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The Digital Caliphate
By Abdel Bari Atwan
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Abdel Bari Atwan
All rights reserved.
MASTERS OF THE DIGITAL UNIVERSE
Islamic State could never have achieved its territorial ambitions, nor could it have recruited such a large army in so short a time, without its mastery of the Internet.
Al Qaeda was the first major jihadist network to sense the potential of the World Wide Web, using its darker recesses in a covert manner to share ideology, information, plans, and correspondence. Its younger operatives also launched early cyber attacks on "enemy" websites, presaging the emergence of the cyber jihad that is raging today.
Today, Islamic State and its supporters use the Internet and social networking platforms in a brazen, overt way, marketing their "brand" and disseminating their material via mainstream networks such as Twitter. For those already in the territories of Islamic State, as much as for potential recruits on their laptops in a thousand bedrooms across the globe, concealing identity and location remains a priority. But there are myriad ways this can be done. Advice on the wide range of "anonymity products" available online is freely available for those who seek it — much of this advice is produced by Islamic State recruiters for the would-be jihadist. Those who fail to ensure their online anonymity are those we see detained and prosecuted. Sadly, this is only a tiny minority.
Most Islamic State commanders and recruits are tech-savvy; coding (writing software programs, inputting information in html) is as familiar to them as their mother tongue. Most of the digital caliphate's business is conducted online, from recruitment and propaganda to battlefield strategy and instruction. What the jihadists lack in the way of sophisticated weaponry they more than make up for with their online expertise.
The range, quality, and availability of today's digital equipment, such as HD cameras, editing software, special effects libraries, and so on, enable Islamic State's professional media teams to produce the slick and gruesome high-definition videos and glossy online magazines for which they have become infamous.
The Digital Generation
Most people who participate in, or are attracted to, Islamic State are in their late teens and early twenties. Researchers have shown that, among this age range in the developed world, 89 percent are active online, 70 percent use social networks daily, and each spends an average 19.2 hours a week on the Internet. The jihadists are no exception and may spend even more time on their laptops, tablets, and smart phones, since their output across social media platforms is vital to maintaining the digital health of their project.
The paradoxical clash between advanced twenty-first-century technology and the Salafist-jihadist interpretation of Islam, which espouses the values of life in the seventh century, ceased to be a topic for heated debate among extremist ideologues and clerics when the potential of the Internet was fully realized. The Taliban smashed televisions in the 1990s, but al Qaeda led the way online with email lists being used to disseminate information as early as 1995. Encrypted communications were used to orchestrate all al Qaeda's major attacks from the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam on, and Osama bin Laden's organization had its first website up and running by 2000. The Taliban followed suit soon after. By 2003, cyber jihad was cited as one of al Qaeda's widely circulated 39 Principles of Jihad.
Al Qaeda attempted to free itself from its dependence on mainstream media exposure by starting its own online news service, The Voice of the Caliphate, in 2005. At that time, however, there was no obvious way to disseminate its content, apart from among a small pool of subscribers. It continued to rely on television channels such as Al Jazeera for the wide exposure it sought for videos featuring bin Laden's increasingly empty threats and for the ultra-violent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would become al Qaeda's emir in Iraq.
Zarqawi pioneered the tactic of recording every successful attack on coalition targets in Iraq on digital video, complete with cries of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") and a soundtrack of the rather beautiful, stirring nasheeds. (These Islamic hymns are specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration, or prayer, and are typically addressed to a deity or to a prominent figure.) YouTube, which was launched in 2005, provided the perfect forum for these videos, as well as for the filmed posthumous "wills and testaments" of suicide bombers, which could be uploaded anonymously.
The problem of dissemination remained, however. Even on YouTube, the potential viewer would need either to have been informed about a video's existence or to have conducted an almost intuitive search. Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born, youthful cleric prominent in al Qaeda–offshoot AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), was the first to suggest exploiting social networking platforms to spread jihadist material more widely and reach new recruitment pools. The so-called bin Laden of the Internet created his own blog, Facebook page, and YouTube channel, and used them to distribute the online magazine Inspire, which included recipes for bomb-making and increasingly sophisticated films. Awlaki's over-confident use of social media platforms almost certainly led to his death from a US drone attack in Yemen in September 2011. Facebook use in particular was very easy to track at that time, as it did not accommodate anonymous operating systems such as Tor (see below).
Islamic State's Internet strategy has taken Awlaki's innovations one step further. In the past, the leadership would produce and release material; now, every jihadist is his or her own media outlet, reporting live from the frontline in tweets, offering enticing visions of domestic bliss via short films and images posted to JustPaste.it and Instagram, entering into friendly conversations via Skype, messaging on anonymous Android platforms, and posting links to the group's propaganda material and its infamous catalogue of videos. All of this output is systematically re-tweeted and, by clever use of hashtags, generates a huge audience.
Islamic State has made a point of recruiting IT specialists and those with online marketing experience. As a result, its social media activists are well versed in the most effective brand-sharing strategies — except its brand is death. One very effective method is to hijack Twitter storms: the activists include high-trending hashtags in their own tweets, which then include a link to Islamic State material hosted on an anonymous, unpoliced platform such as JustPaste.it. In August 2014, for example, IS activists included Scottish Independence hashtags, such as #VoteNo and #VoteYes, in their tweets during the run-up to the referendum. Trending celebrity stories are also exploited in this manner. People searching for #LewisHamiltonGrandPrix in November 2014 received instead a link to an Islamic State video showing child soldiers training with Kalashnikovs. Activists realize that material has to be widely distributed in as short a time as possible — and uploaded to safe archiving platforms — before YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter administrators are alerted and they remove the material and disable their accounts.
Islamic State's recruitment machine is largely online. In the course of researching this book we communicated in a variety of ways with young men and women who had either joined or were considering joining Islamic State. In Islamic countries, initial approaches were more often made via an intermediary or recruiter, but in the West, most said they had either direct messaged someone (via Twitter or Facebook) or had been contacted by a friend, relative, or acquaintance already inside Islamic State who initiated their "migration" and provided practical advice and logistical instructions. After the initial contact has been made, anonymous smart phone instant messaging platforms such as Kik and WhatsApp are used to deepen the contact. These are completely unpoliced and unregulated. The former, with 14 million users, appears to be largely used for pornography and drug dealing — it is easy for jihadists to hide here. Skype, the Internet telephone system, is another favorite means of communication, allowing real-time reporting by jihadists, and dialogue between recruiters and potential recruits. It is encrypted and can be used in conjunction with so-called dark Internet service providers and anonymous operating systems. Secret discussions, via messaging or telephone applications, conducted via a laptop or smart phone in a teenager's bedroom, are extremely difficult for parents and the authorities to police, which makes these digital devices perfect recruiting instruments.
Twitter and Facebook profiles are also used to cyberstalk and to identify and locate enemies. Military personnel, politicians, and journalists are particularly at risk; many have not taken even the most basic security precautions to conceal their work and home addresses, their daily schedule, where their children go to school, and so on.
The jihadists have their own community of web developers who pool their knowledge and developments, producing online resources such as Technical Mujahid, a training manual for jihadists released every two months. Extremists have developed their own closely guarded version of Facebook — Muslimbook — and Islamic State recently launched a mobile phone app: Dawn of Glad Tidings updates users on IS's news and uses their Twitter accounts to automatically disseminate information and reach potential funders.
Islamic State has also produced its own video game, hijacking and modifying the extremely popular Grand Theft Auto, which it has renamed Salil al-Sawarem (Clashing of Swords). The game takes place in terrain resembling that of northern Iraq; players can ambush and kill American soldiers or plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that blow up military vehicles transporting groups of Western soldiers to shouts of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great).
IS realizes that it has to keep pace with the Internet generation in order to remain relevant. Thousands of Twitter accounts, RSS feeds (a form of automatic digital distribution), and messaging networks provide a constant stream of battle reports and news about life in Islamic State. Thus they keep potential recruits and supporters engaged, counteract the propaganda efforts of the enemy, and share news, such as the loss of Kobani in early February 2015. Although most online material is still in Arabic, English is fast catching up; and a lot of Arabic material that is considered important is subtitled in English. Much material is also available in many other languages, including Russian, Urdu, and Chinese. After all, the jihadist network is now more or less global.
The relentless stream of information from the extremists is also used to build up the image of Islamic State as an emotionally attractive place where people belong, where everyone is a "brother" or "sister." A kind of slang — melding adaptations or shortenings of Islamic terms with street language — is evolving among the English-language fraternity on social media platforms in an attempt to create a "jihadi cool." A jolly home life is portrayed via Instagram images, where fighters play with fluffy kittens, and jihadist poster girls proudly display the dishes they have created. These Muslimas also tweet about domestic concerns or the absence of decent clothing: "Honestly we need some professional dressmakers for sister in Islamic State," tweeted one young woman, @UmmMariAndaluciya.
The jihadists' social media output also works hard to maintain a consistency of message, reminding the network that the enemy is the apostate and kufr (denier), who must convert or die. The menace is often embellished with a quote from the Qur'an. A recurrent thread upholds a mindset where the desire for martyrdom is normalized and death is sought and celebrated. This is the jihadists' most potent weapon. A soldier who does not fear death is an invincible enemy, and close-up photos of dead fighters' smiling faces are frequently posted across all platforms. The Islamic State salute — the index finger of the right hand pointing heavenward — reflects this ideology. The female jihadist holder of one Twitter account I investigated had posted a shocking photograph as wallpaper: two little boys, presumably her own, aged around four and six, are dressed in black and masked; they are dwarfed by the Kalashnikov rifles supported by their left hands while their right hand index fingers point to the sky. On February 3, 2015, one female resident of Islamic State, Al-Britaniya (British), shared "glad tidings" via Twitter: "My husband Rahimuh Allah has done the best transaction you can make his soul [sic] and in return Jenna [heaven] may Allah accept you yaa shaheed [martyr]." Five hours earlier she had posted a picture of a bowl of ice cream with bits of Toblerone chocolate stuck on top.
The head of the Islamic State's media department is Ahmed Abousamra, a Syrian who was born in 1981 in France and then brought up in Massachusetts where his father is a well-known endocrinologist. He obtained a degree in IT and worked in telecommunications before becoming self-radicalized; he encountered no obstacles in relocating to Aleppo in 2011 thanks to his dual Syrian-American nationality. Under Abousamra's direction are several media organizations with full-time staff, the main ones being al-Hayat, al-Furqan, and al-Itisam. These are solely for the purposes of propaganda. Al-Hayat was formed in May 2104, and its operations offices are based in Syria. Iraqi al-Furqan, originally the media mouthpiece of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), has been going since 2006. Al-Itisam is a film production unit based in Syria and is responsible for most of the slick, high-production-value videos al-Hayat disseminates.
It employs professional journalists, filmmakers, photographers, and editors (who must swear allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim as part of their contract) and has brought in cutting-edge technology and qualified operators. As a result, its film output is of a quality more usually associated with national broadcasters or even Hollywood. A slick recruitment video titled "What Are You Waiting For?" features attractive youths with dramatic long black hair, including a Frenchman with blue eyes. Al-Hayat releases regular short, snappy films called MujaTweets which show scenes of daily life among the mujahideen (those engaged in jihad). One, shot during Ramadan in a large canteen where a cook ladles stew into bowls, shows fighters breaking their fast with local children, laughing and joking; another shows fighters helping an old Kurdish lady, abandoned by her family, onto the back of a moped to be taken to other relatives; a seventy-year-old white-haired fighter is interviewed in one called "Why Did You Come to Jihad, Uncle?," which has become a great hit on YouTube.
Al-Furqan has produced whole television series glorifying Islamic State's achievements and deeds, including Messages from the Land of Epic Battles and Flames of War. They feature IS fighters, many of them foreign, in the midst of fierce battles. Its most infamous productions show increasingly barbaric executions designed to terrify enemies and the world at large with horrifying, unforgettable images: a small young boy personally executes adult hostages; a fighter holds up two severed heads; a woman is stoned to death; an old man alleged to be a pedophile is tipped off a white plastic chair from the top of a high building ; and in February 2015 came the repellent, high-production-value video of a captured Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive in a cage.
The latter was disseminated within seconds of being released, enabling me to trace the method by which it reached hundreds of thousands of people and all the media outlets. First, operatives tweeted that something was going to happen and recommended followers set up several duplicate accounts in case of suspension. Next came links to copies of the film on JustPaste.it (this anonymous message board, run by a twenty-six-year-old Pole, has become an integral part of Islamic State's media machine) and its Arabic equivalents, Nasher.me and Manbar.me, among many other anonymous platforms. These were tweeted with messages urging followers to re-tweet widely and for "people with hi-speed connections" to download and archive the film either on anonymous clouds or mirror websites (whereby the content of a known jihadist website is reproduced on hundreds of others under different names and identities). However fast the authorities removed Twitter accounts and sites that were hosting the film, it remained, and still remains, available. The same is true of the files the group Cyber Caliphate managed to download when it hacked the US Army's Central Command accounts in January 2015.
Excerpted from Islamic State by Abdel Bari Atwan. Copyright © 2015 Abdel Bari Atwan. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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