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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 Speckhard, Anne. “Recruiting from Beyond the Grave: A European Follows Anwar Al-Awlaki Into ISIS.” Homeland Security Today, April 28, 2020. https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/recruiting-from-beyond-the-grave-a-european-follows-anwar-al-awlaki-into-isis/.
 Speckhard, Anne, Molly Ellenberg, Haider Shaghati, and Neima Izadi. “Hypertargeting Facebook Profiles Vulnerable to ISIS Recruitment with ‘Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narrative Video Clips’ in Multiple Facebook Campaigns.” Journal of Human Security (In Press).
 “Memes – ISIS Defectors Speak Out.” ICSVE. Accessed July 13, 2020. https://www.icsve.org/project/memes/.
Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today
Chinese Private Security Companies Along the BRI: An Emerging Threat?
When documenting China’s security footprint abroad, the PLA and the PLAN often get the spotlight. But under the hood, a relatively newer force is entering many conflicts ridden zones along China’s land based and maritime Silk Roads. These are up and coming Private Security Companies (PSCs) that are seeking to expand out of domestic Chinese markets and capitalize on growing Chinese businesses throughout the BRI. As the BRI continues to expand into countries with a weak state and ongoing conflicts, BRI businesses need security and protection. On the maritime front, increasing worries about sea piracy have created a demand for armed escorts for merchant ships. As was the case in Pakistan, on ground local government forces have repeatedly failed at providing adequate protection. This is where Chinese PSCs come in. With foreign forces failing to secure BRI projects, businesses are approaching Chinese companies. China’s entry into the international Private Military and Security Company (PMSC) market marks a significant departure in a space that continues to be dominated by American and British contractors. These westerns PMSCs have had decades to develop in the international sphere. During this tenurethey havealso managed to create a whirlwind of criticism around the field. It is in this space that Chinese PSCs, one of Asia’s strongest powers,are trying to leave a mark. Thus, it will be valuable to assess their scope, what they might evolve into, and their connection to the Chinese state.
The Current International Chinese PSCLandscape
Chinese Private Security Companies are a relatively new entry on the international scene. Beginning in the early 2010s, violent incidences – including abductions, killings, brawls, piracy, etc. – involving Chinese individuals in countries such as South Sudan, Pakistan, and Mali experienced an uptick causing concern in Beijing. The wake-up call came in 2010 when separatists from the Baloch Liberation Army in Pakistan attacked the Zaver Palace Continental Hotel situated near the Gwardar port hoping to target Chinese investors.In 2014 ten Chinese individuals working on a Cameroonian construction site run by a state owned company were kidnapped. In 2015, Chinese citizens were kidnapped again in Nigeria and several more died in a car bomb explosion in Somalia. Beijing has responded to these concerns through two step, first by deploying the PLA and the PLAN where possible and secondly by allowing domestic security organizations to go abroad. Allowing PSCs to operate instead of PLAN can actually be the better choice in some situations. China is acutely aware of rising international fears around the potential of a hegemonic China, especially among developing nations. In other cases, using military resources would simply be excessive. In such situations, PSCs can provide a viable middle ground alternative.
Currently there are thousands of Chinese PSCs operational within the country which are providing risk assessment services, surveillance equipment, private security, etc. Much of these functions transfer on to international operations as well. As the domestic market saturatessome companies are looking abroad to expand their business. Consequently, the international footprint of Chinese PSCs is expanding. According to work done by Tsinghua University, Beijing, the top 10 PSCs in China with an international footprint are:
- Control Risks
- Beijing Dewei Security Service
- ZhongguoAnbao China Security Industry
- HuaxinZhongan (Beijing) Security Service (HXZA)
- Shanghai Zhongchenwei Security Service Group
- Beijing DingtaiAnyuan Guard & Technology Research Institute
- ShengzhenZhongzhouTewei Security Consultant
- Beijing Guanan Security & Technology
- Shandong Huawei Security Group
These companies represent a very minor fraction out of a range of domestic PSCs. The reason for the small footprint abroad is manifold. Legally the Chinese government poses several restrictions on domestic PSCs that make it harder to operate abroad. The 1996 “Law of the PRC on Control of Guns” states that only the PLA, the police, and the militia can legally possess weapons andthose who possess arms overseas may face imprisonment for their crime. This is clearly a significant hurdle for PSCs that wish to operate in conflict prone areas. In a 2010 law passed by the Ministry of Commerce concerning the operation of PSCs, the government added several strict criteria for firms looking to operate abroad. These included providing security training to their employees before sending them abroad, set up security management systems and mechanisms for emergency response. Providing security systems and training to employees of firms going abroad provides one avenue for PSCs to enter the international market. While the 2010 lawopens up some paths for PSCs looking to expand, these existing regulations still prove to be a major hurdle for all but a few PSCs. Most do not have the resources to fulfill these basic requirements and cannot afford to set up bases abroad. These concerns are reflected by the Wu Guohua, Executive chairman of the “Overseas Security Guardians” which operates Zhong Jun Jun Hong Security Group. He states that while since 2011 companies, small and large, have jumped at the chance to expand abroad, many smaller companies don’t have the resources to negotiate with foreign governments or local forces, educate their personnel thoroughly on local laws to the same level that bigger companies can. Additionally, major companies that do operate abroad, like the HuaxinZhongan Security Service (HXZA) and the Zhong Jun Jun Hong, also boast a range of international certifications to bolster their bid internationally. Many other security organizations are unable to acquire them. Thus, regulatory requirements in the future must reign in these elements and bring smaller companies into the fold as well.
Scope of Current PSC Tasks
Considering that Chinese PSCs are not permitted to carry arms abroad, PSCs often diverge into a range of other security services that do not require its personnel to be armed. These include training personnel, providing logistical assistance, serving as guards in factories, etc., and collaborating with armed local officials for providing protection to Chinese citizens abroad. The only service where Chinese PSCs have been allowed to use arms has been while escorting Chinese vessels through water bodies like the Gulf of Aden or the straits of Malacca. Maritime escorting is a rising field for many PSCs. Most major PSCs provide multiple, if not all, of these services. One of the largest is HuaxinZhongan(HXZA) Security Service that provides all of these above-mentioned services. HXZAis also recognized for their ability to communicate and cooperate with local authorities and PSCs for support. Another major PSC is the Overseas security Guardians Association, which is part of the Zhongjun Junhong group that operations other domestic security subsidiaries. The association is perhaps the most explicit in its connection to the BRI. The organization aims at “safeguarding the promotion of national ’one belt, one road’ strategy” and “building the great wall of steel” to guard the “overseas economic development and the safety of oversea China-invested enterprises and compatriots”.
Maritime escorting is slowly growing as a prominent service amongst organizations. This usually involves PSCs providing protection to merchant ships or fishing vessels in piracy prone areas of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. While the affair is expensive, PSCs can find a relative niche for themselves in the work that sets them apart from the PLAN which frequently serves this purpose. In the Sohu Military Observer, Mr. Wu wrote that using PSCs for escorting services is often more cost effective then a PLAN deployment and PSCs tend to be better matched in force as well. The scale of piracy is also smaller than one would expect. Most piracy operations are not large scale and involve the use of small and fast boats, and light weapons. This strength of force can be proportionally dealt with by well-armed PSCs without the need for large scale investment of troops or equipment from the navy. Additionally, PLAN deployments carry the risk of sending a political statement, whether that was intended or not. Here too the commitments to bolstering the BRI arein both practice and rhetoric. In 2015, HXZA made headlines for escorting a Chinese sailor, Zhai Mo, who was took a 10,000 Nautical Mile journey retracing the ancient Maritime Silk Road.
These modes of engagement however are still limited due to few key restrains. Firstly, the inability of PSCs to use arms restricts their independent operations. Many organizations continue to provide logistical services. Like stated earlier many smaller companies do not have the connections to work with local PSCs or authorities to find local forces that can help provide the muscle. HXZA is one of the few companies that has been authorized to carry arms abroad. This also puts PSC employees into severe danger themselves. In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Chinese security forces from DeWei Security Services found themselves stuck in an active shooting incident that was occurring between local warring factions. Unarmed and underprepared, the security workers and the employees of its client that it was sent to rescue were trapped in an insecure building awaiting government forces to evacuate them. Secondly, PSC operatives often have limited foreign language abilities, be that inEnglish or the native language in the area of deployment. This creates a barrier between locals and the PSC which makes collaboration even harder. In many BRI locations, local population are distrustful if not outright hostile to Chinese presence as demonstrated above. Lingual barriers can add on to this sense of division between locals and the Chinese guests in addition to posing obvious administrative difficulties.
PSCs and The Chinese State
For the longest time, the Chinese state and the domestic legal framework was not friendly to the establishment of Chinese PSCs abroad. However, over the past decade the ice has started to melt as ministries have eased legal restrictions and HXZA operatives were even allowed to carry arms. Chinese firms will perhaps slowly but surely continue to expand into these new markets. Increasing foot print of Chinese agencies that are actively engaged in security operations, risk assessment, provision of security equipment (as in the case of HXZA) etc., brings with it concerns about their connection to the Chinese state and if they can be fully autonomous in their operations. Many Chinese businesses, such as Huawei, have been subject to these fears thus is it logical to worry if PSCs will function as an extension of the PLA or even the Chinese state. The evidence insupport for this is currently weak. PSCs are still mostly engaged in services like anti-piracy operations, resolving kidnapping incidents, guarding Chinese citizens and infrastructure abroad, etc. This relatively narrow range of services is still quite niche and Chinese PSCs are yet to go fully mainstream. Additionally, while some successful PSCs may have connections with their domestic state clients, it may not necessarily translate into serving as an arm of the state abroad. Thus, today the verifiable connections between PSCs and the state are quite limited.
Perhaps as the industry grows and come of its own, the Chinese state will take greater cognizance of its potential uses for state aims. It is not entirely novel for PSCs or PMCs to take government provided tenders. Afterall, the precedent for this was already set by western PMSCs who provide their own government forces, or even foreign governments, with logistical services among other facilities. Thus, it would not be wise to erase the possibility of state influence altogether either. There are few possible avenues for state influence toseep in through. First, Private Security Companies in china often hire ex-PLA and ex-PAP (People’s Armed Police) officers into their ranks. Many higher-ranking positions within PSCs are also occupied by ex-military or former public security personnel. Second, there are reports that Chinese officials are actively pressuring Chinese enterprises abroad to hire PSCs of Chinese origin.
The Chinese Private Security industry is still as its initial stages. However, it is likely that it will stay given government pressure over overseas enterprises and enthusiasm by Chinese PSCs to establish operations overseas despite the dangers. Little work has been done to study the nature of Chinese PSCs in depth, but as they grow in number and prominence it will become increasingly important to understand their ins and outs and monitor their relationship with the Chinese state. It will also be interesting to consider how, if at all, the role of the PLA might change given the emergence of these new security actors. Granted the PLA will be the most immediate and the strongest projection of Chinese national power, however this poignant power projection is not always desirable. In such scenarios PSCs may become a viable replacement in low intensity missions. Before any of this can happen however, the Chinese government would have to loosen regulation on PSC activities and develop a framework for their operation. For now, prospects are relatively limited, and existing organizations are acting in conjunction with local authorities and companies. However, the international PMSC industry is already under heavy scrutiny for acting eerily like modern mercenaries for hire. The same could happen for Chinese companies as well.
Tackling the Illicit Drug Trade: Perspectives From Russia
The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. How can this fight be won? While strengthening cooperation with its Central Asian neighbours will be crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, Russia needs to complement law enforcement with a softer approach for the demand side of the drug trade at home.
“The Afghan drug threat is one of the worst problems for Russia’s national security,” said Alexei Rogov, deputy director of the new challenges and threats department of the Russian foreign ministry on November 26, 2019. He thus effectively captured Russia’s persistent drug problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Accounting for one-fifth of the world’s opium market estimated at USD 65 billion, Russia is the world’s largest heroin consumer, all of it flowing from Afghanistan through Central Asia.
The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. Russia has around four to six million drug addicts and a drug-related mortality rate of 10.2 per 100 000 persons. This far surpasses the rate of its European neighbours. The UK, despite being Europe’s largest cocaine consumer, has a drug-related mortality rate of 3.7 per 100 000 persons. With a death toll of around 30 000 per year, it is no wonder Russia has marked the drug trade as a major national security threat.
How can this fight be won? The words of Alexei Rogov perfectly illustrate Russia’s heavily securitised approach to the problem. Russia’s response has focused primarily on the security aspect of the drug trade, such as policing and border control. While regional cooperation is crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, initiatives between Russia and its Central Asian neighbours are short-term and poorly coordinated. Regional organisations’ anti-drug potential could be further exploited, as could cooperation with the EU, which is also affected by the Afghan drug trade. At home, the high mortality rates are explained by the draconian legislation on drug consumption and the lack of comprehensive drug policies. Faced with increasing drug-related mortality, complementing law enforcement and regional initiatives with a softer approach at home is the next logical step.
A Threat to National and Human Security: Developments and Continuities in the Afghan Drug Trade
Drug trafficking in Russia is far from being a recent problem. The drastic rise of organised crime in the tumultuous years that followed the fall of the USSR, as well as the newly opened and poorly controlled borders with former Soviet states, has facilitated the transnational smuggling of opium produced in Afghanistan (which accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s heroin output). Travelling through the Northern route, the drugs are smuggled to Russia through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. While Afghanistan might be the Colombia of Central Asia, the Central Asian drug market presents different characteristics from its well-known Latin American counterpart. It is not organised in mega-cartels with the power of a small state, but in smaller more disparate criminal groups. These groups can extend their influence in the region more thanks to poor border security, lack of transnational cooperation, and rampant corruption among law enforcement and local officials than to their own strengths and ingenuity.
Pointing fingers at borders and even at the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which saw Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan integrated into a free trade zone with Russia in 2015, is highly misleading. While greater connectivity and opened borders make the region an ideal transit route for illicit trade, it is complicity and impunity that explain why less than 5 per cent of the drugs passing through Tajikistan are seized. The widespread corruption and poverty that lead many to resort to drug trafficking are the root causes of the drug trade in Central Asia.
Regarding Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict (2001-2020) and political instability make it a breeding ground for drug trafficking. The drug trade has led to many disagreements between the U.S. and Russia, with the two parties failing to reach a coherent anti-drug strategy. The possibility of a NATO-Russia cooperation was briefly evoked but has been eliminated by U.S. withdrawal from the country following the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed on February 29, 2020. This recent development will risk affecting the anti-drug fight. With 61 per cent of the Afghan population deriving its income from agriculture, the impossibility of cultivating traditional crops amidst conflict, and a new power vacuum, Russia will need to step up to make sure drug production does not explode. Moreover, Afghanistan’s new dabble into the mass production of synthetic drugs, notably methamphetamines, which is cheaper than heroin, is increasingly worrying. A booming market largely driven by the rise of the Russian Hydra darknet, the quantities of synthetic drugs seized by Russian authorities have multiplied by twenty over the 2008-2018 period.
Given the growing availability and affordability of drugs on the Russian market, the security dimension of the Central Asian drug trade naturally dominates the drug discourse and, to some extent, justifies Russia’s militarised approach. With a 7 644 km-long shared border with Kazakhstan and hundreds of tonnes of drugs flowing in each year, drug trafficking has severe implications beyond the social costs of addiction and directly threatens Russia’s security. This is all the more worrying considering that Islamic terrorist groups like the Taliban use the drug trade to finance their operations. The crime and terrorism nexus operating in the region thus makes Central Asia a priority for Russian policy.
The War on Drugs at the Regional Level: Results and Future Perspectives
A relentlessly creative and adaptable market, with a myriad of new ways to conceal and smuggle narcotics every year, the illicit drug trade is truly a transnational problem and requires intense cooperation between the affected states. However, the anti-drug potential of regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Sino-Russian led security alliance, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), is not fully exploited and is limited in terms of capacity and political will.
Russia has been promoting collective security with its Central Asian neighbours through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Created in 2001 and composed of eight member-states (India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), it plays a major role in stemming the Afghan drug trade. The SCO’s 2018-2023 anti-drug strategy marks the creation of an effective anti-drug mechanism within the organisation. The SCO often collaborates with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military alliance between six former Soviet states (Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), and the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre for combating the illicit trafficking of narcotics (CARICC).
Most of Russia’s effort in the region has focused on strengthening the governments in place, such as investing in the state structure or their military. Russia has maintained a steady military presence in the region, one likely to increase after U.S. withdrawal. However, regional cooperation has mainly focused on short-termed joint operations and border security, such as operation spider web in July 2019, which led to the seizure of 6 422 kg of narcotic drugs and 3 241 arrests. The porous borders, explained in part by the geographical difficulty of border control in such mountainous terrain, the lack of training and equipment of security forces are certainly worth paying attention to, but they are also short-term solutions to a much more endemic problem. 6 422 kg might seem like a big win, but it is nothing compared to the hundreds of tonnes of heroin crossing the border each year. This purely militarised and short-term response, both from Russia’s part and in its engagement with its neighbours, is necessary but insufficient. Fighting the illicit drug trade will require a long-term strategy and a much greater political will to tackle its systemic causes. At the moment, the drug trade is 30 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP, with an increasing amount of people turning to drug trafficking to survive. Fighting corruption, implementing institutional reforms and providing economic benefits to the region are as crucial as border policing.
In light of this, international assistance could prove useful, notably from the EU. While Central Asia is not a priority for Brussels, there is still a strong case for cooperation here. Afghan heroin and meth production is not only Russia’s problem. The drug trade in Central Asia might not be a security issue for Europe in the way it is for Russia, but opium trafficking along the Northern and the Balkan route also reaches Europe and the black sea route via Turkey is rapidly emerging as a prominent smuggling corridor. In July 2019, Ukraine intercepted 930 kg of Afghan heroin destined for Western Europe. Europe’s role in Central Asia is limited compared to Russia’s, and its focus on democracy promotion tends to clash with Russia’s priority of supporting the regimes in place to strengthen their capacity to fight the drug trade. But overcoming those differences and finding ground for cooperation would be a positive step towards fighting the drug trade.
The War at Home: the Grim Reality of Drug Addiction in Russia
Draconian legislation criminalising drug use has characterised Russia’s domestic war on drugs for the past three decades. While the dominance of the security discourse in Russia’s anti-drug strategy is somewhat justified, tackling the illicit drug trade purely from a national security perspective does not diminish the social threat posed by drug consumption. Drug use is a pervasive domestic issue, but it has yet to become a policy issue. Underdeveloped drug policies and politicians’ refusal to address it largely explain the high mortality rate.
With 100 000 jailed in 2018 (one in three convicts), Russia has the highest number of people per capita imprisoned for drug crimes in Europe, most of them convicted under Article 228 of the Russian penal code which treats drug possession as a criminal offence. Such harsh legislation not only leads to more risky forms of drug use (the use of dirty needles for drug injection has directly contributed to the HIV epidemic currently affecting 1.16 million people in Russia, one of the fastest-growing HIV rates in the world), but prevents access to treatment. With such large fines and lengthy prison sentences, (for possession of 2.5 grams of meth, users can go to jail for up to ten years) as well as the social taboo around drugs and HIV, users do not seek treatment and are further marginalised.
This addiction and HIV crisis in Russia is largely homegrown and will reach endemic levels in the next few years if it continues to be swept under the rug. The peculiarity and pervasiveness of the drug trade is its creation of a steady base of consumers and addicts. Criminalisation has not and will not diminish the demand for drugs, hence the need to work on demand much as supply reduction. While the legalisation of soft drugs is unlikely to appear as a convincing solution anytime soon in Russia, a softer approach to drug use is needed. At the moment, no long-term treatment or harm reductions services are available, and opioid substitution therapy remains forbidden.
Drug trafficking is a complex issue that must be fought on multiple fronts. Russia’s drug policy needs to involve a wider concept of security that not only encompasses the threat to national security, but also the human and social threat of drugs. Intense cooperation with Central Asia and Afghanistan through the SCO and CSTO is essential, as is strict border policing and law enforcement. Nonetheless, this no-tolerance policy for the supply side of the drug trade needs to be complemented with a softer approach for the demand side at home. To dwell on the social and economic consequences of drug use would be a truism, and Russia has every interest in decreasing the influence of drug trafficking on its population’s health and security. Developing more robust social policies seems at the moment more feasible than tackling the systemic causes of the drug trade in Central Asia. The latter will require a solid long-term strategy that goes beyond anti-drug operations and border control. Russia must step up its fight both at home and abroad.
From our partner RIAC
Central Asian Jihadists’ Use of Cryptocurrencies in Bitcoin
On August 13, 2020, the US Justice Department announced that it seized $2 million in Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency from accounts of three Salafi-Jihadi extremist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State, relied on to finance their organizations and violent plots. According to their statement, the U.S. authorities seized over 300 cryptocurrency accounts, four websites, and four Facebook pages all related to Sunni-Jihadi militant organizations. Indeed, the disclosed criminal case documents indicate that this was the largest-ever seizure of cryptocurrency by US intelligence agencies in the context of terrorism.
US counterterrorism agents analyzed transactions of cryptocurrency on the blockchain, a secure form of public ledger for the online funds, and employed undercover operations as well as search warrants on email accounts to establish a money trail of Sunni terror groups that was detailed in an 87-pages of the Washington DC federal court report
The revealed papers indicate, in some instances, al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups in Syria acted under the cover of charities ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Reminder for Syria’. In this regard, it should be noted that some al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups also have frequently acted under the umbrella of the charity ‘Al Sadaqah’ for bitcoin money laundering and have solicited cryptocurrency donations via Telegram channels to further their terrorist goals.
But that doesn’t mean that Islamist terrorist groups from the post-Soviet space raised funds precisely through this charity ‘Al Sadaqah’ of al Qaeda, whose accounts were seized by the US Justice Department. It has become a tradition in the Islamic world that charity organizations and foundations widely give to themselves the names ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Zakat’, as the Quranic meaning of these words (Quran 2:43; 63:10;9:103)exactly corresponds to the purposes of “voluntary charity”. Analysis of the finance campaigns of al Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian militant groups demonstrates that they frequently raised cryptocurrency donations through charities called ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Zakat’.
In order to explore the scale of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Jamaats’ crowdfunding campaigns, we analyzed their social media activities where they raised Bitcoins, dollars, Russian rubles and Turkish lira over the past two years.The methods and sources of the Uzbek and Uighur Islamist militants’ crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoins are about the same as those of their parent organizations, the global Sunni terrorist groups ISIS and al Qaeda.Due to the inclusion in the list of terrorist groups, they carry out sophisticated cyber-operations for solicitation of cryptocurrency donations.
Before “mastering” the complex technology of cyber-tools in order to raise bitcoin funds in cyberspace, Central Asian jihadists used the simple ‘hawala’ money transfer system (informal remittance system via money brokers).Sometimes they have resorted to conventional ‘hand-to-hand’ cash transfer channels, where trust, family relationships or regional affiliations play an important role.
According to a UN report, Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist group Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) leading jihad in Syrian Idlib province have close financial ties with its cells in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council’s Sanctions Monitoring Team states that “regular monthly payments of about $ 30,000 are made to Afghanistan through the hawala system for KTJ.”
The UN report asserts that “similarly to KTJ, KIB sends financial assistance, from its cell in Istanbul, through the hawala system to Afghanistan. Funds are brought in by informal money exchangers for Jumaboi from Maymana, the capital of Faryab. The original source of this income is the smuggling of fuel, food and medicine from neighboring Turkmenistan.”According to the UN report, “suffering material losses, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)and Tajik militant group JamaatAnsarullah (JA) are forced to engage in criminal activity, including transportation of drugs along the northern route in Afghanistan.”For the Uighur jihadists of Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP) from China’s Xinjiang province operating under the umbrella of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in northern Syria, “funding comes primarily from the Uighur diaspora” in Turkey, Central and Southeast Asia.
Dark Web & Bitcoin: New Endeavor of Central Asian Terrorists
With the development of digital cryptocurrencies as Bitcoin, Central Asian jihadists actively began to exploit this innovative financial transaction system to support their attacks and other terrorist activities. It is known that al Qaeda-backed Salafi-Jihadi groups of the post-Soviet space are seeking to purify Islam of any innovations (Bid’ah) and strictly following the Sharia law. They live similarly to how the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his companions lived in the seventh-century and always oppose any form of Bid’ah, considering it to be shirk and heresy. However, the Uzbek and Uighur Wahhabis did not shy away from using bitcoin innovation.
The first advertisements of Central Asian terrorist groups crowdfunding campaigns accepting bitcoin for Jihadi purposes in Syria appeared on the Telegram channel in 2017. In November of that year, a self-proclaimed charity group al-Sadaqah began a fundraising campaign on the internet from Western supporters to help the Malhama Tactical, the first private military contractor team from Central Asia working exclusively for jihadist groups in Syria.Al-Sadaqah in English on Telegram, explicitly relying on the English-speaking western sponsors, called on them to make bitcoin donations to finance the Malhama Tactical and the Mujahedeen fighting against the Assad regime in northeastern Syria.
As we have previously analyzed, Malhama Tactical is a private jihadi contractor operating in the Idlib-Aleppo region of Syria. The group, founded by an Uzbek jihadist Abu Salman (his real name is Sukhrob Baltabaev) from Osh City of Southern Kyrgyzstan in May 2016, is closely allied with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the strongest militant factions in northern Syria. The Malhama Tactical is known to have regularly conducted military training for jihadists of HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, Ajnad al Kavkaz and the Turkistan Islamic Party.After the death of Abu Salman in August 2019, Ali Ash-Shishani, the native of Russia’s North Caucasus became the new leader of Malhama Tactical.
In 2017-18, al-Sadaqah charity on Telegram called on followers to donate via a “Bitcoin wallet anonymously and safely for the Mujahedeen brothers of Malhama Tactical”. The charity group urged potential cryptocurrency contributions to benefit from “the ability to confuse the trail and keep anonymity”.
We do not know how much bitcoin money al-Sadaqah managed to raise for the activities of the Central Asian Muhajireen. But according to Malhama Tactical’s report on the internet, crowdfunding has been “fruitful.” In an effort to explain how donations were spent, Malhama Tactical has advertised extensively to followers on 17 October 2018, in a video posted on Telegram, that a new training camp had been built and purchased airsoft rifles, night vision devices and other modern ammunitions.
Since 2018, Uzbek and Uighur militant groups KTJ, KIB and TIP have begun an agitation campaign to fundraising bitcoin money on the Internet. Judging by the widespread call for Bitcoin donation online, their need for anonymous, secure, and hassle-free funding streams have made cryptocurrencies of some potential value to them. These properties are the anonymity of fundraising, the usability of remittance and transfer of funds, the security of attack funding, acceptance of funds, reliability, and volume of web money.
And every time they announced a crowdfunding campaign, they clearly declared for what purpose the collected bitcoins would be used. For example, al Qaeda-linked KTJ’s most recent call for bitcoin appeared on Telegram in May 2020 as a banner that asks to “Equip a jihadist”. The poster showed a masked jihadist and the exploitation of the Quran’s Hadith in Uzbek, calling on the believers to prepare and equip a fighter going on a raid for the sake of Allah.
Another picture shows a jihadist with a Kalashnikov AK-74 in his hand, over whose head enemy planes and helicopters fly. The picture gives a symbolic meaning about the empty-handed jihadists in Syria, fighting against the Russian and Syrian powerful military aircraft to protect the Islamic Ummah. Then goes on with KTJ’s call to make donations in bitcoins and rubles to purchasing equipment and ammunition for the Central Asian Mujahedeen in Syria. On the bottom it was displayed the long address of the virtual wallet for Bitcoin donations along with KTJ’s Telegram and web contacts promising the anonymity of potential donors.
On June 18, 2020, KTJ militants published the opinion of the well-known ideologue of modern jihadism Abu Qatada al-Falastini in Telegram from whom they asked whether the crowdfunding campaign of Bitcoin for the purposes of Jihad contradicts Islam. As it is known, there are still ongoing disputes among the world’s top Islamic scholars about whether cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are deemed Sharia-compliant.
Abu Qatada from a religious point of view justified the acceptability of using Bitcoin to protect the Islamic Ummah and wage holy Jihad, but at the same time warned against full confidence in Bitcoin. In his opinion, the enemies of Islam can destroy this cryptocurrency in the future, and if it loses its current value, and then the devout Muslims who have invested their savings in Bitcoin could go bankrupt. Abu Qatada al Falastini is a greatly respected Salafi thinker among Central Asian jihadists and he gave a pep talk to KTJ when it pledged bayat (Oath of Allegiance) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in 2015.
On June 25, 2020, KTJ posted another Crypto Crowdfunding campaign announcement on its Telegram channel to provide Uzbek jihadists with modern military gear and equipment. For clarity, the group published a picture entitled “Perform jihad with your property” in Uzbek, which indicates the prices for military clothing and weapons. For example, the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle costs $300, unloading vest for AK-47 cartridges – $20, Field Jacket – $50, Military Combat Boots – $30.In total, $400 will be needed on the full provision of one Mujahid with weapons and uniforms. On the upper side of the picture is a Hadith quote about “He who equips a fighter in Allah’s path has taken part in the fighting.”
A month later, the group’s Telegram channel reported that it had managed to raise $4,000, for which 8 sets of weapons and uniforms were purchased for the Uzbek Mujahedeen. Also, KTJ’s media representative announced that the group is stopping the fundraising campaign for this project.
Other projects of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups were the Bitcoin crowdfunding campaign for the purchase of motorcycles for Inghimasi fighters (shock troops who penetrate into the enemy’s line with no intent to come back alive), cameras, portable radios, sniper rifles and night vision devices. For each project, a separate closed account was opened on the website of jihadist groups in Telegram, after which the Bitcoin and Monero accounts, as well as contact information, were closed.
Another crowdfunding project posted on January 29, 2020, in Telegram, called ‘Helping captive Muslim sisters’ and claims to raise money to free Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek ISIS women hold in the al-Hol refugee camp in northeast Syria controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The KTJ jihadists posted pictures of Central Asian women with their children holding posters “We need help” in Kyrgyz, and asked the fellow Muslim believers to raise money to ransom them from the captivity of the Kurdish communists. It was not clear to us how much money was raised as a result of the crowdfunding campaign since this channel was later blocked by the Telegram administrator.
The annual largest crowdfunding project for the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups is being implemented on the eve of the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, during which believers pay Zakat (obligatory tax) and Sadaqah (voluntary alms).According to the Quran, recipients of the Zakat and the Sadaqah include the poor and needy, debtors, volunteers in jihad, and pilgrims.
The websites of the Central Asian Jihadist Jamaats revealed that their crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the jihad was particularly active during Ramadan. Ramadan is known as a holy and generous month, but this year was especially generous to notorious al Qaeda-linked Central Asian extremist groups. KTJ, KIB, Uighur’s TIP and Russian-speaking North Caucasian militant group Liwa al Muhajireen wal Ansar (LMA), that pledged allegiance to HTS, have boosted their military budget during Ramadan.
To avoid the risk of being blocked or tracked, they created a temporary mirror group called ‘Zakat’, where the donation money was received. Zakat’s wallet received donations from Central Asian labor migrants in Russia in the amount of $150 to $220 each time to purchase livestock, which was then slaughtered in sacrificial prayer on behalf of the donors. After Ramadan and the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the ‘Zakat’ mirror group in Telegram was closed.
The Central Asian Islamist extremist groups have asked their supporters to make Bitcoin donations mainly at the following two virtual wallet addresses:
Our analysis confirmed that multiple transactions were made to these bitcoin addresses. In addition, other transactions were made in digital currencies, the addresses of which were blocked on Telegram.
In conclusion, the significance of the crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoin should not be given exaggerated importance, even though they have improved the position of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups in Syria and Afghanistan, and boosted their budget. Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups’ technical abilities are not currently suited to bypass the financial controls of international counterterrorism organizations and discreetly conduct money laundering.
The history of their activities has shown that small Uzbek, Uighur and Russian-speaking Islamist extremist groups from the post-Soviet space and China have been assimilated with more powerful global Sunni terrorist organizations such as ISIS, al Qaeda and HTS. And accordingly, their potential for crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoin should be viewed through the prism of their global parent organizations.
In any case, the governments of Central Asia and Russia do not have sufficient mechanisms and leverage to combat illegal cryptocurrency transactions on the dark web by global Salafi-Jihadi movements waging jihad in the Middle East. As noted at the beginning of this article, such opportunities to monitor and investigate jihadist crowdfunding activities are available to the US government and financial institutions. For example, the U.S. Treasury“ has access to unique financial data about flows of funds within the international financial and commercial system,” which is invaluable for tracking illicit flows of money.
Consequently, Central Asian governments must rely not only on Moscow but also actively cooperate with Western counter-terrorism and financial institutions to disrupt the Salafi-Jihadi group’s external crypto crowdfunding sources.
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