Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter

Although much ink has been spilled on ISIS’s activity on Twitter, very basic questions about the group’s social media strategy remain unanswered. In a new analysis paper, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan answer fundamental questions about how many Twitter users support ISIS, who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities.

Previous analyses of ISIS’s Twitter reach have relied on limited segments of the overall ISIS social network. The small, cellular nature of that network—and the focus on particular subsets within the network such as foreign fighters—may create misleading conclusions. This information vacuum extends to discussions of how the West should respond to the group’s online campaigns.

Berger and Morgan present a demographic snapshot of ISIS supporters on Twitter by analyzing a sample of 20,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts. Using a sophisticated and innovative methodology, the authors map the locations, preferred languages, and the number and type of followers of these accounts.

Among the key findings:

• From September through December 2014, the authors estimate that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time.
Accounts Created, By Year

• Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS. Hundreds of ISIS-supporting accounts sent tweets with location metadata embedded.
Location Claimed in Profile

• Almost one in five ISIS supporters selected English as their primary language when using Twitter. Three quarters selected Arabic.

• ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user. ISIS-supporting accounts were also considerably more active than non-supporting users.

• A minimum of 1,000 ISIS-supporting accounts were suspended by Twitter between September and December 2014. Accounts that tweeted most often and had the most followers were most likely to be suspended.

• Much of ISIS’s social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume.

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Al-Nusra Front leader, commanders reported killed in Syria

AFP: The military chief and several top commanders of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front have been reported killed in northwestern Syria, where the jihadist militia has been making major gains in recent months.

Syrian state media, a monitoring group and a local activist reported that Abu Hammam al-Shami had been killed but information on the circumstances of his death was contradictory.

Official Nusra sources did not announce the death of the jihadist, who is believed to have fought with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

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U.S. presses U.N. on Syria chlorine attacks

The New York Times reports: The United States is pushing the United Nations Security Council to condemn the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria, and impose unspecified measures against those who use it in the future.

A draft resolution written by the United States, obtained by The New York Times on Wednesday evening, does not specify who used chlorine as a weapon in Syria’s civil war, except to remind the government of Syria that it had agreed to destroy its chemical-weapons arsenal under a resolution adopted in September 2013.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global group that monitors compliance with a treaty banning these munitions, concluded in a report this year that chlorine had been used to make bombs, which witnesses said were dropped from helicopters.

That report also did not say who was to blame, although the Syrian military is the only faction in the conflict that has helicopters. Activists have previously collected video of aerial bomb attacks, in which yellow gas is seen being released. [Continue reading…]

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What Netanyahu left out of his speech to Congress

Gary Sick lists five significant omissions: 1. Iran has dramatically reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium. Remember Bibi’s cartoon bomb that was going to go off last summer? Well, it has been drained of fuel, and that will probably continue to be true indefinitely. No mention.

2. Inspections will continue long after the nominal 10-year point, contrary to his claim that everything expires in ten years. No mention.

3. The heavy water reactor at Arak will be permanently modified, so it produces near zero plutonium. Not only did he not mention it, but he listed the reactor and plutonium as one of his threats.

4. His repeated assertion that Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons ignores the judgment “with high confidence” of both American and Israeli intelligence that Iran has taken no decision to build nuclear weapons. It also contradicts the repeated findings of the IAEA that no materials have been diverted for military purposes.

5. All the major countries of the world are co-negotiators with the United States, so a U.S. congressional intervention that killed the deal will not only affect us but all of our major allies. If we stiff them, there is no reason to believe the international sanctions will hold for long. No mention.

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Libya declares 11 oil fields closed after ISIS attacks

The Associated Press: Libya’s state-run oil corporation has declared 11 oil fields in the country non-operational after attacks by suspected Islamic State militants, opting for a force majeure clause that exempts the state from contractual obligations.

The National Oil Corporation blamed Islamist-backed authorities in the capital Tripoli for failing to protect the oil fields. The statement, issued late Wednesday, said “theft, looting, sabotage and destruction” of the oil fields have been on the rise despite pleas for the authorities to ensure the safety of Libya’s oil installations.

“If security deteriorates, the corporation will be forced to close all fields and ports, which will result in a total deficit in state revenues and directly impact people’s live, including with power outage,” the statement said. It urged the country’s feuding political factions to “put state interest above all and stand together against destruction.”

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Global oil glut resulting in shortage of storage capacity

The Wall Street Journal reports: In a world awash in crude, oil producers and traders are facing a billion-barrel conundrum: where to put it all.

U.S. crude-oil supplies are at their highest level in more than 80 years, according to data from the Energy Information Administration, equal to nearly 70% of the nation’s storage capacity. A U.S. storage hub in Cushing, Okla., is expected to hit maximum capacity this spring. While estimates are rough, Citigroup Inc. believes European commercial crude storage could be more than 90% full, and inventories in South Korea, South Africa and Japan could be at more than 80% of capacity.

The danger of running out of places to stash crude: Some analysts predict prices, already down 50% since June, could spiral even lower as producers sell oil at a discount to the few remaining buyers with room to store it. Consumers, though, would continue to be big winners as refineries convert an ocean of crude into gasoline and other fuels. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. government still hunting WikiLeaks as Obama targets whistleblowers

The Guardian reports: The US government is conducting an active, long-term criminal investigation into WikiLeaks, a federal judge has confirmed in court documents.

Five years after Julian Assange and his team began publishing the massive dump of US state secrets leaked by an army intelligence analyst, two wings of the Department of Justice and the FBI remain engaged in a criminal investigation of the open-information website that is of a “long-term duration”, “multi-subject” in nature and that “remains in the investigative state”.

The disclosure was made in the course of a ruling from the US district court for the District of Columbia, the jurisdiction of which covers federal agencies, and underlines the Obama administration’s dogged pursuit of WikiLeaks and its unprecedentedly aggressive legal campaign against official whistleblowers. [Continue reading…]

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Russian soldiers ‘dying in large numbers’ in Ukraine, says NATO

BBC News: Nato’s deputy chief says Russian leaders are less and less able to conceal the deaths of “large numbers” of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Alexander Vershbow said Russia’s involvement was becoming more unpopular with the Russian public as a result.

Russian officials dismissed on Thursday a US claim that Moscow had sent “thousands and thousands” of troops to fight alongside separatists.

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25 maps that explain the English language

Vox: English is the language of Shakespeare and the language of Chaucer. It’s spoken in dozens of countries around the world, from the United States to a tiny island named Tristan da Cunha. It reflects the influences of centuries of international exchange, including conquest and colonization, from the Vikings through the 21st century. Here are 25 maps and charts that explain how English got started and evolved into the differently accented languages spoken today. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Chris Thile — ‘Song For A Young Queen’

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ISIS through the looking-glass

Peter Harling and Sarah Birke write: One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche, where its brutality and taste for gory spectacle is a force multiplier. Perhaps more than merely evil, the Islamic State is diabolical: like the Satan of scripture, it is a creature that is many things to many people, enjoys a disconcerting allure, and ultimately tricks us in to believing that we are doing the right thing when we are actually destroying ourselves.

This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts.

The semantics deployed in response to it are telling: each party projects its own national traumas and anxieties. In the West, the threat posed by Islamic State has been equated with anything from Auschwitz to the genocide in Rwanda to the siege of Sarajevo, even though none of these precedents has much in common with the phenomenon at hand. Among Muslims, the comparisons tend to point to Islam’s early traumas – Sunnis refer to the Khawarij, Islam’s first radicals, while Shias draw comparison with the Umayyads, the Sunni dynasty whose rise the partisans of Ali opposed. These sectarian-tinged views duel with the Islamic State’s own depiction of itself as the embodiment of pious, brave, ruthless and egalitarian comradeship – a utopian image of early, conquering and united Islam that it cultivates meticulously (and which works all the better the less versed in Islamic culture its audience actually is).

This is a sign of the times we are living in, not just in the region but beyond. We are emerging from a relatively well-defined, intelligible world into a moment of chaotic change and reinvention. Out of fear of the unknown and a need to categorise what is happening, we use flawed parallels and historic references. One day it is the end of Sykes-Picot borders; the next the Cold War is being revived. Iranian officials like to view current events through the lens of the 1980s, when they fought a heroic and traumatic war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and his backers.

In the West, rather than naming things that trouble us, we tend to use vocabulary that is designed to be reassuring rather than true. It doesn’t take much to see a “national unity government” in Baghdad instead of a profoundly unbalanced and dysfunctional cabinet; we say “Iraqi army” for what in reality is a worn-down collection of abused and often corrupt men who fled as the Islamic State advanced and left most of the fighting to Shia militias. We posit “ceasefires” in Syria to refer to surrenders under the regime’s bombardment, siege and starvation; a “Free Syrian Army” or more recently “moderate rebels” to describe unruly militias fighting Assad. The worst things get, the more we seem willing to describe things as we wish they might be rather than as they are. [Continue reading…]

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Capitol Hill — still Israeli-occupied territory

Philip Weiss writes: In the Emperor’s New Clothes, only the little boy can say that the emperor is naked. The good news about yesterday’s speech by Netanyahu to a joint meeting of Congress is that lots of media are taking on that boy’s role, and pointing out the nudity: exclaiming over the fact that a foreign leader came into our house of government to try and overrule our president on foreign policy. Chris Matthews was especially forceful, describing it as a takeover. While a New York Times article said that Democrats have to choose between “loyalty to the Jewish state” and the president.

But journalists have a bigger job than merely exclaiming. They must explain to readers why this outrage took place. Why did Netanyahu get this platform? The answer is the power of the Israel lobby inside our politics. And while there was some talk about the Christian Zionist component of the lobby compelling Republicans to show up, no one could explain why so many Democrats– about 175 of them– sat still for this insult to the president. They did so because of the importance of the Jewish part of the lobby inside the Democratic Party, epitomized by Alan Dershowitz in the gallery. This was surely obvious to viewers. But the media were silent on that score. [Continue reading…]

Netanyahu addressing Congress in 2002 and 2015 — same script, but then it was Iraq, now Iran.

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Rouhani: people are too clever to listen to ‘war-mongering’ Netanyahu

The Guardian: The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has reacted to Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress by saying that the world and the American people are too intelligent to take advice from “an aggressive and occupier regime” that has itself developed an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

“The world is happy with the progress in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1,” Rouhani said in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, speaking about the nuclear talks between Iran and the US, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain. “Only one aggressive and occupier regime [Israel] is angry with the talks because it sees its existence tied with war and occupation.”

Rouhani said: “People of the world and America are too smart to take advice from such a war-mongering regime … which has pursued, produced and stockpiled a large number of atomic bombs in violation of international laws and away from the eyes of international inspectors.” Rouhani was referring to the fact that Israel, unlike Iran, has not signed the treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria has not significantly diminished since June 2014

ISIS-territory

Click on image to view full-size map and ISW report (PDF).

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U.S. strategy in Iraq increasingly relies on Iran

The New York Times reports: At a time when President Obama is under political pressure from congressional Republicans over negotiations to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, a startling paradox has emerged: Mr. Obama is becoming increasingly dependent on Iranian fighters as he tries to contain the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria without committing American ground troops.

In the four days since Iranian troops joined 30,000 Iraqi forces to try to wrest Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit back from Islamic State control, American officials have said the United States is not coordinating with Iran, one of its fiercest global foes, in the fight against a common enemy.

That may be technically true. But American war planners have been closely monitoring Iran’s parallel war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, through a range of channels, including conversations on radio frequencies that each side knows the other is monitoring. And the two militaries frequently seek to avoid conflict in their activities by using Iraqi command centers as an intermediary.

As a result, many national security experts say, Iran’s involvement is helping the Iraqis hold the line against Islamic State advances until American military advisers are finished training Iraq’s underperforming armed forces.

“The only way in which the Obama administration can credibly stick with its strategy is by implicitly assuming that the Iranians will carry most of the weight and win the battles on the ground,” said Vali R. Nasr, a former special adviser to Mr. Obama who is now dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too — the U.S. strategy in Iraq has been successful so far largely because of Iran.” [Continue reading…]

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Airstrikes starting to take toll on ISIS’s money flow

McClatchy reports: The Islamic State might be the best-funded radical Islamist group, perhaps in history, but the coalition air campaign that’s targeting its oil-refining operations and military assets has begun to damage its ability to earn.

And by denying the group additional territorial expansion, the airstrikes have limited the opportunities for it to profit from capturing new infrastructure and banks, according to a recent report by a money-laundering watchdog group, as well as U.S. officials and residents of Islamic State territory.

The Islamic State, a self-styled modern caliphate that controls much of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria, turned itself into perhaps the richest and best-equipped military non-state actor last June after seizing tremendous amounts of money and equipment from the Iraqi government as it swept through Mosul and to the western and northern outskirts of Baghdad while the Iraqi army collapsed.

The Islamic State is thought to have at least 30,000 combatants and 5 million to 6 million people under its control, leaving a huge economy to be taxed and extorted.

Thousands of armored vehicles and thousands of tons of military equipment, much of it modern weaponry supplied to Iraq by the United States, were seized in the rout last June, along with cash reserves from government banks, mostly in local currency, of at least $500 million, according to the Financial Action Task Force, an international money-laundering body that examined the group’s complex financial operations in a report released in late February.

That windfall came as the group was already making millions of dollars a day pumping and refining oil and petroleum products from previously captured oil fields, mostly in eastern Syria, where the group has wrested control of at least 50,000 barrels per day of oil and refined petroleum output, according to the task force’s report, a number widely supported by reports from the area.

Although the task force notes recent efforts by Turkish and Kurdish officials to limit the Islamic State’s ability to export these products by smuggling, not all the exporting has been stopped. Even the group’s rudimentary oil-refining ability — a process commonly targeted by coalition airstrikes — while damaged, is probably sufficient to at least support the group’s huge military operation and provide some income stream. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s ‘Supermani': fabled general, Internet sensation

The Los Angeles Times reports: In one image he calmly rubs elbows with Iran’s top leaders. In another, he bestows an avuncular gaze on a gaggle of militia fighters.

No matter where he appears, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, remains the stuff of U.S. policymakers’ nightmares: a murky yet seemingly ubiquitous figure with a penchant for turning up in Middle Eastern trouble spots and proxy wars — often at several battlegrounds simultaneously, it would seem, judging by his outsized and at times fictitious presence on the Web and in breathless international press reports.

“Supermani” is the handle one wag has bestowed upon Tehran’s inscrutable point man.

His mission? Thwarting the goals of Washington and its allies at every turn, while adding to the revolutionary glory of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The actual effectiveness of Tehran’s fabled emissary may be open to question. But in cyberspace, Suleimani — with a graying beard, steady mien and passing resemblance to “The Most Interesting Man in the World” of Dos Equis fame — has emerged as a kind of Iranian master manipulator, schemer and super-spy. His presence on any battlefield, according the ever-expanding if often apocryphal legend, is tantamount to victory for fighters fortunate to bask in his presence. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian special operatives free diplomat abducted in Yemen

The Associated Press: Iran said Thursday that a team of special operatives has freed an Iranian diplomat abducted more than 19 months ago in Yemen, a rare acknowledgement by Tehran of an intel operation carried out on foreign soil.

The official IRNA news agency quoted deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdolahian as saying that intelligence officers undertook a “difficult and complicated operation” to secure Nour Ahmad Nikbakhat’s freedom from the “hands of terrorists.”

Amirabdollahian added that the operation took place “in a very special area in Yemen,” without elaborating or providing further details.

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