Qaeda.But, despite the efforts of the United States and Israel, Iran as a magnet will be staying in the Levant. Only international economic sanctions, strong political isolation and the growing internal protest of the Iranian people can force Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to leave Syria. Then the counter-terrorist force against al Qaeda would be led by moderate Sunni Arab fighters as Syria is a majority Sunni Arab country.

Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam. Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Member. SpecialEurasia, Team Member.

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How 4chan Radicalizes Youth and Grooms Them Towards Terrorism

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The image board was started in 2003 to discuss anime and various other topics but festered into a safe space for hateful rhetoric soon after. In the aftermath of yet another racially motivated mass shooting by a frequent user, its dangers have finally reached the mainstream.

4chan is an extremely unique website. It has been running since 2003, and over the course of almost 20 years, has influenced many internet memes and phenomena. However, in the wake of the European Migrant Crisis in 2015 and the 2016 Presidential Election, it became associated with white supremacy, especially on its /pol/ board. This hateful rhetoric festered, worsening in 2020 during the COVID pandemic and George Floyd protests. 4chan was sprung into the spotlight once again on May 14th, 2022, when a white supremacists livestreamed his massacre of a supermarket.

This attack, fresh in American’s minds, led many to question why 4chan is still allowed to exist. This comes after 4chan’s rhetoric inspired a 2015 mass shooting in Oregon and its users aided in the organization in the Unite The Right Rally and the January 6th Riots. Clearly 4chan is a hotbed for far-right terrorism. But why is this image board the way it is? The answer lies in its lax moderation of content.

Upon looking at 4chan, you will find it is mostly made up of pornography. However, if you go on the site’s /pol/ board, it does not take long to find the kind of rhetoric that radicalized the Buffalo shooter. One particular post I found featured a racist joke at the expense of Black people. Another was praising fighters in the Ukrainian Azov battalion while joking about killing trans people. Yet another post complained about an “influx of tourists” due to the Buffalo shooter, who they insulted with an anti-gay slur. These memes and jokes seem to appeal to a younger, perhaps teenaged audience. It is clear that they are still trying to recruit youth into their ranks even after the tragedy in Buffalo.

The content is, to say the least, vile. The fact that this stuff is permitted and encouraged by not just the userbase (which numbers in the millions) but also many moderators tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with 4chan. In fact, copies of the livestreamed Buffalo massacre were spread widely on 4chan to the amusement of its userbase.

Many of the users on 4chan are social rejects who feel as if they have nothing to lose. They feel unaccepted and alienated from society, so they turn to 4chan. Many harmful ideologies, such as White supremacy and incel ideologies, seem extremely validating for these dejected youth.  Young, socially alienated men, who make up the majority of 4chan’s userbase, are also among the most vulnerable demographics for radicalization.

What can we do to prevent further radicalization of youth and deradicalize those already affected by harmful rhetoric? First of all, we need to either heavily regulate 4chan or have it shut down. There is no space on the internet for this kind of hatred or incitement to commit horrific acts like what happened in Buffalo. For those already radicalized, we need to perform a campaign of deradicalization among those affected by this rhetoric. But how can this be done?

4chan prides itself on anonymity, so it is difficult to figure out who uses it. Thus, education on radicalization and identification of propaganda is vital. This education should focus on adolescents mostly due to their predisposition towards radicalization when exposed to hateful rhetoric. While White supremacy must be emphasized, other forms of radicalization should be mentioned as well such as Jihadism and other forms of ethnic supremacy. Finally, tolerance must be fostered among all people, not just those at risk of becoming groomed into terrorism.

The age of 4chan has spawned many humorous memes, but it has since become a hotbed for hatred and terrorism. Since memes are able to convey dangerous ideas, websites like Reddit and Facebook need to be heavily regulated to prevent the dissemination of dangerous misinformation. It is unlikely that 4chan will ever moderate itself, as lack of strict moderation is its defining feature. Thus, it has overstayed its welcome and no longer has a place in today’s information-driven society.

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New ISIS Strategy and the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan

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ISKP Uzbek Jihadist

Unlike Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the second late leader of ISIS, who was derided as a “secluded paper caliph” and “an unknown nobody” for his relative anonymity and non-publicity, the new caliph of the Islamic State, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, has apparently launched a new strategy to strengthen linkages to regional wilayahs (provinces) and boost the group’s global presence.

Indeed, during his short time leading the group (31 October 2019 – 3 February 2022), Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi never publicly addressed his followers, which negatively affected the coordination of the activities of Islamic State-Central (ISC) and its regional branch of the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP). Although his killing during a US counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria in early February was a major blow to the global jihadi organization, the change in leadership nevertheless provided it with new opportunities to update its command-and-control, recruitment and propaganda campaign.

Predictably, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the new ISIS overall leader, sees his historical role not only in ensuring the Caliphate’s continuity and avoiding its potential fragmentation but also in establishing a more direct and consistent command line between its core in Iraq and Sham and its Central and South Asian affiliates.

ISIS collage dedicated to rocket attack on Uzbek Termez

The new strategy of the Islamic Caliphate not only gave a new impetus to its Khorasan offshoot waging a holy jihad in post-American Afghanistan against the Taliban but also opened a new front line against the post-Soviet Central Asian regimes. Indeed, the analysis of ISKP activities revealed that the proclamation of Abu al-Hassan al-Quraishi as the new Caliph and the launch of a new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” increased the combat capability of IS Uzbek and Tajik fighters, as well as strengthened the coordination of local language and IS-Central propaganda machines.

Notoriously, on April 17, ISIS launched the new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, and his official spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who were killed in a US raid in February in the northwest Syrian town of Atmeh. In his recent audio address, Islamic State’s new spokesman Abu-Omar al-Muhajir called on the Caliphate warriors to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leaders by “painfully striking” the enemies of “al-mujahideen” and saying that if they kill, they should “kill by many.” This call was made to the group’s followers worldwide and asked them to remain patient, but also be ready when the “war” begins. Al-Muhajir called to expand the campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to the territory of US, Europe and Central Asia, urging Muslims living there to follow the lead of past “lone wolves” who conducted operations that “filled with horror.” He asked them to repeat “lone wolf” operations by stabbing, attacking, and ramming, and drawing inspiration from recent attacks in Israel.

ISKP Threat to Central Asia

Among the first to support the Islamic State’s new ‘global offensive’ campaign were ISKP Uzbek and Tajik jihadists challenging the new Taliban government and dreaming of overthrowing the ‘Taghut (idolaters) regimes’ in Central Asia. Thus, inspired by the new Caliph’s new strategy, for the first time in the history of the Islamic State, they managed to conduct a transnational jihadi operation from Afghanistan to the territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Initially, on April 18, 2022, the ISKP fired ten rocket salvos into the territory of Uzbekistan, which was successfully exploited by the Uzbek-speaking regional jihadi media and IS-Central’s propaganda resources as evidence of the opening of a “second front” in the Central Asian direction. Expert assessments clearly observed the good coordination between the IS-Central’s media and ISKP’s local jihadi mouthpieces, both in terms of Islamic ideological content and hierarchical sequences.

ISKP Uzbek nasheed performer Asadulloh Urganchiy

The Islamic State-Central’s Amaq News Agency reported that “Mujahedeen of the Caliphate have fired 10 Katyusha rockets at a murtad (apostasy) Uzbekistan’s military base in the border town of Termez.” The ISIS central media wing also released a photo and video of the projectiles to back its claims. Another IS-Central’s weekly al-Naba newsletter also widely covered the topic of rocket attacks by detailing how the projectiles were fired from Afghan territory on the Central Asian nation.

Following IS-Central official news agencies reports, IS-Khurasan Willayah’s local media outlets, such as Al-Azaim Foundation and Khurasan Radio, the Uzbek-language Xuroson Ovozi (Voice of Khurasan), Tavhid Habar (Tawhid News), Tajik-language Telegram channels Mujahideen of the Caliphate and The Army of the Victorious Nation published a series of audio, video and text messages in Uzbek and Tajik detailing the goals, causes, and consequences of the rocket attack. In particular, Al-Azaim Foundation glorified the rocket attack as “the heroism of the brave lions of Allah Almighty punishing the corrupt army of the murtad Uzbek government.”

The ISKP media outlets were extremely outraged by the Uzbek government’s denial of the rocket attack, claiming that nothing had landed on their territory. In response, pro-ISKP Uzbek, Tajik and Russian Language Telegram channels re-posted IS-Central’s statement, photos, videos of the attacker and a map marked with the possible rocket impact location in Termez.

Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi experts’ attention was drawn to a 24-minute audio address of Khuroson Mujahid, the leader of ISKP Uzbek group, whose speech style and ideological views strongly resembled the late ISIS chief strategist Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. His speech revealed that the ideological vision of ISKP Central Asian jihadists, staunch followers of Takfiri Salafism, is in line with the Islamic State’s global agenda. He considers democracy to be the religion of “murtad states” of Central Asia, the Taliban government and Pakistan. He believes that due to committing shirk (idolatry), deviating Allah and doubting Tawheed (God’s Oneness), the leaders of taghut countries should be killed.

Considering Khuroson’s oratorical skills, Takfiri persuasion and ideological savvy, it is quite possible that the ISKP recruitment and incitement campaign will intensify in Central Asia in the near future. Obviously, the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP in the military, media and ideological directions reached a new level in the more permissive operating environment of post-American Afghanistan.

On May 7, the ISKP carried out a second rocket attack, this time into Tajikistan. According to the Central Media Office (Diwan al-I’lam al-Markazi) of ISIS, “Caliphate’s fighters fired seven rockets from the Khawaja Ghar district of Afghanistan’s Takhar Province towards the Tajik military base near the city of Kulob.” The rocket attacks on the territories of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for three weeks nevertheless mark a clear escalation by ISKP Central Asian foreign fighters from just hostile anti-five post-Soviet “murtad governments” rhetoric to direct militant action.

Notably, the methods of media coverage of both attacks and the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP’s local media resources were clearly similar. The algorithm of their actions was in line with the new ISIS strategy. Thus, IS-Central posted a brief information about the rocket attacks with video and photos, then the Tajik, Uzbek and Pashto-language local media resources of ISKP glorified the “warriors of Allah”. The Uzbek-language pro-Islamic State Telegram channels Islomiy Maruza Davat Guruh, Khuroson Ovozi, Tawheed news, the Tajik-language Telegram channel of Ulamoi Rabboni (إنَّ اللّٰهَ مَعَنَا) actively propagated ISKR rocket attacks, undermining the image and credibility of the military potential of Tajikistan and the Taliban.

These Central Asian pro-IS media resources, supported by IS-Central propaganda bodies and comprised of a constellation of official branch outlets, regional pro-ISKP groups, and grassroots supporters have become a prominent voice aggressively impugning the Taliban’s reputation in the global jihadi world. Such method makes it possible to preserve the hierarchical structure and maintain a uniform media strategy of the global jihadi group. This reflects that after the fall of the Caliphate and a series of dramatic losses of its leaders, ISIS has learned a bitter lesson and is now moving from centralizing power to strengthening its wilayahs.

Apparently, the ISKP seeks to broaden its appeal in Central Asia both through increasing cross-border attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors and ramping up the production, translation, and dissemination of propaganda directed at Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz communities in the region. These rocket attacks and ISKP’s propaganda campaigns targeting Central Asians for recruitment are any indicators, the group has become a serious jihadi power challenging not only the Taliban government, but also the post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. Through its Uzbek, Tajik and Pashto-language Telegram channels, the ISKP is conducted an unprecedented activity to recruit Central Asian jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as new radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley.

Future of ISKP Central Asian Jihadists

Obviously, the ISKP is exploiting the US military withdrawal from the region and the Afghan Taliban’s deviation from the hardline jihadi concept by successfully portraying their government as a Pashtun ethno-nationalist organization rather than a bona fide Islamic movement.

In conclusion, it is to be expected that the ISKP will actively capitalize external operations to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban government, which assured the US and Central Asian neighbors not to allow Afghan soil to be used to attack Afghanistan’s neighbors. Strengthening cross-border rocket attacks has already raised the morale of ISKP fighters and consolidated its support base.

Thus, the new Islamic State’s strategy to strengthen its offshoots in its provinces is quite capable to reestablish its positioning in the broader global jihadi movement, which we see in the example of IS-Khorasan Province.

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How Memes Can Spread Dangerous Ideas

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Internet memes are an excellent way to send powerful messages to millions of people. But what happens when they are used for malicious purposes?

Memes have been a means of transmitting messages for centuries, proliferating immensely in recent decades due to their mass proliferation through the internet and their ability to broadcast messages to a massive audience. They have quite a bit of cultural significance and can be based on almost anything, provided they achieve viral status. However, memes have been subject to abuse by malicious groups and actors.

From the Blue Whale Challenge, an internet challenge that resulted in multiple suicides worldwide, to terrorist organizations like ISIS, which use internet memes to recruit young people, memes can be used for malicious purposes. Even toxic subcultures like MGTOW serve as a pipeline towards the incel movement. Indeed, such male supremacist organizations are not strangers to using memes and viral media to propagate their ideas and recruit young men and boys to their cause. In fact, one influencer, who goes by Sandman MGTOW, often posts such misogynistic memes and videos on his Twitter and YouTube channel.

These kinds of memes are easily identifiable by their bias towards a specific issue and their often-political message. One great example of a meme that has been subject to abuse by malicious actors is Pepe the frog. Based on a character by Matt Furie, this meme was abused by the alt right, being depicted as controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. The meme was so badly abused by these far-right actors that it was listed as a hate symbol by the ADL.

Memes have also influenced major world events like the 2016 election in the United States and the Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010’s, which garnered immense media attention through the use of internet memes and viral media. This shows that memes can have the power to influence elections (albeit slightly) and topple oppressive regimes. Being a powerful tool for spreading information, there is also the use of memes for spreading misinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic mediated a sizeable but modest anti-vaccine movement in countries like the United States, Canada, and Germany. These anti-vaxx groups used social media like Facebook and Reddit to spread memes full of misinformation and pseudo-science It can also be argued that memes were effective tools in spreading misinformation around the elections of 2016 and 2020 in the United States. Memes, while powerful, can be used by malicious actors such as far-right groups and anti-vaxx groups to peddle false information. This has contributed to the US having a COVID death toll of over one million, higher than most other countries worldwide.

The world has progressed quite a bit in the information age. People are able to communicate ideas with millions of people worldwide in seconds. The proliferation if information has never been more efficient in history. That is why the threats that arise from the mass proliferation of memes and viral media are so dire. As was seen during the 2016 and 2020 US elections, COVID, and Arab Spring, memes can be spread to convey messages that can change nations, affect millions (perhaps even billions) of people, and topple dictators. It has become possible for people to change the course of history with a single tweet or a single meme on Reddit or Instagram going viral.

What can we do to stem the massive proliferation of memes that serve to recruit people into dangerous organizations and fill their minds with misinformation? The answer lies in how we confront our biases and how we detect misinformation. People need to be informed about how they can detect bias and propaganda, in addition to using independent fact-checking services. By identifying propaganda from malicious actors and misinformation from online groups, we can stop the spread of dangerous memes before they proliferate.

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