Authors: Mahmut Cengiz, Asma Ul Hussna Durrani, Andrea Quinn
The world was stunned by the Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan. The former Afghan government’s military was four times larger than the Taliban’s, but the world saw how the Afghan military surrendered to the Taliban in a short time. Overlooked or at least underestimated were the Taliban’s small but fierce army of fighters committed to the cause, its extensive financial resources, and logistical support from like-minded countries in the region. It appears that the Taliban will continue to strengthen its military and increase its financial resources for as long as it rules the country, thereby creating an ongoing threat to the future of not only Afghanistan but also the region and the Western world. Moreover, ISIS-Khorasan, a franchise group representing ISIS in the region, has increased its attacks in Afghanistan. ISIS-K was one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world in 2019, and its attacks in October 2021 show that ISIS-K will be a threat in the region. On the other hand, Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), referred to as Pakistani Taliban and based along the Afghan-Pakistani border, has been another active group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The TTP are actively involved in terrorist attacks in both countries and has provided training programs for the Taliban in Afghanistan and targeted former Afghan military in the eastern provinces of the country bordering Pakistan.
The mujahedeen who fought against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan inadvertently and unknowingly opened a door to the Taliban to enter in post-occupation Afghanistan. These mujahedeen fighters were trained in camps funded by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Western countries. When the war ended in 1989 and Soviet troops had been withdrawn, the Western world turned a blind eye to these fighters despite their efforts to end Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Undeterred by the snub, the mujahedeen fighters began moving to other jihadist regions in the world, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, to join wars where Muslim communities were facing government persecution.
With both the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen now out of Afghanistan, the country experienced a full-blown civil war. Two years later, a militia called the Taliban started getting attention from the world. Many of its members had studied in conservative religious schools in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. Some of the militia members had previously fought as mujahedeen against the Soviets. Eager to spread its ideology, the Taliban saw an opportunity in Afghanistan. The Afghan people were fed up with clashes, an ethnic war, and overall lawlessness in their country. Marching north from Kandahar and through other provinces along the way, the Taliban eventually seized the capital, Kabul, in1996. The Taliban immediately declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate and started imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic and sharia law.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the United States was determined to find the mastermind behind the attacks, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan with acquiescence from the Taliban. The Taliban demanded that the United States provide solid proof that bin Laden was behind the attacks and did not hand over the alleged perpetrator. That action prompted the United States to organize a multinational military campaign consisting of more than 100 states. The joint forces invaded Afghanistan and, within a couple of months, the Taliban was forced out of power and a new interim government was established. Three years later, Afghanistan had a new constitution, and Hamid Karzai was elected as president. The United States had backed the new Afghan leader from the start, but that support was not enough to end clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban simply regrouped and worked to drive foreigners out of the country and eventually reinstate the Taliban as the country’s ruler. With the U.S. withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021, the Taliban finally was able to realize its goal. In the interim, however, clashes between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government resulted in the killing of more than 40,000 Afghan civilians, at least 64,000 Afghan military and police, and more than 3,500 international soldiers. U.S. efforts over two decades to create and develop a democratic nation in the region, ultimately failed to produce the desired results.
Afghanistan today is deeply unstable and one of the poorest countries in the region with a per capita GDP of around $550. It also is the most corrupt country (see Corruption Perception Index); hosts the most-violent terrorist organizations, including the Taliban, TTP, and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) (see Annex of Statistical Information); harvests and produces more opium than any other country in the world (see United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime); and has a criminality score of 7.08 on a scale from 1 to 10, ranks first of eight countries in Southern Asia, third of 46 countries in Asia, and seventh among the 193 countries in the index (see Global Organized Crime Index 2021).
The Taliban’s Military and Financial Capacity
The Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan was facilitated by the organization’s extensive military, financial assets, and its ability to mobilize its fighters quickly. At the time of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban had 85,000 full-time fighters and training camps across the country while the Afghan military had more than 300,000 soldiers. Mere numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. Perhaps what the western world either did not realize or did not take into account is that while the number of Afghan soldiers was nearly four times greater than the number of Taliban fighters, those Taliban fighters were responsible for a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012. During that period, the number of terrorist attacks rose from 421 in 2011 to 1,469 in 2012. In subsequent years, the number of Taliban terrorist attacks fluctuated, varying between 1,400 and 1,800. The number of such attacks in 2018 and 2019 were roughly the same (see graph).
According to the Statistical Annex Report for 2019, the Taliban were the most active terrorist group in Afghanistan, being responsible for 83.4 percent of all terrorist attacks in the country and the killing or wounding of more than 13,000 people in such attacks. The Taliban’s casualty count in 2019 was more than that of both al Qaeda and ISIS and the two terrorist groups’ affiliates combined. In terms of tactics and targets for terrorist attacks in 2019, the Taliban used shooting 44 percent of the time; land mines and improvised explosive devises 20 percent of the time; and storming and rapid assault 16 percent of the time. Most of the Taliban’s targets in 2019 were military facilities, government buildings, and the general population (37 percent, 36 percent, and 14 percent, respectively)
The Taliban’s financial capacity remains strong, even though the Biden administration froze billions of dollars in Afghan reserves after the Taliban took over the country. The action was intended to deprive the Taliban of cash; however, the Taliban has managed to generate a significant amount of revenue from its international donors, states that sponsor the organization and its involvement in various types of trafficking and smuggling, and its tax-collection system. Perhaps the most significant of these revenue sources is drug trafficking, an activity that has made the Taliban one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world. According to United Nations, the Taliban in 2019 made around $1.5 billion from growing opium poppies and producing methamphetamine. Opium farming is a major source of employment in the region, generating more than 120,000 jobs for workers to harvest the crop. The farmers who hire those workers are required to pay the Taliban a 10 percent cultivation tax on their earnings. According to a 2018 UNODC report, opium production comprises up to 11 percent of Afghan economy. The Taliban also has gone to great lengths to protect the farmers who play an integral role in generating the lucrative revenue source. For example, when local farmers complained about the law enforcement and military members who were countering drug groups, the Taliban targeted those groups to curb their enforcement actions against farmers. In addition to the drug trade, mining and the trading of materials provides with Taliban $464 million a year in revenue. Illegal logging, which provides the Taliban revenue, has devastated the country’s forests, reducing the number of hectares by about 60 percent compared with the number of hectares that existed before the Soviet invasion in 1979.
ISIS-K in Afghanistan
In addition to the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, ISIS-K, and TTP have been the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network has close ties with al Qaeda and serves as a bridge between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Given that media sources report the Haqqani Network’s attacks under the name of the Taliban, it is unclear how many terrorist attacks have been conducted by the Haqqani Network. Nonetheless, it is known that the Haqqani Network has been active in Kabul.
ISIS-K (the Khorasan branch of ISIS) in Afghanistan should be given more attention than it has received. The group was responsible for bombing attacks in Kabul that resulted in the killing of 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians. ISIS announced the formation of its Khorasan branch in 2015 and appointed former TTP militant Hafiz Khan as its leader. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pledged allegiance to ISIS-K and declared that it was part of Wilayah Khorasan of ISIS. ISIS-K also recruited Taliban defectors to join its ranks. ISIS-K and the Taliban see each other as irreconcilable enemies. The enmity between the two groups has led to many clashes as they vie for supremacy. Both the Taliban and ISIS-K have been engaged in a territorial fight in Kunar province to generate revenue from illegal logging.
ISIS-K aims to topple the Pakistani government, punish the Iranian government for protecting Shias in the region, and purify Afghanistan by punishing minority groups such as the Hazaras and uprooting the Taliban as the main jihadi movement in the country. Attacks by the former Afghan military, the Taliban, and the United States between 2016 and 2020 weakened ISIS-K. Since then, however, ISIS-K’s current leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, has rebuilt the group’s capabilities, enabling it to target key urban areas such as Kabul and perpetrate 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021—an increase from 21 attacks during the same period in 2020.
ISIS-K’s capacity to operate regionally and transnationally and its cadre of foreign fighters from Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia have made the group more threatening to Afghans and Westerners. An investigation in Germany, for example, proved the group’s capacity and prompted the German government to charge four Tajik nationals linked to ISIS-K with plotting to attack U.S. and NATO military facilities. Now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, it is reasonable to assume that ISIS-K will have an opportunity to gain the support of anti-Taliban constituencies while at the same time finding it difficult to fend off well-equipped Taliban fighters whose leader holds the seat of government power in Afghanistan.
Tekrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
TTP is another Pashtun-aligned insurgency group and is based in Pakistan. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the TTP has officially been designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the U.S. Department of State.
TTP was established in December 2007 to combat the Pakistani security personnel and to provide support to the Afghan Taliban in combating the U.S. led NATO forces in Afghanistan. The group was formed under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. Like the Afghan Taliban, the central goal of TTP is to enforce their interpretation of Sharia law in Pakistan. In 2014, the Pakistan army launched a military operation called operation Zarb-e-Azb to fight the TTP militants in North Waziristan. During the Zarb-e-Azb operation, more than a thousand militants were killed. The military operation was successful in weakening TTP as the number of terrorist attacks declined drastically. However, splinter groups have joined with the TTP in the recent years which may allow for more control over the region and more cohesion under one group to carry out terrorist attacks and expand territorial control over the region.
TTP has carried out and claimed a series of deadly attacks. In December 2009, TTP targeted a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, killing seven U.S. citizens. In December 2014, TTP claimed responsibility for the Peshawar school attack that resulted in the killing of 150 people, including students. TTP holds strong ties to al-Qaeda (AQ) that relies on TTP for providing safe haven along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the attacks on security personnel and civilians have increased in Pakistan. The South Asia Terrorism Portal reported 240 incidents that recorded 191 civilian and 190 security force members casualties in Pakistan.
On the request of Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban have mediated talks between Pakistan and TTP. Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Afghan Foreign Minister, has confirmed that the peace talks have started. In the recent talks, an agreement on a one-month ceasefire was established. The agreement requires that the group halts all violence in exchange for TTP prisoners. Afghan Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan and the Doha agreement could serve to embolden other militant groups such as the TTP in Pakistan to attempt negotiations with the state to gain power. Although there is a tentative truce, and negotiations could bring a stop to insecurity in the country during this time, there has been a history of failed peace agreements in the region in past years, such as the peace negotiation in 2014 between TTP and the Pakistan government, with the agreement to end violence against the security personnel and civilians. The eight-month long peace talks were a failed effort. The major challenge in the peace talks is TTP’s inability to compromise on its ideology. In 2014, TTP agreed to Pakistan’s offer on conducting peace talks; however, the group refused to compromise on its ideology of implementing their interpretation of Shariah throughout the country.
To conclude, it should not have been a surprise to anyone that the Taliban managed to take over Afghanistan so quickly, as it clearly had the military strength and financial resources. The Taliban is an example of how it is impossible to win a war against an organization that has a strong military and vast financial resources. On the other hand, security vacuums in Afghanistan have generated a favorable ground for TTP and an ISIS franchise, ISIS-K, to pose a threat to the Taliban, Pakistan, and Western world by engaging in terrorist attacks.
How 4chan Radicalizes Youth and Grooms Them Towards Terrorism
The image board was started in 2003 to discuss anime and various other topics but festered into a safe space for hateful rhetoric soon after. In the aftermath of yet another racially motivated mass shooting by a frequent user, its dangers have finally reached the mainstream.
4chan is an extremely unique website. It has been running since 2003, and over the course of almost 20 years, has influenced many internet memes and phenomena. However, in the wake of the European Migrant Crisis in 2015 and the 2016 Presidential Election, it became associated with white supremacy, especially on its /pol/ board. This hateful rhetoric festered, worsening in 2020 during the COVID pandemic and George Floyd protests. 4chan was sprung into the spotlight once again on May 14th, 2022, when a white supremacists livestreamed his massacre of a supermarket.
This attack, fresh in American’s minds, led many to question why 4chan is still allowed to exist. This comes after 4chan’s rhetoric inspired a 2015 mass shooting in Oregon and its users aided in the organization in the Unite The Right Rally and the January 6th Riots. Clearly 4chan is a hotbed for far-right terrorism. But why is this image board the way it is? The answer lies in its lax moderation of content.
Upon looking at 4chan, you will find it is mostly made up of pornography. However, if you go on the site’s /pol/ board, it does not take long to find the kind of rhetoric that radicalized the Buffalo shooter. One particular post I found featured a racist joke at the expense of Black people. Another was praising fighters in the Ukrainian Azov battalion while joking about killing trans people. Yet another post complained about an “influx of tourists” due to the Buffalo shooter, who they insulted with an anti-gay slur. These memes and jokes seem to appeal to a younger, perhaps teenaged audience. It is clear that they are still trying to recruit youth into their ranks even after the tragedy in Buffalo.
The content is, to say the least, vile. The fact that this stuff is permitted and encouraged by not just the userbase (which numbers in the millions) but also many moderators tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with 4chan. In fact, copies of the livestreamed Buffalo massacre were spread widely on 4chan to the amusement of its userbase.
Many of the users on 4chan are social rejects who feel as if they have nothing to lose. They feel unaccepted and alienated from society, so they turn to 4chan. Many harmful ideologies, such as White supremacy and incel ideologies, seem extremely validating for these dejected youth. Young, socially alienated men, who make up the majority of 4chan’s userbase, are also among the most vulnerable demographics for radicalization.
What can we do to prevent further radicalization of youth and deradicalize those already affected by harmful rhetoric? First of all, we need to either heavily regulate 4chan or have it shut down. There is no space on the internet for this kind of hatred or incitement to commit horrific acts like what happened in Buffalo. For those already radicalized, we need to perform a campaign of deradicalization among those affected by this rhetoric. But how can this be done?
4chan prides itself on anonymity, so it is difficult to figure out who uses it. Thus, education on radicalization and identification of propaganda is vital. This education should focus on adolescents mostly due to their predisposition towards radicalization when exposed to hateful rhetoric. While White supremacy must be emphasized, other forms of radicalization should be mentioned as well such as Jihadism and other forms of ethnic supremacy. Finally, tolerance must be fostered among all people, not just those at risk of becoming groomed into terrorism.
The age of 4chan has spawned many humorous memes, but it has since become a hotbed for hatred and terrorism. Since memes are able to convey dangerous ideas, websites like Reddit and Facebook need to be heavily regulated to prevent the dissemination of dangerous misinformation. It is unlikely that 4chan will ever moderate itself, as lack of strict moderation is its defining feature. Thus, it has overstayed its welcome and no longer has a place in today’s information-driven society.
New ISIS Strategy and the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan
Unlike Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the second late leader of ISIS, who was derided as a “secluded paper caliph” and “an unknown nobody” for his relative anonymity and non-publicity, the new caliph of the Islamic State, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, has apparently launched a new strategy to strengthen linkages to regional wilayahs (provinces) and boost the group’s global presence.
Indeed, during his short time leading the group (31 October 2019 – 3 February 2022), Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi never publicly addressed his followers, which negatively affected the coordination of the activities of Islamic State-Central (ISC) and its regional branch of the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP). Although his killing during a US counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria in early February was a major blow to the global jihadi organization, the change in leadership nevertheless provided it with new opportunities to update its command-and-control, recruitment and propaganda campaign.
Predictably, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the new ISIS overall leader, sees his historical role not only in ensuring the Caliphate’s continuity and avoiding its potential fragmentation but also in establishing a more direct and consistent command line between its core in Iraq and Sham and its Central and South Asian affiliates.
The new strategy of the Islamic Caliphate not only gave a new impetus to its Khorasan offshoot waging a holy jihad in post-American Afghanistan against the Taliban but also opened a new front line against the post-Soviet Central Asian regimes. Indeed, the analysis of ISKP activities revealed that the proclamation of Abu al-Hassan al-Quraishi as the new Caliph and the launch of a new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” increased the combat capability of IS Uzbek and Tajik fighters, as well as strengthened the coordination of local language and IS-Central propaganda machines.
Notoriously, on April 17, ISIS launched the new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, and his official spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who were killed in a US raid in February in the northwest Syrian town of Atmeh. In his recent audio address, Islamic State’s new spokesman Abu-Omar al-Muhajir called on the Caliphate warriors to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leaders by “painfully striking” the enemies of “al-mujahideen” and saying that if they kill, they should “kill by many.” This call was made to the group’s followers worldwide and asked them to remain patient, but also be ready when the “war” begins. Al-Muhajir called to expand the campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to the territory of US, Europe and Central Asia, urging Muslims living there to follow the lead of past “lone wolves” who conducted operations that “filled with horror.” He asked them to repeat “lone wolf” operations by stabbing, attacking, and ramming, and drawing inspiration from recent attacks in Israel.
ISKP Threat to Central Asia
Among the first to support the Islamic State’s new ‘global offensive’ campaign were ISKP Uzbek and Tajik jihadists challenging the new Taliban government and dreaming of overthrowing the ‘Taghut (idolaters) regimes’ in Central Asia. Thus, inspired by the new Caliph’s new strategy, for the first time in the history of the Islamic State, they managed to conduct a transnational jihadi operation from Afghanistan to the territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Initially, on April 18, 2022, the ISKP fired ten rocket salvos into the territory of Uzbekistan, which was successfully exploited by the Uzbek-speaking regional jihadi media and IS-Central’s propaganda resources as evidence of the opening of a “second front” in the Central Asian direction. Expert assessments clearly observed the good coordination between the IS-Central’s media and ISKP’s local jihadi mouthpieces, both in terms of Islamic ideological content and hierarchical sequences.
The Islamic State-Central’s Amaq News Agency reported that “Mujahedeen of the Caliphate have fired 10 Katyusha rockets at a murtad (apostasy) Uzbekistan’s military base in the border town of Termez.” The ISIS central media wing also released a photo and video of the projectiles to back its claims. Another IS-Central’s weekly al-Naba newsletter also widely covered the topic of rocket attacks by detailing how the projectiles were fired from Afghan territory on the Central Asian nation.
Following IS-Central official news agencies reports, IS-Khurasan Willayah’s local media outlets, such as Al-Azaim Foundation and Khurasan Radio, the Uzbek-language Xuroson Ovozi (Voice of Khurasan), Tavhid Habar (Tawhid News), Tajik-language Telegram channels Mujahideen of the Caliphate and The Army of the Victorious Nation published a series of audio, video and text messages in Uzbek and Tajik detailing the goals, causes, and consequences of the rocket attack. In particular, Al-Azaim Foundation glorified the rocket attack as “the heroism of the brave lions of Allah Almighty punishing the corrupt army of the murtad Uzbek government.”
The ISKP media outlets were extremely outraged by the Uzbek government’s denial of the rocket attack, claiming that nothing had landed on their territory. In response, pro-ISKP Uzbek, Tajik and Russian Language Telegram channels re-posted IS-Central’s statement, photos, videos of the attacker and a map marked with the possible rocket impact location in Termez.
Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi experts’ attention was drawn to a 24-minute audio address of Khuroson Mujahid, the leader of ISKP Uzbek group, whose speech style and ideological views strongly resembled the late ISIS chief strategist Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. His speech revealed that the ideological vision of ISKP Central Asian jihadists, staunch followers of Takfiri Salafism, is in line with the Islamic State’s global agenda. He considers democracy to be the religion of “murtad states” of Central Asia, the Taliban government and Pakistan. He believes that due to committing shirk (idolatry), deviating Allah and doubting Tawheed (God’s Oneness), the leaders of taghut countries should be killed.
Considering Khuroson’s oratorical skills, Takfiri persuasion and ideological savvy, it is quite possible that the ISKP recruitment and incitement campaign will intensify in Central Asia in the near future. Obviously, the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP in the military, media and ideological directions reached a new level in the more permissive operating environment of post-American Afghanistan.
On May 7, the ISKP carried out a second rocket attack, this time into Tajikistan. According to the Central Media Office (Diwan al-I’lam al-Markazi) of ISIS, “Caliphate’s fighters fired seven rockets from the Khawaja Ghar district of Afghanistan’s Takhar Province towards the Tajik military base near the city of Kulob.” The rocket attacks on the territories of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for three weeks nevertheless mark a clear escalation by ISKP Central Asian foreign fighters from just hostile anti-five post-Soviet “murtad governments” rhetoric to direct militant action.
Notably, the methods of media coverage of both attacks and the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP’s local media resources were clearly similar. The algorithm of their actions was in line with the new ISIS strategy. Thus, IS-Central posted a brief information about the rocket attacks with video and photos, then the Tajik, Uzbek and Pashto-language local media resources of ISKP glorified the “warriors of Allah”. The Uzbek-language pro-Islamic State Telegram channels Islomiy Maruza Davat Guruh, Khuroson Ovozi, Tawheed news, the Tajik-language Telegram channel of Ulamoi Rabboni (إنَّ اللّٰهَ مَعَنَا) actively propagated ISKR rocket attacks, undermining the image and credibility of the military potential of Tajikistan and the Taliban.
These Central Asian pro-IS media resources, supported by IS-Central propaganda bodies and comprised of a constellation of official branch outlets, regional pro-ISKP groups, and grassroots supporters have become a prominent voice aggressively impugning the Taliban’s reputation in the global jihadi world. Such method makes it possible to preserve the hierarchical structure and maintain a uniform media strategy of the global jihadi group. This reflects that after the fall of the Caliphate and a series of dramatic losses of its leaders, ISIS has learned a bitter lesson and is now moving from centralizing power to strengthening its wilayahs.
Apparently, the ISKP seeks to broaden its appeal in Central Asia both through increasing cross-border attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors and ramping up the production, translation, and dissemination of propaganda directed at Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz communities in the region. These rocket attacks and ISKP’s propaganda campaigns targeting Central Asians for recruitment are any indicators, the group has become a serious jihadi power challenging not only the Taliban government, but also the post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. Through its Uzbek, Tajik and Pashto-language Telegram channels, the ISKP is conducted an unprecedented activity to recruit Central Asian jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as new radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley.
Future of ISKP Central Asian Jihadists
Obviously, the ISKP is exploiting the US military withdrawal from the region and the Afghan Taliban’s deviation from the hardline jihadi concept by successfully portraying their government as a Pashtun ethno-nationalist organization rather than a bona fide Islamic movement.
In conclusion, it is to be expected that the ISKP will actively capitalize external operations to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban government, which assured the US and Central Asian neighbors not to allow Afghan soil to be used to attack Afghanistan’s neighbors. Strengthening cross-border rocket attacks has already raised the morale of ISKP fighters and consolidated its support base.
Thus, the new Islamic State’s strategy to strengthen its offshoots in its provinces is quite capable to reestablish its positioning in the broader global jihadi movement, which we see in the example of IS-Khorasan Province.
How Memes Can Spread Dangerous Ideas
Internet memes are an excellent way to send powerful messages to millions of people. But what happens when they are used for malicious purposes?
Memes have been a means of transmitting messages for centuries, proliferating immensely in recent decades due to their mass proliferation through the internet and their ability to broadcast messages to a massive audience. They have quite a bit of cultural significance and can be based on almost anything, provided they achieve viral status. However, memes have been subject to abuse by malicious groups and actors.
From the Blue Whale Challenge, an internet challenge that resulted in multiple suicides worldwide, to terrorist organizations like ISIS, which use internet memes to recruit young people, memes can be used for malicious purposes. Even toxic subcultures like MGTOW serve as a pipeline towards the incel movement. Indeed, such male supremacist organizations are not strangers to using memes and viral media to propagate their ideas and recruit young men and boys to their cause. In fact, one influencer, who goes by Sandman MGTOW, often posts such misogynistic memes and videos on his Twitter and YouTube channel.
These kinds of memes are easily identifiable by their bias towards a specific issue and their often-political message. One great example of a meme that has been subject to abuse by malicious actors is Pepe the frog. Based on a character by Matt Furie, this meme was abused by the alt right, being depicted as controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. The meme was so badly abused by these far-right actors that it was listed as a hate symbol by the ADL.
Memes have also influenced major world events like the 2016 election in the United States and the Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010’s, which garnered immense media attention through the use of internet memes and viral media. This shows that memes can have the power to influence elections (albeit slightly) and topple oppressive regimes. Being a powerful tool for spreading information, there is also the use of memes for spreading misinformation.
The COVID-19 pandemic mediated a sizeable but modest anti-vaccine movement in countries like the United States, Canada, and Germany. These anti-vaxx groups used social media like Facebook and Reddit to spread memes full of misinformation and pseudo-science It can also be argued that memes were effective tools in spreading misinformation around the elections of 2016 and 2020 in the United States. Memes, while powerful, can be used by malicious actors such as far-right groups and anti-vaxx groups to peddle false information. This has contributed to the US having a COVID death toll of over one million, higher than most other countries worldwide.
The world has progressed quite a bit in the information age. People are able to communicate ideas with millions of people worldwide in seconds. The proliferation if information has never been more efficient in history. That is why the threats that arise from the mass proliferation of memes and viral media are so dire. As was seen during the 2016 and 2020 US elections, COVID, and Arab Spring, memes can be spread to convey messages that can change nations, affect millions (perhaps even billions) of people, and topple dictators. It has become possible for people to change the course of history with a single tweet or a single meme on Reddit or Instagram going viral.
What can we do to stem the massive proliferation of memes that serve to recruit people into dangerous organizations and fill their minds with misinformation? The answer lies in how we confront our biases and how we detect misinformation. People need to be informed about how they can detect bias and propaganda, in addition to using independent fact-checking services. By identifying propaganda from malicious actors and misinformation from online groups, we can stop the spread of dangerous memes before they proliferate.
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