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Saturday, April 25, 2015

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief 4/24/2015


Al Qaeda’s American Dream Ends
The White House's announcement that Adam Gadahn was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan marked the end of a generation. Al Qaeda’s array of American recruits once inspired alarm at the highest levels of government; today they are a spent force, their most visible and influential members killed. Full story at Politico, and for more on American jihadists, check out Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam.


Education and Attitudes in Pakistan: Understanding Perceptions of Terrorism
This report examines the role of Pakistan’s official education system in encouraging an array of intolerant, biased, and—in some cases—radical attitudes in the Pakistani populace, including anti-Americanism, hatred of India and Hindus, intolerance of minorities, and some sympathy for militant groups. It is based on a curriculum and textbook study and fieldwork in high schools in Punjab from the fall of 2013 to the summer of 2014. By Madiha Afzal

Islamic State franchising: Tribes, transnational jihadi networks and generational shifts
A study of the nature of IS expansion into different areas of the Middle East and North Africa, the challenges it faces in doing so, and the impact it has on local power dynamics, in particular with respect to local jihadi groups. It also focuses on the incentives and conditions for expansion and brand affiliation, as well as its objectives and strategies. By Rivka Azoulay


Latest Reviews of ISIS: The State of Terror
Backbench: "Stern and Berger have made a valuable contribution to the discourse surrounding ISIS and I highly recommend their new book, which is equally accessible to both the academic and more casual reader with an interest in Middle Eastern affairs." Prospect Magazine: "...the heart of their book is about the technology and psychology of IS. They ... break down the illusion of novelty, by situating the militants' sadistic tactics, apocalyptic ideas and social media dexterity in the context of other violent extremist groups. This may not be consolatory, but it is clarifying."

ISIS targeting misfits and mentally ill to commit lone-wolf terror attacks, claims UK police chief
The Islamic State (ISIS) is not attempting to form terror cells based on the model of al-Qaeda to commit attacks in the West, but instead radicalize misfits, criminals and the mentally ill to carry out lone-wolf attacks, according to a UK police chief.

How ISIS is luring so many Americans to join its ranks
A year after ISIS became a household name in America, using brutality and savvy propaganda to challenge al Qaeda and its affiliates for jihadist adherents, U.S. prosecutions of would-be recruits have exploded.

Tension in court as 4 Minnesota men held on terror charges
Attorneys for four Minnesota men accused of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group questioned the government's use of a paid informant. But a judge found there was probable cause to believe a crime was committed and ordered the men held in custody.

Terror plot: teenagers linked to top Islamic State recruiter Abu Khalid al-Kambodi
The five Melbourne men arrested on Saturday over an alleged Anzac Day terror plot had close links to a senior Australian jihadist and Islamic State recruiter in Syria.

Al-Furqan Islamic Centre in Melbourne to close its doors after terror arrests
The Al-Furqan Islamic Centre, which has been linked to two teenagers charged with terrorism-related offences this week, has announced it is closing its doors.

Islamic State Offshoot Poses New Security Threat in Afghanistan
A bombing in the eastern city of Jalalabad killed 35 people in what appeared to be the first major operation claimed by militants in Afghanistan loyal to Islamic State.


What AQAP’S Operations Reveal About Its Strategy In Yemen
While AQAP has certainly taken advantage of chaos of the Houthi’s war in the south and the Saudi air campaign, the group has in fact been gearing up its own overt military campaign since last summer. Therefore, even if there is an eventual ceasefire between the Houthis and the Saudis, AQAP will continue fighting and operating on its own terms.

Twitter encourages users to report accounts 'promoting terrorism'
The micro-blogging service on Thursday added new language to its stance on abusive behavior noting that statements “threatening or promoting terrorism” were against its rules.

Ahmed Farouq: Leader of al Qaeda's Indian branch killed by U.S.
Ahmed Farouq didn't have the prestige of fellow al Qaeda figure Osama bin Laden, the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, or the notoriety of Adam Gadahn. Still, he was a big deal.

Man arrested in France in plot to attack churches
A 24-year-old man is in custody after he called for an ambulance, only to have French authorities come and discover weapons, ammunition and evidence of his plans to target churches -- an attack that someone in Syria requested, a top prosecutor said Wednesday.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Monday, April 20, 2015

Misrepresenting ISIS Social Media

I could spend all day, every day, disagreeing with people about ISIS social media, but I feel a need to comment on this piece, which claims that "empirical evidence" shows that ISIS's use of social media amounts to basically nothing.

There is room for informed disagreement on efforts to contain ISIS on social media and which tactics are appropriate, but such a discussion should be based on a knowledgeable assessment of the facts, especially if the discussion claims to be based in empiricism.

"Consider that ISIS made its biggest strategic gains last summer, before the promotion of its savage videos."

Empirically speaking, the notion that ISIS wasn't promoting violent videos prior to its military gains last summer is flatly wrong. It betrays a bias that pervades punditry, policy opinions and media coverage of ISIS -- a failure to pay attention to anything that isn't addressed to the United States.

In reality, ISIS social media surged in late 2013 and early 2014 and peaked just before the jihadist group swept across Iraq, after which it was knocked back by countermeasures from Twitter. One year ago, ISIS's primary hashtag performed better than it does today, and by early June -- prior to the fall of Mosul -- it was averaging a minimum of four times as much volume as it currently enjoys (its actual volume is comparable, but a significant amount of activity on the tag today involves people spamming and trolling ISIS).

ISIS propaganda was always active and became even more so in the months preceding Mosul. To pick just the most glaringly obvious example, one of its most successful propaganda pieces of all time, Saleel al Sawarim 4, was released in May 2014, weeks before Mosul, and its extremely graphic executions of enemy soldiers were credited in a number of media accounts with contributing to the decision of Iraqi soldiers to flee Mosul rather than fight. And it was the fourth installment in the series; the first came out in 2012.

There is plenty more where that came from (videos and magazines galore). The tradition of ISIS promoting violent video goes all the way back to its al Qaeda in Iraq days. It is indefensible to claim that ISIS social media didn't matter until August 2014, when the James Foley execution video was released. It only requires a basic familiarity with ISIS's media output to know better.

"There is not even a correlation between pro-ISIS Twitter users in a country and its supply of foreign jihadists. The United States has among the most pro-ISIS Twitter users, but has supplied relatively few foreign jihadists."

This is wildly misleading. Even a cursory examination of ISIS supporters on Twitter is enough to see there are vastly more regional supporters than American supporters. Even among English-speaking users, Americans are almost certainly not a majority, given the very substantial numbers of British ISIS supporters.

This misconception could perhaps have been sparked by the author looking at a chart showing a high number of U.S. accounts in the ISIS Twitter Census without reading the accompanying text (page 12, which is page 14 of the PDF), which explained the many reasons why these accounts were not, in fact, likely to be Americans.

In the Census, accounts that were accurately geolocated to the United States through GPS and other reliable means represented 3/10 of 1 percent of the sample -- and less than half of those geolocated accounts belonged to people who were ISIS supporters, making them part of the 5 percent margin of error disclosed in the paper's methodology section. These false positives included researchers, journalists, trolls and curiosity seekers. Geolocated accounts were more prone to be false positives than non-geolocated accounts, since people serious about joining ISIS have a vested interest in hiding their locations.

Among ISIS supporters who are American, however, social media is an omipresent part of the mix. Social media played an important role in the radicalization and recruitment of every single one of the dozens of Americans arrested for trying to join ISIS in the last few weeks alone. I'll have more to say about this over the next week or two, but in virtually every case, social media has played a significant role. When looking at these cases, the empirical evidence for the importance of social media in recruiting from regions far from Iraq and Syria is overwhelming.

"Conversely, Tunisia has few pro-ISIS Twitter users, but has contributed a much higher share of foreign jihadists."

This claim about Tunisia presumes that social media platform usage is the same from country to country. In fact, Tunisians (jihadis or not) overwhelmingly prefer Facebook to Twitter (by more than 300 to one in 2013, although the gap may have shrunk since then). A snapshot of Twitter is important, but it's not a complete picture of how ISIS uses social media. And for that matter, social media is also not a complete picture of how ISIS recruits. The strength of ISIS's on-the-ground recruitment networks varies from country to country. Where it does not have a strong presence on the ground, as in the United States, the social media component becomes much more important.

"In fact, the empirical evidence does not support the simplistic assumption that ISIS propaganda helps the group."

There are other claims in the piece which are debatable at best, including its thesis that ISIS is not getting what it wants when it enrages populations against it. Rather than repeat myself, I will point readers to an earlier piece that directly addresses this question and to the discussion of this issue in ISIS: The State of Terror. While I think this opinion is wrong, it is at least more open to discussion. But if you're going to throw the word "empiricism" around, it's best to get your facts straight, and this piece does not.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Friday, April 17, 2015

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief, 4/17/2015


In a review this week in the Washington Post, Rosa Brooks called ISIS: The State of Terror "smart, granular," "nuanced and readable" and said it "should be required reading for every politician and policymaker." J.M. Berger interviewed with The Arab Weekly and appeared at an event at the New America Foundation (video below), as well as checking in with the War on the Rocks podcast and The Loopcast the previous week. Co-author Jessica Stern will appear on CSPAN's Book Talk with Brian Lamb this weekend.


Australian Foreign Fighters: Risks and Responses
In this Analysis, Andrew Zammit argues that Australians fighting in Iraq and Syria pose a threat to Australia’s security and examines the options for responding to that threat, including through non-coercive means.

Indonesia’s Lamongan Network
A network of extremists in East Java illustrates how support for a local jihadi struggle in Poso, Central Sulawesi is linked to support for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), now called Islamic State. Understanding that network could lead to more effective counter-extremism programs.


Ohio Man Trained in Syria Is Charged With Planning Terrorism in U.S.
An Ohio man who trained with a terrorist group in Syria was accused by federal prosecutors on Thursday of returning to the United States with the goal of mounting an attack at home, the first example of a pattern that counterterrorism officials have long feared. But it was unclear who sent the man -- al Qaeda or ISIS.

An American Journalist Explains Why He Had To Flee Iraq
The Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad abruptly fled Iraq last week after receiving death threats for his recent report on human rights abuses by Shiite paramilitary forces that are fighting alongside Iraqi government troops against the self-described Islamic State, or ISIS.

Prisoner, maid, sex slave: ISIS bride shares her story
CNN's Arwa Damon share the story of Hanan, who says she was forced to marry an ISIS Sharia police chief to win save her father's life.

Nigerian Military Focus on Area Where Abducted Girls Are Believed Held
Nigerian military operations against Boko Haram are focusing on a northeastern forest where officials believe more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped a year ago are being held, the government’s counter-insurgency spokesman said Wednesday.

ISIS Launches Offensive Against Iraqi City of Ramadi
The Islamic State extremist group launched an offensive Wednesday in Iraq’s western Anbar province, capturing three villages near the provincial capital of Ramadi in what was the most significant threat to the city by the Sunni militants to date.

Kansas Man John Booker Indicted in ISIS-Inspired Bomb Plot Against Fort Riley
A federal grand jury in Kansas has indicted a Topeka man on charges he planned to carry out a suicide bombing at an Army installation on behalf of the terror group ISIS.


American wounded in Pakistan in apparent terrorist shooting, police say
An American teacher was critically wounded Thursday in Karachi after being shot in the head in an apparent terrorist attack

The State of al-Qaeda
If we are to accept Zawahiri’s edict that more than half the battle is in the media space, a landscape of perpetual news cycles driven by social media, then from his own definition, Al Qaeda Central is failing.

Al-Shabab recruiting in Kenyan towns
Somalia's Islamist al-Shabab militants are recruiting heavily in north-eastern Kenya, according to evidence gathered by the BBC.

War in Yemen Is Allowing Qaeda Group to Expand
Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen took control of a major airport and an oil export terminal in the southern part of the country on Thursday, expanding the resurgent militant group’s reach just two weeks after it seized the nearby city of Al Mukalla and emptied its bank and prison.

Cuba to Be Removed From U.S. List of Nations That Sponsor Terrorism
The White House announced on Tuesday that President Obama intends to remove Cuba from the American government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Monday, April 13, 2015

Six Technical Steps for Fighting ISIS on Twitter

ISIS supporters are pushing back on Twitter suspensions with a series of countermeasures. These steps have allowed it to recover from its low point since suspensions began, although the network is still degraded relative to last September, and to its high point in May and June 2014.

Most of the activity in the contested portion of the network at this stage revolves around users who create new accounts after being suspended, or users who create multiple accounts. Between 2,000 and 10,000 accounts are in a constant state of churn, with repeat offenders being knocked down and then creating new accounts, over and over again.

Here are six technical steps Twitter can take to offset ISIS supporters' efforts to get around suspensions, if they are not already using them -- and they may well be using some of them, although certain patterns in the data suggest they are not.

None of these are perfect solutions to the challenge presented by the ISIS-supporting network and its persistent supporters, but each will help. The goal, as always, is most correctly understood as degrading this network rather than destroying it, which would require different tools.

1. Score new accounts for indicators that the user is a repeat offender.  

Completely automating the process of detecting and eliminating repeat offenders would result in a substantial amount of collateral damage, in terms of suspending journalists and opponents of ISIS, but accounts can be scored for risk factors, and those scores can be used to help guide suspension decisions, whether proactive or in response to reports. Risk factors include:

  • Account's bio, profile or first tweets state outright that the user's previous account was suspended. This is a no-brainer.
  • Significant number of other users tweet that the account was previously suspended. 
  • Account handle is a previously suspended account handle with a consecutive number attached.
  • Account adds followers at a pace much faster than the typical new user. 
  • Account changes username more than once a month (more on this below). 
  • Account immediately follows or is followed by large number of other accounts that have been frequently reported for abuse but not suspended. 
  • New followers or following selected by app rather than human selection.
These scores can be used in a number of ways. For instance, if an abuse report is received for an account that has a high score on these criteria, the account could be provisionally suspended immediately, as Twitter does with certain accounts that display criteria associated with spam. If the scores can be refined over time to a high degree of accuracy, accounts that pass a certain threshold could be automatically flagged for review. 

2. Force developers to associate apps with a unique web page. 

When a developer creates a Twitter app, he or she enters a name for the app and a URL for the app's home page, which is then used to identify tweets generated by the app. These can be falsified to make it look like tweets are being sent through ordinary Twitter clients. Twitter can require developers to link to a web page containing a unique identifier in order to better verify the method by which a tweet has been sent. This will allow Twitter and others working against ISIS to get a better view on how ISIS is using technology to manipulate the system, in addition to making more work for those who would abuse the system. This would obviously have additional utility in countering a wide variety of spam and influence operations. 

3. Force apps that automatically follow other accounts for a user to post a permanent tweet disclosing this action

This would also help shed light on the methods by which ISIS users speedily follow accounts returning from suspension, and whether this problem needs to be approached from a standpoint of app activity or network activity. 

4. Limit Twitter handle changes 

One countermeasure being used by ISIS supporters is to frequently change their usernames. While this is not necessarily effective at hiding from Twitter, it can be effective at thwarting activists who seek to report Twitter accounts for abuse. While there are counter-countermeasures available for the most serious ISIS-hunters, the frequent name changes create a higher bar for participation in reporting campaigns. If Twitter wants to continue to handle this problem primarily on the basis of user reporting, it should make it easier for that to happen. And there are very few legitimate reasons for changing usernames on a regular basis, except to promote spam and abuse. Limiting username changes to once a month provides adequate flexibility for those who need the function, while significantly capping abuse. 

5. Abuse reports should include userid

I would hope this is already the case, but just in case it's not, user abuse reports should travel with a user who changes his or her screen name. 

6. IP or device tagging/banning of offending users 

While there are known countermeasures to IP tracking, those countermeasures require an investment of time and resources to implement. Automatically detecting repeat offenders through their IPs would provide some benefit, although not a total solution. Furthermore, there are other device-specific steps that could be taken with repeat offenders. For instance, if someone is using a Twitter smartphone app, that app could be permanently disabled when a user is suspended, or if a user is suspended more than once. Countermeasures could be applied to this approach, of course, but again, the goal here is to increase the cost of participation. 

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Friday, April 10, 2015

ISIS Strategy, AQ Fractures, Twitter Suspensions, INTELWIRE Weekly Brief 04/10/2015

In an uncharacteristically forthcoming manner, Twitter revealed it had suspended 10,000 ISIS-linked accounts in one day, April 2.

This is consistent with the number of suspensions I tracked during that period, which totaled about 8,000 by the time I finished analyzing them on April 4. As Twitter points out, correctly, outside estimates are almost guaranteed to lag the actual number, since analysts (myself included) don't have access to the company's full data.

As a result, many analysts and activists underestimate the scope of Twitter's suspension program and overestimate the quality or completeness of their assessments thereof.

ISIS has also been fighting back with a renewed vigor, although it takes some days to regenerate what Twitter cost them in a single day. The suspension battle has its ups and downs, a process that was visible in the ISIS Twitter Census.

A couple of interesting items emerged during this process:

  1. ISIS has been creating accounts at an increased pace to counter the suspensions, but not fast enough to keep up with suspensions in real time. At least 2,000 accounts were created as Twitter was suspending 10,000.
  2. ISIS supporters estimated the number of suspensions extremely accurately. That means the accounts targeted were almost certainly the mujtahidun and that those accounts are being tracked programmatically. (The mujtahidun are discussed in detail in my new book, ISIS: The State of Terror, with Jessica Stern.) Given the 10,000 figure, it is likely that each mujtahidun user is maintaining multiple accounts, and other evidence supported this.
  3. A group of about 12,000 ISIS-supporting users has remained largely undetected, with around 10,000 accounts that have escaped suspension for some months.
  4. ISIS supporters are using an as-yet undetermined method (likely an app but there are other possibilities) to automatically follow certain accounts very quickly in specified numbers (more for high-profile accounts, fewer for key disseminators trying to fly beneath the radar while still getting the job done). An app produced under the name "Cheap Juice" was able to follow accounts for anyone who signed up, but was shut down during the same early April period.
  5. Based on the New York Times story and anecdotal observations, the Anonymous-driven campaign to report ISIS accounts is almost certainly behind the large volume of suspensions. Twitter has changed its responsiveness to reporting, but according to the Times, it still relies primarily on reporting. This point to an issue I raised last week in a tweet: The primary trick to beating ISIS on Twitter is to not get bored with fighting them. If the reporting pressure recedes, the number of suspensions will recede, and ISIS will rebound until there is a new incentive to report its accounts. 

An updated chart tracking the competition between al Qaeda and ISIS. Click here for more.

-- J.M. Berger 


The Middle East’s Franz Ferdinand Moment
For Foreign Policy, an examination of the ISIS strategy for external operations: Hit targets where unrelated tensions carry the potential to spark follow-on violence. With the Sanaa mosque bombing of March 20, ISIS may have outperformed its own expectations, setting off a chain of events leading to a wider regional war. This story also looks at the state of ISIS's command-and-control potential.


The Rise and Decline of Ansar al Sharia Libya
By Aaron Zelin. Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) has continued its work of facilitating a future Islamic state since the spectacular attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.As a result of leadership deaths and the growth of the Islamic State in Libya, there are many outstanding questions for ASL.

Responding to Cyber Jihad: Towards an Effective Counter Narrative
In this research paper, ICCT Research Fellow Dr. Bibi van Ginkel analyses the role of the internet and social media in processes of radicalization.

The Western Muhajirat of ISIS
An unprecedented number of Western women have recently joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group has envisaged strictly non-combat roles for them, but violence is an essential part of their embraced ideology and several signs suggest that they could claim a more militant role.


How ISIS attracts Westerners
By ISIS: The State of Terror co-author Jessica Stern. As Congress considers President Obama’s request for authorization of military force in the war against ISIS, it needs to understand that fighting ISIS in its home territory is only part of the battle: Many of ISIS’s recruits are foreign fighters, willing to kill and die for ISIS’s cause. Some 22,000 foreign fighters from about 100 countries have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, which have become a “veritable international finishing school for extremists,” according to a report submitted to the United Nations Security Council.

One year later, ISIS overtakes al Qaeda: What’s next?
By Clint Watts. A year ago, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) was on the rise but few expected them to travel such a rapid trajectory to the top of the global jihadi community. Through audacity, violence against Assad, Shia, the West, and slick social media packaging, ISIS now dominates al Qaeda on the global jihadi scene. Foreign fighters have flocked to ISIS ranks and when unable to travel, have sworn allegiance to ISIS (bayat) in groups across North Africa to Southeast Asia.

The Slow-Motion Push To Drive ISIS From Anbar
While the Iraqi army has had their eyes on capturing Mosul, militia leaders in Anbar grind away against an entrenched ISIS.

Iraq's army and Kurds will join forces to retake Mosul
At a joint press conference with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the Iraqi army would work together with the peshmerga to oust the Islamic State from Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital.

The Revealing Naïveté of One ISIS Recruit in Libya
The ignorance behind the indoctrination suggests an organization that is making up facts as it goes along.

Madison man who allegedly wanted to join Islamic State group arrested at O'Hare
A Madison man intent on joining the Islamic State group in Syria made it as far as Turkey before he was detained by Turkish authorities in October, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

Palestinians Agree to Work With Assad to Oust ISIS From Refugee Camp
An agreement has been reached between the Syrian government and Palestinian factions to cooperate in a joint military operation to remove ISIS from the Yarmouk refugee camp in south Damascus,


Tensions Between Iran and Saudi Arabia Deepen Over Conflict in Yemen
Iranian leaders lashed out Thursday with rare vehemence against the continuing Saudi air campaign in Yemen, even hurling personal insults at the young Saudi prince who is leading the fight.

Cuba may lose 'sponsor of terrorism' designation
President Obama said Thursday that his State Department had finished a review of whether to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, potentially the first step in formally changing U.S. policy toward the island nation at a time of warming diplomatic relations.

Kenya attack: Accounts suspected of funding terrorism frozen after massacre
Kenya froze dozens of accounts linked to suspected terror supporters after militants massacred 147 people last week at a university in Garissa.

Neo-Nazi's plot to win over small villages in Germany through settlers
Neo-Nazis who refer to themselves as “Nationalist settlers” are reportedly occupying small villages that they believe will be susceptible to their influence in Eastern Germany.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Chart: Al Qaeda Fractures, ISIS Gains

It has been many months since I updated the INTELWIRE al Qaeda fractures chart, and a new post by Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute provided a good opportunity to revisit. Click the image below for a larger version, or click here for a scalable PDF.

Many of the changes foreshadowed in the last version of the chart have now come to pass. The challenge presented to al Qaeda by ISIS has fully metastasized, and the groups are increasingly on an equal footing, with the momentum clearly in ISIS's corner.

ISIS now has formal presences (organizations that have pledged bayat and had their pledges accepted) in North and West Africa, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Af-Pak region, drawing many of its new members from splintered factions of existing al Qaeda branches. Some of al Qaeda affiliates have apparently weakened (notably AQIM and al Shabab, which may not even be affiliated any more), while others are in stronger positions for the moment, including AQAP and Jabhat al Nusra, although rumors are running rampant about the latter's desire to get out from under the al Qaeda umbrella.

Also in the rumor mill: Speculation from important observers of al Qaeda that Ayman al Zawahiri might release the affiliates from their oaths of loyalty. Very tentatively sourced, these rumors should be taken with a large grain of salt, but the idea is not laughable. An al Shabab official who defected from the group and surrendered to the Somali government in December, said al Qaeda had not been in communication with its Somali affiliate for months, reflecting tea leaves that have been visible for some time.

None of this is conclusive, but it is highly suggestive of where things are going. Aside from the pressures of internal competition with ISIS, there are practical reasons for al Qaeda's senior leadership to delegate or devolve more authority to the affiliates, given the apparent difficulties it faces in communicating securely. That said, if al Qaeda Central does not surrender the field, it can certainly remain important, if likely less relevant, for years to come.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Friday, April 3, 2015

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief, 4/3/2015, Garissa Attack and More

The horrifying and lethal al Shabab attack on Garissa University this week and its Mogadishu hotel siege last week highlight one of the fundamental difficulties that arise when jihadi movements metastasize from terrorism to insurgency and devolve back again.

Purely terrorist groups, such al Qaeda before 9/11, are typically small. Insurgencies generally require much more manpower. Taking and holding a given town or a province takes hundreds or thousands of fighters. When a terrorist group adopts an insurgent approach with any degree of success, its ranks typically swell. If the insurgency fails but is not definitively crushed, it can free up potentially thousands of experienced fighters for terrorist activities.

And as Garissa shows, killing civilians requires far fewer people than taking and governing territory. It only takes a handful of fighters to create a tragedy of massive proportions. Even a small insurgency, transformed, makes for a huge terrorist capability.

In light of this, it is critically important that we start thinking now about the fall of ISIS, which commands far more fighters than al Shabab and has encouraged those fighters to even wilder excesses of violence under a more explicitly apocalyptic worldview. Should a coalition dislodge ISIS from its territory, tens of thousands of fighters could potentially be cut loose and re-purposed to terrorism.

It's imperative that we come up with a strategy to track fighters leaving Iraq and Syria. It's also desperately important that there be some kind of state structures capable of truly securing ISIS prisoners after its insurgency fails, whether that happens sooner or later. Finally, it is vital that we come up with new approaches to the currently intractable problem of deradicalization. Even imperfect deradicalization programs are preferable to none.

If we fail to get out ahead of this challenge, tragedies like Garissa may pale in comparison to what the future holds. Beating ISIS on the battlefield is only the first step.

-- J.M. Berger


A 6-Point Plan to Defeat ISIS in the Propaganda War
Each of ISIS's propaganda goals is vulnerable to a messaging counteroffensive. The authors of ISIS: The State of Terror propose a strategy.


The Islamic State, known as ISIS, exploded into the public eye in 2014 with startling speed and shocking brutality. It has captured the imagination of the global jihadist movement, attracting recruits in unprecedented numbers and wreaking bloody destruction with a sadistic glee that has alienated even the hardcore terrorists of its parent organization, al Qaeda. 

Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, two of America's leading experts on terrorism, dissect the new model for violent extremism that ISIS has leveraged into an empire of death in Iraq and Syria, and an international network that is rapidly expanding in the Middle East, North Africa and around the world. 

Excerpt in The Atlantic | Audiobook excerpt | NYT Review | Salon Review

ISIS: The State of Terror traces the ideological innovations that the group deploys to recruit unprecedented numbers of Westerners, the composition of its infamous snuff videos, and the technological tools it exploits on social media to broadcast its atrocities, and its recruiting pitch to the world, including its success at attracting thousands of Western adherents. The authors examine ISIS's predatory abuse of women and children and its use of horror to manipulate world leaders and its own adherents as it builds its twisted society. The authors offer a much-needed perspective on how world leaders should prioritize and respond to ISIS's deliberate and insidious provocations. 


Two Women in Queens Are Charged With a Bomb Plot
Two women living in Queens have been charged with planning to build a bomb, in a plot revealed by a monthslong undercover investigation that found the women had discussed the merits of various types of bombs and had obtained four propane gas tanks. The women were believed to be ISIS sympathizers, but so far, no evidence points to an organizational link.

The Islamic State, Boko Haram and the evolution of international jihad
Through the acquisition of territory, adept use of social media and the pioneering of grisly tactics such as the mass beheading of captives and the enslavement of women and children, Boko Haram and the Islamic State have established themselves as the vanguard of a new, savage form of irregular warfare.

How Do You Defeat a Networked Enemy Like ISIS?
A panel at the First Annual Future War Conference discusses methodologies to confront and disrupt distribution networks and groups who use them. Peter Bergen, Chris Fussell, Ioannis Koskinas

Iraq claims "magnificent victory" over ISIS
Iraq declared a "magnificent victory" Wednesday over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Tikrit, a key step in driving the militants out of their biggest strongholds.

Ex-Shabab Official Claims al-Qaida Ties Dissolved
A former al-Shabab intelligence official, claiming the Somali militant group "basically" no longer has relations with long-time ally al-Qaida, has raised the possibility it could align itself with the Islamic State group.

Palestinians push back ISIS in Damascus camp: monitor
Palestinian fighters and Syrian rebels retook control Thursday of large parts of a refugee camp in Damascus that had been seized by ISIS group jihadists, a monitoring group said.


American citizen linked to al-Qaeda is captured, flown secretly to U.S.
An American citizen who was once thought to be a top operative in al-Qaeda has been detained in Pakistan and secretly flown to New York to face federal terrorism charges, according to U.S. officials.

Militants Carry Out Deadly Attacks on Army Checkpoints in North Sinai
Militants in North Sinai simultaneously attacked two army checkpoints before dawn on Thursday, killing at least 13 Egyptian soldiers and two civilians, security officials said.

Afghan suicide blast kills 16, wounds dozens
A suicide bomber killed at least 16 people Thursday and wounded 40 others, including a prominent lawmaker, at an anti-corruption rally in eastern Afghanistan, the latest casualties ahead of the Taliban's expected spring offensive.

KKK-linked Florida prison guards charged in murder plot
Two Florida corrections officers and one former officer trainee have been charged in a plot to kill a former inmate who was getting out of prison, the Florida Attorney General's office said Thursday.

Ajnad Misr claim responsibility for Cairo University metro bombing
The militant group, Ajnad Misr, claimed responsibility for the bombing that injured eight people at the Cairo University metro station on Saturday.

Tunisia says senior militant commander killed in raid
Tunisian security forces have killed a senior Algerian militant who they accuse of helping orchestrate the Bardo museum attack which targeted foreign tourists, Tunisia's Prime Minister Habib Essid said on Sunday.


Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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Friday, March 27, 2015

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief, 3/27/15

Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes into Yemen this week, with ground forces very possibly to follow, all aimed at countering the rise of the Houthi movement, which it sees (or portrays) as an Iranian proxy, as opposed to the country's kind-of-president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is currently hanging his hat in Riyadh. A scorecard of the players is here.

The complexities of Yemeni politics are best left to the regional specialists (I especially recommend Gregory Johnsen). but I will say a few words about power and structure.

Since September 11, we have seen a gradually spreading trend toward the destruction of existing power structures, i.e. governments, through external intervention (Iraq, Afghanistan), internal uprising (Egypt, Tunisia) or both (Libya). The new power structures that have arisen to fill the vacuum are fragile at best, and nonexistent at worst. Yemen has been "on the brink" of disaster for years now, according to headline writers, and the chaos is only likely to deepen as a result of this week's events.

The overall trend in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond appears to be toward the creation and expansion of spaces that are less and less governed, creating more and more opportunities for evil actors such as ISIS and Bashar al Assad to inflict industrial-scale cruelties in the name of some semblance of order.

This may be an inevitable period of transition, one in which existing power structures overburdened with corruption must inevitably fall, and it doesn't take much imagination to see where those dominoes are pointing. The question is whether we must next endure a new dark age of escalating violence and toxic ideologies, and if there is any way to steer events in order to contain the chaos and minimize the horrific human costs that seem to lie unavoidably before us. I wish I had an answer to this question, but I don't.

The only advice that seems relevant at the moment, both for the West and for the powers that are still standing in the region, is: First, do no harm. Unfortunately, I don't think our current policy configurations meet that test.

More on this in the weeks to come.

-- J.M. Berger 


The official book launch for ISIS: The State of Terror took place at the Brookings Institution this week, with Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger taking part in a discussion moderated by Will McCants, director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. Audio of the event has been posted online. Later that evening, Stern and Berger discussed the book at the National Press Club. Video from that event will be available later.

Salon reviewed the book, calling it a "profound act of counterterrorism," and "an essential primer and antidote to the mindlessness that ISIS wants to foment." The Evening Standard wrote that the book is a "timely and important history of a movement that now defines the 21st century." Kirkus Reviews says "this book offers much to learn about ISIS and an expanded understanding of current events."

Additional book events will be held in New York City next week, and in Washington, D.C. in April. You can purchase ISIS: The State of Terror at bookstores everywhere and on


Under ISIS, Life In Mosul Takes A Turn For The Bleak
Daily life is increasingly grim. Fighters are on edge as coalition airstrikes hit ISIS military bases and convoys. Some ISIS fighters have retreated to Mosul from the nearby battlefront in Tikrit, where the government launched the first major assault against ISIS.

The Children of ISIS
Why did three American kids from the suburbs of Chicago try to run away to the Islamic state, and should the Feds treat them as terrorists?

Radicalisation and the 'sweet talkers' for IS
Stories of young Australians joining IS have been front page news for months, but who is convincing them to leave? Sarah Dingle uncovered three previously unreported cases of young Somali-Australian Muslims lured by ‘sweet talkers’ to join the war in Syria.

Has the Caliphate Come to Kabul?
Fear of the Islamic State is making for strange bedfellows in the land of warlords and the Taliban.

Pro-ISIS magazine in Istanbul bombed
A bomb blast ripped through the Istanbul offices of a radical, pro-ISIS magazine killing a writer and wounding its editor-in-chief as well as two other people on Wednesday night.


The Bureaucracy of Terror
A new trove of documents that were among those seized in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, were presented recently during the trial of Abid Naseer at the Brooklyn federal district court.

Agents’ chatter in Osmakac sting skirts line between protection, entrapment
Months after Sami Osmakac started serving a 40-year sentence for terrorism, debate continues over the FBI sting operation that landed him in prison.

Boston bombing jury sees mock bombs, victim autopsy photos
Jurors viewed the six-quart (5.7-liter) mock bombsafter an FBI special agent read out the instructions in al Qaeda's "Inspire" magazine that prosecutors contend Tsarnaev and his older brother used to make their bombs.

Are Syrian Islamists moving to counterbalance Al-Qaeda? Will it last?
Now finding themselves involved in the fifth year of a brutal civil conflict that has left at least 220,000 people dead, displaced 10 million others inside and outside the country, and trapped over 640,000 under military siege, the strategic thinking within the Syrian insurgency is subtly shifting.

Who’s who in Yemen
An attempt to break down the names, acronyms and confusing politics involved in Yemen.


Why Violence Abates: Imposed and Elective Declines in Terrorist Attacks
This article aims to understand why violence varies in the short term within many organizations, and places a special focus on declines in violence. By Michael Becker

Government protection against terrorism and crime
A game theoretic model is developed where a government protects against a terrorist seeking terrorism and criminal objectives. By Kjell Hauskena and Dipak K. Guptab


Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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Friday, March 20, 2015

Intelwire Weekly Brief, 3/20/2015 -- ISIS in Yemen, Tunisia, Afghanistan


ISIS has claimed a quadruple suicide bombing of two mosques in Sana'a, Yemen, following hard on the heels of its claim to the Bardo Museum attack in Tunisia. Both reports appear to be authentically issued by ISIS, based on their distribution by known official ISIS disseminators online, but there is a chance, probably small, that they are falsely claiming these incidents.

The gunmen in the latter attack reportedly trained in Libya, where ISIS has several significant strongholds. As ISIS's insurgency in Iraq comes under increasing pressure (though that initiative far from a fait accompli and introduces new and significant problems), it is compensating by flexing its terrorist muscles abroad.

In many ways, this can be seen as similar to the way al Qaeda metastasized after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, with notable differences. Importantly, it's happening much, much faster. In part, this is because ISIS is much stronger now than al Qaeda was in 2001, but it is also taking advantage of the groundwork laid by al Qaeda as it spread out geographically in response to U.S. military pressure. Additionally, ISIS is more centrally controlled, and it is strategically inclined toward swift and highly visible action, compared to al Qaeda's emphasis on stealth and long planning cycles.

More on all of this in the week to come.


CTC Sentinel: Baya'a Special Issue
As the events above suggests, one of the most important issues in terrorism today is the mounting shift of allegiances from al Qaeda to ISIS. The Sentinel journal, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, has devoted an entire issue to these questions, and it's important reading for everyone covering terrorism today. Of particular interest is Don Rassler's article on ISIS's new fronts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the very heart of al Qaeda territory. It's early days yet, but ISIS's relatively strong entry raises the question: If AQ can't hold Af-Pak, what can it hold?

-- J.M. Berger


J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan discussed the ISIS Twitter Census at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, this week. Read the full report here.


ISIS: The State of Terror, the new book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, is on sale now in bookstores and on Kindle. The London Evening Standard calls it "timely and important history of a movement that now defines the 21st century." CNN's Peter Bergen says "Stern and Berger write clearly and persuasively and marshal impressive primary research from ISIS's prodigious propaganda to explain how ISIS became the dominant jihadi group today. It's a terrific and important read." Buy it now and learn about the growing challenge ISIS presents to the world.


The Hidden Enemy In Iraq
The forces fighting ISIS in Iraq have been struggling with the vast number of IEDs the militant group is leaving in its wake.

Air Force Veteran Charged With Trying to Join the Islamic State
A federal grand jury in New York has indicted U.S. Air Force veteran Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh on charges that he conspired to join the Islamic State, the latest in a growing line of Americans being nabbed trying to fight alongside the extremist group.

Nigeria says it has ousted Boko Haram from town of Bama
Nigeria's military says it has retaken the north-eastern town of Bama from the Islamist military group Boko Haram.

British police free alleged teen ISIS recruits, arrest 18-year-old
British police, under pressure to stem the flow of would-be militants eager to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), on Monday arrested an 18-year-old man suspected of planning to travel to Syria. Hours earlier, they freed on bail three other U.K. teens detained in Turkey, allegedly on their way to link up with the extremist group.


Tunisia’s Grand Compromise Faces its Biggest Test
In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Tunisia Senior Analyst Michaël Béchir Ayari discusses the political fallout of the 18 March attack on Tunis’s Bardo Museum which killed 23 people, mostly tourists.

Afghan Militia Leaders, Empowered by U.S. to Fight Taliban, Inspire Fear in Villages
Scattered across Afghanistan, militia leaders are a significant part of the legacy of the American war here, brought to power amid a Special Operations counterinsurgency strategy that mobilized anti-Taliban militias in areas beyond the grasp of the Afghan Army.

Syrian Activists Say Chlorine Gas Attack Kills 6 in Idlib Province
Anti-government activists in Syria said Tuesday that a chlorine bomb attack by government forces on a northwestern village overnight had killed six people and filled clinics with choking victims.

Christians riot in Pakistan after attacks targeting churches kill 14
Members of the Christian community rampaged through the streets of Lahore on Sunday after suicide bombers attacked two churches during morning services, killing at least 14 people and wounding more than 70.

Tattooed Neo-Nazi Named As Suspect In Deadly Arizona Shooting Spree
The man believed to have gone on a deadly shooting spree Wednesday in Mesa, Arizona has a criminal record and purported ties to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.

Manila: U.S. had key role in deadly counterterrorism raid in Philippines
U.S. counterterrorism personnel played a hidden but key role in a bungled commando operation in the Philippines that resulted in dozens of deaths and a political scandal, according to a government investigation released Tuesday in Manila.

Pentagon loses track of $500 million in weapons, equipment given to Yemen
The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.

-- By INTELWIRE Staff 

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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Friday, March 13, 2015

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief 03/13/15

It was a big week for INTELWIRE, starting with a panel at the Brookings Institution on ISIS ideology and propaganda featuring Will McCants, Jonathon Morgan, Anastasia Norton and Cole Bunzel, author of the new paper linked below.

Then, on Thursday, ISIS: The State of Terror officially went on sale. Follow @intelwire on Twitter for a rolling list of media appearances, and more importantly, buy the book and tell your friends!

From paper state to caliphate: The ideology of the Islamic State

While the Islamic State dominates headlines through its brutal tactics and pervasive propaganda, there is little awareness of the unique ideology driving the group's strategy. by Cole Bunzel


ISIS sympathizer arrested after plotting to bomb U.S. consulate in Toronto: CBSA
At an immigration hearing on Wednesday, the Canada Border Services Agency alleged that Jahanzeb Malik, who first came to Canada in 2004 as a student, was an ISIS supporter and had plotted to bomb the U.S. consulate and financial buildings in Toronto.

IS welcomes Boko Haram allegiance: tape
The Islamic State group welcomed a pledge of allegiance made to it by Boko Haram and vowed to press with its expansion, according to an audiotape Thursday purportedly from its spokesman.

Iraqi Army Cements Hold on Tikrit, but Islamic State Sends a Message
BAGHDAD — Iraqi government forces and allied Shiite militias began consolidating control over most of the city of Tikrit on Wednesday, declaring they were on their way to a strategically and emotionally significant victory in their nine-day offensive against Islamic State militants there.

ISIS Finds New Frontier in Chaotic Libya
Libya has become a new frontier for the radical group as it comes under increasing pressure from American-led airstrikes on its original strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

Family Denies Palestinian Killed by ISIS Was Spy
Mohamed Musallam can be seen in a video released Tuesday on his knees wearing the familiar orange jumpsuit of an Islamic State captive. Before he is shot in the head by a boy, he admits under obvious duress that he was “an agent for the Israeli Mossad.”

A suspected female suicide bomber killed at least 12 people on Tuesday in Maiduguri, capital of Nigeria's Borno state, military and hospital sources said, three days after a multiple bomb attack in the city killed more than 50.


Strategy for Defending Tsarnaev in Marathon Bombings Is Vintage Darrow
When Judy Clarke, the lead defense lawyer for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, announced at the outset of his trial last week that her client was responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, she was following a strategy laid out by Clarence Darrow almost a century ago.  

Fall of U.S.-backed Syrian group casts doubt on plan to arm moderates
In recent days, Al Nusra and its adherents have gleefully uploaded images of foodstuffs and weapons purportedly captured after the group's forces commandeered the former bastion of a U.S.-backed rebel faction known as Harakat Hazm, or Resolve Movement.

Citing Fear of Neo-Nazi Group, a German Mayor Quits
The resignation of Markus Nierth, 46, mayor of Tröglitz, has set off a firestorm in Germany, where the authorities have become increasingly alarmed by the growing strength of far-right forces that have been taking to the streets to protest a swelling number of asylum seekers.

Why did the Madrid train bombings divide, not unite Spaniards?
Contrary to what happened in British society after the London attacks on July 7, 2005, the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004 profoundly divided Spanish society.

Buy ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. BergerJessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the forthcoming book, "ISIS: The State of Terror," from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, which will debut in early 2015, will examine the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, its potential fall, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents. Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy, and editor of

Pre-order the book now | Pre-order Kindle version


Jihad Joe by J.M. BergerJihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam, the new book by INTELWIRE's J.M. Berger, is now available in both Kindle and hardcover editions. Order today!

Jihad Joe is the first comprehensive history of the American jihadist movement, from 1979 through the present. Click here to read more about the critical acclaim Jihad Joe has earned so far, including from the New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, and many more.


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