While Secretary Pompeo is pushing for an extension of the arms embargo on Iran, which is due to expire in the fall, Houthis continue facilitating Iran’s military and ideological agenda in the region. Iran denied having yet another ship filled with sophisticated weaponry intercepted during a joint US-Arab Coalition operation near Yemen in June, another piece of evidence pointing to the dangers of Iran’s continuing relationship with the Houthis. And despite dealing with a series of explosions throughout IRGC military bases, and nuclear/power stations, Iran has shown no signs of slowing down in the implementation of this agenda and denied any external interventionism. The blasts are attributed to Israel, and to an opposition group known as “Cheetahs of the Homeland.” The latest such incident took place to the West of Tehran, in the vicinity of additional IRGC bases and power stations.
Most of the P5+1 members are reluctant to follow US lead in renewith the arms embargo. Furthermore, there is evidence that where EUropean companies have turned away from profit due to the concern over losing access to the US financial system, China and Russia have stepped comfortably in, which means that with or without the arms embargo, Iran retains access to the components needed for the production of sophisticated weapons. A new deal inked between Beijing and Tehran reportedly grants China access to Iranian air force bases, while Iran essentially becomes a gas station for the Chinese Communist Party which has been suffering ongoing financial losses and reportedly has not been able to meet its “New Silk Road” /Belt-and-Road commitments.
Enter the HOuthis, who have been reportedly smuggling oil out of Southern Yemen and supplying Hezbullah and IRGC with a resource lifeline to complement access to Iraqi oil and the Chinese lease monopoly over Ahwazi petrochemicals. Yemen’s internationally recognized government has downplayed the attacks on Safter oil pumping stations, but with the fall of oil output in Yemen since the HOuthi coup, access to natural resources has become an important rallying point for the Houthis. In exchange, Houthis are playing an increasingly central role in Iran’s regional hegemony projects as Iraqi militias have attracted increasing US scrutiny and ire, with mass arrests following the liquidation of Qassem Soleimani and several important heads of Iran-backed Shi’a groups starting in January.
While the US and the Arab Coalition have succeeded in intercepting several ships providing weapons to Houthis as evidence of the close relationship, they have not been able to stop the smuggling altogether. And for every number of bomb-laden Houthi boats destroyed by the Arab Coalition, an unknown number of such operations succeeds, at least partially. Then there are rumors of the HOuthis exploiting security vulnerabilities and launching a deadly and destructive attack on a Saudi air force base in June 2020, among a series of missile and drone attacks aimed at Saudi cities, which, according to the Coalition, were intercepted by the Saudi missile defense systems. Those are just some of the most recent examples of Houthi attacks; during the course of the war, according to the Coalition spokesman Turki Al-Maliki, nearly 1700 attacks against civilian sites in Saudi Arabia had been launched by the HOuthis, and an unknown number of similar attacks against civilians in Yemen. In July, another quantity of drones was destroyed by the Coalition forces over Yemen.
These events show the limits of US diplomacy and political action, and in particular, the limits of the strategy exclusively targeting Iran, without taking into the account the subversive and increasingly powerful role of the HOuthis in the region. Of course, in the event of the non-renewal of the embargo, Iran will indeed become an international arms marketplace for the worst of rogue actors, but even now with the restrictions in place, it has evaded full accountability and has managed to sow mayhem and mischief with the help of its proxies and increasingly integrated regional relationships.
It, too, is important to note that much of Iran’s assets lie outside Tehran. Therefore the approah of “cutting off the head of the snake”, with anything short of complete regime change and destruction of the existing Iranian administrative infrastructure and financial architecture, is hardly the panacea for the Iranian assertion of control in the Middle East, without also severing the limbs that carry out its bidding, including, in particular the Houthis.
And that is the argument that was heard in detail by a gathering of international experts during a series of meetings held by the Coalition of Organizations for Peace in Yemen on the sidelines of the Human Rights Council, session 44.
The first seminar focused on the HOuthi role in the shelling of Yemeni and Saudi cities.Seminar of Houthi shelling of cities:
Violation of the armistice and non-compliance with international agreements
Moderator: Dr. Arwa Al-Khattabi, an academic and human rights activist
The first speaker, Engineer Khaled Al-Afif, head of the German-Yemeni Forum for Rights and Freedoms, member of European organizations allied for peace in Yemen, spoke about the Houthi breach of the armistice and the agreements and stated that the Houthi militias relied on the tactic of restoring breath and arranging the papers to pounce on the adversaries and their means were to deceive the tribes and the government and now the international community.and the truce announcement. Each time, the militias break the ceasefire agreements once their ranks are rearranged (this follows a model long adopted by another Iranian proxy, Hamas).
He mentioned that between 2004 and 2010, the Yemeni government fought six wars with the Houthi militias, and all these wars were stopped by ceasefire agreements with the involvement of mediation committees that the Houthis did not adhere to. On the contrary, for them it was a warrior’s rest to arrange their ranks and when the army stopped the war because of the truce the Houthis rallied to crush the tribal sheikhs and the regions that supported the government and opposed their forces. After 2011, the Houthi militia took advantage of the youth revolution, political division, and the army’s division to impose its complete control over the Saada governorate, and the first thing that it worked on was the displacement of the Dammaj sons after several armies and agreements that were not adhered to, and this is the first case of sectarian displacement in Yemen.
The militia expanded its military operations to Imran and held several rounds of talks through mediation committees that ended in neutralizing the tribes and swooping on anyone who opposed the HOuthis; the Houthis did not abide by any agreement or armistice with any party that did not accept their authority, but relied on terrorism and the scorched earth policy after all the armistice and additionally, relied on the bombing the homes of tribal elders. Before announcing the truce in Amran, the Houthis launched an armed attack on the governorate to control it. While the mediation committees led by the UN envoy bin Omar were moving to a cease-fire, the Houthis stormed the capital, Sanaa, and then a truce was established, or what was known as the peace agreement, one that the Houthis did not adhere to. The Houthis entered into a partnership agreement with the Congress Party and former President Ali Saleh, and they did not adhere to any provision of it. Rather, at the end of 2017, they launched armed operations against the party that ended with the killing of former President Saleh and collaborators, and threw thousands of supporters of the party, women and men, in prison.
Khaled Al-Afif further talked about the most prominent agreement that were brokered by the United Nations, which was Stockholm, which ended with the handover to the Houthis of the port of Al-Hadidah, strategically important both for humanitarian aid to the rest of the country and as a smuggling center for the delivery of Iranian weapons and other contraband. The Houthis violated the ceasefire hundreds of times and killed some members of the monitoring committees, including Colonel Muhammad Sharaf al-Sulayhi. In Naham, Al-Jawf, and Marib, more than a truce was held and announced, but the Houthis did not adhere to any truce.
On the contrary, they took advantage of the truces to arrange their ranks, and those areas were neglected, Al-Jawf and the military operations are carried out on a daily basis in Marib. In conclusion, he said: “A few days ago, the Houthis held a truce in Radman Al Bayda, through tribal mediation that the Houthis did not abide by, and ended in storming the Radman area and detonating many homes.” Mr. Khaled talked about bombing and detonating property, raising terror and terrorizing citizens and residents, which is a systematic strategy for the Houthi militia, which started from the first six wars between 2004 and 2009 in Saada against all opposition figures, villages, and regions that rejected these militias, and this Houthi terrorism reached the zenith after their coup against the state in September 21, 2014 and their control grab over the weapons of the Yemeni army and the acquisition of experiences in developing weapons, booby traps and drones through Iranian experts and from the Lebanese Hezbollah, which was stated by Iranian officials and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Since the beginning of its war to control the Yemeni governorates, the Houthi militia has deliberately bombed residential areas in cities and rural areas that refuse to submit to and surrender to the militia, and with every defeat this militia has been subjected to, indiscriminate shelling of residential neighborhoods and hospitals to terrorize people, the resistance and the army to surrender. In Taiz, among the 20 hospitals and health centers, 18 hospitals were suspended due to the bombing of the Houthi militia or the siege they struck on the city of Taiz, and only two hospitals remain operational.
Despite this, the militias bombed the main revolution hospital in Taiz, according to human rights organizations, and the Houthi missiles destroyed the part The largest of the hospital was mass destruction concentrated in the intensive care department. Where the victims of indiscriminate shelling in Taiz between 2015 and 2018, nearly 3,000 civilians, including 630 children and 371 women. Taiz is at the forefront of the number of injured people in Yemen, and the pain of the wounded is compounded by the Houthi siege imposed on the city of Taiz, which exacerbated their tragic situation in an unprecedented way, as the number of wounded reached 16 thousand and 402 civilians, including 1756 children and girls and 249 women.
7070 went missing due to kidnapping and enforced disappearance, and in 2019, approximately 186 citizens were killed, 54 of which were indiscriminate shelling of residential neighborhoods, 18 snipers, 41 as a result of landmines, 3 under torture, and one of extrajudicial executions. The total destruction resulting from indiscriminate shelling was 2,320 buildings, 452 of which were public property, 338 buildings were partially destroyed, and 18 of the 20 hospitals in the city were destroyed due to the constant shelling.
At the level of cities and governorates, entire neighborhoods in Aden Governorate, from Khor Maksar, Tawahi and the northern regions of the governorate were destroyed as a result of the war launched by the Houthi militia in an attempt to occupy Aden and the center of Lahj and Abyan Governorate. Most public property and a large part of private property were destroyed and the effects of the destruction are still prominent to today. It also bombed a water tank in the Al-Duraimi district in Al-Hodeidah, which is one of the hot spots where water is not easily available. The Houthi militia bombed the Al-Isayad port, in Hodeidah, killing 14 people and wounded 30, most of them civilians.
The Houthi militia also boasted more than 73 torrential bridges and streams of mines linked to rockets and missiles in major roads linking Hodeidah directorates to destroy roads and bridges in the areas they lost and to hinder the progress of the Yemeni army and prevent the return of citizens. Since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement, the Houthi militia has continued to violate the ceasefire by attacking cities under the control of the Yemeni government, blowing up bridges and destroying roads in crimes aimed at passing humanitarian aid to people in need outside its control areas.
The systematic militia destruction of cultural objects and historical monuments of Yemen occurs, either through the trade and sale of antiquities and manuscripts, or their use as military barracks and military sites, and Yemen has joined the countries whose antiquities are sold in public auctions after being looted by gangs and smugglers. Because assaulting or harming antiquities and manuscripts is a crime in accordance with national legislation and an explicit violation of international agreements, militia leaders have added to their crimes against the Yemenis an additional crime by committing hostilities against the historical and artistic works that constitute the cultural heritage of peoples.
Cairo’s ancient castle, on of the most prominent monuments in Taiz and Yemen, was severely damaged as a result of its use by the militias as a military barracks, which were bombing the city and its residential homes, which was subjected to bombing by the resistance to preserve the lives of innocent people. Hundreds of them were killed and injured from the bombing of a tank that was inside The castle destroyed the militias, blew up 7 archaeological monuments in the Dhamar governorate, and before their departure from Aden they looted and destroyed the Aden Museum. Also, the monuments in the governorates of Shabwah and the outskirts of Marib and in Abib were looted and tampered, and large quantities of rare artifacts were smuggled out and only revealed when they were placed. An auction to sell antiquities on the internet.
In Al-Jawf, the militias destroyed 63 archaeological monuments and historical cities that have become almost completely destroyed, including Nashan, Kamana, Haram, Anba, and Nasq, in addition to the well-known and well-known cities such as Baraqish, Qarnaw, Al-Kharba al-Bayda, and Khirbet Al-Aswad. And the bombing of villages and areas of the Hajjur tribes in the district of Keshr, northeast of Hajjah, was mentioned by ballistic missiles, after more than 40 days of the humanitarian blockade.
The author, presenting at this event, said: “I noticed that we have a strange situation that although the international community has extensive information documenting the extent of Iran’s assistance to the Houthis in attacks on civilians and the supply of weapons used in attacks on Yemeni and Saudi cities, as well as oil tankers, oil sites, and airports, no However, the evidence of Iranian interference is increasing. Many attacks on various Saudi cities from Jizran and Abha to Riyadh show evidence of advanced missiles and drones loaded with bombs that could not be produced in Yemen without Iran’s help. The media failed In documenting general violations of human rights by the Houthis, as well as the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
Houthi launched a deadly attack on Aden, killing 32 members of the Yemeni military parade while targeting high-ranking officials. And that’s just one such well known attack against Yemeni cities; the experts have documented attacks against Yemeni civilians that have not been covered by Western media, but which have gone more lethal and precise over time, according to the experts, as the Houthis gained additional access to increasingly more sophisticated Iranian weapons.
Indeed, the international community is well aware that Iran’s interference precedes the ongoing five-year long civil war. These weapons have been secretly replenished with consistency going back decades, while the international community turned a blind eye to the Houthi smuggling of contraband through the Oman borders, excusing it as regular crime rather than a precursor to a coup. Since then, Iran has developed various routes for smuggling weapons, posing a threat to international maritime security.
Despite allegations that the Somali shipping route used to smuggle arms has been closed, the Iranians continue to use shipments, as well as other sea routes on the way to Hodeidah that are under the control of the Houthis and are both necessary as a receiving point for humanitarian supplies and as a point for arms smuggling. The author added that the Houthis were able to smuggle weapons by road and in trucks to Hodeidah, and this complex mechanism dates back to a long period before the civil war where Iran funded, armed, and trained the Houthis for years before the coup. For years the Houthis have been moving back and forth to Iran and we know that Hezbollah and Iranian advisers have been on the ground providing direct assistance and advice away from ground operations or basic training.
That’s how the Houthis were able to assess vulnerabilities of the Saudi defense systems, and to receive complex intelligence information which had allowed them to penetrate cities, attack well protected military bases, and coordinate complex attacks far exceeding their own capabilities and knowledge.
The United Nations has documented that the missiles and drones recovered from the attack sites bear Persian markings and appear similar to the the brands, makes, and models of Iranian weapons used elsewhere in the region, and recovered in other places including in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq.
To counter these threats, it is necessary to prevent Iran from being able to import Western weapons and other weapons and parts that can be used to continue to produce missiles and drones. The international community continues to treat the war in Yemen as an isolated issue, the Houthi attacks on civilians as a Yemeni and a Saudi issue, but in reality this is not the case. The Houthis involved in these attacks must be sanctioned, the entire movement must be considered an Iranian proxy and designated as a terrorist organization such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, the flow of weapons should be disrupted more forcefully, the delivery routes must be closed and the Houthis must be treated as a global threat, and not only a Yemeni, a Saudi, or even a regional threat, because they are part of Iran’s global network of terrorist agents and will soon have global influence and threaten countries outside the Middle East, just like Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards do. ”
Majdi Al-Akwa, Assistant Secretary-General of the Humanitarian League for Human Rights and member of organizations allied for peace in Yemen affirmed the above-stated concerns.
Interventions were made by the attendees, and they affirmed that the Houthis cannot be trusted and any agreement and truce concluded with them and that the international community should classify them as a terrorist group and deal with them as they do with ISIS.
Continuing on this theme, the following symposium on the sidelines of the Human Rights Council session 44 explored how the Iranian regime embraces terrorism and destroys nations and peoples.
Organizer: The Yemeni Coalition of Independent Women and European organizations allied for peace in Yemen
Attorney Faisal Al-Qifi, head of European organizations allied for peace in Yemen
The first speaker, Peymaneh Shafi, a journalist and member of the Iranian-American community in California, talked about the Iranian regime’s policy and said: “I lived in Iran under the pressure of the regime and fled to asylum in America decades ago, and from here I am trying to help those who are persecuted by the Iranian militias in Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
The Iranian regime is being weakened by the pressure of the international community, and friends in Iran are trying to establish the Iranian regime in order to live in safety and peace in the Middle East region.
I am sure that you know that Iran has a great role to play in supporting the Houthi militia, and since 2014 through Hezbollah militias, where Hezbollah trainers have been sent to educate and recruit youth.
And they worked to spread fears among people in order not to refuse to join Houthi.
Wesam Basindowah, the head of the March 8 bloc for the women of Yemen, talked about the influence of Houthi in the Iranian regime also regarding women’s rights, as Houthi pursues Iran’s path to oppress women.
From September 2014 to December 2018, 266 women and their children were arrested. By the Houthi coup, women were valued in Yemen and were not arrested as the militia did.
She expressed hope the activists in Yemen will work to resist the militia and uphold the principle of human rights.
Wesam also added that in the United States, activists are working to classify this militia, to follow Iran’s IRGC and the Lebanese Hezbullah in the terrorist lists, so that Middle Eastern countries can enjoy peace and freedom.
Ben Minick, a Middle East journalist specializing in military strategy, spoke about the role of the international community in classifying Houthi as a terrorist group and said: “I would like to thank you for allowing me to present today to you on behalf of the Yemeni Alliance of Independent Women and in the United States of America. We are gathered here today to discuss the role of the international community in classifying the Houthi rebels as a terrorist group.
The war on terror began long before the United States intervened in 2001. The regime that took power during the 1979 Islamic revolution engaged in a terrorist war from the start. We can spend months discussing the various groups listed, but today I would like to focus specifically on Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels.
More recently, formal legislation has been passed declaring Hezbollah a terrorist group. There is no need for us to review all the reasons for this classification. The main issue that goes into effect is the reasoning behind the amount of time it took to develop a classification.
It is not easy to determine the classification of a particular group as a terrorist. Although it may look better, there is a standard that must be fulfilled. Otherwise, it would be as simple as referring to a group of people that one country does not like or disagree with and causes it to be classified as a terrorist group. This is part of the delay.
To be determined, the group must fit the relevant U.S. law definition. An organization may be classified as a terrorist even if it does not directly attack American targets. However, it must threaten the national security of the United States or its citizens.
In terms of the United States government, once an organization is included in this list of standards, well-written and highly documented legislation must be submitted to Congress. If the majority of delegates in Congress believe in the benefits of the bill, it is passed. This is neither a quick nor easy operation.
But the bill itself does not classify the organization; It only directs the Secretary of State to review the evidence and report back to Congress within a short period of time on whether to classify it and give reasons. For example, the Secretary of State may choose to request additional evidence for review, or require additional time for the review process. Before conducting the designation, the Secretary of State must inform the leaders of Congress; Once the organization is publicly announced as a terrorist organization, the state and treasury department can begin the process of asking financial institutions to freeze their assets.
It can be said that even when the Houthis do not directly attack American targets, they attack US allies, facilitate Iranian terrorism in the region targeting the United States through various agents, facilitate the spread of other terrorist groups, and deal with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, both of whom are terrorist-specific entities. , In planning operations that could target the area.
Moreover, attacks on Yemen and Saudi Arabia, even when not specifically directed against the United States, endanger American forces.
There may be political reasons for avoiding classification; The political obstacle here is that the Houthis were legalized by the international community and seized power; The internationally recognized government is largely in exile.
The classification of the Houthis means that the United States will have to work closely with the Arab coalition to get the Houthis out of power, which would seem to many Americans as participants in an endless “Middle East war”, even if it was done for reasons of national security , American military intervention is minimal, and confrontation is inevitable and the best way takes place at the time and the method that the United States chooses instead of the opponent.
This also means generating a lot of publicity, long-term legal battles and political attempts to block this move from within the State Department. These are the challenges that must be addressed before this issue is brought up to Congress, let alone the State Department. “
Adel Al Ahmadi, Chairman of the Nashwan Al-Hamiri Council for Studies and Media, talked about the expected effects and consequences of the continued expansion of Houthi’s authority over international peace and security and summarized it in:
- The threat from Yemen’s strategic location between at least two continents overseeing an international strategic corridor and a long coastal strip that stretches from east to west. The threat related to the Houthis being an Iranian focus was found to be a tool to target the Yemeni neighborhood represented by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it represents the economic status in the world. And both sides proved without detail, that Houthi acted by targeting some ships and threatening navigation.
- The continued control of a sectarian terrorist group by force of arms over the will of the vast majority of Yemenis prepares the country for the possibility of the emergence of extremist terrorist groups from the other side, similar to ISIS and Al Qaeda. He stated that the rise of ISIS in Iraq was the result of terrorism practiced by pro-Iranian militias in previous years against those described as Sunnis. He talked about sectarian thought and how it is based on a revenge racist idea that claims that the government is its own, and that it finds in terrorism and wars one of the most prominent reasons for survival, as it was not possible to find acceptance in social circles except in circles of turmoil.
- The group proceeds from the racist slogan, which exclaims the death of peoples and religions. All that the Houthis do is to see the slogan implemented. He explained that the strategic location of Yemen and the threat that Al-Houthi poses to the Yemeni neighborhood, as happened in targeting the Abqaiq and Khurais fields last year in Saudi Arabia. It indicates that the world may face economic crises whose borders cannot be predicted, if it leaves the chance for the Houthis to remain as an armed group that controls the capital of Yemen and many of Yemen.
- He talked about the seriousness of the threat posed by the Houthi group in that it combines deadly weapons: first the weapon of gun and gunpowder, secondly the weapon of the religious text is false and thus the weapon of atonement and thirdly the weapon of racism and claiming the preference of a particular family and its right to rule and fourth the weapon of hatred and incitement to the Yemeni society or the world as a whole. Finally, Dr. Al-Ahmadi mentionedthe organic affiliation with the Iranian charity project in the region.
- Dr. Wassam Basandouh explained that the arrival of the mullahs regime to power in Iran or what they call the Islamic Republic revolution, is nothing but a military militia coup that brought to power a regime hostile to liberation and the concept of the state and threatens peace and security in the region and the world under the slogan “exporting the revolution”, and it is the same system that supported the militia coup Al-Houthi in Yemen provided it with weapons and fueled it with spiritual ideological sectarian tide. Two days prior to this seminar, there was a session in the Security Council discussing a proposal to renew the arms embargo on Iran, and this matter affects Yemen and the region in particular as it will have its broader effects globally, it clearly means restoring the outright ability of the mullahs ’regime to supply militias Terrorism with weapons in Syria, Hezbollah in Iran, Al-Houthi in Yemen, and in Iraq, and even the restoration of the full capabilities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is practicing destabilizing operations extending from the Arab region to Africa, South America and the world.
- The international community’s delay in including Hezbollah as a terrorist group has had dire consequences for European countries and American interests, and the waiting process is long until the world is convinced that the Houthi militia should be included in terrorist lists, and it will raise the cost that the world will face later. We know very well that the United States, for example, and the Western system in general are subject to its classification on the extent of the direct harm that these groups are committing against their interests, they do not care much for the Yemenis, and here we remind him immediately after the Houthi coup and control of the capital, Sanaa, groups of Houthi militia went to storm the American embassy in a blatant violation The Vienna Convention, which secures diplomatic facilities and wreaks havoc on its property.
- Also, the Houthi slogan targets America with hostility, which is a declaration of war, and here Dr. Basindowa wondered how any US proposal for peace in Yemen could include allowing this rogue group to participate in the state and share power after all the crimes it committed? Also evidenced is the renewed American announcement that there are Houthi warships funded by Iran targeting its ships, in addition to the recent reports discussed in the Security Council that recognized that the missiles used to bomb Aramco are Iranian-made missiles, and we do not forget here that the Houthi militia has adopted this launch.
- Missiles, even if it was a false declaration, remains revealing. We as human rights activists conscious of our capabilities know that the inclusion of the Houthi militia on terrorist lists is the decision of its states and needs the efforts of states, Dr. Basindowah said, and that in order to make a decision like this it takes a lot of time, but we also will not give up and will not give up our effort by calling and seeking to classify this militia as a terrorist group and we will remember that the Iranian regime is a regime A terrorist embraces, sponsors and funds terrorism.
Since these presentations were heard, several Houthi leaders went on trial in the Yemeni territories under the Coalition control. It will be instructive to follow the evidence against them presented in the case and to watch what additional details about cooperation with Iran will be revealed in the course of the legal process. Additionally, the Houthis continue to hold Yemen, the region, and international community hostage with the ticking time bomb of the FSO Safer oil tanker, at risk of turning into a colossal environmental disaster, whether through continuing neglect, or a deliberate act of sabotage threatened time and again by the Houthis.
And despite increasing scrutiny and reporting, none of other troubling issues, such as diversion of international humanitarian aid, is going away either. The sooner the United States and others realize that the passive acceptance of Houthi authority is detrimental to whatever other political, economic, and military action is being taken to deter Iran’s aggression in the region and beyond, the more likely they are to develop an effective strategy that might finally begin to address both sides of the equation.
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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