From being proclaimed dead on multiple occasions to the actual confirmation of his death by the Islamic State, the life of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been shrouded in mystery in both life and death. Rising from extremely ordinary ranks, the self proclaimed caliph had made immense progress in causing a wave of violence and threatening the security of superpowers like the US for a while now. However this all changed as Donald Trump announced the success of a US raid conducted in northwest Syria on the 26th of October, 2019. This announcement soon raised questions on the future of the Islamic State and the announcement of the new Caliph.
Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, parted ways from Al-Qaeda in 2013 and declared a Caliphate and himself as the Caliph. His main aim being, to consolidate the Muslims around the world in the name of Islam and form an Islamic State. Baghdadi, who had been particularly careful about making public appearances was seen in the pulpit of a mosque in Mosul on July 5, 2014. In a 21 minute long video which was made public, Baghdadi is seen speaking in Arabic and states that “the establishment of a Caliphate is an obligation.” However, he also claims his righteousness by saying that “I am not better than you or more virtuous than you,”. He further adds, “If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God.”
These appealing sermons of Baghdadi, showcase only a part of his personality. ISIS under his rule has been infamous for subscribing to violence and is considered one of the most brutal in the world. The confirmation of his death along with the death of the potential future heir, was made public by ISIS via an audio tape on 31st of October. The audio release was made by the organization’s central media arm , al-Furqan Foundation. Moreover the announcement was made by a new spokesperson who identified himself as Abu Hamza al-Qureshi, and warned the US government against rejoicing over this victory. The proclamation of the new caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi was also made along with the news of the death of a previous spokesman of the organization Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. These corroborations on part of the organization has raised questions about the dwindling future of the so called Islamic State.
Implications of the loss of a leader
So far ISIS, has enjoyed an estimate of 800 million dollars of annual income from multiple sources. Majority of its income was a result of extortion and exploitation of people living under their rule. The rest came from illegal oil trade, kidnappings, and lootings. A great portion of the funds was also facilitated by foreign donors and illicit activities on the dark web. However, after the considerable loss of territory due to a series of US raids carried out in Syria and Iraq, a sizeable amount of damage has been done to the institution’s economy. In spite of losing 98% of its territory ISIS still seems pretty confident with its financial reserves. Till the time the organization gets hold of its previous territories it would be largely dependent on its foreign donors and illegal trafficking networks. Foreign donors, usually use the hawala system to transfer money into the ISIS bank account. In light of ISIS’s present circumstances, and bearing in mind the rising number of sympathizers, these kind of commiserate funding are probably to rise.
A New leader
Until Baghdadi’s reign, he was the sole authoritative figurehead of the organization. Even though he was aided by a Shura (consultative) council, the appointment process of the council was usually his doing. This made him an unchecked figurehead who was in charge of sanctioning any kind of decision. Close associates of the organization were directed by him, however his command on overseas affiliates remains unclear. The death of Baghdadi has clearly created a major power vacuum in the administration of the system. The Shura council, even though the second most powerful entity, still was largely dependent on its leader for any decision- making process. It would be especially rare if the organization is able to find a leader as influential as Baghdadi. In the absence of which, internal skirmishes for assimilating power is absolutely possible. Barely any information is available about, the new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi, except that he traces his lineage to one of the primary tribes of prophet Muhammad. This however is not enough to determine one’s headship qualities, and taking into account, ISIS’s dire straits, it is desperately in need of a capable commander.
Increased social media influence
As a relatively new terrorist organization, that took roots in 2006, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has not been unaware of the influence of social media and cyberspace. Social media has been exploited to a great extent and has been a great aid in propagating the Jihadist ideology. However, after the death of its leader probabilities of ISIS making an extensive appearance on social media sites have increased. The organization makes use of a psycho-cyber approach that has two advantages- reaching a larger audience and manipulating minds in a lucrative way.
Ever since the news of Baghdadi’s death was made public, the internet has experienced a mixed reaction to the situation. As many were busy applauding the US government for taking such a bold step against terrorism, there were many others who swore their allegiance to Jihad. Pro-ISIS ideology has also surged, especially on social media sites such as Telegram (one of the primary sites used by ISIS). With the loss of a Caliph, posts swelling with sentiments have come forward, that vow to keep fighting in the name of Jihad, irrespective of a Caliph.
Apart from the crafty use of cyberspace, ISIS has also made use of language as a medium of publicity. Dabiq the English magazine that is published by the organization aims at making the Jihadi ideology open to all. The use of Arabic in the posts, tweets and other such documents creates the effect of being closer to the agenda and the teachings of Quran. Videos released by the organization too feature in multiple languages thereby radicalizing a larger group.
Ever since Baghdadi’s death, there have been more than a thousand tweets and retweets on pro-ISIS ideas on Twitter. Even though Twitter has worked tirelessly to take down these accounts, there are always a few that spring back up. The best way to garner more support and appear in most pages is by using hashtags. ISIS has exploited this possibility too and posts pictures with multiple hashtags so as to increase their visibility in the cyber domain.
ISIS’s social media strategy includes- recruiting sympathizers, subverting its opponents, reaching a larger audience, influencing the public with their propaganda. After the loss of its leader, ISIS is making use of the internet to the best of its abilities to keep its supporters united as well as enlist more individuals to the cause, in order to make an impactful comeback.
The terror of Islamic State does not simply end with the death of Baghdadi. Nations worldwide have feared being attacked by the institution and have also openly shared their concerns regarding the matter. The United States and the EU (European Union), both have increased vigilance in their security forces, fearing retaliation from the organization.
However, in order to form a structured revenge plan, the ISIS needs to have sufficient means to do so. After the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, the followers of the group have been scattered along the region. Not to mention having a considerable amount of supporters from Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan. Yet, the lack of a consolidated leadership limits the chances of a large scale attack. Speculations about lone wolf attacks have been made, however none of such cases have been reported so far.
The simple aim of organizing such an attack can however lead to a greater solidarity among its supporters. Collusions among lone wolves or individual entities and local terrorist organizations are most likely to occur, yet the extent of a major retaliation would require a lot of time. Resources and funding are also areas to look into, and given the current weak stance of the Islamic State, seeking vengeance is still a long way to go.
However, ISIS is a determined group and most likely will rise again. The loss of territory along with the loss of its most influential leaders has tarnished its reputation. Meaning that in the long run, the organization would definitely want to rebuild its empire, the question is how?
Regaining lost glory- in search of the new Caliphate
Ever since its inception, Iraq and Syria have been the main strongholds for ISIS. This was primarily due to the fact that ISIS rose as a segment of Al-Qaeda which was established in the region. After Baghdadi’s revolt against the functioning’s of Al-Qaeda he founded his Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi who was an Iraqi national himself was well informed about the region and had good knowledge of the local affiliates who would be willing to join him. The political turmoil in the region, also served in providing the organization with a conducive environment to grow. Hence, Iraq and Syria became one of the most prized locations for the organization. However, this all changed as the Caliphate kept losing its territory at the hands of multiple entities. Even today, the US Homeland Security Forces are keeping the sleeper cells of the organization on a run. This however doesn’t answer the question to the recent power vacuum that has been created in the region as well as in the organization and in all likelihood, the organization will venture out to seek better avenues.
After the announcement of Baghdadi’s death, European nations were not the only ones to express their concerns about the possibility of retaliatory attacks. Officials from Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have also been perturbed by the returning of attackers, given the dominant presence of ISIS in the region. Over the past few years Southeast Asian authorities have seen a rise in the number of individuals who choose to migrate to Iraq and Syria in order to fight for the organization. The region is constantly threatened by the increasing influence of the group and the escalating numbers of sympathizers it has managed to gain over a short period of time. Thus making it highly incorrect to limit the identity of the Islamic State to Iraq and Syria alone.
ISIS as an organization, currently faces a power vacuum in its system. This can only result in the formation of new affiliates in the region or an increasing probability of a brand new terrorist organization taking form from the remaining shambles of ISIS. The death of Baghdadi would hence be used as a tactical measure to gain more supporters in the region as well as to create a wave of radicalization in Southeast Asia. However, there are multiple challenges that the organization itself needs to address before starting to rebuild its empire.
The nations in the pacific that are highly affected by ISIS are namely- Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia. The paper shall take a brief look at the recent terrorist activities in each of the countries and speculate on the possibilities of an emerging Islamic State.
In 2016, the nation experienced one of its first terrorist attacks caused by the ISIS. According to reports it was the first successful attack that the organization had managed to conduct in the country. A grenade attack was carried out in a nightclub, located in Puchong in Selangor state. Eight Malaysians and one Chinese were injured. Irrespective of the magnitude of the attack, the authorities nabbed two Malaysians who were affiliated with the Islamic State.
This is not the only case of radicalization that has been experienced in the nation. In July of 2019, the Counter Terrorism division of Malaysia allegedly caught hold of – 12 Indonesians, 3 Malaysians and one Indian on charges of plotting attacks against unnamed politicians and non- Muslims. On interrogation , the accused were found guilty of spreading the Salfi Jihadist teachings and recruiting members for the ISIS, through social media. As per interrogation reports, the suspects were aged between 22 and 36 and were heavily involved in enlisting new members for the Islamic State from Indonesia and Malaysia, and also planned on launching attacks after the recruitment procedure was completed. They have also been associated in channeling funds for the Maute terrorist group based in the Philippines.
If one were to simply take a look at the Movida club attacks, one would realize how the roots of terror have slowly penetrated into the fabric of Malaysian society. Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi, was a Malaysian national moved to Syria in order to join the ISIS. Since then he has been listed as one of the top recruiters and handles nearly all social media sites in the region. He was in charge of setting up nearly 100 WhatsApp groups which were all managed by Syrian social media hackers. The participants of these WhatsApp groups were usually college and university students from across the nation. Muhammad Wanndy who was responsible for setting up numerous sleeper cells in Malaysia, passed away in 2017 in a drone attack in Syria. One of the cells being the ‘Black Crow’ or Gagak Hitam. This was a well networked group that consisted of citizens from all walks of life, who secretly took orders from Wanndy. The Black Crow was simply an example of one of the many sleeper cells in the area, that continuously conspired against the government.
Apart from the presence of underground cells, terrorist organizations such as the Katibah Nusantara (Islamic State’s Malay Archipelago Combat Unit) have been pretty active in the region. In spite of being active even before the formation of the Islamic State, the group pledged its allegiance to ISIS in 2013. Since then it has utilized the Malay speaking population as an asset to promulgate their agenda. By using language as a medium, the group has successfully managed to create a better solidarity among members as well as found ways to enlist new comrades on similar grounds. One of the other benefits of encouraging Malay as a language of communication, is to reach a larger sects of Malaysian and Indonesian Sunni Muslims. Releasing videos and articles in the native language only makes its impact on the cyberspace stronger.
Katibah Nusantara is not the only organization that sympathizes with the cause of the Islamic State. The seeds of the notions encouraging the Islamic State had been long implanted in Malaysia by one of the most notorious terrorist organizations in the region KMM (Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia). If one were to take a look at the ideological formulations of both KMM and the ISIS, one could easily recognize the similarities. Both the institutions vouch for transnational terrorism and aim at forming a global Islamic State. With the promotion of such identical objectives KMM could be called as the precursor of ISIS in the region. With the recent demise of Baghdadi, these sentiments are only being fueled as more and more recruits willingly sympathize with the cause.
Malaysia which enjoys a prime location in the Pacific, has to be extensively careful regarding its maritime security, in light of the rising terror groups. In the recent past, Malaysia has been accused of smuggling in illegal weapons. However, officials have denied any such claims.
Malaysia, along with its neighboring nations Indonesia and Philippines appears to be the perfect breeding ground for terrorist activities. With 61.3% of the population being predominantly Muslim, it is easy to influence the public with radical ideas in the name of jihad. A majority of the pro-ISIS sympathizers, willingly went to Iraq and Syria to become a part of the larger jihadi movement. However after the destruction of the caliphate, the returnees from the Middle East pose a greater threat to the national security, as they serve as a catalyst to instigate more extremist propaganda in the region.
In 2013, when ISIS split from Al-Qaeda, terrorist organizations worldwide were forced to pick sides. Especially the ones based in Southeast Asia. One of such groups that pledged its loyalty to ISIS was Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) An organization that has been wrecking havoc in the region by inspiring families to participate in suicide bombings, across the nation. One of such cases occurred a year ago in Surabaya when a family of six carried out a deadly suicide bomb attack in a church. What appeared to be a simple countryside family, was actually being radicalized by joint group for Islamic studies on a weekly basis. According to investigators, there were multiple families that met every Sunday to preach about Islam and in turn presented extremist views on the subject. The family which included a daughter of nine, were held responsible for carrying out the attack in a church, which injured many. A total of three such families were held accountable, and in all probability one of the families had recently returned from Syria. A similar attack took place at a police headquarters, in the same region. The attack was carried out by a family of five.
All these families bear their allegiance or have been impacted by the teachings of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), the organization too confirms its strategy of radicalizing families in the name of jihad. However, JAD is as recent as ISIS. Both the organizations were formed around the same time and ever since then JAD has looked up to ISIS for training and financial aid. JAD is composed of nearly two dozen extremist groups that pledge its allegiance to ISIS. However, there have been disputes among two Indonesian ISIL militants based in Syria namely – Bahrumsyah, aka Abu Ibrahim [Abu Jandal] and Bahrun Naim regarding the control over the pacific rim. As per intelligence sources Bahrumsyah has been made in charge of Katibah Nusantara, which is operational from Malaysia. Whereas Bahrun Naim had taken charge of JAD. Bahrun Naim, himself had an extremely impressive background. From being a student of informatics engineering to being in charge of one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations. He is the mastermind who introduced bitcoin technology and the basics of artificial intelligence to ISIS. However, after his death in 2018 in a US air strike, the leadership of JAD has been under Aman Abdurrahman, who is currently in Indonesian custody, yet remains influential.
Apart from JAD, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) is also equally powerful in radicalizing entities and promoting lone wolf attacks in the region. Both these organizations work hand in hand and also enjoy the support of well networked group of terrorist organizations from the neighboring countries of Malaysia and the Philippines.
Indonesia has a 99% Sunni Muslim population. The remaining minorities are under constant threat from these extremist entities that usually attack government properties and Christian or western places of importance within the nation. Over the past 5 years, Indonesia has experienced a surge in terrorist activities as more of its youth is being radicalized by the use of social media. The arsonist masterminds, very intelligently hack into the social media networks that eventually do the damage. The local madrasas, or Islamic study centers are considered to be breeding grounds for such extremism. In the Surabaya case which was mentioned above, families as a unit are being used as agents of terror. This includes using women and children alike. In 2017, a women was sentenced to seven and a half years of prison, after having plotted to carry out a suicide bombing outside the presidential palace. It was the first time that a woman had been arrested for such a crime.
One of the most damaging ways in which the organization has chosen to break the structure of Indonesia is by attacking the governments. In May 2019, right before the declaration of the presidential election, the police forces nabbed eight ISIS inspired militants who planned to stage a suicide bomb attack, during the announcement of the results. Most of these members have been migrants from Syria and Iraq, who were inspired by the idea of fighting for their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters. However, with the downfall of the Caliphate and the loss of their most prominent leader, in all likelihood, they will be equally inspired to create a new Islamic state in their very homeland.
It would be foolish to consider that the mission of Islamic State to conquer land is only limited to Iraq and Syria. In 2017, the city of Marawi experienced something similar to what the people in Mosul would have experienced under the ISIS. The siege of Marawi is one of the best examples of the increasing power of terrorist organizations in the Philippines. In a duration of a 5 month long siege, which resulted in the loss of lives as well as property the city was completely left in ruins. The massive destruction was the work on two highly active terrorist organizations of the region – Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, both of which have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. The ruined walls of the remaining buildings were covered with paintings and marks that read- “I love ISIS”.
As the city and the people still recover, the terrorist groups do not seem to rest. Two years after the incident, a case of suicide bomb attack rises up in January of 2019. A Roman Catholic Cathedral in Jolo, Mindanao island suffered two explosions after a couple of suicide bombers unleashed the attack. This time the militants were affiliated with Abu Sayyaf group. Soon after the attack, an illustration was made public. In which the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte was seen kneeling down on a pile of skulls while a militant held a knife at his neck, this picture was captioned- “The fighting has just begun”. As if the horrors of bombings and large scale destruction weren’t enough, the group is also psychologically affecting the public’s notions of safety. The illustration made the general citizens question their security at the hands of the state, a tactic used to sow seeds of suspicion in order to breakdown the government.
Considering all the recent attacks, the name of one terrorist group repeatedly resurfaces- Abu Sayyaf group (ASG). However, this organization is not the only culprit. Other terrorist groups such as the Maute group are also equally to blame. But these groups used to be a part of a larger organization called the MNLF ( Moro National Liberation Front ), that used to be closely associated with Al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). After being exceptionally active in the 1990’s and the 2000’s, the group eventually fizzled out due to internal disputes. Its last known attack was reported to be in 2017, ever since which it has remained relatively dormant. The group used a form of collective leadership and vouches for the formation of a separate Muslim nation or state called as the Bangsamoro, as the group is presided over by the Moro community. Moros are followers of Islam, yet some of their practices differ from the other religious sects, hence making them a separate ethnic group. It wasn’t clear wheatear MNLF agreed with the ideologies of ISIS. The group had also changed its name to MILF (MoroIslamic liberation front) and had ties with other terror groups in the region. Both MNLF and MILF were primarily located in the island of Mindanao in southern Philippines.
The other terror groups include Abu Sayyaf group (ASG), which is notorious for carrying out kidnappings in the area. Yet in the recent past. The group has advanced enough to carry out suicide bombings and attacks in the island of Mindanao. ASG lost one of its most prominent leaders Isnilon Hapilon, during the siege of Marawi. Isnilon Hapilon began his occupation as a jihadi terrorist under MNLF. Later on he aided in forming the ASG which predominantly consisted of tausug filipo Muslims, unlike the moros. He was one of the first in 2014 to pledge his alligence to al-Baghdadi, and eventually rose in the ranks to manage the jihadist movements in the pacific rim. After the death of Hapilon, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan has taken over the command. However, due to some differences within the group, ASG has two separate factions- one of which is based in Jolo and the other in Basilan. The faction in Basilan has pledged its allegiance to ISIS, but the one in Jolo has yet to make any definitive statement. This makes the linking of the attacks to either of the ASG groups a tough task.
Along with ASG, the other crucial terrorist group that works in the same area is the Maute group. The group has rather disillusioned beginnings, and it is unclear as to what triggered the radicalization among its key founders, yet the Mautes played an essential role in the Marawi siege. The group’s key founders – Omar and Abdullah Maute belonged to influential and well- off families in the town of Buting. During its initial stages they closely worked with the MILF, but soon disbanded and started to associate themselves with other groups in the region, one of them being the ASG. In May of 2017, Mautes took over Marawi and started their bloody regime, executing and looting people. The masterminds of the Marawi siege were Omar and Abdullah Maute, who were allegedly killed during the five month long blockade. However, there have been speculations that the prime person behind the scenes is Farhana Maute, which makes sense as the Mautes belong to a matriarchal tribe. Ever since the Marawi siege, the Mautes have been working closely with the ASG. Both the groups are notorious for kidnapping foreign nationals, mostly Indonesians and holding them for ransom.
The terrorist groups in Philippines were divided on the lines of ethnicity at the start of the decade. However, with the split of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, most organizations in the region have come together in the name of Islam, with a common goal of setting up their own caliphate. As the nation is chiefly Roman Catholic, the 5.6% of the Muslim in the region consider the government to be biased towards Christians. This instigates the terrorist groups furthermore as they repeatedly attempt to take down the “Christian” governance. The main concentration of the Muslim population lies in southern Philippines, which is geographically closer to the archipelagos of Indonesia. This close proximity of the nations and the heavy transnational involvement of terrorist groups in the region pose a major security threat.
Southeast Asia the next Caliphate?
As the command of the Caliphate dwindles in the Middle East, there can be seen a Suring sympathy in Southeast Asia. Currently ISIS exists in the form of sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria, that to face a hard time due to the counter terrorism measures taken by the government of the region. However, a Caliphate is not legitimized without a territory, the one that the organization has recently lost. Keeping in mind the siege of Marawi in Philippines , the possibility of a new Caliphate arising in southeast Asia cannot be denied. The primary nations that have been associated with the functioning of the Islamic State are Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Recent cases have also highlighted the rising numbers of Singaporean civilians who are being inspired by the same cause. Its is vital to keep in mind that these nations are an accumulation of archipelagoes that can be easily captured. If the current terrorist factions in the region were to unite and capture even one of these islands, a new Caliphate could be easily established. Given its prime location in the Pacific, the area receives the maximum traffic in terms of trade. Disrupting healthy trade between nations, in order to serve as a means of income for the organization through piracy and abduction is possible. If in all probability one of the islands in the region were to be the next Caliphate, then weapons supply would become a cheaper alternative for the Islamic State, as well as receiving FTFs (foreign terrorist fighters) via the sea route.
However, capturing an island and declaring it as the Islamic State is not enough. Precautionary measures are to be kept in mind. An island is a small piece of land. In such a case, a mere annihilation of an island would mean the end of the Islamic State. This move would then only work in favor of global peace.
However, the chances of such a scenario manifesting would require to many factors to be taken into consideration. One of them being the assimilation of all the terror groups and lone wolves in the region and creating a strong leadership which is capable of doing so. Within a week of al-Baghdadi’s death, the organization announced its next leader- Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi. As is custom, the caliph should belong to one of the families that were close to Prophet Mohamed. Little is known about Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi, and little is known about his leadership qualities. So far, it hasn’t been established whether he is a namesake or an actual figurehead with powers of governance. Thus it is not difficult to imagine that there could be internal power struggles within the ISIS. In such a case, the probability of a competent leadership that consolidates the southeast Asian groups seems bleak.
But in such dire straits, would ISIS be joined by its old friend al-Qaeda? In all probability no. Both al-queada and ISIS currently face a power vacuum in their structure. However, in no way would al-Qaeda be willing to join ISIS. Post the announcement of Baghdadi’s death, it was reported that al-Qaeda celebrated the event. According to sources, the loss of such a wanted terrorists was no loss to them at all. Not to mention that the statement made by Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 16 minute long video that was posted post the split of both the organizations, clearly emphasized that Baghdadi was no longer welcome. The dislike towards Baghdadi has still been maintained and is often reflected in the hostility that the splinter groups maintain towards each other. In contrast, this does not lessen the probability of a brand new terrorist organization emerging in southeast Asia. The terrorist groups that used to work on the lines of differences and for separate causes, have now been acting under a single banner of the Islamic State. If such a thing were to occur, the effects would be equally disastrous.
Witnessing the sway that the IS has over its Southeast Asian counterparts, it would be incorrect to limit the location of the Islamic state simply to Iraq and Syria. Speculating on the possibility of a new Caliphate in Philippines, Malaysian and Indonesia does not seem far from reality. In light of the recent events, there has been a sizeable growth in the number of sympathizers of the IS. The Islamic State too, will not leave no stone unturned to regain its lost glory. This includes exploiting social media posts and financing and inspiring lone wolf attacks throughout the region. When even civilians are being radicalized and used as mediums of terror, it becomes tricky for the counter- terrorism forces to deal with them. Transnational terrorism has become a real thing and the threat is real. The question is how and who puts an end to it?
ISIS and the Militant Jihad on Instagram
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.
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. 
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. 
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. 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. In 2017, Instagram was the third most popular social media platform in the EU, after Facebook and Google+. 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.
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. 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.
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, bond users together through prosocial means, other communities allow users to unite in promotion of maladaptive behaviors such as self-harm and excessive reassurance-seeking. 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. 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. 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. The same has been found in studies of ISIS’s online recruitment as well as studies of counter narratives. 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. 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.”
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, 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, 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.
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. 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.
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Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today
Cyber ASAT-Capabilities and South Asia
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.
Understanding the Balochistan Liberation Army: An Analysis of Emerging Trends
The latest turbulence surrounding the Pakistan-Balochistan dichotomy occurred on 28th June 2020 when four heavily armed militants stormed into the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi and killed three security personnel and a police officer. Although Pakistan’s immediate response was to direct the blame at its neighbouring nemesis (echoed in the comments of Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi) the real responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). In light of the freshly erupted insurgencies, it is imperative to understand the contestation in Balochistan as well as the significance of the BLA.
Balochistan: A Land of Perpetual Anarchy
Nestled in the South Western section of Pakistan, Balochistan is a sparsely populated and a highly persecuted territory that covers only 43 per cent of Pakistan’s total area. Its geopolitical significance emanates from the presence of the regional neighbours –– Iran to the West, Afghanistan to the Northwest and the Arabian Sea to the South. Over the years, the region has culminated into a hub of international unrest. For the longest time, the Baloch province has been subjected to insurgencies, the roots of which trace back to the British departure in 1947. With its fate unknown and undecided, the then Baloch ruler, Khan of Kalat signed an agreement which granted a forceful accession of Balochistan to the Pakistani administration. The unrest has birthed a number of separatist groups over the years that have fought to diminish Pakistani hegemony in the region. The most significant among these groups is the BLA.
What is the Balochistan Liberation Army?
The BLA or the Balochistan Liberation Army is identified as one of the oldest insurgency groups organised in the Southwestern region of Balochistan, with its authority (Hyrbyair Marri) seated in the United Kingdom. The main objective of this group is to exterminate Pakistani influence from their country and establish a Greater Balochistan province by incorporating the Iranian and Afghani Baloch territories.
Regarded as an ethno-nationalist militant organisation, the BLA was formally instituted in 2000. Spread over the region with 6,000 cadres, the component group members of the BLA hail from the Marri, Bugti and Mengal clans. In the period between 1973 and 1977, that is identified as the ‘Independent Balochistan Movement’, the Baloch had engaged in two massive guerrilla wars against the Pakistani administration. The leaders of the Baloch movement have been claiming sovereignty over the Southeastern province and Northern Pashtun region. Although deemed as a terrorist organisation and banned by the United States, the BLA has once again re-appeared in the international domain. Having consolidated its base in Pakistan and Balochistan, the group is said to have been active since 2000 and is fighting against unequal allotment of jobs to Punjabis as compared to Balochi natives and mineral exploitation by Pakistan’s powerful provinces.
Epicentre of Exploitation
Balochistan is a region endowed with natural resources. Besides having a long coastline overlooking the Arabian Sea, it has an abundant collection of resources like coal, natural gas, oil, copper, zinc, lead and so on. The geostrategic importance of the region has drawn international attention towards the region and made it an epicentre of global contestation. However, the wide array of resources has contributed the least to the development of the Baloch province. What has agitated the Balochi separatist movements is Pakistan’s handing over of vast sections of the region to China for its million-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project.
The low level of infrastructural development and lack of investment in the disputed zone has resulted in a low level of economic activities and hurt the province of Baloch on the fiscal front. Another case in point to argue for its geopolitical significance is the Gwadar port, that holds economic and geostrategic importance for Pakistan. In recent years, China has invested nearly $19 billion in the Gwadar port and other infrastructural developments in the Baloch province as a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Such developments have triggered a surge of unemployment in Baloch, where jobs are mostly handed out to workers from China and Pakistan. Only 8 out of 330 CPEC projects have been allotted to Balochistan. In fact, Pakistani security analyst, Muhammad Amir Rana has explained the province as ‘an environment of fear’ and one where journalists cannot intrude and report about local problems. Plundering activities carried out in the region by the Chinese have thus, given birth to anti-Chinese sentiments that have manifested itself several times in the form of attacks on Chinese targets such as the one in the Chinese consulate at Karachi in 2018 or the very recent bombing at the Pakistani Stock Exchange.
The Indian Angle: Where Does India Stand in the Balochistan Crisis?
Pakistan has since time immemorial, accused India of playing the Baloch card against it. The fact that stronger Indo-Baloch ties will be fundamental to Indian interest is well known. Balochistan has always looked at India as a potential ally in their war against Pakistani hegemony in their territory. The roots of the Indo-Baloch ties were further strengthened after Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought up the human rights issue in Baloch during his Independence Day speech on 15th August 2016. In spite of being a majorly Muslim province, the Balochis have always propagated the spirit of secularism. In fact, the Baloch leader Hyrbyair Marri asserted that Balochistan has closer ties with India as compared to Pakistan because the movement has never weaponised religion to win wars. The leaders demand Indian intervention to abolish atrocities meted out by Pakistan in the region. Marri observes that to counter Pakistan in their territory they need more than ‘India’s friendship, support and help’. They demand New Delhi to view Balochistan as an ally and contribute vehemently in stabilising the disputed zone. Such pro-India feelings among Balochis have convinced Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to dismiss claims of the Majid Brigade of the Balochistan Liberation Army and instead hold India accountable for the very recent catastrophe at the stock exchange building in Karachi. Such accusations are not new. Earlier as well, Islamabad pointed a finger at India accusing it of facilitating the swift escape of the chief of Baloch Republican Party, Baramdagh Bugti to Switzerland. Moreover, during the Kulbhushan Jadhav case that was tried at the International Court of Justice, Pakistan hinted at India’s involvement in terrorism in the region.
For the longest time now, Balochistan has made headlines for the wrong reasons. What primarily characterises this fragile zone is perpetual violence and instability. The extraordinary economic and geostrategic significance has transformed it into a hub of conflicting interests. The Baloch history is testimony to global exploitation that emanates essentially from its abundant resources, extracted by countries to cater to their advantages. Furthermore, the Pakistani representation of a pro-Indian stance in Balochistan is just another provocation to its open-ended resentment towards India. Lack of reconciliation efforts will worsen the situation and stretch the civil war furthermore. A democratic transition in the province that is entirely in possession of Islamabad shall prove to be fruitful in addressing socio-economic issues that the people in Balochistan are subjected to. The long history of insurgency makes it fair to surmise that Balochistan favours political negotiation to counter Pakistani marginalisation and aggression. Therefore, brutal repression of interests by military means coupled with a reluctance to accommodate the political interests will cause the insurgency to linger around for a longer time. Secondly, reducing and balancing complexities in this volatile region also calls for global cooperation.
Several instances across the world have proved how international backing to internal animosities has been effectual—such as the Houthi rebels looking up to Iran in their battle against the internationally recognised Yemeni government or Erdogan pledging Turkish support to Pakistan on its Kashmir stance. Emerging trends in a COVID characterised world order have fuelled anti-Chinese perspectives in many countries that blame it for its failure to contain the spread of the virus. This acts as the US trump card to not only enter into the ‘Baloch game’ but also stand true to its antagonism towards China. As far as India is concerned, the Baloch province has routinely regarded India as an ally in their fight against Pakistan. Moreover, recent engagements with PLA troops along the Indo-China periphery have already propelled anti-Chinese sentiments in the country. Therefore, Indian involvement in Balochistan legitimises the possibility to counter both Pakistani and Chinese aggression in a single stroke. Appeasement of the distressed region, both regional and international shall help to surmount the insurgency to some extent, if not eradicate it wholly.
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