How Daesh talks about the world: Central points of Daesh discourse

If I said you were aligned with the Sahwat (الصحوات), would it mean anything to you? Would you be insulted, proud, or maybe just confused? ُ Even if you were an Arabic speaker, the insult might not immediately make sense  because the term as it is used here is actually a fairly recent and esoteric thing. Or, for example, imagine someone began referring to President Sisi of Egypt as a “Taghut”. Muslims might likely know what the word means as it is present in the Quran, but non-Muslims would likely be perplexed. To shed some light on what’s going on here,  we have to do a bit of discourse analysis, focusing on key terms used by Daesh and their supporters. We’ll see how these two terms- Sahwat and Taghut/Tawagheet are central to the Daeshi understanding of the world. Examples from the statements of Daesh leaders, as well as normal twitter users will highlight the discourses in practice.

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We should actually start with the fourth and final tweet.  It links the term Sahwat back to its recent roots in the war in Iraq. The first tweet also explicitly deals with the history, mentioning Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. During the years of horrible violence and instability that Iraq suffered through (and continues to suffer through) after the US invasion, the precursor to Daesh, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, already existed (it became the Islamic State in Iraq in June 2006- Lister 39, 2015). Zarqawi was its leader and he pushed them to be as brutal as necessary- anyone, even Sunni Muslims, who didn’t go along with the group’s dictates  was targeted. This found the group actually clashing with many Sunni parts of Iraqi society who didn’t support its extremist, jihadist vision. The group practiced takfir, or labeling people apostates. This exacerbated the problems it had with local Sunni Muslims, not to mention others who weren’t even Sunni like Daesh in the first place.

In response, local tribes in the Anbar Province of Iraq rose up to challenge ISI and reclaim their regions. These mobilizations are known as the Sahwat. These Sunni groups collaborated with US forces to fight against Zarqawi and the AQI to push them out of Iraq. AQI had already started imposing a very strict interpretation of sharia law in areas it managed to control, and locals were getting fed up. The US troop surge paralleled this, attempting to not only crush the Al-Qaeda presence but also to bring levels of violence down, as 2005 and 2006 were very bloody years. Thus rebellions formed by coalitions of tribes against the early form of Daesh (first as AQI then ISI) are now just understood to be Sunni traitors. While those clashes largely ended by 2009, the experience shaped Daesh and they came to use this term- Sahwat- to refer to Sunnis more broadly who do not support Daesh and actually fight against it. Arguably, the Sahwat in Iraq were the most potent force to mobilize against Daesh and they came very close to eliminating them at that time. Despite it having the specific context of the groups being local tribes, it seems many don’t only use it in that way now. The quote below helps show how this discourse was mobilized several years later:

“Verily Al-Qaeda today is no longer the Qaeda of Jihad and so it is not the base of jihad. The one praising it is of the lowest and the tyrants flirt with it and the deviants and the misguided attempt to woo it. It is not the base of jihad that entrenches itself among the ranks of the Sahwat and the secularists. Verily Al-Qaeda today has ceased to be the base of Jihad, rather its leadership has become an axe supporting the destruction of the Islamic State and the coming Caliphate.”
Abu Muhammad al-Adnani- al-Furqan Media 17 April 2014, cited in Lister 2015.

The selection above from a speech given by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (a leader in Daesh) places context around the term, presenting it alongside “secularists”. The statement is rich in subtle context from the war in Syria; the speaker is condemning Jabhat al-Nusra, which is effectively Al-Qaeda in Syria,  for forming alliances with other rebel groups with whom it shouldn’t align because they’re secularists (read FSA) or Sahwat. This took place at the tail end of vicious fighting between Daesh and a coalition of other rebel groups that flared in late 2013 and early 2014. Fears had been increasing among Daesh supporters and members in this same period that a new Sahwa movement was coming to challenge them. There is a second angle to the use of the term Sahwat here; if we stick with the definition of the Sahwat as referring to the uprising of Sunni tribes against Daesh rule with help in the form of money and weapons from the USA, one can see why Daesh would see parallels to the situation in Syria where the USA was giving money and weapons to some, but not all militias among the Syrian rebels. Especially given the common view (whether well-founded or not) that the USA has been doing far more behind the scenes to support jihadis and destabilize Syria to overthrow Assad, this fear makes sense.

The tweets above highlight another angle of the discourse surrounding the term  Sahwat, this time in Arabic-language tweets. They both add the word “al-ridda” to Sahwat, explicitly linking the idea that Sahwat are people who have left Islam. This can be understood as a fight for the right to speak in the name of Sunni Islam. Are Muslim critics correct in saying that Daesh does not act in a manner consistent with Islam? For Daesh and their supporters, the answer has to be no, and the Muslim status of the speaker must be called into question. For some above, the term Sahwat was enough to convey this meaning, while another here felt it necessary to add “al-ridda”. In either case, Daesh is policing Islamic discourse. They also link the Sahwat with the USA or the West more broadly.

The Tawagheet: Tyrants Run Amok
Let’s jump back up to the quote I included from Muhammad al-Adnani at the top. The second major element of Daeshi discourse I’d like to highlight appeared in that same excerpt. In the second line, the author complains about Al-Qaeda, saying “the tyrants flirt with it…” Here, tyrants is an English translation of the Arabic word “Taghut” or طاغوت. The word goes back to the Quran, where its meaning was actually somewhere between “tyrant” and “idol”.

I was surprised to stumble on a tweet like the one above which explicitly tries to define the word Taghut. The thing is, it’s not an accurate reflection of the meaning. Notice it does not  really fit in the idea of a tyrant or an idol, and the word radical is used in a manner that immediately makes one suspicious. Turns out, this account is actually devoted to hating jihadis, and is therefore not someone who actually uses the term taghut because they see the world that way. The tweet below is a better reflection of the way the term is used by a Daesh supporter:

This use here is clearly in line with the definition of a tyrant ruling in a manner inconsistent with Islam. This has many precedents in the modern Middle East, especially after WWI. Many postcolonial states fell under monarchies which paid some lipservice to Islam (Morocco, UAE, Bahrain, etc), or under military dictatorships (Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya).To Daesh and their supporters, all of these men were Tawagheet. The history of this period from the 1970s on shows many different groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and others challenging these rulers, often violently. Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated, Hosni Mubarak survived a failed attempt to kill him, and there were large uprisings against Hafez al-Assad in Syria (1982) and Saddam Hussein in Iraq (1991) though the last one isn’t exactly like the others. I talk at length about this subject in my lecture, readers can skip to the video here if they want.

In the end, these terms are important for understanding Daesh because they show how the group sees the world- how its discourse is shaped. Discourse which polices group identity and casts competitors out isn’t limited to Daesh- one finds very similar kinds of terms in many groups (think RINO– Republican in Name Only, a term common among Donald Trump Supporters but not exclusive to them). This is the power of discourse, for it shapes (and is shaped by) people’s views and understandings of reality. These examples show just that, across languages.


Book Review: The Syrian Jihad by Charles R. Lister

This review has been some time in the making. 393 pages in the making, to be exact. It is by far the longest of the books I have read and reviewed about Daesh so far, but does that length equal quality?
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Lister’s work is ambitious. In these 393 pages, he only covers a time span of about 4 years. The chapters are divided into periods of time of about 6 months each, and his periodization of the conflict is among the most systematic and detailed of its kind. The subtitle of the book is Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency. Lister has become a controversial figure, especially on Twitter. That is to be expected, however, in a conflict as confusing and complicated as the one in Syria. Any position one takes will anger at least two others, for different reasons.

As readers can discern from the title, it is not exclusively about the Syrian Civil War. This becomes clear as the reader moves through the book, where attention is paid to the regime and its foreign backers, but much more attention is paid to the various jihadist groups. Having read the book cover to cover, I don’t remember coming across Qassem al-Suleimani once. If the book were about the war more broadly, such an omission would be inexcusable- a leading general from Iran on the ground in Syria would need to be discussed. Thus, Lister’s focus necessitates detailing battles, alliances, and the changing balance of power in the conflict, but with a pronounced emphasis on one side of the war. That makes it come deceptively close to a history of the war itself.

Inside of its own boundaries, the book does several things very well. Chapter three, “Syria’s Flirtation With Jihadism” had my jaw on the floor the entire time. Bashar al-Assad’s government here is shown to have not only fostered Al-Qaeda and other jihadists, but that it did so for more than a decade leading up to the outbreak of war in 2011. The chapter not only made multiple pieces fall into place in my mind, but it makes an argument publicly that needs a lot more attention. It is in line with the argument of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s work From Deep State to Islamic State in its focus on intelligence agencies and their role in sponsoring jihadism. The coldest irony out of all of that is that Assad’s Syria was actually guilty of ties to Al-Qaeda that Saddam’s Iraq was accused of. It makes those still defending Assad’s government look even more ridiculous, especially if they repeat his lie that his government is fighting terrorists, especially given that a) it sponsored them for a decade, and b) released all of the jihadists it had in prison at the time of the beginning of the war. Enter Wikileaks, an organization with a mission I otherwise support. They published a book which summarized the revelations of the Wikileaks documents in multiple chapters, each devoted to a separate country.  As much as I like Wikileaks challenging the powerful and demanding transparency, I must say the chapter about Syria is so myopic in this regard it fails to take into account any of the scholarship available about Syria. It is entirely based on Wikileaks cables, and blames US empire entirely for the rise of Daesh, even incredulously asking how the US dare accuse Syria of supporting terrorism. If the author of that chapter, Robert Naiman, drew on other works, especially Lister’s, he’d have the clear answer to his question.

Non-Daesh Jihadists in Syria
One of the things that stands out most about this work is the sustained detail about the plethora of non-Daesh groups in Syria. There are about 5 total militias that have name recognition for many people, and for even more Daesh is the only one they could name. The FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham are the most recognizable ones besides Daesh, but there are many more smaller militias which fought or still fight today. Note I am not saying the FSA are jihadists, just that they are usually known to non-specialists.  While many lazily say that the uprising in Syria has been jihadist in character from the beginning, Lister’s book lays out the timeline in detail. I remember writing a research paper in the spring of 2012, and there were only rumors at that time that Al-Qaeda was showing up in Syria, with no solid evidence. It was a question that hung in the air, but that was decisively answered later as history unfolded. Chapter 6 details the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra specifically in late 2012 and early 2013. Lister presents a victory at al-Taana Defense base east of Aleppo on the road to Raqqa in October as what he believes was the first major victory in the war by salafist-jihadist forces (87).

Readers unfamiliar with the messy details can get a good picture of the complex nature of rebel alliances and coordination. Jabhat al-Nusra, especially, has been presented as the most extreme non-Daesh group with its connection to Al-Qaeda emphasized. The chapter also finds the emergence of Ahrar al-Sham (107). Other rebels, however, have more often than not collaborated with Nusra rather than trying to shun them. This broad statement doesn’t apply to the entire conflict, but Nusra collaborated with both Ahrar al-Sham and the FSA at various points. Nusra collaborated with a number of “secular” militias despite the explicit decrees from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death. The basic story of Nusra appears clearly for readers- something started by the Islamic State in Iraq in 2011 inside of Syria which they never publicly acknowledged until some time later.  The name Jabhat al-Nusra, literally “the support front” points to this role. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a recording claiming as much in addition to the fact that ISI had financed Nusra for the first two years (122).  Baghdadi announced the cancellation of both the old name “Islamic State in Iraq” as well as “Jabhat al -Nusra” and their unification under one, new name: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (122). The problem was that Jolani, and the Nusra front he led did not want to be subsumed under ISIS and instead pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda more broadly (123), where ISIS had broken away from AQ some time ago. Thus ISI was previously Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Nusra was initially an extension of ISI, but by mid 2013 they were separate groups with Nusra going back to AQ while ISIS remained on its own.

There have also been numbers of rebels who have changed militias as the war continued, and Lister at various points helps point out why others might join militias they don’t necessarily agree with ideologically. Ahrar al-Sham is a group that Lister is particularly well placed to cover, as he uses his personal connections with the leaders to interview and quote them at length throughout the book. Some have used this as a criticism of Lister, that he’s too close to this group in particular to be objective. Readers can decide for themselves.
The Syrian Jihad as a History of Daesh?
Readers who pick up this book expecting to learn about the Islamic State will likely have mixed feelings. In his layout, Lister covers the emergence of the group in the context of the war in Syria, and chapter 7 is especially good in this regard. Often lost in the discussions that begin with the seizure of Mosul in June 2014 is the complex and violent 18 months (more or less) that led up to that. Violent infighting between jihadists and Daesh, especially in the second half of 2013, culminated in a series of coordinated jihadist offensives against Daesh in early 2014. This infighting especially became more prominent after the split between ISIS and Nusra described above. Daesh had targeted the leaders of other groups, had attacked their positions, and even kidnapped and killed the leader of one militia sent to negotiate with them. In October 2013, The most powerful jihadist factions, including Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaish al-Islam and others signed a joint statement demanding Daesh cease attacking other jihadis, to no avail. Not long after in November 2013 the Islamic Front was formed, a coalition of these and other groups (174). This wave of attacks by the aforementioned groups and the FSA helped push Daesh out of many areas around Aleppo, forcing the group to withdraw to Raqqa, al-Bab, and Manbij.

Chapter 11 actually exits from the timeline Lister had followed until that point to follow the history of Daesh back into the late 1990s. His timeline here is largely the traditional one found in other works, starting with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his activities in Afghanistan. His analysis brings more detail into the inner workings of the various jihadi groups in Iraq, laying out a coalition formed between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and five other groups, called the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. This transitions nicely into the Sahwa, an important topic that doesn’t get enough attention in discussions of Daesh. The Sahwa was a tribal uprising out of the Anbar province in western Iraq which arose to challenge the violent imposition of sharia law by then Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). One can see the importance of the Sahwa now in the fact that it entered Daesh discourse to refer to  local resistance against the group, which they stereotype as having been bought by western money. Thankfully absent here are lazy attempts to blame Obama for pulling out of Iraq for the rise of ISIS, or counterfactual claims that Saddam had done enough in the 90’s to bring about Daesh independent of the criminal and catastrophic US invasion.

Overall, Lister’s work is far too detailed for me to evaluate in more depth in a blog post. This is good for those looking for a solid source to begin with about the conflict, especially those seeking to grasp the transformations that have taken place over its course. Unfortunately, it is not a very easy read- it gets very formulaic and boring at times. The upside of that rigor is that it helps Lister’s work stand out from other books, but also makes the barrier to entry for non-experts high. I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re ready to really go at it with a highlighter and take a ton of notes. It is not airport reading you can breeze through and finish feeling more informed.

He only briefly discusses the issue of Shi’a jihadis in the war, noting on page 386 right before he wraps up that upwards of 10,000 Shi’i jihadis had passed through Syria, immediately making one ask why he didn’t cover it more. I guess the title of the book should be “The (Sunni) Syrian Jihad”. That said, Lister makes an interesting and provocative point about Jabhat al-Nusra in the introduction that he picks up again in the final chapter, that it has been more successful in moderating itself (relative to Daesh) and has been successful at building coalitions unlike Daesh, culminating in an arguably more established presence in Syria than Daesh. Only time will tell how this argument holds up. Finally, if my own use of the book is any indication, you’ll see me citing it a lot in my upcoming work about Daesh.

Lo Stato Islamico nel Mondo Digitale

molte grazie a Tamara Taher per la sua traduzione! leggere l’articolo originale in inglese qui.

Nelle discussioni più diffuse riguardo lo Stato Islamico, diverse tematiche hanno ricevuto una particolare attenzione. Questioni quali le esecuzioni attuate dal gruppo, il trattamento delle donne, le rendite dal petrolio, e le voci sul supporto da parte di alcuni stati hanno attirato molta attenzione. Non meno ne ha ottenuta la questione della loro propoganda digitale. E allo stesso modo, sono rilevanti le storie di coloro che dopo essersi uniti al gruppo, sono tornati. All’interno e nell’intreccio di tutte queste tematiche, si delinea un campo interessante da approfondire: come si relaziona Daesh, più ampiamente, con il mondo digitale. Il tema dovrebbe essere considerato di particolare rilievo, dato che sia Hillary Clinton che Donald Trump si sono pronunciati in maniera molto simile recentemente:

Quest’autore, per esempio, trova ironico il fatto che due candidati presidenziali del paese che domina internet e che si è rivelato controllare pesantemente tutti i tipi di attività digitale in giro per il mondo ed indebolire i sistemi di criptaggio, vogliano che si agisca ulteriormente in questo campo. Entrambi rifiutano anche potenziali contestazioni basate sulla libertà di parola. Ciò che tuttavia non sembrano realizzare è che Daesh e i suoi sostenitori affrontano già difficoltà maggiori rispetto a chiunque altro nell’ultizzare le piattaforme base per i social media. Twitter annulla costantemente gli account di sostenitori e follower di Daesh, così come i loro contenuti. Youtube fa costantemente la stessa cosa. Facebook ha quasi zero contenuti su Daesh grazie a tutti i controlli esistenti. Questo significa che i membri e i sostenitori di Daesh sono spinti ad utilizzare siti più piccoli, che pochi utenti normali conoscono. Ogni tanto mi imbatto in un sito wordpress con contenuti di Daesh, anche se non spesso, ma la maggior parte del materiale di Daesh che ho visto si trova su L’infrastruttura corporativa di internet sta cominciando a bloccarli fuori. In aggiunta, il collettivo di hacker Anonymous ha annunciato l’operazione #OPISIS, rivolta agli account twitter dei membri di Daesh. In risposta, Daesh ha rilasciato una dichiarazione ai suoi componenti e sostenitori su come proteggersi dall’essere hackerati. Il gruppo ha anche i propri hacker che attaccano con apparente successo i siti internet del governo USA e altri.

Se Daesh deve affrontare una significativa resistenza da attori come Twitter, Youtube, e Facebook, il suo approccio ad internet nei territori che controlla dimostra un altro aspetto della difficile relazione del gruppo con la rete, e con le tecnologie digitali più ampiamente. Il gruppo è stato bersagliato pesantemente nei primi anni dalla sua formazione da parte della tecnologia di sorveglianza americana, e ha perso molti membri proprio perché i loro telefoni e le comunicazioni digitali erano intercettati e rintracciati.
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Il gruppo ha pubblicato dunque un avviso che indica che qualsiasi dispositivo con GPS deve avere la funzionalità di geolocalizzazione spenta completamente e che qualsiasi prodotto Apple è completamente vietato perché considerato inaffidabile. Al di là di questo, Daesh ha avuto problemi con le infrastrutture e ha affrontato restrizioni severe nell’accesso ad internet già all’interno del territorio che controlla. Una recente analisi del New York Times sulla vita delle donne a Raqqa ha discusso di come internet sia utilizzato solo per le questioni di maggiore importanza, come la produzione mediatica e per attirare nuove reclute. All’inizio del 2014 gli internet café hanno chiuso per la loro impossiblità di utilizzare reti wireless, apparentemente a causa dell’interruzione delle linee radio da parte del regime siriano. Secondo la stessa fonte, alcuni sono riusciti ad utilizzare connessioni satellitari per stabilire connessioni negli internet café, ma rimanevano comunque facilmente rintracciabili.

Daesh ha rilasciato questo ordine nel Maggio 2015 chiedendo quattro tipi di identificazione a ogni utente dell’internet café. Così, nonostante forze globali più ampie possano osservare, grazie agli strumenti che sappiamo essere in loro possesso, molto di ciò che l’utente in questione fa in rete, Daesh vuole sapere piuttosto chi esattamente utilizza internet per i suoi fini. Un’investigazione condotta dal Washington Post sulla vita nello “Stato Islamico” dice che parlare a chi sta all’esterno delle condizioni di vita all’interno del territorio è un’azione molto rischiosa, che si cerca di intercettare e che spinge infatti i leader di Daesh a tenere sotto stretta osservazione la rete. Un caso esemplare è il sito “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”, che ha continuato a pubblicare materiale contrario a Daesh dall’interno del territorio sotto il suo controllo mentre, allo stesso tempo, veniva attaccato. Due dei suoi attivisti sono stati trovati e uccisi nel Sud della Turchia da agenti di Daesh.

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Questo sistema di controllo su internet è un’estensione del tentativo più ampio di instaurare un’autorità totalitaria nel territorio di Daesh. Non è ammmessa qualsiasi forma mediatica indipendente. C’è una sola stazione radio, condotta da un gruppo che emette in diverse lingue, ma al di là di questo non c’è spazio alcuno per la società civile. Alla luce di questo, è inevitabile che coloro a cui tutto questo ha dato più fastidio e che hanno voluto insistere ed esprimersi, come il sopracitato sito su Raqqa, si siano rivolti alla rete. È importante precisare comunque, che questo controllo non si estende a tutti i cittadini. Si dice che i combattenti stranieri e le loro mogli detengano una posizione privilegiata all’interno del territorio di Daesh, nel senso che possono continuare ad usufruire di determinate cose, come l’accesso ad internet, che sono severamente vietate a tutti gli altri. Tutto questo è in linea con il quadro più ampio: internet è fondamentale per l’esistenza di Daesh, ma è anche un grande rischio e una grande responsabilità, che è stata usata ampiamente contro Daesh stesso. Non posso essere d’accordo con Trump o con Clinton su questa questione, non credo ci siano provvedimenti più grandi da attuare che non siano già stati intrapresi.

Scrivo queste parole con molta preoccupazione. Non perché io pensi che Clinton e Trump potrebbero avere ragione, ma perché tutto questo è dimostrazione anche di come internet possa essere usato contro chiunque al giorno d’oggi. In questo caso, penso che il target, Daesh, sia legittimo… ma nel futuro? E se le stesse capacità direzionate oggi nel tenere i Dawaish (i sostenitori di Daesh) fuori dai siti internet che hanno una struttura corporativa fossero utilizzate contro altri, che non siano dei terribili assassini? E se i governi usassero queste tecnologie di sorveglianza contro i dissidenti? Abbiamo visto il modo in cui la polizia ha trattato gli attivisti in occasione del COP21 in Francia, uno stato che non viene considerato solitamente una dittatura brutale. Abbiamo avuto anche prova di che aspetto potrebbe avere un futuro del genere in Bahrain, ed è un’immagine infausta.

N.B. I documenti di Daesh utilizzati in questo articolo, provengono da questo sito, diretto da Aymenn Jawwad-Tamimi, un ricercatore ed accademico che studia i gruppi jihadisti. La traduzione inglese dei docmenti originariamente arabi è stata fatta dal signor Tamimi.

Borders, Passports, and Daesh

How do foreign fighters reach Syria and Iraq to join Daesh? Second, how do global structures of power shape the way people move around the world? Finally, how do these realities help shape Daesh on one hand and the refugee crisis on the other? Check out the piece I published over at where I explore these questions in depth.

View story at

Daesh in the Digital Realm v2.0

Not long ago I wrote a piece that explored various facets of how Daesh, the organization, relates to the internet most broadly. The piece was timely and the debates it addressed have not died down. If anything, they’ve intensified. I also highlighted in that piece the ways that Daesh was controlling access to the internet inside its own territories, struggling to balance its need to disseminate propaganda and recruit new members while also heavily controlling media inside the caliphate. Since its publication, a number of new facets of this topic have arisen that are worth exploring. They add even more nuance to the complex wrestling for control going on in the digital realm between various governments, Daesh, Anonymous, and social media corporations.

First, the ongoing attempts to get Daesh off the corporate internet continue. The organization has become very fond of an encrypted messaging app called Telegram. Right after the attacks in Paris, Telegram shut down 78 ‘channels’ on its platform that were being used by Daesh. These channels were in any one of twelve different languages and one channel, Nasheer, had 18,000 followers.  This has helped add fuel to the fire of the ongoing debate over encryption, which I will return to below.

In addition to the frenzy of Daesh activity on Telegram, the organization has created its own emoji. As one might expect, they’re gruesome and represent the violent scenes Daesh has become infamous for in its propaganda. The emojis also depict the organization’s flag, various weapons, and execution scenes. In short order, other organizations and militias stole Daesh’s idea and began to make their own emojis. Just what the internet needed, right?

Second, a new dimension arose in the ongoing struggle which finds Daesh and corporate social media pages at its center. We’ve already seen the NSA force social media companies and email providers to hand over user data. We’ve seen hackers from the Anonymous hacker collective target both Daesh and major US government officials. Far from just disseminating propaganda, Daesh has hacked US government sites too. Now, a widow of an American man killed in Jordan is suing Twitter for failing to stop the dissemination of Daesh propaganda on its site. Her lawsuit is based on the claim that Twitter “knowingly permitted” Daesh members to use its site to spread violent propaganda. “Without Twitter, the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” the woman alleges. As I wrote in the first post, Twitter has actually been making constant efforts to remove Daeshi profiles, and my own experiences trying to follow some of these accounts confirm this. They’re constantly disappearing. Late last year, Daesh did succeed in hacking thousands of twitter accounts in order to disseminate its own propaganda. Similarly, the appearance of a profile on Linkedin of a young teacher who lives inside the caliphate surprised many, but it too was taken down very quickly.

Despite the fleeting nature of Daesh’s presence on social media, it is a powerful recruiting tool. This in-depth piece debates a number of different approaches to combatting the propaganda, but one German official complained about the failure of various efforts: “We are like boxers punching in the dark.” The White House convened a meeting recently to address the question of what to do about Daesh on the internet. Based on a copy of the meeting’s agenda published by the Guardian, it was set to focus heavily on social media, with the US government pushing companies like Facebook and Twitter to do more to keep Daesh propaganda off their platforms. The US will begin trying to put together more localized anti-terror messages rather than the videos it was previously making. That comes after cycling through three different leaders of the unit coordinating these efforts in a year. The Anonymous hacker collective, for its part, has released a how-to guide for beginners as part of its #OpParis who want to challenge Daesh online.

Finally, governments have been taking very shortsighted measures against end-to-end encryption in the hopes of accessing encrypted messages. Their bumbling strategies to deal with the Daesh militarily are sadly recreated in the digital realm. Encryption has become the center of these ham-fisted attempts to thwart terrorist planning and propaganda online. Yet encryption has been a hot issue for some time, especially since  Edward Snowden exposed that the US government had deliberately weakened encryption protocols. Cryptography experts continue to insist there is no way to insert a backdoor without fundamentally weakening the encryption. Apple, Google, Microsoft and dozens of others all signed a statement saying the same thing, that weakening encryption is counterproductive. The EFF has been steadfastly against weakening encryption as well. It is one of the best means of defense available in the digital realm, and there’s no way to preserve its strength for some while leaving others exposed. It is the only reason e-commerce is possible in its current form. Then again, even with the capabilities the US government has, it’s not clear that mass surveillance has actually stopped any attacks. The US government’s focus on encryption or surveillance at the center of the debate about Daesh is misleading and gets no closer to defeating the organization on the ground. Daesh did not emerge nor does it survive because of encryption, and the focus must remain on its “caliphate”.

nb- This piece was republished at Informed Comment. Thanks Juan!


Daesh-linked group in Sinai attacks gas pipeline to Jordan

On 6 January 2016, militants apparently connected to Daesh with the name “Wilayat Sinai” attacked an oil pipeline carrying gas into Jordan. Reports say that the attack took place in the northern Sinai Peninsula near the village of al-Midan. There are conflicting reports about the impact it had, as one report claimed that the pipeline had been out of service since it was last targeted in May, while another claimed that the attack did interrupt gas service.
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The image above comes from Wikipedia:

As the map shows, the pipeline does not service Israel. Rather, Jordan has drawn the ire of Daesh by joining a coalition of Arab nations allied with the USA to fight against Daesh. In the tweet below, Jordan is referred to as “tawagheet” or tyrants. This term has a strong discursive meaning for supporters of Daesh who direct it at the monarchies and secular autocrats in the Arab Middle East who oppress Islamic groups inside their borders and align themselves with the West.

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If these initial reports are correct, it seems to be the same branch of Daesh that claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner several months ago. This is, to my knowledge, the first time that Daesh or affiliated groups have targeted infrastructure outside of Syria/Iraq rather than civilians. The latter seemed to be their preferred target, as evidenced by attacks in Beirut and Paris as well as Egypt. Daesh has also expressed its anger at the Egyptian state, accusing it of bombing mosques. We’ll have to wait and see if attacks on infrastructure like this become a regular facet of Daeshi terrorism.

Daesh in the Digital Realm

In popular discussion of the Islamic State, several topics have received the vast majority of the attention. The group’s executions, treatment of women, their oil profits, and rumors about state sponsorship have all gotten large amounts of attention. Not far behind that is discussion of their digital propaganda. Stories of those who’ve returned from having joined are likewise important. Lost in the cracks of these topics is an interesting field, how Daesh relates to the digital realm more broadly. The topic should be especially important, as both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had very similar things to say recently:
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This author, for one, finds it ironic that two presidential candidates from the country that dominates the internet, has been shown to be heavily monitoring all kinds of digital activity all over the world, and weakening encryption protocols still want further action taken in this domain. Both also dismiss potential rebuttals based on freedom of speech. What they don’t seem to realize is that Daesh and its supporters already face a harder time using the most basic platforms for social media than almost anyone else. Twitter is constantly taking down accounts of supporters and followers of Daesh, and their content. Youtube is constantly doing the same thing. Facebook has almost zero Daesh content because of all its existing controls. This has meant Daesh members and supporters must use smaller sites that few normal users come across. ُEvery once in a while I come across a wordpress site hosting Daesh content, but not many. The majority of Daeshi material I have seen is actually on The corporate infrastructure of the internet has started locking them out. On top of all this, the Anonymous hacker collective has announced its #OPISIS targeting twitter accounts of Daesh members. In response, Daesh released a statement to its members and followers about how to protect themselves from getting hacked. The group also has its own hackers targeting US government and others sites, with apparent success.

If Daesh faces significant resistance from online establishments like Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook, its approach to the internet in the territories it controls shows a different aspect of the group’s fraught relationship with the internet, and digital technologies more broadly. The group was targeted heavily in its early years by American surveillance technology, and it lost many members because their phones and digital communications were intercepted and tracked. This shaped the group, and even today they’ve become wary about surveillance. The group issued a notice that any devices with GPS had to have the feature turned off completely and that no Apple products were allowed at all because they were deemed untrustworthy:
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Beyond this, Daesh has had problems with infrastructure and severely constricted access to the internet inside of the territory it controls. A recent NYTimes in-depth investigation about the lives of young women in Raqqa discussed how the internet was only to be used for the most important of business like media production and enticing new recruits. Early in 2014 many internet cafes closed because of inability to operate wireless networks, apparently due to disruption of radio networks by the Syrian regime. According to this same source some succeeded in using satellite connections to establish internet cafes but these were apparently very easy to track. Daesh released this order in May 2015 demanding four kinds of identification for any user of the internet cafe. So while larger global forces could watch much of what the internet user in question was doing through the technologies we know they have, Daesh wanted to know exactly who was using the internet for its own purposes. A Washington Post investigation of life in the ‘Islamic State’ says that speaking to outsiders about conditions inside is a very risky act, one the leaders of Daesh monitor the internet to try to catch. In this vein, the website Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has continued to speak out against Daesh from inside while also being targeted. Two of its activists were found and killed in southern Turkey by Daesh agents.

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This control over the internet is sadly an extension of attempts at totalitarian rule inside Daesh territory more broadly. No independent media is allowed to exist. There is a radio station, run by the group, which broadcasts in different languages, but aside from this there is no space for civil society. It only makes sense that those inside who were angry with this and wanted to voice their views would turn to the internet like the aforementioned Raqqa website. This control doesn’t extend to all citizens, however. Foreign fighters and their wives are said to hold a privileged status inside Daeshi terrtitory, meaning they can continue with things like internet access that are severely restricted for all others.

That fits with the broader outline, the internet is a vital lifeline for Daesh to exist, but it’s also an extreme risk and liability, one that has consistently been used against them. I cannot agree with Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton in this regard, I don’t see that any major action needs to be taken that isn’t already being taken. I write those words with a lot of worry. Not because I think Clinton and Trump might be right, but because it also shows the extent to which the internet can be used against anyone in today’s age. Here, I think the target (Daesh) is a legitimate one, but what about in the future? What if the same capabilities directed at keeping Dawaish (the plural) off major internet sites with corporate infrastructure are directed at others who aren’t brutal murderers?  What if governments use those surveillance technologies against dissidents?  We’ve seen the way police have been targeting activists around COP21 in France, which isn’t normally considered a brutal dictatorship. We’ve also seen glimpses of what this future can look like in Bahrain, and it’s ominous.

nb- the Daesh documents used here come from this website run by Aymenn Jawwad al-Tamimi, a researcher and academic who studies jihadi groups. The English translations of the original Arabic documents were done by Mr. Tamimi.

Update: This post was mirrored by Informed Comment, thanks Juan!