The offline allure of ISIS

ISIS-instructor

TSG IntelBrief: Two recent announcements highlight the difference between the so-called Islamic State’s reach on social media and its real-world appeal. On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts for supporting terrorism since mid-2015. On the same day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that 34 militant groups worldwide had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as of last December, with more likely in 2016. The Islamic State’s social media efforts have always received disproportionate attention. Less attention has been paid to the offline power of the group in terms of radicalization and recruitment. Social networks matter more than social media when it comes to proliferating the ideology of bin-Ladinism espoused by both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

From pamphlets to audio cassette tapes—and now videos and mobile messaging apps—terrorists have always sought to broadcast their ideology to motivate and rally people to their cause. But the real propagation of terrorism requires salesmen and saleswomen—people who understand that the principles of persuasion begin with a deep understanding of the prospective customer. Graphic tweets may produce headlines, but persuasive individuals produce recruits, often in clusters.

The eight young men who left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria did not join because of social media, even if it did help spread the group’s message. All were reportedly motivated to join the Islamic State by the example of Abdullah Chaib, a charismatic local soccer player who traveled to Syria in 2012. The small group of friends created a feedback loop of motivation and encouragement that did not depend on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, the terror recruit cluster in Molenbeek, Belgium thrived on networks built around friendship and familial ties, not Telegram or Kik. This same dynamic of peer-to-peer recruitment and consistent face-to-face interaction produced the cluster in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. Long-time foreign fighter hotbeds such as Derna, Libya, and Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia rely on decidedly offline networks to export extremism. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s disastrous betrayal of the Syrian rebels

Emile Hokayem writes: What a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive Russian airpower.

Last February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of forces, to secure his survival.

Fast-forward a year. After a slow start — and despite wishful Western assessments that Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime. This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor” that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011.

In parallel, Russia has put Syria’s neighbors on notice of the new rules of the game. Jordan was spooked into downgrading its help for the Southern Front, the main non-Islamist alliance in the south of the country, which has so far prevented extremist presence along its border. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft that crossed its airspace in November backfired: Moscow vengefully directed its firepower on Turkey’s rebel friends across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Moscow also courted Syria’s Kurds, who found a new partner to play off the United States in their complex relations with Washington. And Russia has agreed to a temporary accommodation of Israel’s interests in southern Syria.

Inside Syria, and despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and IS. [Continue reading…]

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Rebel setbacks in Syria have far reaching consequences

Hassan Hassan writes: Is Syrian president Bashar Al Assad finally winning? One can feel a deep sense of grief running through opposition factions whether inside or outside Syria over how events have unfolded over the past two weeks.

Pro-regime forces have made a series of major gains in northern, central and southern Syria over the past week.

More strikingly, they broke a three-year siege imposed by the rebels around the Shia towns of Nubbol and Zahraa, 20 kilometres from Aleppo city, which represents a major setback for the rebels especially as it could disrupt a game of encirclement and counter-encirclement that sustained the rebels’ control of much of Aleppo since 2012.

Five months after the regime’s forces seemed incapable of halting the string of victories achieved by the rebels in northern Syria, which led to the Russian military intervention to prop up their ally, the regime appears to be on the offensive. The offensive is seen n northern Latakia, the western Ghouta near Damascus, Deraa and in the rural areas of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo. The regime appears to have made an impressive comeback.

It is hard to judge how one side is doing through such tactical gains. The rebels were clearly on the winning side just a year ago, while the regime’s army suffered from a shortage in manpower, as admitted by Mr Al Assad himself during his last speech in August.

The breaking of the siege of Nubbol and Zahraa last week, as well as the siege of Kweiris airbase near Raqqa in November and the takeover of Sheikh Maskeen in Deraa last month, were spearheaded by foreign militias beholden to Iran.

The opposition’s real crisis is much deeper, hence the state of grieving widely felt by the rebels. These setbacks come amid profound internal, regional and international challenges that could tip the balance dramatically in favour of the regime. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s dream is Libya’s nightmare — and the world’s too

BuzzFeed reports: A howling wind filled the air with sand, enveloping the small desert outpost. Shivering from the January cold, a skinny, bedraggled man in mismatched desert camouflage fatigues, a scarf wrapped around his face, took a deep breath and stepped forward. He tightened his grip on his AK-47 as the car pulled up to the checkpoint. Without a helmet or bulletproof vest, he warily approached, asking for identification papers, searching for weapons and checking the trunk. This time there was nothing inside, save for some rope and a few empty burlap sacks, likely to be filled with wheat or barley for the drive back. He relaxed, and waited for the next car to arrive.

Just a few years ago, the land around this outpost, 180 miles southeast of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, was a nature reserve where the deposed leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and his entourage would come for retreats, hunting for wild game. The spacious villas that housed them are dotted around, now empty, looted for their gaudy fixtures and fittings. Inhabitants of a nearby village have mostly fled. Once a sleepy patch of desert, Abu Grein has now become the front line against the Libyan branch of ISIS, a gathering force now threatening to demolish what’s left of the country.

The men at the checkpoints, ambling back and forth between shipping containers used as makeshift shelters, know that any one of the cars and trucks passing could be loaded to the brim with explosives, or jihadis seeking to kill them.

Mostly the militiamen come from the nearby city-state of Misrata. They knew that if ISIS gets through this front, their families and neighbors back home will be put at risk. From their stronghold in the city of Sirte about 90 minutes up the road, the list of atrocities carried out by ISIS is seemingly endless; they have dispatched suicide bombers, launched attacks on checkpoints, laid booby-trapped bombs, beheaded Christians and others, stormed the most upmarket hotel in the country, hijacked oil tankers and attacked oil facilities, kidnapped civilians, and captured fighters from the collection of dwindling militiamen that guard the front. [Continue reading…]

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Another ISIS jailer who held Western hostages identified as British

BuzzFeed reports: A second member of the notorious ISIS execution cell once headed by “Jihadi John” has been unmasked as a “quiet and humble” football fan from west London, BuzzFeed News and the Washington Post can reveal.

Thirty-two-year-old Alexanda Kotey has been identified by British and American intelligence services as one of four ISIS guards, collectively known as the “Beatles”, who are responsible for beheading 27 hostages. The guards were given their nickname by hostages because of their British accents.

It can be revealed that Kotey travelled to the Middle East alongside three other known extremists on a controversial aid convoy to Gaza organised by the London mayoral candidate George Galloway in 2009 – and friends in west London have not heard from him since.

He is the second member of the cell to be identified, after “Jihadi John” was exposed as west Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, who was killed by US a drone strike in November. The other members of the cell, nicknamed “Ringo”, “George”, and “Paul”, remain among the world’s most wanted men and are being hunted by intelligence and security services on both sides of the Atlantic. [Continue reading…]

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Meeting ISIS fighters: Its young men were lost souls coerced or duped into service

Sebastian Meyer writes: As a journalist based in northern Iraq for the past six years, I’ve seen the war with the Islamic State closer than I’d like. In the summer of 2014, my best friend, a man I’d come to love and respect during my time reporting here, was taken prisoner by the militants. We were more like brothers than friends, and I haven’t heard from him since.

I was filming about 180 miles away on the evening he disappeared. I drove through the night to join a group of his friends and family in a rescue effort. While the militants stormed west across Iraq, we worked exhaustively to find him. (I can’t say more about him, because doing so could put him in further danger.) We were driven by rage and desperation.

Months later, Diji Terror, a Kurdish counterterrorism unit based in Sulaymaniyah, granted my request to interview an ISIS fighter I’d heard they had captured. Finally, a small chance to press the Islamic State for answers about its tactics. A chance for some catharsis.

Ali was seized during a nighttime raid caught on film: In the footage officials showed me, Diji troops handcuffed, blindfolded and bundled him off on a helicopter. Ali had beheaded prisoners, they told me; I couldn’t help but think of my friend.

When I met him, Ali wore an orange jumpsuit and plastic sandals. [Continue reading…]

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As long as the linkage between authoritarian regimes and extremism is ignored, ISIS and al Qaeda will never be defeated

Joyce Karam writes: “What are you talking about, 7000…No,no. We killed 38,000”, those were the words of former Syrian General Rifaat Assad in1982 as recounted by Thomas Friedman in his book “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. Rifaat, who is now in exile, was exulting about the number of Syrians his forces killed in Hama 34 years ago, quashing a rebellion against his brother’s dictatorship and setting the stage to what has followed.

The ghosts of Hama today hover all over Syria, cementing the pillars of the Assad doctrine to rule by fear and hold on to power at any cost even if it means surrendering the country to devastation, radicalization and ultimate death. From father to uncle to son, the Assad playbook has not changed, copying the narrative of Hama to Homs, Douma, Ghouta, Idlib, Daraa and Aleppo, and in the process leaving behind more than 250 thousands dead, millions displaced, and a society in shambles.

The 3-week assault on Hama in 1982 has laid the ground for how the Assad regime reacts to any signs of rebellion later. Not coincidentally, the same horror tactics utilized in Hama in 1982 with Assad the father were replicated by the son across Syria following the 2011 uprising.

In a chilling report by Amnesty International in 2012, survivors of the Hama massacre give their account of what happened, describing images of the dead splintered in the streets, left to be eaten by dogs and as a red flag for those whose lives were spared. Snipers were on the roofs, neighborhoods were razed and one survivor recalls the the attack on Mas’oud Mosque, where “some 60 men were killed before the security forces cut off their fingers and placed them along the mosque’s walls.” She tells Amnesty “for around two years after the massacre, no one dared remove the fingers. They were so frightened.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. confirms involvement in Syria airfield expansion

VOA reports: At the urging of an American contingent, Syrian Kurds are expanding an airbase on farmland in northeast Syria that could be used for military purposes, according to Kurdish and U.S. officials.

Known as Abu Hajar airport, the airbase is located in the Rmelan area of northern Syria, and is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Defense Units and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Neither has an air force.

A team of Americans pitched the idea to Syrian Democratic Forces to extend the runway, a defense official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

The official Wednesday said the airfield is being extended from 700 meters to 1,300 meters.

The extension would be long enough to allow C-130 transport planes to land on the strip and potentially supply those fighting Islamic State forces in the area. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. struggling to build anti-ISIS strategy in Libya

The Associated Press reports: The Obama administration is struggling to find the right mix of military and diplomatic moves to stop the Islamic State in Libya, where the extremist group has taken advantage of the political chaos in the country to gain a foothold with worrying implications for the U.S. and Europe — particularly Italy, just 300 miles away.

U.S. officials have publicly warned of the risks of Libya becoming the next Syria, where the Islamic State flourished amid civil war and spread into Iraq.

No large-scale U.S. military action is contemplated in Libya, senior administration officials said, but Obama last week directed his national security team to bolster counterterrorism efforts there while also pursuing diplomatic possibilities for solving Libya’s political crisis and forming a government of national unity. While the Islamic State has emerged in other places, including Afghanistan, Libya is seen as its key focus outside of Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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John Kerry keeps calling ISIS ‘apostates.’ Maybe he should stop

Adam Taylor writes: There may be no more globally divisive question over the past few years than whether the Islamic State is representative of the world’s global Muslim population or not. Speaking in Rome on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry waded into this controversial debate yet again – and took a remarkably strong position for a Western leader.

“Daesh is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers and thieves,” Kerry said. “And they are also above all apostates, people who have hijacked a great religion and lie about its real meaning and lie about its purpose and deceive people in order to fight for their purposes.”

The use of the word “apostates” – a term to describe someone who renounces or abandons their religion – has raised eyebrows among observers. The description has been commonly used by extremist groups: The Islamic State has justified its attacks on Muslims with rhetoric that suggests these Muslims were apostates, which they view as a crime punishable by death.

On Twitter, Nasser Weddady, a popular online activist who grew up in Syria, mocked Kerry for his comment. Wedaddy and others also jokingly suggested that Kerry was a “takfiri,” a word used to describe a Sunni Muslim who accuses others of apostasy. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon won’t say how many troops are fighting ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: In the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, there are two ways to count the number of U.S. boots on the ground. There’s the one that officials admit to. Then there’s the ground truth.

Officially, there are now 3,650 U.S. troops in Iraq, there primarily to help train the Iraqi national army.

But in reality, there are already about 4,450 U.S. troops in Iraq, plus another nearly 7,000 contractors supporting the American government’s operations. That includes almost 1,100 U.S. citizens working as military contractors, according to the latest Defense Department statistics. [Continue reading…]

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Google thinks it can combat terrorism with advertising

The Telegraph reports: Jihadi sympathisers who type extremism-related words into Google will be shown anti-radicalisation links instead, under a pilot scheme announced by the internet giant.

The new technology means people at risk of radicalisation will be presented with internet links which are the exact opposite of what they were searching for.

Dr Anthony House, a senior Google executive, revealed the pilot scheme in evidence to MPs scrutinising the role of internet companies in combating extremism.

“We are working on counter-narratives around the world. This year one of the things we’re looking at is we are running two pilot programmes,” said Dr House.

“One is to make sure these types of views are more discoverable.

“The other is to make sure when people put potentially damaging search terms into our search engine they also find these counter narratives.”

A Google spokeswoman said the pilot project referred to by Dr House would bring up counter-narrative messages in “AdWords” – the sponsored links which are returned at the top of a Google search – and not the search results themselves.

Dr House said later: “We offer Google AdWords Grants to NGOs so that meaningful counter-speech ads can be surfaced in response to search queries like ‘join Isis’.” [Continue reading…]

Let’s disregard the fact that would-be jihadists are just as likely as anyone else to use ad-blocking software. What are we to imagine the click-through rate will be for, let’s say, a Human Rights Watch ad that appears on a search page delivered on a query about the ISIS magazine, Dabiq?

Is Dr House serious? This sounds, more than anything, like a PR exercise for Google — a way of saying: we’re playing out part in combating terrorism.

Clearly, Google, like every other internet company, wants to be seen as being opposed to terrorism; not as a facilitator of terrorism through the creation of communications platforms — even though in reality these have become a vital tools in 21st century terrorism.

Terrorists are often credited with being able to stay one step ahead of their adversaries — as though this is an indication of their cunning. Unfortunately, more often it seems to be an indication that counter-terrorism is another name for easy money.

Anything can get funded on the smallest prospect it might be effective. Those who carry the burden that they must be seen to be doing something, can duly claim they are meeting their responsibilities as they approve almost anything.

Aside from the question of efficacy when it comes to Google’s strategy for presenting counter-narratives, just as importantly, we need to question the search engine’s ability to decipher the motives of its users, i.e it’s ability to accurately identify “dangerous searches.” After all, a query that indicates the malevolent intentions of one user, might from another user be an indication that they are a journalist or an academic. Search terms indicate what is sought but not necessarily why it is being sought.

Beyond that is the broader issue of the political and social manipulation that internet companies are engaged in when the services they provide are designed to modify the behavior of their users.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools,” but it’s hard to grasp the degree to which, during the intervening 150 years, this has become so much more true.

Google might not have high expectations about its ability to limit the growth of ISIS through the use of adwords, yet it certainly has a huge interest in every branch of research through which it can refine the effectiveness of its primary revenue source by shaping our interests and desires.

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The U.S. is killing more civilians in Iraq and Syria than it acknowledges

Paul Wood and Richard Hall report: Al Gharra is a mud-brick village built on hard, flat Syrian desert and populated by the descendants of Bedouin. It is a desolate place. Everything is dun colored: the bare, single-story houses and the stony desert they stand on. There is not much farming — it is too dry — just a few patches of cotton and tobacco.

Before the war, villagers got a little money from the government to look after the national park on Mount Abdul-Aziz, a barren rock that rises 3,000 feet behind the village and stretches miles into the distance. Mount Abdul-Aziz is named after a lieutenant of the 12th-Century Muslim warrior Saladin, who built a fort to dominate the plain below. There is a military base there today too, which changes hands according to the fortunes of Syria’s civil war. In 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Assad held the base; next it was the rebels of the Free Syrian Army; then the so-called “Islamic State” (IS); and finally the Kurds, who advanced and took the mountain last May under the cover of American warplanes.

Abdul-Aziz al Hassan is from al Gharra, his first name the same as the mountain’s. He left the village while the Islamic State was in charge, but it is because of a bomb from an American plane that he cannot go back. What happened to his family is the story of just one bomb of the 35,000 dropped so far during 10,000 missions flown in the US-led air war against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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From Iraq, general rebukes Ted Cruz’s plan to ‘carpet-bomb’ ISIS

The Washington Post reports: The top U.S. general in Iraq on Monday addressed recent political rhetoric in the presidential campaign that the United States should “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State, saying that the Pentagon is bound by the laws of armed conflict and does nt indiscriminately bomb civilian areas.

“We’re the United States of America, and we have a set of guiding principles and those affect the way we as professional soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines, conduct ourselves on the battlefield,” MacFarland said. “So indiscriminate bombing, where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. And it’s what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria. Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay.”

The comments came in response to a question from CNN’s Barbara Starr during a Pentagon news conference. The general was asked why the military isn’t engaged in “so-called carpet-bombing,” a phrase that has been used often by presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.). [Continue reading…]

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Fight ISIS with democracy

Baghdadi

Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder and president of Tunisia’s Muslim democrats party, Ennahdha, writes: As more countries confront the question of how to counter terrorist groups like ISIS, it is clear that a short-term, reductionist approach focused largely on military force has proven ineffective. Efforts to dislodge the so-called Islamic State through bombing, and to keep it at bay by strengthening and equipping security forces in the places it operates, have so far had limited success despite their enormous financial costs.

This is because, although such efforts are critical, they are not sufficient. The rise of ISIS, and its ability to recruit from a region that just five years ago was swept by democratic hopes and aspirations, requires a global response that is informed by where the group came from. For such a response to work, I believe it must reflect five principles. These are based on Tunisia’s experience as the most successful democratic transition to emerge from the Arab uprisings, as well as my personal intellectual and political work in Tunisia and the Arab world over five decades.

First, there is no universal approach to tackling ISIS. Rather, the group can only be defeated through a variety of locally designed and targeted responses. Extremist groups like ISIS use technology and social networks to cross boundaries and attract recruits globally—but their discourse is linked to local grievances wherever they operate. [Continue reading…]

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