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ISIS and the Militant Jihad on Instagram

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identifying ISIS and militant jihadist Supporters on Instagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research on Instagram in Regard to Terrorist Propagandizing and Recruitment Strategies

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

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

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

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

A Possible Instagram Counter Narrative Strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[3] Yayla, Ahmet S., and Anne Speckhard. “Telegram: The mighty application that ISIS loves.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2017).; Al-Rawi, Ahmed, and Jacob Groshek. “Jihadist Propaganda on Social Media: An Examination of ISIS Related Content on Twitter.” In Cyber Warfare and Terrorism: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications, pp. 1442-1457. IGI Global, 2020.; Speckhard, Anne, Ardian Shajkovci, and Lorand Bodo. “Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2018).; Shane, Scott, and Ben Hubbard. “ISIS displaying a deft command of varied media.” New York Times 30 (2014).
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[5] AW Staff. “Social Media Use by Youth Is Rising across the Middle East: AW Staff.” Arab Weekly, January 26, 2020. https://thearabweekly.com/social-media-use-youth-rising-across-middle-east.
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[14] Pittman, Matthew, and Brandon Reich. “Social media and loneliness: Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand Twitter words.” Computers in Human Behavior 62 (2016): 155-167.
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[16] Speckhard, Anne, Ardian Shajkovci, and Lorand Bodo. “Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project.” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2018).
[17] Al-Kandari, Ali A., T. Kenn Gaither, Mohamed Mubarak Alfahad, Ali A. Dashti, and Ahmed R. Alsaber. “An Arab perspective on social media: How banks in Kuwait use Instagram for public relations.” Public Relations Review 45, no. 3 (2019): 101774.
[18] Che, Jasmine WS, Christy MK Cheung, and Dimple R. Thadani. “Consumer purchase decision in Instagram stores: The role of consumer trust.” In Proceedings of the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. 2017.
[19] Speckhard, Anne and Ellenberg, Molly (May 12, 2020). How Assad’s Atrocities Became a Powerful  Motivator for Terrorist Recruitment. Homeland Security Today
[20] Speckhard, Anne. “Recruiting from Beyond the Grave: A European Follows Anwar Al-Awlaki Into ISIS.” Homeland Security Today, April 28, 2020. https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/recruiting-from-beyond-the-grave-a-european-follows-anwar-al-awlaki-into-isis/.
[21] Speckhard, Anne, Molly Ellenberg, Haider Shaghati, and Neima Izadi. “Hypertargeting Facebook Profiles Vulnerable to ISIS Recruitment with ‘Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narrative Video Clips’ in Multiple Facebook Campaigns.” Journal of Human Security (In Press).
[22] “Memes – ISIS Defectors Speak Out.” ICSVE. Accessed July 13, 2020. https://www.icsve.org/project/memes/.

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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The role of maritime power

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The maritime environment is both a means of transport and a resource. The first aspect is obviously expressed through what is transported by ship: containers, oil, minerals, many objects and many resources of our daily life have passed through the sea before we use them. Data also crosses the sea, since submarine cables are the heart of the Internet, constituting the “real” face of the “virtual” world. For the second aspect, that of resources, it is either food, with mainly fishing, energy, fossil with oil and gas, or renewable with wind turbines and tide turbines, or minerals, starting from sand, whose exploitation is little known, but essential for many activities including construction.

It was from the fifteenth century, which corresponded to the beginning of the great discoveries, that the control of the seas became an important topic. At that time, the British Sir Walter Raleigh theorized its importance: “Whoever owns the sea holds the trade of the world; whoever holds the trade holds the wealth; whoever holds the wealth of the world owns the world itself ”. Gradually, the United Kingdom becomes the maritime superpower par excellence, supplanting a Spain and Portugal soon exhausted by the colonization of a South America too big for them and unable to compete with a France that is too terrestrial. At the end of the 19th century, Britain controlled major sea routes and her empire was vast, with the great outdoors of Australia and Canada and the British Indies.

But the entry into the twentieth century coincided with the arrival of a new actor in the oceans, the United States. The theorist in charge here is Alfred Mahan, who has updated Raleigh’s theory by specifying that control of the sea passes through that of sea routes and that in this matter everything is played at the level of the straits. The pivotal year in this sense is undoubtedly 1914: it corresponds to the inauguration of the Panama Canal, a maritime passage controlled by Uncle Sam, but also to the beginning of the First World War, which at the same time weakens the United Kingdom, due to of the energy spent in the conflict that does not compensate for territorial gains in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific. The turning point that completes the transformation of the United States into the great maritime power of the second half of the 20th century is World War II. Europeans, including those belonging to the victorious camp, are too weakened to maintain their historical prerogatives, especially when colonial empires become complicated to maintain for political as well as demographic reasons.

The United States emerged from the war with a colossal military and merchant fleet (thanks, among other things, to the Liberty ships), and was able to reconstitute those of its new allies in the Western camp. Moreover, this aid does not prevent the Americans from making their own interests prevail over those of their allies, as with the Suez crisis where they countered the Franco-British intervention that had militarily managed to regain control of this strategic channel with diplomatic means. This domination of the seas was hardly contested by the Russians, reduced to an asymmetrical confrontation, symbolized by submarines. It is important to stress that Russia does not have direct access to the oceans, a resource of the United States.

In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed, but a phantom threat already hovered over the almighty awakening of America, that of China. Under the impact of Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms, its economy was starting to become competitive and the country was using its huge pool of cheap labor to become “the factory of the world”. This economy is export-oriented and generates colossal shipping traffic, to which the Dragon is adding its touch: rapidly, Chinese shipping companies and shipbuilding are becoming key players in their respective sectors. From a military point of view, the Middle Kingdom had an almost insignificant navy in the late 1980s, but today it is second in the world behind the United States, even if the latter maintain a good advantage.

On land, the Chinese strategy consists first of all in controlling the space contained within a first chain of islands corresponding to the East China Sea and the South China Sea, even if in the latter it means not respecting the rights of other coastal states. or even intimidate Taiwan, the “rebel province”. The next step is to dominate the space within a second chain of islands located further offshore, which would put China in direct contact with US possessions, with the risk of confrontation that this entails. The so-called “pearl necklace” strategy, consisting in the development of Chinese infrastructures in the Indian Ocean, also connects the Middle Kingdom with another competitor, India, which wishes to assert its rights in this space that India considers its courtyard. Finally, China inaugurated its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2018, and others may follow in the years to come, such as Walvis Bay in Namibia. This expansion solidifies China’s rank as a world power, while Russia has lost most of its network of naval bases around the world with the collapse of the USSR.

The power of the sea is composite, made up of elements that multiply each other more than they add up. The first of these is access to the sea, without which nothing is possible. Therefore, the United Kingdom, an island country, is naturally predisposed to the projection of maritime power. The United States, bordered by two large maritime spaces, is also favored. For Russia, things are less obvious, as for China; in fact, the goal of the pearl necklace strategy is both to allow access to the sea from peripheral regions such as Xinjiang and to control sea routes. Moreover, in its time, Russia had tried to develop its access to the sea with “the race for warm seas”.

Once you have mastered access to the sea, it is necessary to be able to move, thanks to the sea routes and more particularly to the strategic passages. Today, the Americans retain control of it, although the Middle Kingdom tries to weave its web. For example, instead of wanting to get its hands on the Panama Canal, China is supporting a competing canal project in Nicaragua, even if the latter is stopped for the moment. Traffic also requires a merchant fleet, and China is among the champions of shipping and also shipbuilding, where Americans are largely left behind, held back by a protectionist Jones Act that maintains a significant merchant fleet, but marginalized in the globalization.

In general, where terrestrial space is largely controlled by our human societies, the sea escapes this phenomenon much more, to the point that it is still a space to be conquered in many ways. The polar regions, especially the icy Arctic Ocean, but also the seas surrounding the Antarctic continent, constitute a new frontier for humans. The seabed and its mineral resources are also often less known than terrestrial space.

Finally, one last consideration: the Italy  – with the exception of the maritime republics – has not been able to exploit its projection of maritime power. And this is one of the reasons, certainly not the only one, that has prevented – and prevents – Italy from having a credible, authoritative foreign policy and above all capable of stopping Turkish hegemonic ambitions.

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Indian Chronicle: Exposing the Indian Hybrid warfare against Pakistan

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In recent years Indian hybrid warfare against Pakistan has intensified manifold to malign Pakistan Internationally through disinformation and propaganda tactics. Hybrid warfare has mainly been described as achieving war-like objectives with the help of fake news, disinformation, and propaganda. The Objectives of Hybrid warfare are mostly to secure long term victory against the opponent. Similarly, India has launched massive hybrid warfare against Pakistan, which was uncovered by EU DisinfoLab in its report called “Indian Chronicle”.

EU DisinfoLab is an independent organization working to expose and tackle disinformation campaigns targeting the European Union and its member states. The organization has claimed that the disinformation campaign against Pakistan has been active since 2005, “a massive online and offline 15-year ongoing influence operation supporting Indian interests and discrediting Pakistan internationally”.

In a recent investigation EU DisinfoLab has exposed a malicious Indian campaign against Pakistan. In the report, “Indian Chronicle” EU DisinfoLab has exposed the dubious use of media outlets, NGOs, and fake personnel by India to malign Pakistan. The disinformation campaign mainly targeted the United Nations and the European Union through more than 750 fake media outlets and 10 fake NGOs. According to the report, “uncovered an entire network of coordinated UN-accredited NGOs promoting Indian interests and criticizing Pakistan repeatedly. We could tie at least 10 of them directly to the Srivastava family, with several other dubious NGOs pushing the same messages.”

According to the report the disinformation campaign is supported by the Srivastava group. The Srivastava group has helped in “resurrected dead NGOs” to spread fake news. The report says that “Our investigation led to the finding of 10 UN-accredited NGOs directly controlled by the Srivastava Group, which our full report introduces at length. Their common trait? The fact that they all rose from the ashes of real NGOs. Indian Chronicles effectively benefited from the track record of these organizations while pursuing their agenda: discrediting Pakistan and promoting Indian interests at UN conferences and hearings,”.

Moreover, Asian News International (ANI), a major news agency in India has provided a platform for suck fake news campaigns. The aim of the Srivastava group and ANI media outlet is “to reinforce pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan (and anti-Chinese) feelings” in India, and “internationally, to consolidate the power and improve the perception of India, to damage the reputation of other countries and ultimately benefit from more support from international institutions such as the EU and the UN”.

The report claim that the organizations funded by the Srivastava group-sponsored trips for European Parliament members to Kashmir. “The organizations created by the Srivastava Group in Brussels organized trips for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to Kashmir, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. Some of these trips led to much institutional controversy, as the delegations of MEPs were often presented as official EU delegations when they were in fact not traveling on behalf of the Parliament,”. Such sponsored trips aimed to build a positive image of India, while spreading disinformation about the alleged claims of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir.

Moreover, India has been actively involved in portraying Pakistan as a terrorist-sponsored state through its disinformation and fake news technique. For instance, India is lobbying strongly at FATF to put Pakistan on the blacklist.

India has also supported and sponsored Baloch separatist leaders and spread disinformation through their fake media outlets as mentioned in the EU DisinfoLab report.“These UN-accredited NGOs work in coordination with non-accredited think-tanks and minority-rights NGOs in Brussels and Geneva. Several of them – like the European Organization for Pakistani Minorities (EOPM), Baluchistan House, and the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) – were directly but opaquely created by the Srivastava group,”one of the examples is Kulbhushan Jadhav, an Indian spy who was captured in Pakistan.

The Indian Chronicle report has exposed the dubious face of India and the administrative structure of the United Nations and the European Union. Indian involvement in the spread of disinformation and resurrection of dead people and NGOs has exposed its long-standing for Human rights and democracy. Meanwhile, the reports have also exposed the administrative structure of the UN and EU, as they failed to notice the activities of fake UN-accredited NGOs and spread of disinformation through their affiliated NGOs.

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Hybrid Warfare: Threats to Pakistani Security

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‘Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war’-Giulio Douhet

Hybrid threats are becoming a norm in Pakistan and if we want to move forward in this age of technological advancements, cybercrimes, and the use of social media, we must have a wholesome response mechanism.

Hybrid warfare is a military strategy that employs not only conventional forms of warfare but irregular with it as well. It involves propaganda, cyber-attacks, state-sponsored terrorism, electoral intervention, and many more means of multi-dimensional approaches towards war which are used by militarized non-state actors. The term ‘Hybrid’ came into use around 2005-2006 due to the Israel-Hezbollah war (“Lessons from Lebanon: Hezbollah and Hybrid Wars – Foreign Policy Research Institute” 2016) and became a hot-topic in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. Using non-confrontational means can lead to internal struggles and crumbling of the target. What direct force won’t get you can be easily achieved by infiltration and multi-faceted resources. It’s neither character of war nor its outcome that defines it as a hybrid war, but the changing tactics (“State and Non-State Hybrid Warfare” 2018). In a world where everyone, from wealthy states to those caught in throes of hunger, is armed to the teeth, there are ways to achieve socio-political objectives through the use of violent and non-violent non-state actors.

Pakistan – A Target

Pakistan has risen to incredible heights despite it being a relatively young nation and this is only proved further by the interest international players have in its internal workings. Several factors contribute to the important stature Pakistan holds in the international community such as the Pak-China alliance, its geostrategic location, military aptitude, Russian interests in the Indian Ocean, Deep Sea Gwadar Port (One Belt One Road Project), neighbor to Afghanistan (a country existing as a battleground for proxies), etc. All these reasons make sure to keep Pakistan on the radar.

Though it may be secure militarily, Pakistan is still vulnerable to hybrid threats due to internal dynamics, numerous conflicting interests of nations in state-affairs, and increasing non-state actors. South Asian nuclearization has all but guaranteed that a full-fledged war between Pakistan and India is unlikely therefore the latter uses hybrid warfare to weaken Pakistan from within.

Evolutionary Nature of War

There was truth to Heraclites’s words when he claimed that change is the only constant in our world. The social theory of evolutionary change tells us that individuals, communities, societies, and states are always in a state of motion, continuously evolving according to the era. War is born from man, it is only fair that if a man changes, so shall war. It has become more complex; the stakes have raised from territorial boundaries to the maintenance of world order and preservation of state sovereignty. Wars are no longer fought on the borders, skirmishes aside, the real destruction takes place within. Due to the paradigm shift after the Cold War (Ball 2018), there rose a need for legal, economical, socio-political, and informational means of warfare. It is used as a way to undermine other nation-states in pursuit of national power; the international system is not only a race but also a way to tear others down.

Threats to Pakistani Security

To secure Pakistan from all sides, we must first analyze the threats it faces from all sides. Conventional Warfare used to be seen as one dimensional and it only perceived assault to be done through the land, air, or sea channels. However, now it is fought in various intangible zones.

·         External

India

India is a budding regional hegemon due to its political and economic growth including hidden agendas. Pakistan is perceived to be a direct threat to India especially after the launch of the CPEC project, perceived to be undermining its hold over the region, which is why it is employing stratagems of hybrid warfare to internally weaken Pakistan. Till now India has used State-Sponsored terrorism, funded insurgencies, operated terror cells, and even sent fighter jets into Pakistani Airspace as an attempt to ruin its reputation in the international community.

Afghanistan

There has been growing instability in Afghanistan which has led to mass migrations across the porous border into Pakistan, with around 1.4 million registered Afghans (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2018) and 1 million unregistered (“Amnesty International” 2019). India has its claws in Afghan matters as well and will use it to exploit Pakistan’s weaknesses even after US forces leave the arena. Afghan Government’s poor administrative capability especially after the return of DAESH (Tribune 2020) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Afghanistan are threats to Pakistan as well as regional peace and are a major cause of lawlessness in the country and has a spillover effect for its neighbors.

Iran

Ideologically speaking, Iran is a sectarian threat to Pakistan and its Port Chahbahar stands to lose active traffic once CPEC is fully functional which means it stands as an instigator of hybrid warfare and it would be a risk to overlook it based on past good relations.

USA

Even after the Cold War, strategic rivalry and animosity between the powers including Russia, America, and China still exist. The emergence of China as an economic superpower is perceived as a threat to the US due to which there is a major shift in its defensive posture towards the region.

The US has shown significant interest in Pakistan due to its geo-strategic location but not all interest has yielded positive results. They carried out a surgical strike for the capture and assassination of Osama-Bin-Laden. Such a breach of sovereignty and security is a hybrid threat.

·         Internal

Sectarian

There are several lobbies in Pakistan all vying for their own cause. The Iranian lobby has sectarian undercurrents. Sectarianism has always been one of the leading factors of the divide in the Muslim civilization and is the rising trend of terrorism.Such conflict itself is volatile and is deepening the rift between different sects(Shia-Sunni) of Pakistan, causing unrest.

Economic

Rising prices of commodities such as flour and sugar can lead to social unrest and discord. Such industries and their stocks are under the thumb of a select few, the elites. With the right bribes and conditions, even they would agree to sell out society.

Non-State Actors

Non-state actors are groups or organizations that have influence in the state but work independently and have their socio-political agendas (“Towards a Typology of Non-State Actors in ‘Hybrid Warfare’: Proxy, Auxiliary, Surrogate and Affiliated Forces” 2019). They work on political opportunities and mobilized grievances. Groups like BLA (Balochistan Liberation Army), TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are some of the major actors. Pakistan needs to focus on curbing Jihadist Terrorism as it is keeping it from leaving the grey list of FATF.

·         Technological

Information

It refers to the spread of miscommunication. Propaganda and circulation of false news through social media are a relatively common way to cause turmoil in a community. Once a rumor is circling, there is no way to erase it. India claims that Pakistan is spreading the false narrative of ‘Islam being in danger’ to justify its actions, although untrue, is something that the Indians fully believe now. That Pakistani Intelligentsia is made solely to create narratives under which to attack India. Such beliefs further antagonize the states against each other.

Indian Chronicles are a prime example of information warfare being waged against Pakistan.

Cyber

Channels such as Cyber-Jihad and Dark Web come under the purview of cyber warfare and are a threat to the fabric of society and its security in Pakistan.

Given the above discussed bleak prevailing internal security situation, Pakistan needs to formulate a short to mid and long-term response that curbs all external and internal parties alongside proxies from infiltrating and influencing the working of the state and affecting the masses.

For a full-spectrum approach, all domains should be covered such as diplomacy, defense, internal and external security, economic, informational, cyber, and media security.

There are steps to be followed through for active and effective quelling of hybrid threats. First, a strategy must be put for, then tactical action should be taken and lastly, the implementation process should be supervised and fully followed through.

The main focus of the state should be on deterrence towards, protection from, and prevention of hybrid threats to the state.

One must not forget that Hybrid war is a mix of both unconventional and conventional warfare, therefore a nation-wide response should include the intertwined operational capabilities of armed forces alongside political actors. Pakistan sees its security being threatened both by internal factors and external hostile/proxy elements. This is hampering state development. State-building and nation-building must go hand in hand if counter and deter such threats effectively.

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