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A Resurging Possibility and an Increased Hope for a United Balochistan

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According to the Balochistan Liberation charter formulated under Hyrbyair Marri, the division of Balochistan into several parts is a legacy of the British Empire. The ultimate aim of the Baloch Liberation Struggle is to reunify the divided territories of Balochistan into one country and to grant full sovereignty to a single national Baloch state. Balochistan has for long been cheated out of its sovereignty and faced discrimination within Pakistan. Insurgencies against the Pakistani government started after Pakistan annexed the Baloch state of Kalat in 1948. This state is now divided between Iran and Pakistan. Along with continuous suppression of the Baloch in Iran by the government, Pakistan has been accused of committing genocide in the Balochistan region by Baloch Leaders such as Naela Qadri Baloch, a politician who fled Pakistan and in 2016 even asked India to intervene and free Balochistan.

Many, however, call the movement dead or dying and lack of media coverage in the region has shown a lack of detailing of the current Balochistan movement. This movement has not died down in actuality and there seems to be a spike in the number of attacks carried out around the region by its proponents, most of the recent ones centered around Quetta. A majority of these attacks have been aimed at either the military, paramilitary or police forces. Claims have appeared for most of the major attacks especially by the Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar, a coalition of the Balochistan Liberation Front, the Balochistan Liberation Army and the Balochistan revolutionary guards which have been designated as terror groups by the Pakistani Government. However, there have been no claims against the recent attacks in Quetta which are seemingly random in nature. The attacks may lack in intensity but definitely not in frequency.

This Liberation movement for Balochistan does not only occur in Pakistan but in the Iranian provinces of Sistani and Baluchestan as well. However, there are two different, distinct groups on either side. The Baloch on the Pakistan side find support in the BLA and BRAS and the Iranian side finds its support in Jaish Al-Adl. Their attacks are mostly in retaliation to the Suppression on either side. The Jaish Al-Adl was formed in 2012 by Salahuddin Farooqui and has carried out attacks in the Southeastern province of Iran in retaliation to the oppression of Sunni Muslims. According to reports the BRAS and the Jaish Al-Adl have their differences mostly in regards to Jaish Al-Adl’s religious motivations. The aims of both the groups concerning each other are unclear as there have been skirmishes on the border between them. An alliance between the two seems unlikely as the BLA are beneficiaries of Iran’s ignorance of the group, whereas the Jaish Al-Adl are active fighters against Iran.

On September 9th 2019, banners appeared in front of the venue for the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, highlighting the acute violation of human rights in Balochistan. There have been massive efforts to internationalize this movement in the past as well, but it has always been impeded by the lack of autonomy the people possess. Suppression and extensive military operations have been carried out against the “insurgents” by the Pakistani army in Balochistan, which has been justified on the same basis. However, as mentioned previously, after 30 years of suppression the Baloch still fight on which is apparent in the spike of their continuous efforts against the suppression. These attacks are highlighted in the table below.

Date Death count and attack Attack details Location Perpetrator Reason
30/8/2018 3 Chinese engineers injured Suicide attack by son of Baloch leader Dalbandin, Pakistan BLA  
16/10/2018 12 Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Kidnapped from border outpost Mirjaveh, Iran Jaish Al-Adl In response to previous attack on 4 Sunni militants by IRGC
23/11/2018 4 people (Indian police and civilians) Hour long shoot out at the Chinese consulate Chinese Consulate, Karachi, Pakistan BLA Against Chinese occupation and CPEC
6/12/2018 5 dead + 44 wounded Suicide car bomb Chabahar, Iran Jaish Al-Adl  
14/12/2018 6 Pakistani Soldiers + 14 wounded (Frontier Corps)   Kech District, Pakistan BLA, BRAS  
29/1/2019 3 police wounded Double bombing  Zahedan, Iran Jaish Al-Adl  
29/1/2019 9 Killed (5 police+ 4 civilians), 21 injured Bombing plus firing Office of deputy Inspector General, Loralai, Pakistan Terrorists?  
2/2/2019 1 IRGC killed and 5 wounded   Basij Base, Nik Shahr, Iran Jaish Al-Adl  
13/2/2019 27 Iranian border guards killed Suicide vehicle attacks Bus Between Zahedan and Khash, Iran Jaish Al-Adl  
16/2/2019 2 Frontier corps Killed   Loralai, Pakistan Unknown  
18/2/2019 4 Frontier corps Killed   Panjgur district, Pakistan BLA  
29/3/2019 Several Chinese engineers and workers killed 22 vehicle envoy attacked by remote controlled bomb Hamdard University, Karachi BLA Seeking termination of CPEC- Coincides with Pakistani Prime ministers visit to Gwadar
18/4/2019 14 (10 navy, 3 air force, 1 coastguard) 15 attackers stop bus Makran coastal highway, between Karachi and Gwadar, Pakistan BRAS  
12/5/2019 5 killed (4 hotel workers and naval officer) Bomb on 5-star hotel Gwadar, Pakistan BLA Retaliation to Chinese projects in Balochistan
20/7/2019 1 policeman killed, 10 injured   Double road, Quetta, Pakistan Unknown  
30/7/2019 5 killed, 32 injured Bomb near Police station Quetta,Pakistan Taliban  
26/9/2019 3 policemen wounded   Bypass, Quetta Unknown  
29/9/2019 3 killed and almost a dozen injured Bomb Chaman, Pakistan Unknown  
16/10/2019 1 police killed, 5 injured   Bypass, Quetta Unknown  
21/10/2019 3 killed, 9 wounded   Spinny road, Quetta Unknown  
30/10/2019 1 policeman killed Suicide bomber on Motorbike Loralai, Balochistan Unknown  
(Source: Multiple news agencies based in Pakistan, Iran, India, Saudi and US)     16/11/2019 3 paramilitary troops killed Roadside Bomb Kalach, Quetta Unknown  

Source: Multiple news agencies based in Pakistan, Iran, India, Saudi and US

The general increase in the attacks in the Balochistan region is pretty clear through the data on the aforementioned table. The attacks in Quetta consist of multiple unknown attacks where no groups claimed responsibility. The responsibility of such attacks is generally claimed within one week of the attack but the perpetrators of these attacks are yet to come to the forefront. Seeing that Quetta is the prime factor in Balochistan, being termed as its capital, these attacks must be motivated by the BLA and the BRAS, if not directly carried out by them.

2019 has also seen attacks by the Balochistan against Chinese sponsored enterprises which are part of the China Pakistan Economic corridor. Balochistan sentiments angle away from the investments citing it to be more detrimental to the Baloch rather than beneficial. Hyrbyair Marri, the leader of the Free Balochistan Movement, said that the allegiance of Pakistan to CPEC would be another step in turning Balochistan into a Military Garrison for China. The Baloch now don’t only have to deal with the Pakistanis that have destroyed their sovereignty but also the Chinese influx into the country as well.

The fight for international support has also been on the rise where advertisements have been released in certain prominent papers in the US. A particular advertisement placed by the World Baloch Organization and the Baloch Republican Party in July 2019 in the Washington Post sought support from President Donald Trump. This advertisement addressed to the President calls on the US support in addressing Human rights exploitation, economic deprivation and political exclusion in Balochistan. It also called on the US to bring restriction to the use of US-supplied weapons used on the Baloch nationalist group which were meant to help suppress religious extremist groups rather than them. However, the US government has not issued any official statement regarding the same and it doesn’t seem like it will. The US recently branded both the Jaish Al-Adl and the Baloch Liberation Army as terrorist organizations and seem to classify the entire movement as being motivated by these “terrorists”. Even an appeal from Members of the European Parliament regarding the deteriorating situation in Balochistan in a letter in July 2019 has not received a response from the US government.

On the Iranian side, the Jaish Al-Adl seem to be motivated more by the Sunni identity of the Population rather than the Baloch identity. And therefore, apparent cross border conflicts with the group and the BLA have emerged as well with reports of it being caused due to the over-emphasis on the religious identity. Especially with allegations that the Sunni militant group has support from the Pakistan government, it is unlikely to partake in a unified movement. At odds with Pakistani support, the BLA apparently enjoys covert support through the lack of Iranian attention whereas all the Jaish Al-Adl’s attacks are aimed at the Iranian government. These groups are on two opposing ends of the spectrum not only in terms of their allegiances but also on the basis of religion. The Balochistan Liberation movement in Pakistan aims at a secular Balochistan nation which is at complete odds with Jaish Al-Adl’s Sunni leanings.

The spike in attacks indicates the possibility of a mass resurgence of the Balochistan Liberation Movement. Leaders of the multiple movements have become even more active on twitter such as Hyrbyair Marri, Mehran Marri, Naela Quadri Baluch who have also shown support for the Kurdish cause and the Indian stance on Kashmir in defiance of Pakistan. There has also been a resurgence of protests outside the UN and across cities seeking a Free Balochistan. The Balochistan republican Party in London and the Balochistan Voice Association in other major cities including outside the UN in Geneva have actively protested for Balochistan.

Select active leaders of the Baloch Freedom movement

Hyrbyair Marri

Hyrbyair Marri was born to the family of Baloch national leader Nawab Khair Baksh Marri in Quetta, capital of Balochistan. He completed his early education in Quetta and then moved to study journalism in Russia. In 1997, he was elected to the Balochistan Provincial assembly and became the Education minister of the province. In 1999, after his father was arrested and charged with the murder of Balochistan high court judge, Justice Nawaz Marri, he left Pakistan. He traveled to Europe and was granted political asylum in the UK in 2011. He is the leader of the Free Balochistan movement and Pakistan alleges he is the head of the Balochistan Liberation Army. He has accepted the invitation of, Bharatiya Janata Party’s senior leader and president of Delhi Study Group, Mr. Vijay Jolly to travel to India. On the 10th of December 2019, he will address a seminar on ‘Human Rights in Balochistan,’ in New Delhi.

Mehran Marri

Mehran marri is the sixth son of Baloch nationalist leader Khair Bakhsh Marri and is believed to be the current leader of the United Baloch Army (UBA). He is the brother of Hyrbyair Marri. The UBA was classified as a terrorist organization by Pakistan and also Switzerland. Since being banned in 2013 by the Pakistani government, the group has been largely inactive with no resurgent attacks on any news websites. Marri was arrested at Zurich Airport and put under a lifetime ban on entry to Switzerland on the 16th of November 2017. He was later deported from Switzerland and currently resides in the United Kingdom. Mehran Marri is active on Twitter and continues to show support for the Baloch insurgency in Eastern Pakistan.

Brahumdagh Bugti

Brahamdagh Khan Bugti or Brahumdagh Khan Bugti is the founder and leader of a Baloch nationalist political organization, the Baloch Republican Party which broke away from his uncle Talal Akbar Bugti’s Jamhoori Watan Party in 2008. After the assassination of his grandfather Akbar Bugti, a Baloch nationalist politician, he fled his hometown Dera Bugti in Balochistan in 2006. Initially, he lived as a state guest in Afghanistan and was then flown to Switzerland in October 2010 where he has been living in political asylum with his family. In 2018, India was in talks about granting him citizenship. India would have also given citizenship to Brahumdagh’s key lieutenants in Switzerland, including Sher Muhammad Bugti and Azizullah Bugti, his trusted aides. The BRP has held campaigns all over the UK under the banner of End Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan. The month of June saw an increase in campaigns all over London, resulting in newspaper advertisements, billboard signs and joint awareness campaigns with the World Balochistan Organization. These campaigns also included the flying of “Free Balochistan,” Banners during a Pakistan Afghanistan match at Headingley Stadium, London on June 29th this year. On the 27th of August 2019, Brahamdagh Bugti delivered an address during the martyrdom anniversary of Shaheed Nawab Akbar Bugti saying, “We do not mourn this day but rather celebrate it, for it reminds us, the Baloch in Balochistan and abroad, how Shaheed Nawab Akbar Bugti founded this movement with his blood.” The Baloch Republican Party held events across Balochistan and overseas in places like London, Switzerland, and Busan in South Korea, and his speech was broadcast in the same. He is also believed to be the head of the Baloch Republican Army by Pakistan.

Khalil Baloch

Khalil Baloch is currently the chairman of the Balochistan National Movement (BNM). This party was one of the strongest in Balochistan during the 1990s. It still retains a stronghold and according to its manifesto will actively form a political coalition outside of Pakistan’s National Assembly. It has pledged its support to the Balochistan freedom fighters under this released manifesto. In an email interview, he stated, “The recent escalation in militant attacks is a direct reaction to Pakistan army’s growing atrocities in Balochistan and China’s relentless plunder of Baloch resources.” This interview was published on the 15th of July 2019, and since then there have been multiple attacks again as can be seen in the table above. He also stated in the same interview that the Baloch National Movement is no longer ready to negotiate autonomy in the Pakistani political system but in fact, will fight for a separate state altogether. Dil Murad Baloch, the cultural secretary of the BNM is also a key proponent against the Pakistani forces and atrocities carried out by them. He posts regularly on Twitter as well, condemning the Pakistani armed forces, recently calling out the kidnapping and continuing torture of BNM member, Rafiq Baloch.

Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch

Allah Nazar Baloch is the founder and the chief of the Balochistan Liberation Front. He was born in Mashkai, Awaran District in 1968 and has a premedical degree. He heads the BLF which was designated as a terror organization since being one of the prime fighting groups seeking Balochistan Liberation. In an interview published on 22nd July 2019, when asked about why democratic means have not been used to resolve grievances with Pakistan he said that there is no democracy in Pakistan and the Baloch are compelled to rebel against the oppression and slavery. In a statement, he said that the Baloch liberation movement was moving towards the right direction and every supporter of the Pakistani state are enemies of the envisioned Baloch nation.

Implications of a Resurgence

This resurgence of activity surrounding the Balochistan Freedom Movement can only signify a shift in the lull it had experienced for a while. Though many may call it dead, a united Balochistan may still be in the making. Details of any resurgent movements in Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan is lacking but it is clear that the movement in Pakistan has begun to regain traction. Coinciding with the increase of attacks in the Balochistan region, active protesting across the world in multiple organizations has emerged. The call for help from India has increased especially since Prime Minister Modi showed support in a speech indirectly instigating Baloch Activists to actively seek help.

Quetta has been termed as the home base of the Balochistan Liberation movement seeing that it is the apparent capital of Balochistan. The increase of attacks in this very city emphasizes the significance of the movement’s resurgence. Perhaps, not all attacks accounted for are carried out by either the BLA or the BRAS but the unrest in the city is apparent, further egged on by the heightened international movements surrounding the Balochistan freedom struggle. The Baloch are spread from Iran to Pakistan and even in southern Afghanistan and an integrated new Baloch nation would lead to an uproar in South Asia. Whether the fight for a unified Balochistan would materialize in success is yet to be seen and if so, how much of the region would actually fall to them is another cause for speculation. A proposed map of Balochistan (image 1.0) shows it to possess a landmass almost equaling that of current day Pakistan. It is very unlikely that any of the countries involved would give up their territory as has been clear in the failures of the previous resurgences in the 1970s and 1980s, but the fight for autonomy and sovereignty still persists. The success of a resurgence in Pakistan would depend greatly on successful movements across the border in Iran. Though the council of Independent Balochistan formed in 2009 under Mir Suleman Dawood the Khan of Kalat did not lay claim to the Baloch dominated region in Afghanistan, who is to predict what new demands may or may not be made.

A new country would not only ruffle a good many feathers of these three neighboring states but also of other countries who have vested interests in the current region, the most prominent of which is China. The China Pakistan economic corridor would be the worst affected which is clear in the Baloch hate for the country and its investment in the region. A unified Balochistan or even a radical resurgent movement would bring a complete halt to all the infrastructural under the CPEC. The total CPEC project was valued at about $62 Billion as of 2017, which has definitely been surpassed as of 2019. The Gwadar International Port along with its international airport and the East-Bay Expressway which fall under this CPEC project, all run through the Balochistan region and have been the site of multiple attacks. Interestingly, unified Balochistan will not only contain this port of Gwadar but also the Chabahar port on the Indian side.

Though this resurgence would be highly detrimental to the CPEC corridor and Chinese investments in the Larger One Belt One Road initiative, it is important to acknowledge an important outcome of the same which is the gains that another particular country would make. India has for long been accused of supporting the Balochistan cause in Pakistan and a resurgent Balochistan movement serves to bolster support for India in laying claim to an extra ally in the region. Whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his speech was meant as anti-Pakistan rhetoric concerning the Kashmir issue or actual support for the movement is yet to be understood. However, it is clear that many vested interests in the region will serve to either bolster the fight or open increased fronts against the Balochistan Freedom Movement. Though the movement seems to be increasing in intensity one can still question the optimism that the Baloch and its supporters can afford to have in seeking their sovereignty.

Zeus Hans Mendez is a Research Associate and Centre Coordinator at the Centre for Security Studies (CSS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global Univeristy. He is also a Research Assistant at the Centre for Security and Strategy Studies (CeSCube).

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Religious Extremism and its Dynamics in Pakistan

Abdul Haseeb

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Pakistan has faced lots of problems during its independence. Four wars, insurgency, proxy war, and now extremism is becoming a more significant threat for Pakistan to tackle. External forces are also making footholds and supporting the insurgents to take stand against the state. During General Zia -ul- Haqq’s era, there were no actions taken by the government against the extremist group. Shia community in response to the threat from the Sunni community made Sipahe Sahaba was created by Sunnis to maintain the balance at the sectarian level. In 1996 a splinter group of Sipah e Shaba, Lashkar-e- Jhangvi, which was built by Riaz Basra it is one of the most violent Sunni groups. In the same year, numerous killings occurred in which both sects targeted religious leaders, doctors and highly qualified professionals. During the Nawaz Sharif period as well as Musharraf regime the Sectarian violence was on the peak

Role of Madrassa culture: Madrassa is a place where the majority of poor children come to learn Islamic principles and the Quran. They provide free education to children. The government provides the Zakat fund to run these institutions. In 1988 there were 2862 Madrassas, but now it was increased to 11000 in 2005. Foreign countries are also providing donations to these institutions. Each sect has established its madrassas and preaching their religious school of thoughts due to which religious intolerance is becoming one of the factor in Pakistan resulting in sectarianism

Rise of the Taliban: America won the war in Afghanistan and is now deciding to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan was one of the positive signals for madrassas people. Taliban and Al-Qaeda started threatening the pro-western countries in the Muslims world. Pakistan supported the Afghan Mujahideen after the Soviet invasion, but the International Community started pressurizing Pakistan. Pakistan people’s party and Nawaz Sharif government took some steps to ban the funding of Madrassas and at that time the anti-terrorism act approved by the Parliament which emphasized to combat sectarianism in Pakistan.

General Musharraf joined the war on Terror: General Musharraf joined the war on terror with the US after the 9/11 attack. Pakistan’s situation was getting worst, and extremism was on its peak. He started operation against Lal Masjid due to which extremism level further increased. The Lal masjid religious leader and Taliban were in alliance and Taliban gave warning that if he took operation against it then Pakistan will face further problems and it became a reality from July 14th to 30th fifteen bomb blast occurred mostly in Islamabad. It was due to the cause for launching an operation against Lal Masjid. Attack on International Islamic University, Islamabad in 2009 was another example of extremism. Much criticism was faced by the International community that Pakistan is trying to control extremism from the last eight years, but it failed to cope up the situation. Many terrorist activities could be examined after this war on terror because first Pakistan trained the Mujahedeen against Soviets afterwards, they turned against them. In Baluchistan, the minority of the Hazara community were targeted. The incident that happened in Rawalpindi, 2013 that killed the students of Madrassas was one of the worst examples in the history of Pakistan. In the same year, the Badami Bagh incident occurs.

Extremism level from 2015 to 2020:In 2015 Government presented the National Action Plan in which action was taken against those elements who spread the sectarianism. According to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), sectarian violence attack was decreased to 44%. Combined efforts of clerics, Civil Society and military have decreased the violence of sectarianism in Pakistan. Peace and Education Foundation organized a workshop to bring the religious clerics of different sects on one table and promote Inter Sect Harmony. Many of them declared that the suicide bomb and sectarianism are contrary to Islam. In March 2019, the Pakistani government vowed to have operation against the extremist groups operating in Pakistan. The PM Imran Khan accepted Pakistan’s responsibility in the creation of the multiple militant groups but said that they no longer serve Pakistan’s interests and mentioned that steps were taken against these militants for Pakistan’s stability.

After studying and analyzing the entire factor, It came to know that  Pakistan is made in the name of Islam and Islam teaches us unity, but the individuals have manipulated the concept of Islam. Zia used religion as a tool only to make its authority sustained. Sectarianism came in the mid-1980s. The strategies were made and began to proclaim that who is the Muslim and who is not. They made the mindset of the people on this type of process. Individuals only made sectarianism its existence had become in reality when people focused on it, and they made it real. No patience in the people to hear anything against the religion, human beings can think and can pass his or her point of view, and the people must adhere it and try to resolve through definite proof instead of going to kill that person.

The recent example of Mashal Khan (Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan) who got lynched that he committed blasphemy. The reform required inthe education system so that their mindset can be changed. To kill one or another people on behalf of the sect is a way to remove sectarianism in Pakistan? What happened when Mumtaz Qadri killed Salman Taseer Governor of Punjab? Does the intolerance end? Instead of being emotional, try to resolve these things by addressing the root cause, and Pakistan Government must maintain check and balance on Madrassa’s fund that which country is sponsoring these institutions and make some strict policies. Equality must be made so that inferior complexity can be finished. Pakistan must reform the education system, and policies that were made during the war on terror must be revised.

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ISIS and the Militant Jihad on Instagram

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] is notorious for its slick propaganda videos and effectiveness at online recruitment, particularly on social media, of men and women all over the world to fight for and live under their Caliphate. Now with the territorial defeat of ISIS, its recruiters continue to be prolific online, encouraging supporters to hope and work toward the Caliphate’s return and to seek revenge on those who destroyed it by mounting attacks at home. While ISIS’s activity on Facebook and Twitter, as well as encrypted apps like Telegram, has been studied extensively, there is a dearth of information about their activity on Instagram, a platform increasingly used by young people vulnerable to ISIS recruitment. This article provides a brief examination of ISIS supporters’ activity on Instagram, even in the face of takedown policies, and also briefly discusses the possibilities of using a counter narrative video ad campaign on the platform to intervene in and prevent ISIS recruitment.

ISIS has long been noted for its superior use of social media, resulting in an unprecedented recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). As of 2020, over 45,000 FTFs had traveled from all over the world to fight with ISIS or live under the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. This number peaked between 2014 and 2016, when ISIS was at the height of its reign of terror and has declined since ISIS’s territorial defeat and the 2019 fall of the Caliphate. Yet ISIS still continues to recruit online, urging supporters to seek revenge for the destruction of the Caliphate and conduct attacks in their home countries while waiting and working for the resurgence of the Caliphate. As recently as March and May 2020, ISIS released propaganda videos touting their battlefield achievements in Syria and Iraq, respectively, portraying graphic footage of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers being slaughtered while also calling for revenge against the countries that helped defeat ISIS territorially.[1]

For years, ISIS would blanket the Internet with their high-quality, professionally produced propaganda videos and written content and then use the immediate feedback mechanisms of social media to swarm in on and “love-bomb” anyone who liked, retweeted, commented on, or otherwise responded to their posts. In this manner, ISIS cast a wide online recruiting net but devoted their time and energies trying to seduce further those who showed interest and vulnerability to their online propaganda. Today’s online experience with video chat, online telephoning and text messaging allows ISIS’s online recruiters operating in at least 25 different languages to create deep and meaningful relationships with those on whom they are able to home in. As they do so, they artfully identify and meet the specific needs of their prey, creating intimate relationships and crafting individualized message that promise dignity, purpose, hero status, love, or anything else sought by the recruit should they attack on ISIS’s behalf or travel to fight for them. Due to this advanced recruitment strategy, ISIS was able to attract a significant amount of foreign terrorist fighters solely online, with no face-to-face recruitment. [2]

Because ISIS has been so prolific and so effective at using social media to radicalize and recruit, policy makers, scholars, and practitioners alike agree that effective efforts to prevent and counter violent jihadist extremism also require a social media aspect. Jihadists’ use of myriad platforms, including Twitter, Ask.fm, and Telegram have been studied extensively, and counter narratives have also been used in online campaigns created and posted by government and non-governmental entities, with mixed results, on a variety of platforms. [3]

The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] has over the past five years created and built its own counter narrative program, titled Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project, which features 194 short video clips of ISIS and al Shabaab insiders denouncing the group, and TheRealJihad.org website that features additional counter narrative material and resources to prevent and intervene in ISIS’s recruitment. ICSVE has also extensively studied online engagement with their and others’ counter narrative materials. It is clear that the most successful counter narratives are emotionally evocative, use credible insiders to deliver the message, and recognize the grievances that viewers may feel in a manner that creates rapport with the viewer rather than mocking the jihadist narrative, condemning those interested to join, or simply promoting pro-democratic, pro-secular society messages. These latter messages may not resonate with someone who has felt discriminated against as a Muslim immigrant, or individual of Muslim immigrant descent, or as a Muslim convert in the West. ICSVE has also learned from studying multiple campaigns that viewers not only watch the Breaking the ISIS Brand counter narrative videos in significant numbers, but are also moved to engage with the posts, through reacting, commenting, sharing, and saving them, and that viewership can be greatly increased by shortening the videos to one minute and then directing viewers to a website (YouTube or the ICSVE-run TheRealJihad.org) where they can watch longer videos and engage with other counter narrative materials and resources.

Although ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand counter narratives have been successful in the aforementioned ways, it is critical that ICSVE and others working in preventing and countering violent extremism keep up with current social media trends, just as ISIS does, in order to be able to prevent and disrupt their recruitment, especially of young people. Thus, an examination of social media usage among young people is required. In Europe, where ISIS is still actively recruiting and able to move some youth into attacking at home, ICSVE has also been campaigning against them while watching which platforms are being most used by both European youth and ISIS. In the EU, similar to the U.S., Instagram usage is outstripping Facebook and growing for youth, particularly among people younger than 34.[4] This is opposed to Facebook and YouTube still being the platforms of choice among youth in countries in other parts of the world, such as in the Middle East, though Twitter has fallen in popularity among Middle Eastern youth since the height of ISIS’s online recruitment.[5] In 2017, Instagram was the third most popular social media platform in the EU, after Facebook and Google+.[6] Anecdotally, police and security forces in the Netherlands expressed a worry that the youth most vulnerable to radicalization would not be reached through Facebook, as even if they do have accounts, they are much more likely to be active users on Instagram.[7]

Surprisingly, the specific relationship between Instagram and terrorist recruitment has not yet been studied. While there is extensive literature on militant jihadism and other types of violent extremism on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, Instagram is typically mentioned only as an example of a social media platform rather than a unique medium for promoting ISIS and militant jihadist propaganda and for terrorist recruitment. This paper begins to delve into the issue of if and how Instagram is being used by ISIS and other militant jihadist groups.

Identifying ISIS and militant jihadist Supporters on Instagram

Identifying those supporting jihadist ideology and groups on Instagram is a relatively simple task. By searching on Islamic terms and names often associated with ISIS, like khilafah, tawheed, and dawlah and even Awlaki, many posts including those hashtags appear, as they were posted by users with public accounts. Among these, most public posts did not include explicit advocations of militant jihadist violence, but rather promoted conservative views such as the requirement for women to be fully covered in niqab, with the implication that women who show their faces at all were sexually promiscuous and that unmarried women who interacted with men were asking to be sexually assaulted. While these views are not necessarily extremist, there could then be found among them ISIS supporters who posted more violent and extreme ideas on their stories or secondary private accounts which made it clear they sympathize with ISIS.

For instance, one commonly shared meme on public pages contrasted “The Hijabi Queen,” a woman who has never had sex before marriage and dresses modestly, with the “Western Thot [Internet slang for a slut or whore],” a woman who is seen as “a pump-and-dump” and “has slept around with countless random guys in her youth, then settles down with someone she’s not even attracted to.” The conservative Muslim woman is portrayed respectfully while the Western woman is dehumanized and degraded, which is not itself violent extremism, but in some cases, it relates to violent suggestions for dealing with Western women’s violations of the poster’s conservative views. For instance, one account posted a photo depicting a man asking, “Is burning the only solution for the feminists?” and another responding, “So it seems. So it seems.”

Other posts advocated violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially during the month of June, which is Pride Month in the United States. Many of these posts appeared at first to advocate tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality until one looked more carefully at the details of the photos:

The photo above was posted by an account which frequently posted other homophobic content and advocated a broad expansion of the global Caliphate but did not believe that ISIS was the group capable of doing so. This view is akin to many others supportive of militant jihad and the idea of an Islamic State Caliphate but who are opposed to ISIS’s propensity for attacking other Sunni Muslims.  Below are some posts of memes illustrating such views.

More violent content criticized the relatives of victims of the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand for forgiving the white supremacist terrorist instead of punishing him according to shariah. Other posts refer to takfir, which is the extremist Islamic practice of excommunicating others for not following their extremist interpretation of Islam, a common practice in ISIS that included the claim that those takfired should be executed as infidels. An example of a post including a meme promoting takfir refers also to the taghut which are, according to ISIS, tyrannical powers that deny and defy Islam, and mushrik, meaning those who reject the oneness of God and who are idolaters. The post is here:

Other posts were anti-Semitic memes accusing figures like the Rothschild family and George Soros of creating the COVID-19 pandemic and inciting race wars which could be found on both far right and militant jihadists sympathizers accounts, again not necessarily denoting militant jihadist sympathy per se. However, among these were also Muslims who appeared to be ISIS supporters based on a video of a man preaching the “ruling of caliphate.”

The account mentioned above, which appears to be an ISIS supporter, posted a meme depicting various high-profile media personalities with Stars of David on their foreheads, below a photo of Jacob Rothschild holding a fan of cash, with an illuminati symbol on his forehead. The title above the photo reads, “The media moguls are highly-paid agents of Rothschild Zionism, hired and paid handsomely serve their global agenda [sic].”

Under the hashtag taghut, denoting tyrannical powers who deny worship of anything other than God and defy Islam, many Instagram users posted photos of Arab leaders, most notably those from Saudi Arabia, accusing them of hypocrisy and Westernization which aligns with the jihadist messaging from al Qaeda, al Shabaab and ISIS, but does not necessarily mean they are militant jihad or ISIS supporters themselves. Messages warning followers not to participate in democratic elections were also posted with the taghut hashtag although this could also be seen as a very conservative, but nonviolent, Salafi view.

One such post featured a Guy Fawkes mask next to the words, “Dumb politicians are not the problem. The problem is the dumb kuffar [disbelievers] that keep voting for them.” The caption specified the leaders of Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia as polytheists and their supporters as kuffar. The same account posted photos accusing Bill Gates of injecting people with the COVID-19 virus in order to sell them a vaccine; referred to Jews, Shias, Sufis, Brelwees [sic], and Christians of being idol-worshippers; and declared takfir on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her participation in the U.S. government. Many photos posted by the account featured firearms, though the poster stated that they did not support ISIS specifically.

Of the public accounts that did explicitly advocate for violent jihad, most did not mention ISIS, which may be due to the profile owners’ concerns about avoiding takedowns. Rather than directly mentioning ISIS, they posted photos and quotes from ISIS and al Qaeda English-speaking ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki or exaltations of the Taliban, which seemed to be a far more socially acceptable group, or safer to explicitly post, than ISIS within the jihadist sphere on Instagram.

One post featured a video of Anwar al-Awlaki speaking about jihad, captioned, “Beautiful beautiful reminder, Whoever is going to follow a path should follow the path of the ones who’ve died.” Another post on the account featured only the bottom half of al-Awlaki’s face, presumably to avoid takedown software, as the caption began, “Kuffar deleted this post.”

Another account was dedicated entirely to posting al-Awlaki quotes, with a link to a collection of audio lectures in the bio. According to the account holder, he or she was posting the quotes on behalf of jihad and linking to the audio lectures because “YouTube is deleting the videos of the Sheikh cause [sic] it contains Islam in its purest form.” While many of al-Awlaki’s early videos do address many matters about life in Islam, his later videos promoting endless jihad with the West are the actual reason his videos have been taken down.

One of the most prolific Taliban-supporting accounts frequently posted violent and graphic videos as well as photos boasting of the Taliban’s success. For instance, one photo was accompanied by the caption, “Taliban Lions captured a checkpoint in the Antan area of Siagard in Begha Parwan province, killing and wounding soldiers and looting a large number of arms. Allab Almighty gives us enough weapons in one post to suffice to conquer a large bases… [sic].”

The same account frequently expressed anger toward ISIS, however, citing an oft-referenced conspiracy theory that ISIS was created by the United States and Israel to destroy the Muslim people.[8] The photo below was posted alongside a caption claiming that Edward Snowden had revealed that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is really a Mossad agent named Elliot Shimon.

There were, however, a few public accounts that were clearly and unashamedly pro-ISIS. Most focused on the women imprisoned at the al-Hol camp in Syria. One account was even purportedly run by women in the camp who raised money through other accounts to finance their escapes. These accounts threatened punishment for the unbelievers who held them captive and yearned for the return of the Caliphate.[9]

An account seemingly run by a woman in al-Hol wrote, “Remember my sisters no matter what state we are in, no matter what the world think of us. The world still trembles at the mention of us, we have left a deep scar that will never heal and we remain a thorn in the side of kufr.”

One account posted in English, Arabic, and German, raising funds to be smuggled out of Camp al-Hol. This account also provided links to other accounts, which posted links to a PayPal account where supporters could donate to the women or write them letters. On June 12th, 2020, one of the associated accounts posted a video claiming that it was taken while the women were leaving the camp. The account also posted graphic photos of bloodied male faces, claiming that “some sisters from the camp recognized their husbands and their husbands were in Hasakah prison.” There were multiple riots and attempted escapes at Hasakah the days and weeks before these photos were posted. The primary account has either been deleted since then or has blocked the account through which ICSVE was following it.

Another account run out of al-Hol, which was not associated with the German account mentioned above, posted in English only. The account posted about fundraisers through Telegram, but did not link to the fundraising websites themselves, likely to prevent the websites from being taken down. The account also lauded ISIS fighters who were captured in ISIS’s last stronghold of Baghouz, fighting until the very end. They also posted about teaching their children to throw rocks at the camp guards and referred to Camp al-Hol as “the cradle of the new Caliphate.” This account has also either been deleted or blocked the account through which ICSVE was following it.

Most accounts that openly supported ISIS were private, though many of these could be identified as likely ISIS followers by a black flag emoji and an index finger emoji in their bios, both common but not unique symbols for ISIS. Notably, proponents of other jihadist groups like the Taliban did not use these symbols in their bios. These pro-ISIS accounts posted photos of weapons and included more provocative messages, such as those denouncing others as unbelievers, in their Instagram stories. Some photos also included selective Islamic scriptures arguing for severe punishment of unbelievers which also aligns with ISIS ideology. Many accounts also posted black and white videos of men with guns on horses with the identifiable black flags of ISIS and women dressed in niqab, expressing nostalgia for the Caliphate. One account even included a story called “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” which included, “Praying to Allah to reward you with martyrdom,” “financing a mujahid [a jihadist warrior] ,” and “arms training.” Another account was dedicated to inspiring hope for the resurgence of the ISIS Caliphate. Under a photo of Bashar al-Assad, the user commented, “The oppressive rule of these tyrants is on its last legs. Their nations are failing, the people want change. The Khilafah is coming very soon, as prophesized. Why don’t you help re-establish it?” Another post read, “The Khilafah state could easily liberate all oppressed Muslims and protect every Muslim living within it. It’s that simple.” Another account used a photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as his profile picture and posted videos of sermons on his story, as well as other videos praising ISIS fighters and promising that “Allah will grant you victory.” Another post by the same account featured a drawing of the ISIS flag over the earth. Many of these accounts accepted follow requests from the ICSVE-run The Real Jihad account, likely without looking at the account’s posts, which all contain counter narrative material.

It should be noted that many of these accounts are taken down within weeks of discovering them, although new and similar ones quickly replace them. In the study of terrorist activity on social media, Instagram may well be a new frontier where younger people are able to post anonymously about their violent extremist beliefs. The Instagram “Discover” page also serves as an echo chamber for these individuals, suggesting posts and accounts to follow that are similar to accounts one already follows. Indeed, many of the accounts followed by The Real Jihad were found not by searching on hashtags or perusing other users’ lists of followers, but by simply looking at the “Discover” page without searching anything at all. Thus, as soon as a user reacts to a militant jihadist account, he or she will be recommended to follow other such accounts and will not be exposed to any counter arguments unless accounts like The Real Jihad insert themselves into the echo chamber by tagging counter narratives with militant jihadist hashtags.

Research on Instagram in Regard to Terrorist Propagandizing and Recruitment Strategies

Most research on the impact of Instagram focuses on the different communities that exist on Instagram. While some communities, such as those promoting body positivity among young women,[10] bond users together through prosocial means, other communities allow users to unite in promotion of maladaptive behaviors such as self-harm[11] and excessive reassurance-seeking.[12] Because terrorist recruitment online involves aspects of marketing as well as promotion of maladaptive behavior, some studies of Instagram can be applied to its utility for terrorist recruitment and opportunities for preventing and countering radicalization. For instance, a 2016 study of Dutch teenagers and young adults found that while young people were more likely to express negative emotion on Facebook and Twitter, they were more likely to express positive emotion on Instagram. However, they were most likely to express any emotion, positive or negative, on WhatsApp, likely due to its double-ended encryption that makes users feel that their expressions are more private and secure. The authors of the study concluded that users felt stronger ties to Facebook friends (a reciprocal relationship) than to Instagram followers (a non-reciprocal relationship), thus enabling them to disclose more private negative emotions.[13] These results suggest that Instagram may be an effective platform to attract the initial attention of targets for counter radicalization, but they should be then redirected to a platform that allows for more freedom to express negative emotions and the potential to build a more personal relationship. Whether or not ISIS has learned this yet is unknown, but the results nevertheless provide lessons for counter narrative campaigning and suggest that attracting attention on Instagram may be possible, but moving the viewer to a platform where more intimate relations and fears, doubts, and needs can be expressed and hopefully answered in a way that redirects the user away from violent extremism would be beneficial.

Pittman and Reich (2016) posited that because Instagram is an image-based platform, it is better equipped to reduce loneliness among adolescents and young adults than text-based platforms like Twitter. The study noted that Instagram posts with faces (i.e., selfies or photos of groups of friends) were 38 percent more likely to be “liked” and 32 percent more likely to receive a comment than other types of photos, such as those of food or landscapes.[14] Thus, decreased loneliness related to Instagram use may similarly confer the sense of belonging and significance, such as the idea that one is worthy of being noticed, that is often an integral part of terrorist recruitment, even if use of the platform does not allow for the development of emotionally intimate individual relationships. The latter can be developed by instructing those whose attention has been captured and who begin to feel a sense of being noticed and belonging to migrate to other more intimate platforms and apps.

Instagram’s utility for organizations, rather than individuals, has also been examined. In ICSVE’s preliminary counter narrative campaigns on Instagram the account running the counter narrative ads, @TheRealJihad_Official, is a business account and is not made to look like an individual user. Thus, it is important to understand how businesses and organizations in general are able to engage followers on Instagram. One study in Finland found that users were most likely to engage with brands on Instagram when the brands’ content was personal and emotionally evocative.[15] The same has been found in studies of ISIS’s online recruitment as well as studies of counter narratives.[16] Among Kuwaiti banks, Instagram has been found to be most effective in image building and communication, rather than establishing relationships, and that banks are able to gain the trust of their followers by invoking religious themes.[17] Although the Instagram ads discussed in the present study were not run in the Middle East, many were targeted toward Arabic speakers. It is therefore critical to understand the cultural aspects of engaging with organizations on Instagram, namely, the suggestion of the Kuwaiti study that Arabs are less prone to interact directly with an organization on Instagram and are more likely to view the platform, with respect to organizations, as a one-way communication medium. Still another study of brands on Instagram found that consumers were more likely to trust brands if they perceive the brand’s benevolence and integrity, and if the brand is endorsed by “Key Opinion Leaders.”[18]

ISIS recruiters have utilized these factors well. By stoking distrust in Western governments in the mainstream online media, they also contrast their own claimed shariah-based values and build up their own reputation for integrity. For instance, by emphasizing the atrocities of the Assad regime,[19] they portrayed themselves as benevolent. Finally, by invoking trusted jihadi narratives, such the idea that Muslims are under attack by the West, the idea that defensive jihad is required and that jihad is obligatory for all Muslims, alongside the promotion of suicide terrorism as a type of Islamic “martyrdom,” sometimes via fatwas by Arabic scholars or sermons by Anwar al Awlaki for English speakers,[20] they ensure their followers that they have been endorsed by trusted and credible sources. As such, a key aspect of the counter narratives presented in this article is the use of ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres as credible, reliable speakers who have suffered some of the same grievances as viewers and sought justice by joining ISIS, to deliver an honest, benevolent message and warnings to those thinking of following their same path to destruction.

A Possible Instagram Counter Narrative Strategy?

ICSVE has over the past two years, in partnership with Facebook, run over 125 campaigns in countries and languages all over the globe with good success in reaching the target audience and engaging them with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos. It is only recently that ICSVE started counter narrative campaigns on Instagram. While the full-scale ICSVE study of running counter narratives on Instagram has been submitted to a scientific journal, some brief results can be relayed here.

Given that we are easily finding outward expressions of support for ISIS, it was not difficult to identify a target population for the ICSVE counter narratives and build a following of accounts that would be viewed as legitimate for people who are in the process of being radicalized toward militant jihad and thus target them with counter narratives. ICSVE researchers were able to identify potential ISIS supporters on Instagram through their bios alone, meaning that one does not have to request to follow a private account in order to determine whether that user can be considered a likely ISIS supporter. Moreover, there is evidence of a large jihadist-supporting community on Instagram, although many of its members do not openly profess to be ISIS supporters. Thus, those aiming to counter militant jihad generally would be wise not to focus solely on ISIS, lest they be dismissed by supporters of the Taliban, al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and Kashmiri militant jihadist groups who support violence but denounce ISIS.

While the counter narratives used in ICSVE’s first campaign were specifically ISIS-focused and aimed at the general population in numerous EU countries, future campaigns may be hyper-targeted at those people more vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.[21]

Running counter narrative videos on Instagram is a slightly different process than running Facebook ad campaigns. On Instagram, users are wary of interacting with accounts that appear to not be run by engaged, active Instagram users, even if the account belongs to a business. Thus, before running the campaign, ICSVE staff set up the @TheRealJihad_Official Instagram account and attempted to amass followers by posting daily, at noon, links to articles on TheRealJihad.org, photos with quotes from ISIS insiders denouncing the group, and links to other ICSVE counter narrative videos on YouTube. The account also began following a number of accounts with jihadist content, in order to legitimize itself among the intended audience. Jihadist accounts were found by searching various hashtags such as #khilafah, #dawlah, and #tawheed. At the outset of the campaign, the account followed 75 Instagram users and had five followers. By the middle of the campaign, the account was following 104 accounts and had 60 followers, many of whom were members of the target audience, thus demonstrating the ability to ingratiate itself within the pro-ISIS community on Instagram.

Already, photos and quotes from ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres have been posted on The Real Jihad Instagram account daily since the account’s inception to position it as a credible account with postings of potential interest to the target audience. It should be noted that all ICSVE counter narrative videos have ambiguous names that could be considered pro-ISIS, and most have thumbnails taken from actual ISIS footage that has been used to illustrate the speaker’s story, which denounces rather than supports ISIS. These posts have sparked likes and a few comments, including one ridiculing the defector for expecting a life of luxury in ISIS instead of jihad. Another user sent a direct message to The Real Jihad, accusing the account of using a fabricated hadith, arguing against the Islamic tenet that the most important jihad is that being against one’s own whims and evils, rather than against outside enemies. ICSVE’s Islamic scholar responded by pointing out the user’s use of a straw man fallacy, explaining the correct translation and meaning. The user was not able to refute the scholar’s argument, responding simply, “Allah knows best.” Other users direct messaged the account asking for more links to the counter narrative videos, which is a positive sign of engagement among the target audience.

The counter narratives were run in Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, and Italy, all countries from which individuals had traveled to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. All of the counter narrative videos used were one minute long and featured ISIS defectors, returnees or prisoners speaking about why they joined and what they actually experienced while in ISIS, and finally denouncing ISIS as un-Islamic, corrupt, and overly brutal at the end of the video. Each of the videos featured an ISIS member who had traveled to ISIS from the specific country in which the video was run or a nearby country (for example, the speaker in the video shown in Austria was from Germany). The speakers in the videos told their stories in different languages, but each video was subtitled in the dominant and minority languages used by Muslims in the countries in which they were run. They were run for 13 days, from May 15 to May 27, 2020.

In general, the results of ICSVE’s first campaigns were positive in terms of being able to create an account that could reach the target audience and engage them to a certain extent.  However, there are concerns that need to be addressed. One is that through the comparison between this Instagram campaign and the identical campaign run on Facebook a few weeks prior, it is clear that one-minute videos do not have the same capability to retain viewers on Instagram as they do on Facebook. This may be because videos on Facebook can be up to four hours long, so users who are accustomed to seeing longer videos on their feed may not get bored as easily, or may check how much of the video is left after watching for 10 or 15 seconds and, seeing that less than a minute remains, decide to finish the video instead of scrolling past it. On Instagram, however, videos cannot be longer than one minute. Therefore, users who are accustomed to watching videos for only a few seconds may not have the patience to watch a one-minute long counter narrative video.

In order to remedy the poor viewer retention on Instagram, future campaigns will feature photos and even shorter videos, likely utilizing ICSVE’s digital posters.[22] These posters are photos of the ISIS defectors, insiders, and imprisoned cadres featured in the counter narrative videos, alongside emotionally evocative quotes about their lives before ISIS and their experiences in the groups. These posters have gained some traction among The Real Jihad account’s regular followers and will therefore likely spark high engagement in an ad campaign.

In summary, ICSVE has been able to determine that Instagram is being used by individuals whose accounts suggest that they are ISIS supporters, and even ISIS members themselves, and that it is possible to reach and target these accounts with counter narrative campaigns. However, our first campaigns taught us that it is critical to carefully determine the best ways to expose both those who are ISIS supporters and those vulnerable to ISIS recruitment to countering arguments in a way that is engaging and emotionally evocative. Likewise it is necessary to keep in mind that Instagram is unique platform where users are more likely to expect to see extremely short videos and photos with less discussion occurring. Our continued work on the platform and future studies will keep this in mind and focus on increasing viewer retention and effectively providing counter arguments to jihadist ideology through photos and videos that are only a few seconds long. Our first campaigns were an important step toward learning if we could utilize counter narratives effectively on Instagram, which differs quite a bit from Facebook in terms of expected mediums and audience. It is clear from our research that Instagram is being used by those supporting, and even members of, ISIS as well as other militant jihadist groups and thus there is a strong need for counter narrative campaigns to be put in place to disrupt and prevent ISIS and other militant jihadist recruitment on Instagram.

The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism thanks the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C., Facebook and the European Commission’s Civil Society Empowerment Programme for their generous support of our research, creation of counter narratives and counter narrative campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. This article was partially funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund — Police.

[1] Jihadology. (n.d.). Retrieved May 21, 2020, from https://jihadology.net/category/jihadology/
[2] Speckhard, Anne, and Molly Ellenberg. (2020, April 15). Is Internet Recruitment Enough to Seduce a Vulnerable Individual into Terrorism? Retrieved from https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/is-internet-recruitment-enough-to-seduce-a-vulnerable-individual-into-terrorism/
[3] Yayla, Ahmet S., and Anne Speckhard. “Telegram: The mighty application that ISIS loves.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2017).; Al-Rawi, Ahmed, and Jacob Groshek. “Jihadist Propaganda on Social Media: An Examination of ISIS Related Content on Twitter.” In Cyber Warfare and Terrorism: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications, pp. 1442-1457. IGI Global, 2020.; Speckhard, Anne, Ardian Shajkovci, and Lorand Bodo. “Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2018).; Shane, Scott, and Ben Hubbard. “ISIS displaying a deft command of varied media.” New York Times 30 (2014).
[4] Johnson, Joseph. “Instagram in Europe – Statistics & Facts,” February 10, 2020. https://www.statista.com/topics/3438/instagram-in-europe/.
[5] AW Staff. “Social Media Use by Youth Is Rising across the Middle East: AW Staff.” Arab Weekly, January 26, 2020. https://thearabweekly.com/social-media-use-youth-rising-across-middle-east.
[6] Drahošová, Martina, and Peter Balco. “The analysis of advantages and disadvantages of use of social media in European Union.” Procedia Computer Science 109 (2017): 1005-1009.
[7] “ICSVE – Europe – Dutch Federal Police Training Event.” ICSVE, April 19, 2020. https://www.icsve.org/icsve-europe-dutch-federal-police-training-event/.
[8] Speckhard, A., Ellenberg, M., Shaghati, H., & Izadi, N. (2020) Anti-ISIS and Anti-Western: An Examination of Comments on ISIS Counter Narrative Facebook Videos. International Studies       Journal, 16(3), 127-156.
[9] Speckhard, Anne and Ellenberg, Molly (May 24, 2020). Inside the Sisterhood Springing Jihadis from Jail. The Daily Beast
[10] Tiggemann, Marika, Isabella Anderberg, and Zoe Brown. “# Loveyourbody: The effect of body positive Instagram captions on women’s body image.” Body Image 33 (2020): 129-136.
[11] Brown, Rebecca C., Tin Fischer, A. David Goldwich, Frieder Keller, Robert Young, and Paul L. Plener. “# cutting: Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) on Instagram.” Psychological medicine 48, no. 2 (2018): 337-346.
[12] Sheldon, Pavica, and Megan Newman. “Instagram and American Teens: Understanding Motives for Its Use and Relationship to Excessive Reassurance-Seeking and Interpersonal Rejection.” The Journal of Social Media in Society 8, no. 1 (2019): 1-16.
[13] Waterloo, Sophie F., Susanne E. Baumgartner, Jochen Peter, and Patti M. Valkenburg. “Norms of online expressions of emotion: Comparing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp.” new media & society 20, no. 5 (2018): 1813-1831.
[14] Pittman, Matthew, and Brandon Reich. “Social media and loneliness: Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand Twitter words.” Computers in Human Behavior 62 (2016): 155-167.
[15] Hellberg, Maria. “Visual Brand Communication on Instagram: A study on consumer engagement.” (2015).
[16] Speckhard, Anne, Ardian Shajkovci, and Lorand Bodo. “Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2018).
[17] Al-Kandari, Ali A., T. Kenn Gaither, Mohamed Mubarak Alfahad, Ali A. Dashti, and Ahmed R. Alsaber. “An Arab perspective on social media: How banks in Kuwait use Instagram for public relations.” Public Relations Review 45, no. 3 (2019): 101774.
[18] Che, Jasmine WS, Christy MK Cheung, and Dimple R. Thadani. “Consumer purchase decision in Instagram stores: The role of consumer trust.” In Proceedings of the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. 2017.
[19] Speckhard, Anne and Ellenberg, Molly (May 12, 2020). How Assad’s Atrocities Became a Powerful  Motivator for Terrorist Recruitment. Homeland Security Today
[20] Speckhard, Anne. “Recruiting from Beyond the Grave: A European Follows Anwar Al-Awlaki Into ISIS.” Homeland Security Today, April 28, 2020. https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/recruiting-from-beyond-the-grave-a-european-follows-anwar-al-awlaki-into-isis/.
[21] Speckhard, Anne, Molly Ellenberg, Haider Shaghati, and Neima Izadi. “Hypertargeting Facebook Profiles Vulnerable to ISIS Recruitment with ‘Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narrative Video Clips’ in Multiple Facebook Campaigns.” Journal of Human Security (In Press).
[22] “Memes – ISIS Defectors Speak Out.” ICSVE. Accessed July 13, 2020. https://www.icsve.org/project/memes/.

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

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Cyber ASAT-Capabilities and South Asia

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Since the launch of first satellite in 1957, humanity is using outer space for the purpose of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, communication, monitoring, global positioning and navigation. Military and strategic usage of outer space has provided states with the ability to have early warning systems, effective nuclear command, control and communication (NC3) and strategic intelligence. Space based systems are important for states and militaries because they ensure the availability of information and data to all other services (land, air and water). Therefore, space is an ultimate high ground for information warfare for nearly 70 years. End of the Cold War, beginning of the multi-polarity and effective display of space capabilities as force multipliers during the “Operation Desert Strom” brought many states into the race of space control and power.

Today50 countries are operating more than 1,950 satellites in outer space, which includes 846 commercial, 302 military, 385 government, 145 civilian and 279 mixed usage satellites. Satellites are light weight objects, moving at extreme speed, a marble size object hitting it in space would cause a satellite irrefutable damage. Hence, these strategically important assets in space are at extreme odds with different kinds of vulnerabilities. Due to emerging technologies, hostilities and competition among states, most of the vulnerabilities to space assets are man-made. These threats/vulnerabilities are not shocking for states, as US Space Command publication in 1997stated that considering an importance of space systems in military operations, it is unrealistic to imagine that they will never become a target.

The ability to target satellite in outer-space is also known as “counter-space capabilities” or “anti-satellite weapon systems”. Counter-space capabilities are defined as military capabilities that seek to prevent an adversary from exploiting space to their advantage and enable a state to have a desired degree of space superiority by the destruction or neutralization of enemy forces. Today under the imperatives of their national security concerns state are more inclined towards usage of counter-space capabilities. Although, these technologies were present during Cold War but today states are using them to manifest their hostilities towards each other.

ASATs or counter space capabilities are generally kinetic or non-kinetic with capability to target from Earth to Space, Space to Space or Space to Earth. Kinetic ASAT capabilities are visible and difficult to hide. Since 2007, different states have shown the ability to conduct kinetic ASAT missile test by destroying their own satellites, which resultantly left huge debris in outer-space. However, non-kinetic (physical and non-physical) counter-space technologies are also flourishing which include orbital threats, electromagnetic pulses, electronic warfare and laser beams. According to open-source reporting, space-faring states are developing non-kinetic counter-space technologies against each other. Examples of such incidents include the reports on US capability to jam Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) like GLONASS or Beidou in a small restricted area of operation, China reportedly successfully blinded the satellites in  2005 and 2006. In 2011, Iran also displayed its counter-space electronic warfare capabilities by destroying the US RQ-170 UAV, this claim was not confirmed by the US. Russia has also invested in electronic space capabilities such as ongoing development of electronic warfare capable aircraft to disable enemy communication and navigation has already developed laser based ASAT on the A-60 aircraft and designated jammers known as R-330ZH and R-381T2.

Cyber-ASAT is another counter-space capability which can be very damaging for space assets. Space satellite systems are made-up of complex and inter-mingled cyber systems, which comprises of hardware, software and digital component.  Just like any physical attack on space based asset, cyber-attack also has the capability to undermine deterrence and cause massive damage, uncertainty and confusion. During a hearing, US military official went on record and stated that cyber threats are “no.1 counter-space threat”. According to the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems  most common counter-space cyber threats to the space segment, ground segment and space link communication segment are unauthorized accesses, spoofing, replaying, software threats, data corruption/modification, ground system loss, interception of data and insider threats due to social engineering. However, in extreme cases cyber-ASAT can completely control and destroy satellite, or some vital part of its operation and structure. A chance of cyber-attack happening to any space asset is way more than any kinetic hit. As cyber-attacks are widely accessible, cost-effective, can be deployed more easily, provide easy deniability and are difficult to attribute. On the top of it, cyber-ASAT are challenging to states because they happen at relatively faster speed, without any warning. Moreover, these threats have the capability to hide in plain sight till the critical moment. Due to the interdependence among the systems, whether they are civilian, military or strategic, cyber-attack on any satellite could adversely affect the communication, navigation, integrity of military operation and NC3 system of state.  Cyber-ASATs are not some distant realities or a far-fetched idea, they are actually happening, and states are blaming each other for such attacks. Almost 10 years ago US issued a report titled “US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Report”, which stated that two of the US satellites were compromised in 2007 and 2008 via cyber-attack. The attack was regarded as alarming because hackers were managed to complete all the steps required to command the satellite, which means the hackers might have stolen the data and damaged the satellite.

Cyber-attacks on satellites can cause serious issues, if they tend to happen between neighboring hostile nuclear states. South Asia is a region where intense military modernization is taking place at a rapid speed between India and Pakistan. India has an advance space program in comparison to Pakistan’s space program. However, significant factor in this regard is that due to its ambitious foreign policy, India aspires to be a global power, which puts India face to face with China. Both countries have also fought a war on 2,100 miles long disputed border in Himalayas. Therefore, India most likely would try to acquire technological sophistication to ensure that its space assets would not remain vulnerable to Chinese counter-space cyber-attacks. India is expanding its space program very effectively and rapidly, this growth at the same time will increases the vulnerability of its systems to cyber-attacks. This need is well realized within the Indian policy circles and policy initiatives such as establishment of units to handle space and cyber warfare are undergoing. The cyber unit would be responsible for sharpening offensive capabilities, while space warfare unit would be responsible for protecting Indian space assets. Moreover, India and Japan decided to cooperate in the area of cyber security and outer space in the backdrop of growing cyber terrorism and India’s successful ASAT test. Moreover, in 2019 India conducted successful ASAT missile test in lower earth orbit. These developments show that India want to acquire ASAT capabilities and offensive cyber capabilities, which if joined together becomes a classic counter-force cyber capability. Focus of Indian policy makers towards cyber security is relatively new, which makes its military systems prone to cyber-attacks. Like its neighbor, Pakistan is also working to make itself more digitalize and secure its cyber systems. Space program of the country is at nascent stage and most of the space satellites are launched with the help of other countries, mostly China. To advance its space program Space Program 2040 was launched by Pakistan which includes points like establishment of ground stations and ancillary facilities for reception and use of data, establishment of satellite tracking facilities, launching of multipurpose satellites and development of satellites and satellite launch vehicles. Like India, not much is known about the extent of Pakistan’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. Pakistan has not formulated National Cyber Security Strategy, though it was presented to National Assembly of Pakistan in 2013.

Most of the reported attacks between India and Pakistan are of websites hijacking; however it would be unrealistic to believe that no other attempts are made or in future conflict/crisis situation both states will not retort to offensive cyber capabilities towards each other. In any such moment cyber-attack on any satellite to corrupt or modify the data or complete acquisition and destruction of satellite would severely undermine the existing deterrence by creating confusion and uncertainty. Due to increasingly blurring lines between peace and war time use of cyber-ASAT, both countries need to develop the resilience and security in their respective civilian, military and strategic systems. With the ongoing hostilities, it seems impossible that both countries might go for any confidence building measure in the near future. Thus, it is necessary that both states strengthen their systems and make some rules of engagement in this highly vague domain to avoid any major catastrophe.

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