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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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An Underdeveloped Discipline: Open-Source Intelligence and How It Can Better Assist the U.S. Intelligence Community

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Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) is defined by noted intelligence specialists Mark Lowenthal and Robert M. Clark as being, “information that is publicly available to anyone through legal means, including request, observation, or purchase, that is subsequently acquired, vetted, and analyzed in order to fulfill an intelligence requirement”. The U.S. Naval War College further defines OSINT as coming from, “print or electronic form including radio, television, newspapers, journals, the internet, and videos, graphics, and drawings”. Basically, OSINT is the collection of information from a variety of public sources, including social media profiles and accounts, television broadcasts, and internet searches.

Historically, OSINT has been utilized by the U.S. since the 1940s, when the United States created the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) which had the sole goal (until the 1990s) of, “primarily monitoring and translating foreign-press sources,” and contributing significantly during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was also during this time that the FBIS transformed itself from a purely interpretation agency into one that could adequately utilize the advances made by, “personal computing, large-capacity digital storage, capable search engines, and broadband communication networks”. In 2005, the FBIS was placed under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and renamed the Open Source Center, with control being given to the CIA.

OSINT compliments the other intelligence disciplines very well. Due to OSINT’s ability to be more in touch with public data (as opposed to information that is more gleaned from interrogations, interviews with defectors or captured enemies or from clandestine wiretaps and electronic intrusions), it allows policymakers and intelligence analysts the ability to see the wider picture of the information gleaned. In Lowenthal’s own book, he mentions how policymakers (including the Assistant Secretary of Defense and one of the former Directors of National Intelligence (DNI)) enjoyed looking at OSINT first and using it as a “starting point… [to fill] the outer edges of the jigsaw puzzle”.

Given the 21stcentury and the public’s increased reliance upon technology, there are also times when information can only be gleaned from open source intelligence methods. Because “Terrorist movements rely essentially on the use of open sources… to recruit and provide virtual training and conduct their operations using encryption techniques… OSINT can be valuable [in] providing fast coordination among officials at all levels without clearances”. Intelligence agencies could be able to outright avoid or, at a minimum, be able to prepare a defense or place forces and units on high alert for an imminent attack.

In a King’s College-London research paper discussing OSINT’s potential for the 21stcentury, the author notes, “OSINT sharing among intelligence services, non-government organizations and international organizations could shape timely and comprehensive responses [to international crises or regime changes in rogue states like Darfur or Burma],” as well as providing further information on a country’s new government or personnel in power. This has been exemplified best during the rise of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and during the 2011 Arab Spring and 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti. However, this does not mean that OSINT is a superior discipline than other forms such as SIGINT and HUMINT, as they are subject to limitations as well. According to the Federation of American Scientists, “Open source intelligence does have limitations. Often articles in military or scientific journals represent a theoretical or desired capability rather than an actual capability. Censorship may also limit the publication of key data needed to arrive at a full understanding of an adversary’s actions, or the press may be used as part of a conscious deception effort”.

There is also a limit to the effectiveness of OSINT within the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), not because it is technically limited, but limited by the desire of the IC to see OSINT as a full-fledged discipline. Robert Ashley and Neil Wiley, the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and a former Principal Executive within the ODNI respectively, covered this in a July article for DefenseOne, stating “…the production of OSINT is not regarded as a unique intelligence discipline but as research incident to all-source analysis or as a media production service… OSINT, on the other hand, remains a distributed activity that functions more like a collection of cottage industries. While OSINT has pockets of excellence, intelligence community OSINT production is largely initiative based, minimally integrated, and has little in the way of common guidance, standards, and tradecraft… The intelligence community must make OSINT a true intelligence discipline on par with the traditional functional disciplines, replete with leadership and authority that enables the OSINT enterprise to govern itself and establish a brand that instills faith and trust in open source information”. This apprehensiveness by the IC to OSINT capabilities has been well documented by other journalists.

Some contributors, including one writing for The Hill, has commented that “the use of artificial intelligence and rapid data analytics can mitigate these risks by tipping expert analysts on changes in key information, enabling the rapid identification of apparent “outliers” and pattern anomalies. Such human-machine teaming exploits the strengths of both and offers a path to understanding and even protocols for how trusted open-source intelligence can be created by employing traditional tradecraft of verifying and validating sourcing prior to making the intelligence insights available for broad consumption”. Many knowledgeable and experienced persons within the Intelligence Community, either coming from the uniformed intelligence services or civilian foreign intelligence agencies, recognize the need for better OSINT capabilities as a whole and have also suggested ways in which potential security risks or flaws can be avoided in making this discipline an even more effective piece of the intelligence gathering framework.

OSINT is incredibly beneficial for gathering information that cannot always be gathered through more commonly thought of espionage methods (e.g., HUMINT, SIGINT). The discipline allows for information on previously unknown players or new and developing events to become known and allows policymakers to be briefed more competently on a topic as well as providing analysts and operators a preliminary understanding of the region, the culture, the politics, and current nature of a developing or changing state. However, the greatest hurdle in making use of OSINT is in changing the culture and the way in which the discipline is currently seen by the U.S. Intelligence Community. This remains the biggest struggle in effectively coordinating and utilizing the intelligence discipline within various national security organizations.

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Online Radicalization in India

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Radicalization, is a gradual process of developing extremist beliefs, emotions, and behaviours at individual, group or mass public levels. Besides varied groups, it enjoys patronization, covertly and even overtly from some states. To elicit change in behavior, beliefs, ideology, and willingness, from the target-group, even employment of violent means is justified. Despite recording a declination in terror casualties, the 2019 edition of the Global Terrorism Index claims an increase in the number of terrorism-affected countries. With internet assuming a pivotal role in simplifying and revolutionizing the communication network and process, the change in peoples’ lives is evident. Notably, out of EU’s 84 %, daily internet using population, 81%, access it from home (Eurostat, 2012, RAND Paper pg xi). It signifies important changes in society and extremists elements, being its integral part, internet’ role, as a tool of radicalization, cannot be gainsaid. Following disruption of physical and geographical barriers, the radicalized groups are using the advancement in digital technology:  to propagate their ideologies; solicit funding; collecting informations; planning/coordinating terror attacks; establishing inter/intra-group communication-networks; recruitment, training and media propaganda to attain global attention.  

               Indian Context

In recent times, India has witnessed an exponential growth in radicalization-linked Incidents, which apparently belies the official figures of approximate 80-100 cases. The radicalization threat to India is not only from homegrown groups but from cross-border groups of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as global groups like IS. Significantly, Indian radicalized groups are exploiting domestic grievances and their success to an extent, can mainly be attributed to support from Pakistani state, Jihadist groups from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Gulf-employment boom for Indian Muslims has also facilitated radicalization, including online, of Indian Muslims. A close look at the modus operandi of these attacks reveals the involvement of local or ‘homegrown’ terrorists. AQIS formed (2016) ‘Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind’ in Kashmir with a media wing ‘al-Hurr’.

IS announced its foray into Kashmir in 2016 as part of its Khorasan branch. In December 2017 IS in its Telegram channel used hashtag ‘Wilayat Kashmir’ wherein Kashmiri militants stated their allegiance with IS. IS’ online English Magazine ‘Dabiq’ (Jan. 2016) claimed training of fighters in Bangladesh and Pakistan for attacks from western and Eastern borders into India.Though there are isolated cases of ISIS influence in India, the trend is on the rise. Presently, ISIS and its offshoots through online process are engaged in spreading bases in 12 Indian states. Apart from southern states like Telangana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu — where the Iran and Syria-based terrorist outfit penetrated years ago — investigating agencies have found their links in states like Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir as well. The Sunni jihadists’ group is now “most active” in these states across the country.

               Undermining Indian Threat

Significantly, undermining the radicalization issue, a section of intelligentsia citing lesser number of Indian Muslims joining al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, Syria and Middle East, argue that Indian Muslim community does not support radicalism-linked violence unlike regional/Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Maldives. They underscore the negligible number of Indian Muslims, outside J&K, who supports separatist movements. Additionally, al- Qaeda and IS who follows the ‘Salafi-Wahabi’ ideological movement, vehemently oppose ‘Hanafi school’ of Sunni Islam, followed by Indian Muslims. Moreover, Indian Muslims follows a moderate version even being followers of the Sunni Ahle-Hadeeth (the broader ideology from which Salafi-Wahhabi movement emanates). This doctrinal difference led to the failure of Wahhabi groups online propaganda.  

               Radicalisation Strategies/methods: Indian vs global players

India is already confronting the online jihadist radicalization of global jihadist organisations, including al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), formed in September 2014 and Islamic State (IS). However, several indigenous and regional groups such as Indian Mujahideen (IM), JeM, LeT, the Taliban and other online vernacular publications, including Pakistan’s Urdu newspaper ‘Al-Qalam’, also play their role in online radicalisation.

Indian jihadist groups use a variety of social media apps, best suited for their goals. Separatists and extremists in Kashmir, for coordination and communication, simply create WhatsApp groups and communicate the date, time and place for carrying out mass protests or stone pelting. Pakistan-based terror groups instead of online learning of Islam consider it mandatory that a Muslim radical follows a revered religious cleric. They select people manually to verify their background instead of online correspondence. Only after their induction, they communicate online with him. However, the IS, in the backdrop of recent defeats, unlike Kashmiri separatist groups and Pak-based jihadist mercenaries, runs its global movement entirely online through magazines and pamphlets. The al-Qaeda’s you tube channels ‘Ansar AQIS’ and ‘Al Firdaws’, once having over 25,000 subscriptions, are now banned. Its online magazines are Nawai Afghan and Statements are in Urdu, English, Arabic, Bangla and Tamil. Its blocked Twitter accounts, ‘Ansarul Islam’ and ‘Abna_ul_Islam_media’, had a following of over 1,300 while its Telegram accounts are believed to have over 500 members.

               Adoption of online platforms and technology

Initially, Kashmir based ‘Jaish-E-Mohammad’ (JeM) distributed audio cassettes of Masood Azhar’s speeches across India but it joined Internet platform during the year 2003–04 and started circulating downloadable materials through anonymous links and emails. Subsequently, it started its weekly e-newspaper, Al-Qalam, followed by a chat group on Yahoo. Importantly, following enhanced international pressure on Pak government after 26/11, to act against terrorist groups, JeM gradually shifted from mainstream online platform to social media sites, blogs and forums.   

 Indian Mujahideen’s splinter group ‘Ansar-ul-Tawhid’ the first officially affiliated terror group to the ISIS tried to maintain its presence on ‘Skype’, ‘WeChat’ and ‘JustPaste’. IS and its affiliates emerged as the most tech-savvy jihadist group. They took several measures to generate new accounts after repeated suspension of their accounts by governments.  An account called as ‘Baqiya Shoutout’ was one such measure. It stressed upon efforts to re-establish their network of followers through ‘reverse shout-out’ instead of opening a new account easily.

Pakistan-backed terrorist groups in India are increasingly becoming  technology savvy. For instance, LeT before carrying out terrorist attacks in 2008 in Mumbai, used Google Earth to understand the targeted locations.

IS members have been following strict security measures like keeping off their Global Positioning System (GPS) locations and use virtual private network (VPN),  to maintain anonymity. Earlier they were downloading Hola VPN or a similar programme from a mobile device or Web browser to select an Internet Protocol (IP) address for a country outside the US, and bypass email or phone verification.

Rise of radicalization in southern India

Southern states of India have witnessed a rise in  radicalization activities during the past 1-2 years. A substantial number of Diaspora in the Gulf countries belongs to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Several Indian Muslims in Gulf countries have fallen prey to radicalization due to the ultra-conservative forms of Islam or their remittances have been misused to spread radical thoughts. One Shafi Armar@ Yusuf-al-Hindi from Karnataka emerged as the main online IS recruiter for India.  It is evident in the number of raids and arrests made in the region particularly after the Easter bomb attacks (April, 21, 2019) in Sri Lanka. The perpetrators were suspected to have been indoctrinated, radicalised and trained in the Tamil Nadu. Further probe revealed that the mastermind of the attacks, Zahran Hashim had travelled to India and maintained virtual links with radicalised youth in South India. Importantly, IS, while claiming responsibility for the attacks, issued statements not only in English and Arabic but also in South Indian languages viz. Malayalam and Tamil. It proved the existence of individuals fluent in South Indian languages in IS linked groups in the region. Similarly, AQIS’ affiliate in South India ‘Base Movement’ issued several threatening letters to media publications for insulting Islam.

IS is trying to recruit people from rural India by circulating the online material in vernacular languages. It is distributing material in numerous languages, including Malayalam and Tamil, which Al Qaeda were previously ignoring in favour of Urdu. IS-linked Keralite followers in their propaganda, cited radical pro-Hindutva, organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) and other right-wing Hindu organisations to motivate youth for joining the IS.  Similarly, Anti-Muslim incidents such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 are still being used to fuel their propaganda. IS sympathisers also support the need to oppose Hindu Deities to gather support.

               Radicalization: Similarities/Distinctions in North and South

Despite few similarities, the radicalisation process in J&K is somewhat different from the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Gujarat. Both the regions have witnessed a planned radicalization process through Internet/social media for propagating extremist ideologies and subverting the vulnerable youth. Both the areas faced the hard-line Salafi/Wahhabi ideology, propagated by the extremist Islamic clerics and madrasas indulged in manipulating the religion of Islam. Hence, in this context it can be aptly claimed that terror activities in India have cooperation of elements from both the regions, despite their distinct means and objectives. Elements from both regions to an extent sympathise to the cause of bringing India under the Sharia Law. Hence, the possibility of cooperation in such elements cannot be ruled out particularly in facilitation of logistics, ammunitions and other requisite equipment.

It is pertinent to note that while radicalisation in Jammu and Kashmir is directly linked to the proxy-war, sponsored by the Pakistan state, the growth of radicalisation in West and South India owes its roots to the spread of IS ideology, promotion of Sharia rule and establishment of Caliphate. Precisely for this reason, while radicalised local Kashmiris unite to join Pakistan-backed terror groups to fight for ‘Azadi’ or other fabricated local issues, the locals in south rather remain isolated cases.

               Impact of Radicalisation

The impact of global jihad on radicalization is quite visible in West and South India. Majority of the radicalised people, arrested in West and South India, were in fact proceeding to to join IS in Syria and Iraq. It included the group of 22 people from a Kerala’s family, who travelled (June 2016) to Afghanistan via Iran. There obvious motivation was to migrate from Dar-ul-Harb (house of war) to Dar-ul-Islam (house of peace/Islam/Deen).

While comparing the ground impact of radicalization in terms of number of cases of local militants in J&K as well as IS sympathisers in West and South India, it becomes clear that radicalisation was spread more in J&K, owing to Pak-sponsored logistical and financial support. Significantly, despite hosting the third largest Muslim population, the number of Indian sympathisers to terror outfits, particularly in West and South India is very small as compared to the western countries. Main reasons attributed to this, include – religious and cultural pluralism; traditionally practice of moderate Islamic belief-systems; progressive educational and economic standards; and equal socio-economic and political safeguards for the Indian Muslims in the Indian Constitution.

               Challenges Ahead

Apart from varied challenges, including Pak-sponsored anti-India activities, regional, local and political challenges, media wings of global jihadi outfits continue to pose further challenges to Indian security agencies. While IS through its media wing, ‘Al Isabah’ has been circulating (through social media sites) Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s speeches and videos after translating them into Urdu, Hindi, and Tamil for Indian youth (Rajkumar 2015), AQIS too have been using its media wing for the very purpose through its offshoots in India.  Some of the challenges, inter alia include –

Islam/Cleric Factor Clerics continue to play a crucial role in influencing the minds of Muslim youth by exploiting the religion of Islam. A majority of 127 arrested IS sympathizers from across India recently revealed that they were following speeches of controversial Indian preacher Zakir Naik of Islamic Research Foundation (IRF). Zakir has taken refuge in Malaysia because of warrants against him by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for alleged money laundering and inciting extremism through hate speeches. A Perpetrator of Dhaka bomb blasts in July 2016 that killed several people confessed that he was influenced by Naik’s messages. Earlier, IRF had organised ‘peace conferences’ in Mumbai between 2007 and 2011 in which Zakir attempted to convert people and incite terrorist acts. Thus, clerics and preachers who sbverts the Muslim minds towards extremism, remain a challenge for India.

Propaganda Machinery – The online uploading of young militant photographs, flaunting Kalashnikov rifles became the popular means of declaration of youth intent against government forces. Their narrative of “us versus them” narrative is clearly communicated, creating groundswell of support for terrorism.In its second edition (March 2020) of its propaganda magazine ‘Sawt al-Hind’ (Voice of Hind/India) IS, citing an old propaganda message from a deceased (2018) Kashmiri IS terrorist, Abu Hamza al-Kashmiri @ Abdul Rehman, called upon Taliban apostates and fighters to defect to IS.  In the first edition (Feb. 2020) the magazine, eulogized Huzaifa al-Bakistani (killed in 2019), asking Indian Muslims to rally to IS in the name of Islam in the aftermath of the 2020 Delhi riots. Meanwhile, a Muslim couple arrested by Delhi Police for inciting anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment) Bill protests, were found very active on social media. They would call Indian Muslims to unite against the Indian government against the CAA legislation. During 2017 Kashmir unrest, National Investigation Agency (NIA) identified 79 WhatsApp groups (with administrators based in Pakistan), having 6,386 phone numbers, to crowd source boys for stone pelting. Of these, around 1,000 numbers were found active in Pakistan and Gulf nations and the remaining 5,386 numbers were found active in Kashmir Valley.

Deep fakes/Fake news – Another challenge for India is spread of misinformation and disinformation through deep fakes by Pakistan. Usage of deepfakes, in manipulating the speeches of local political leaders to spread hate among the youth and society was done to large extent.

India’s Counter Measures

To prevent youth straying towards extremism, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has established a Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Radicalisation Division (CT-CR) to help states, security agencies and communities.

Various states, including Kerala, Maharashtra and Telangana have set up their own de-radicalisation programmes.  While in Maharashtra family and community plays an important role, in Kerala clerics cleanse the poisoned  minds of youth with a new narrative. A holistic programme for community outreach including healthcare, clergies and financial stability is being employed by the Indian armed forces. An operation in Kerala named Kerala state police’ ‘Operation Pigeon’ succeeded in thwarting radicalization of 350 youths to the propaganda of organizations such as Islamic State, Indian Mujahideen (IM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) via social media monitoring. In Telangana, outreach programs have been developed by local officers like Rema Rajeshwari to fight the menace of fake news in around 400 villages of the state.

In Kashmir the government resorts to internet curfews to control the e-jihad. While state-owned BNSL network, used by the administration and security forces, remains operational 3G and 4G networks and social media apps remain suspended during internet curfews.

Prognosis

India certainly needs a strong national counter- Radicalisation policy which would factor in a range of factors than jobs, poverty or education because radicalization in fact has affected even well educated, rich and prosperous families. Instead of focusing on IS returnees from abroad, the policy must take care of those who never travelled abroad but still remain a potential threat due to their vulnerability to radicalization.

Of course, India would be better served if deep fakes/fake news and online propaganda is effectively countered digitally as well as through social awakening measures and on ground action by the government agencies. It is imperative that the major stakeholders i.e. government, educational institutions, civil society organisations, media and intellectuals play a pro-active role in pushing their narrative amongst youth and society. The focus should apparently be on prevention rather than controlling the radicalisation narrative of the vested interests.

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Is Deterrence in Cyberspace Possible?

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Soon after the Internet was founded, half of the world’s population (16 million) in 1996 had been connected to Internet data traffic. Gradually, the Internet began to grow and with more users, it contributed to the 4 trillion global economies in 2016 (Nye, 2016). Today, high-speed Internet, cutting-edge technologies and gadgets, and increasing cross-border Internet data traffic are considered an element of globalization. Deterrence seems traditional and obsolete strategy, but the developed countries rely on cyberspace domains to remain in the global digitization. No matter how advanced they are, there still exist vulnerabilities. There are modern problems in the modern world. Such reliance on the Internet also threatens to blow up the dynamics of international insecurity. To understand and explore the topic it is a must for one to understand what cyberspace and deterrence are? According to Oxford dictionary;

 “Cyberspace is the internet considered as an imaginary space without a physical location in which communication over computer networks takes place (OXFORD University Press)”

For readers to understand the term ‘deterrence’; Collins dictionary has best explained it as;

“Deterrence is the prevention of something, especially war or crime, by having something such as weapons or punishment to use as a threat e.g. Nuclear Weapons (Deterrence Definition and Meaning | Collins English Dictionary).

The purpose of referring to the definition is to make it easy to discern and distinguish between deterrence in International Relations (IR) and International Cyber Security (ICS). Deterrence in cyberspace is different and difficult than that of during the Cold War. The topic of deterrence was important during Cold Wat for both politicians and academia. The context in both dimensions (IR and ICS) is similar and aims to prevent from happening something. Cyberspace deterrence refers to preventing crime and I completely agree with the fact that deterrence is possible in Cyberspace. Fischer (2019) quotes the study of (Quinlan, 2004) that there is no state that can be undeterrable.

To begin with, cyber threats are looming in different sectors inclusive of espionage, disruption of the democratic process and sabotaging the political arena, and war. Whereas international law is still unclear about these sectors as to which category they fall in. I would validate my affirmation (that deterrence is possible in Cyberspace) with the given network attacks listed by Pentagon (Fung, 2013). Millions of cyber-attacks are reported on a daily basis. The Pentagon reported 10 million cyberspace intrusions, most of which are disruptive, costly, and annoying. The level of severity rises to such a critical level that it is considered a threat to national security, so professional strategic assistance is needed to deal with it[1]. The past events show a perpetual threat that has the ability to interrupt societies, economies, and government functioning.

The cyberspace attacks were administered and portrayal of deterrence had been publicized as follows (Fung, 2013);

  1. The internet service was in a continuous disruption for several weeks after a dispute with Russia in 2007.
  2. Georgian defense communications were interrupted in 2008 after the Russian invasion of Georgia.   
  3. More than 1000 centrifuges in Iran were destroyed via the STUXNET virus in 2010. The attacks were attributed to Israel and the United States of America.
  4. In response to STUXNET virus attacks, Iran also launched a retaliatory attack on U.S financial institutions in 2012 and 2013.
  5. Similarly in 2012, some 30,000 computers had been destroyed with a virus called SHAMOON in Saudi Aramco Corporation. Iran was held responsible for these attacks.
  6. North Korea was accused of penetrating South Korean data and machines in 2014, thus interrupting their networks in 2014.
  7. A hybrid war was reported between Russia and Ukraine in 2015 that left Ukraine without electricity for almost six hours.
  8. Most critical scandal, which is still in the limelight call WikiLeaks released distressing and humiliating emails by Russian Intelligence at the time of the U.S presidential campaigns in 2016.

While such incidents may be considered a failure of deterrence, this does not mean that deterrence is impossible. Every system has some flaws that are exposed at some point. At this point, in some cases a relatively low level of deterrence was used to threaten national security, however, the attacks were quite minor in fulfilling the theme affecting national security. Nye (2016:51) in his study talks about the audience whose attribution could facilitate deterrence. (I). intelligence agencies should make sure highest safeguarding against escalation by third parties, and governments can also be certain and count on intelligence agencies’ sources. (II). the deterring party should not be taken easy, as I stated (above) about the lingering loopholes and flaws in the systems, hence, governments shall not perceive the intelligence forsaken.  (III). lastly, it is a political matter whether international and domestic audiences need to be persuaded or not, and what chunk of information should be disclosed.

The mechanisms which are used and helpful against cyberspace adversary actions are as follows (Fischer, 2019);

  1. Deterrence by denial means, the actions by the adversary are denied that they failed to succeed in their goals and objectives. It is more like retaliating a cyberattack.
  2. Threat of punishment offers severe outcomes in form of penalties and inflicting high costs on the attacker that would outweigh the anticipated benefits if the attack takes place.
  3. Deterrence by Entanglement has the features and works on a principle of shared, interconnected, and dependent vulnerabilities. The purpose of entanglement is to embolden and reassure the behavior as a responsible state with mutual interests.
  4. Normative taboos function with strong values and norms, wherein the reputation of an aggressor is at stake besides having a soft image in the eyes of the international community (this phenomenon includes rational factors because hard power is used against the weaker state). The deterrence of the international system works even without having any credible resilience.

Apparently, the mechanisms of deterrence are also effective in cyber realms. These realms are self-explaining the comprehensive understanding and the possibility of deterrence in cyberspace. The four mechanisms (denial, punishment, entanglement, and normative taboos) are also feasible to apply deterrence in the cyber world. Factually, of many security strategies, cyber deterrence by using four domains could be a versatile possibility. Conclusively, as far as the world is advancing in technological innovations, cyberspace intrusions would not stop alike the topic of deterrence in the digital world.


[1] An updated list of cyberspace intrusions from 2003 till 2021 is available at (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2021).

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