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News, analysis and primary source documents on terrorism, extremism and national security.


Monday, July 21, 2014
 

Radicalization, Informants and More Difficult Questions

Human Rights Watch issued a report today on counterterrorism prosecution and investigation, firing off some blistering criticisms of various government practices, including notably the use of informants, which I have written about repeatedly and, I think, pointedly:

A story by AFP is here.

I don't endorse the overall assessment given by the HRW report, even though I think it does raise some important issues. My reservations come in part from differences of opinion on the case-by-case assessments, but also the report's neglect of a fundamental dilemma:

How should law enforcement respond when it learns that someone is talking about violent or terrorist action, or seeking social support to commit such an action?

I don't think anyone wants the FBI to simply ignore such reports or tips, or ignore someone they see on social media who is making threats.

The question is how to sort out which cases merit investigation and which do not. Which leads me to one point in the report that I think is especially unhelpful: The report takes a derisive tone toward FBI efforts to understand radicalization.

While these efforts are far from perfect, I think it's much better to try to understand the radicalization process than to proceed without understanding. If you want to criticize the current state of scholarship on radicalization, I'm all for that. There's plenty of snake oil to be found, some of it emanating from the very highest levels of our government. But be specific, don't just put scare quotes around the word "radicalization" and pat yourself on the back for a job well done (which is essentially what HRW has done here).

Studying radicalization leads most people to understand that very few radicals become violent, and the entire point of such studies is an effort to limit law enforcement scrutiny to people who present a real threat and to eliminate people who are just angry, political or blowing off steam.

While you can argue about where to draw the lines, I think that better understanding radicalization will ultimately result in fewer problem cases and ultimately in less investigation and prosecution.

All that said, and as I've written before, there is a social cost to the tactics we are currently using to fight terrorism and radicalization, especially when those tactics disproportionately target Muslims.

At this point, I think people from around the government need to sit down and have a high-level conversation about the costs and benefits of these approaches, and figure out how to do the work of national security in a better way.

While I do basically agree with many of the report's recommendations (see page 178 of the PDF linked above), the tone of the overall report seems to point to a broader challenge to the premise of whether law enforcement should even be in the business of prevention.

I believe we can do much better than the status quo, but law enforcement needs to have some tools to respond when a person in the community is raising alarm bells. The vast majority of investigations rule out prosecutions, rather than ruling them in, as it should be. The real question here is whether more prosecutions can be ruled out, and whether they can be ruled out less intrusively. To open that debate responsibly requires discussion of what we can do, not just what we shouldn't.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014
 

AQ vs. IS: Fractures Chart Update

It's been a while since I updated the AQ Fractures chart (earlier versions here, here and here), and a great deal has happened since the last update. Most obviously, the entity formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has renamed itself the Islamic State, declared itself to be a caliphate and demanded oaths of loyalty from all other jihadist groups. Here's how that is going:



Printable PDF version can be found here.

Some notes on this chart:
  • First off, there are a lot of moving parts here, and while I did my best to capture as many as possible, I welcome feedback if something is wrong or missing. 
  • I eliminated the "loose ties" category and link and replaced "close ties" with "some ties," which were included on a subjective basis. The main reason for this is that the chart is getting too complex to visualize for at-a-glance comprehension.
  • I adjusted the size of some of the entities to reflect their significance. The Islamic State has racked up a number of pledges from tiny splinter groups, small groups no one has heard of prior to now, and groups of unproven caliber and provenance (for instance, Indonesian and Philippines groups that are not clearly derived from existing jihadi groups in the region and are listed here simply as "factions"). 
  • I tried to organize the clusters regionally. 
  • Shamukh forum has changed sides a couple times during the evolution of this chart. As of the last time I checked, it seemed to be trying to accommodate supporters of both AQ and IS. This may have already changed or may change again at a moment's notice, or it may be able to foster a diverse environment on an ongoing basis. 
  • Several small factions appear to have peeled off from Jabhat al Nusra, FSA and the Islamic Front in recent weeks. I'm not breaking them out, but it's worth noting that this is happening. 
For more on how the battle between IS and AQ is playing out in the global jihadist arena, check out my blog post from yesterday analyzing hashtag use in a social media network surrounding Syrian jihadist fundraisers: IS Backlash Spills Over on Jabhat al Nusra.

NOTE: The chart was updated 7/14/2014 to correct an errant line.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014
 

IS Backlash Spills Over on Jabhat al Nusra

A few weeks ago, I provided some initial data on how advances in Iraq by the former Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were playing out in a key sector of the global jihadist infrastructure -- the network of people surrounding fundraisers for the Syrian jihad.

For that June 14 analysis, I looked at the most recent 200 tweets from approximately 7,500 Twitter accounts that were followed by 22 prominent jihadist fundraisers on Twitter (as well as the tweets of the fundraisers themselves), analyzing a total of about 2.8 million tweets. From those tweets, I extracted the most popular Arabic hashtags used by members of the network to refer to jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

I repeated this analysis roughly every two weeks, including results around June 29 announcement that ISIS had renamed itself "The Islamic State" and proclaimed it was a "caliphate" with authority over all Muslims around the world and specifically over all other jihadist groups. The results suggest that the IS caliphate declaration is not only provoking a great deal of hostility, but that it is also depressing enthusiasm for other jihadist groups operating in Syria, including Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front.

The task was complicated by the use of three popular hashtags for IS:
  • #Islamic_State_of_Iraq_and_Syria (prior to the renaming), 
  • #Islamic_State (after the renaming), and 
  • #Daash (a derogatory reference to IS/ISIS both before and after the renaming). 
The first two hashtags may be neutral or positive references to IS, the third is decidedly negative most of the time.

First, let's compare all references to IS under each name, including both positive and negative, to all references to Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front.



The first thing that becomes apparent is that people are talking about IS a whole lot more than they are talking about al Nusra or the Islamic Front, and the gap is widening. In fact, there were very close to twice as many references to IS as to the other two groups combined. That's a huge gap, especially when compared to June 1, when the number of references to IS were roughly equal to the combined references to the other two groups.

Does that mean people are growing to love the new "caliphate"? Hardly. Here's how the references to IS break down:


References to IS as "Daash" vastly outnumbered references to the group as either IS or ISIS, with Daash being hashtagged more than both IS and ISIS combined in the most recent period (some of the tweets analyzed in the July 12 collection date to before the name change). There were more than twice as many references to Daash as there were to IS under its new name, and both increased by similar amounts between June 28 and July 12.

Keep in mind that references to IS and ISIS are not necessarily positive, but references to Daash are almost always negative. (For that matter, there is no guarantee all references to Nusra and IF are positive; there is a derogatory hashtag for Nusra, "mishmish," but it barely cracked 100 tweets at its height.) With that caveat, it's pretty clear that the new caliphate has a lot of haters in the financier networks, and that the positives of the declaration are not enough to offset its growing negatives.

The hostility is not all that surprising in itself, since the global financing networks tend to be more aligned with al Qaeda, IS's increasingly bitter rival.

What's significant instead is the fact that discussion of al Nusra and the Islamic Front is flat or even declining over the period measured. That means the global financiers and their constituents (donors, friends, militant leaders and news sources) are more angry about IS than they are excited for al Nusra and the Islamic Front, and that trend has worsened since June 1. All of this negativity would not seem to be good for fundraising or for foreign fighter recruitment.

Finally, here's a quick look at how al Nusra, the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, fares against IS when they go head to head, with IS hashtags broken out for negativity.


Even broken down by clearly negative tweets versus tweets simply using the name IS or ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra still comes in third, and that can't be good for the AQ affiliate. These hashtags suggest that people are not flocking to al Nusra as an alternative to the hated IS, but rather they are saying "a plague on both your houses." In other words, the caliphate is bad for the global jihad business.

The declining references to al Nusra and the Islamic Front may be partially due to a surge in hashtags related to Gaza, but that didn't stop people from hating on IS in even greater volumes. #Gaza _ under bombardment did outrank all three groups, ranking lower than #Syria but higher than #Iraq. Tweets referring to Iraq dropped precipitously from June 28, when IS was on the move, to July 12.

Much could change in the weeks and months to come, but the IS proclamation of world domination has to date produced a massive surge in anger among movers and shakers in the global jihad, with very few signs of goodwill so far.

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Friday, July 4, 2014
 

In the Future, All Your Leaders Will Be Empty Suits

UPDATE: Did you ever wish you'd written a blog post a week earlier? Shortly after I posted this, IS sources began to indicate that IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had given the khutba in Mosul on Friday and that video was forthcoming. Today, the video surfaced online. So while some of the points below still pertain, others are probably moot. 



END UPDATE 






Much has been made of the innovative uses to which the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) has put social media, but the would-be caliphate is also trying out some interesting new approaches to governance. Specifically, it is pioneering an interesting experiment with an anonymous head of state.

Certainly, there have been instances in history in which obscure people were catapulted into political leadership positions, and I would not be surprised to learn there is an earlier parallel to this concept of which I am unaware. The history of geopolitics is long, and my knowledge of it is nothing to brag about. I look forward to hearing from you on Twitter about precedents (you know who you are).

But as someone who is not a historian, the rise of Abu Bakr Baghdadi to the self-appointed role of "caliph" calls to mind nothing more vividly than the novel 1984, in which much of the world is led by Big Brother, the subject of a cult of personality who may not actually exist as a person.

The real identity of Baghdadi has been the subject of much speculation and reports of varying reliability, without a truly definitive picture emerging, although an extremely thin biography has been circulating in IS social media circles since his self-anointment. Baghdadi has never released a video, and while there have been sporadic reports of him showing up in battle and spending time with his peers in prison, it's decidedly unclear how many members of the IS have ever even laid eyes on him.

While Baghdadi is probably a real person, he is also in many ways an empty suit, a generic jihadi archetype onto whom IS adherents can project their hopes and fears. Most IS policy announcements, up to and including the declaration of the caliphate, come from his spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. Baghdadi himself issued an audio-only speech after the proclamation of the "caliphate" which could have easily been written by a random jihadi-cliche generator.

The question now is whether this will change, or whether he will continue to lurk in the shadows, exercising leadership by Rorschach test. He allegedly surfaced in Mosul within the last day or so to meet his adoring public, but also allegedly, all cell service was cut off in order to protect knowledge of his whereabouts. It will be interesting to see if any photos show up in the aftermath. You know people can take photos while the cell service is down and upload them later, right IS propagandists?

Baghdadi stands in stark contrast to Osama bin Laden, whose personality loomed large and who was well-known to the world even before he was well-known as the leader of a terrorist organization. Even Ayman al Zawahiri, for all his inadequacies as an inspirational leader, is a known quantity with an extensive public record.

For an organization ideologically opposed to innovation, the IS sure isn't afraid to experiment with some weird ideas. IS may well be aiming to increase Baghdadi's visibility over the weeks and months to come, but the high level of secrecy that surrounds him has no doubt contributed to the lackluster response to the "caliphate" from groups outside IS's geographical domains thus far. Was IS consciously gambling that people would throw their support behind an archetype rather than an individual? Or was this a less-calculated gambit, yet another sign of short-sighted hubris?

Will Baghdadi attempt to "rule" as a generic cutout, a jihadi Big Brother whose real presence is obscured and outweighed by his legend? Once again, IS is wading into risky and untested waters. Whatever else you can say about the organization formerly known as ISIS, it is rarely boring.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014
 

The State of the 'Caliphate' Is... Meh

Apparently, no matter how awesome the power of social media, you can't just announce that you're the boss of everyone and expect people to fall in line.

The transformation of ISIS into the Islamic State, aka IS aka "The Caliphate," over the weekend is off a pretty soft start. Deprived of a huge chunk of its army of spambots by some good policing on the part of Twitter, IS has been reduced to grass-roots organizing to get its nutty message out. Here's how that is going so far:




34 minutes later...


And so it goes. IS twitter users are increasingly baffled and frustrated that everyone isn't more excited for them. They honestly can't seem to understand why the al Qaeda jihadists they've been fighting for months and the much larger population of Muslims who despise them aren't all falling in line. Even worse, most of them are criticizing the unilateral declaration of global hegemony by IS.

The announcement has largely failed to move the needle in terms of winning new support from other global jihadist groups, especially the major al Qaeda-aligned organizations, which was surely the primary purpose in declaring a caliphate in the first place.

IS has trotted out a series of oaths of loyalty from people and organizations that were already sworn to it when it was just ISIS -- ranging from their reliable contingent of Indonesian fanboys, to a handful of supporters in the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban, to the "Central Division of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" which apparently still calls itself al Qaeda despite defecting to ISIS months ago.

Meanwhile IS's online fans look increasingly stupid as they flock to any sign of good news, only to be disappointed. When their Pakistani Taliban supporters pledged, a hashtag spread like wildfire claiming the whole organization was swearing loyalty to IS. A series of sheepish corrections followed, and the official announcement by IS was forced to clarify that it wasn't the whole group.

ISIS fanboys nagged Ansar al Sharia Tunisia online with questions about whether it had sworn loyalty to IS, and received a terse "that news is not true" in response. AST contains a large, possibly majority, contingent of IS supporters, and was one of the strongest candidates for a previously unaligned group to jump on board, so any sign of hesitation there has to be discouraging, although it could still happen.

Speculation has run rampant that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was planning to pledge, but everyone is still waiting for Godot on that front, and they could be waiting a long time. As with the others, there are strong contingents of individual support for IS within the group, but it's not at all clear that these fans can shift the direction of an organization led by hardcore AQ loyalists. While anything is possible, it's my guess that IS can at best peel off a splinter from AQAP as long as its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, remains alive.

Given that ISIS has generally been smart about its media strategy, it's entirely possible it still has an ace up its sleeve -- in terms of a planned high-profile defection -- but if so, it had better be truly big and it had better happen soon. Otherwise, it's starting to look like that time ISIS threw a caliphate party and nobody came.

If declaring a "caliphate" doesn't move the needle, IS is facing a long hard slog for the near-term future. It is fighting a war on multiple fronts, and its battlefield successes could have sparked a surge in support. The declaration may have taken the wind out of their sails, while at the same time requiring them to hold territory at any cost. If Zawahiri can hold the affiliates in line, IS may be reduced to rooting for American drone strikes to take out key leaders in al Qaeda's affiliates, in the hopes that their replacements will be a bit friendlier to their caliphate gamble.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014
 

Gambling on the Caliphate

This morning, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or ISIL if you must) announced it was pronouncing the reformation of the caliphate, with ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as caliph, and that it was renaming itself simply The Islamic State. The official announcement was released in Arabic, English, German, French and Russian.


In the statement, ISIS claimed that it had fulfilled all the legal requirements for the caliphate and that all existing jihadi groups and indeed all Muslims around the world were religiously obligated to swear loyalty to the new Caliph Ibrahim (using the name provided by ISIS in the course of proving that Baghdadi has the required lineage for the title).

Prior to this pronouncement, my assessment was that there was almost no way ISIS could exit June in worse shape than it entered the month, and that still holds, but July is beginning to look like an open question. ISIS, an al Qaeda breakaway group, had made a bold move to seize territory in Iraq that had resulted in tremendous gains in both equipment and money. Even if it lost all of the territory it gained in June, it would still retain many of those spoils, with new clout, status and physical assets to compete with the other jihadi groups operating in Syria and near the Iraq border.

The declaration of the caliphate is a massive gamble that puts many of these gains at risk, although the potential benefits are also substantial. Here's a quick rundown of the moving parts:

Competition with al Qaeda

As I've discussed previously, ISIS has been competing with the original al Qaeda for leadership of the global jihadist movement (a great history of the conflict can be found here, by Aaron Zelin).

ISIS's recent gains in Iraq projected strength and dynamism, while AQ Classic looked weak and indecisive. AQ has maintained a slim but diminishing lead over ISIS among key influencers in the movement, and more recent data suggested that it was hurting AQC in fundraising networks, although it also appeared to be diminishing enthusiasm for the jihad in Syria overall.

The pronouncement of the caliphate is sure to be wildly controversial on religious grounds, but ultimately it could cut either way. The backlash may harden the pro-AQ segment of the global jihadist movement against ISIS, especially with the announcement's flat out demand that all other jihadist groups are religiously obligated to pledge loyalty to ISIS. But it will also generate some enthusiasm from footsoldiers and different segments of the global movement that see ISIS as a rising star.

There is a risk of high-level defections from AQ to ISIS, particularly in North Africa, where several groups and segments of groups have already broadly telegraphed their sympathies toward ISIS. A significant number of AQAP supporters in Yemen have also been showing signs of sympathies to ISIS for some time, and since the announcement, social networks in the neighborhood of AQAP appear to be supportive.

On the other hand, Muslims worldwide are likely to react negatively to the pronouncement on the whole. The question here is how many currently nonviolent radicals will jump toward ISIS and how many will jump away from it. Again, this is a high-risk, high-reward scenario for ISIS. It could reap considerable benefits, but the backlash could be severe.

Regardless of how that plays out, today's pronouncement will likely generate new streams of fundraising and fighter recruitment, even as it depresses others.

The long term outcome is unclear, but much may depend on what happens next in Iraq.

On the Ground in Iraq

ISIS made its gains in Iraq as part of a coalition of Sunnis with grievances against the Maliki government. Those groups may have seen a temporary advantage in aligning with ISIS, but the pronouncement of the caliphate sends a clear message to all of ISIS's Iraqi partners that they are the subordinate parties in this alliance. ISIS may have cleared this move with its key allies in advance, but if it didn't, the power grab could splinter the very coalition that allowed it to seize territory in the first place.

More significantly, the calculus of holding territory has now changed. Prior to the pronouncement, ISIS could have fallen back to its previous domain along the border of Iraq and Syria with little loss of face and a huge increase in its warfighting capabilities, thanks to captured weaponry and millions of dollars worth in stolen funds.

Now, if ISIS is driven back, Baghdadi risks being seen as the man who grasped for the caliphate, held it in his hands for one brief shining moment, then lost it all.

Such a loss would highlight the hubris of ISIS in making this pronouncement and would also seem to validate the arguments of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri that ISIS's methodology was flawed and that the splinter group was putting the cart of an Islamic state ahead of the horse of fighting jihad.

The question now is how confident ISIS is about its ability to hold substantial territory in Iraq (reports suggest it is under heavy pressure in Tikrit already, and the United States has yet to deploy any airpower against the insurgents).  If ISIS made sure its partners are the ground would support the pronouncement and if it withheld the pronouncement until it was sure it had consolidated its gains, then it is in a position to reap benefits.

If ISIS rushed its timeline or overruled objections from local partners, it may lose its territorial gains quickly and end up condemned for an arrogant and ill-advised power grab. The wording of its pronouncement certainly reeks of arrogance, demanding an oath of loyalty from essentially all Muslims, with dissenters being labeled sinners at best, or apostates at worst.

At best, and in the absence of any surprising new information (which could certainly be coming), ISIS appears to be standing on the edge of a precipice with an adolescent faith in its ability to keep its balance.

It may be able to walk that line, but it's a stunning and unnecessary risk by a group that could have navigated the next few months with excellent odds of an outcome that ranged from good to very good. Now it has introduced a much higher risk of an outcome that is truly bad for its long-term prospects.

One Potential Path Through  

There is one factor that could cause all of this to work out dramatically in ISIS's favor, but it would require an large number of variables to fall into place. That factor is U.S. intervention.

The prospect of a U.S. military intervention, most likely in the form of air strikes, was already problematic. While there are many who understandably favor hitting ISIS in order to deny it control of territory in Iraq, such a strike would bestow on ISIS the one thing it has until now been unable to definitively claim -- legitimacy. A potential new line of jihadist argument then emerges: The caliphate was restored, but it was directly destroyed by the United States.

(Iran could also possibly fill the villain role here, resulting in a different possible tectonic shift in the global movement. And I suppose the Israelis could also intervene, which would probably overturn the entire playing board and start a new, very unappealing game.)

Even before today's pronouncement, there was a substantial risk that U.S. strikes on ISIS would bolster its standing in the global jihadist community, allowing it to gain ground against al Qaeda in the battle for hearts and minds.

U.S. strikes could also subvert the trend in recent years toward the localization of jihadist conflicts or unite the currently splintered jihadist movement against the U.S. as its primary enemy once more, with ISIS subsequently holding a central position in a unified global struggle.

If the pronouncement of the caliphate is received as legitimate by some significant number of jihadists and their stay-at-home supporters worldwide and...

If the United States is seen to be the most important contributor to destroying that nascent caliphate....

...there could be cascading consequences on a scale we have not previously seen. It could result in waves of terrorist attacks in the West, a surge in foreign fighter recruitment and fundraising, and significant instability in the remaining Middle Eastern states that aren't already experiencing it.

But those are two extremely large ifs.

If this has been ISIS's plan all along, it is audacious but borders on the insane. It is an all-or-nothing gambit. ISIS has meaningfully put its existence on the line with today's pronouncement. It is playing the lottery, and while the odds are stacked against it, sometimes people win the lottery.

Above all else, it is clear that ISIS is an adrenaline addict. If the group survives, it may be emboldened to take even greater risks in the future, and our strategy needs to be informed by that understanding.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014
 

Following the Money Men

As ISIS wreaks havoc across Iraq, networks related to fundraising for the war in Syria are reacting in dramatic fashion, a development which will play out over time but could have significant ramifications for the future direction of the jihadist movement.

I analyzed approximately 2.8 million tweets from more than 7,500 accounts that were followed by a selection of key nodes in the Syrian fundraising machine. These accounts represent a mix of influences -- including active fundraisers, important donors and sources of news about groups that are receiving donations. In other words, it's the social network in which fundraising activity takes place, not necessarily a straight-up snapshot of donor sentiment.

The most recent 200 tweets from each user were collected on June 1 (prior to the launch of ISIS's Iraq campaign) and again on June 13 (after the fall of Mosul) for two sets of 1.4 million tweets, which included some overlap, as not all users tweeted during the interim period.


Tweets using the hashtag "Syria" more than doubled from June 1 to June 13, while tweets using the hashtag for "Iraq" increased tenfold (although Syria still outranked Iraq handily).

Tweets using hashtags for jihadist groups, also soared, as seen in the chart above. The nature of these tweets suggests an increase in infighting and factionalization among supporters of the Syrian jihad.

As I've previously discussed, ISIS has a very organized social media presence which can cause a spike in the use of the hashtag for its official name. What's notable here, though, is that the single biggest increase for an organization's name was found for "Daash," which is a derogatory reference to ISIS used by its critics. In other words, among the donor community, there was a massive surge in hostility toward ISIS despite its battlefield successes. And the surge in the use of Daash suggests that the network is organically talking more about ISIS overall, rather than the shift being a result of social media marketing strategies.


As a percentage of all tweets using one of the hashtags, Daash also clocked the biggest increase, rising from 20 percent to 29 percent. The ISIS tag rose by 2 points as a percentage of all tweets using one of the hashtags, while Jabhat al Nusra fell 8 and the Islamic front fell 3.


So what does all of this mean?

People in the social network surrounding jihadist fundraisers, who have thus far favored al Nusra, are talking about how much they hate ISIS more than how much they love al Nusra. That is probably not good news for al Nusra. The negativity may depress turnout, and the massive surge in the insulting "Daash" label points to weakness and smacks of desperation, while also making Nusra supporters look like they have a sour grapes problem as their primary competitor scores big on the battlefield.

While it's still early days, we may look back at this moment as the start of a major shift in the flow of donations. The infighting between the al Qaeda breakaway (ISIS), the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria (Nusra), and al Qaeda Central has been poisoning the well for some time, but ISIS is emerging as an increasingly formidable competitor for hearts and minds (and wallets) globally, and I would suggest the data above shows that Nusra supporters are alarmed.

Even if ISIS loses its territorial gains, it is likely to benefit on the global stage from the shock value of its spree across Iraq over the last week, in terms of moral support, generating excitement, and ultimately raising money.

The circumstances under which ISIS loses its territorial gains could further impact the playing field. If the United States helps drive ISIS out with air strikes, ISIS will certainly gain significant stature and fundraising appeal. If the Iranians drive ISIS out in a protracted, hard-fought ground campaign, this too will burnish ISIS's image outside of its geographical dominion. There is really only one likely scenario under which ISIS comes out of this campaign weaker than when it went in -- self-inflicted wounds in the form of overreach or massive-scale atrocities.

The views expressed herein are mine alone, but major thanks go to Aaron Zelin for help in assembling key portions of this analysis.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014
 

On Extremism and Statecraft

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Foreign Policy in February, which argued our planning and policy considerations should have been treating al Qaeda and jihadism more broadly as a military threat rather than exclusively thinking about them as terrorists. I think the whole article holds up well to recent events, and some of the questions I raised then (and featured below) are going to become even more pertinent now in light of the recent events in Iraq, as Western countries belatedly start trying to figure out their least bad options in responding to military gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Is a fighting organization a more desirable adversary than a terrorist organization?

Putting aside the still-unrealized specter of nuclear or biological attacks, war has always been far more disruptive and destructive than terrorism. It is more destructive in terms of lives lost, property destroyed, and economies ruined. It causes more civilian casualties, even when it does not specifically target civilians. This has been the case in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and now Syria.

The economies of these countries have been laid to waste, and for many residents, there is little hope for a return to peaceful existence any time soon. All told, these warfighting activities have an immensely higher human cost than terrorism. In the long term, however, that steep price buys some opportunities for Western and Middle Eastern countries opposed to the spread of extremism and terrorism -- cold comfort for sure, but better than none.

A critical difference between terrorist organizations and fighting groups lies in the scope of conflict: For warfighters, the conflict eventually draws to a close, whereas for terrorists, it can drag on indefinitely.

Violent extremism tends to arise when a weak movement with a small number of followers pits itself against an impossible foe with no realistic expectation of success. As such, some violent extremist movements can linger for decades or longer, moving through periods of increased and decreased activity. Consider the Ku Klux Klan, which still persists in the United States despite the impossibility of its political goals and the contempt with which it is viewed by the vast majority of Americans.

Wars can also continue for decades, of course. But often they are defined around goals which -- if achieved -- can change the equation and create possible avenues for closure.

In Syria, that goal is currently the ouster of Assad. It is far from certain that Assad's ouster will lead to peace in Syria -- in fact, the odds are stacked against it (consider Libya). But the nature of the conflict is likely to change and evolve if and when the Syrian dictator falls. Some combatants will be satisfied with some outcomes. Others will change their goals to reflect new realities. Still others -- the real diehard extremists -- will not be satisfied until they have created a new global caliphate.

The motivations and objectives of the majority of fighters currently carrying black flags into battle may be fundamentally different from the nihilistic ideology of al Qaeda, in which fighting must continue until the end of the world, regardless of victory or failure. Warfighters have exit opportunities that are unavailable to most terrorists, particularly those of al Qaeda's stripe.

Is an embryonic al Qaeda state a more desirable adversary than a stateless radical group? 

One of those exit opportunities is especially unpalatable for the West -- the emergence of islands of sovereignty governed under al Qaeda's outlier interpretation of Islamic law.

This development would be interpreted as a victory by al Qaeda supporters and would result in great suffering for those unfortunate enough to live in a region under such a brutal and authoritarian regime. But it also comes loaded with pitfalls and challenges for the theoretical conquerors.

For starters, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern for long without a certain critical mass of consent by the governed (though it need not be a majority). Effective tools to rule in defiance of popular support include vast wealth and resources, an existing power base, an aura of invincibility, and the promise of stability and security. None of these tools can be found in al Qaeda's belt.

This leaves few options. In the instances where it has gained control over significant territory -- as it has in Mali, Yemen, Iraq, and Somaliawithin the last five years -- al Qaeda affiliates have thus far opted to govern as purists on the theory that their ideology is divinely ordained and obviously superior to the alternatives. This has largely backfired, resulting in quick losses of territory through a combination of internal dissatisfaction and external military pressure.

Should al Qaeda succeed in staking a persistent claim over a significant amount of land in the future, it portends further evolution. Organizations that hold territory have an interest in protecting their control of that territory. None of al Qaeda's territorial gains thus far have been stable enough to exist as anything but a war zone. If one of al Qaeda's emirates were to survive long enough to do anything except hold on by the skin of its teeth, its leaders may find that ideological purity is inadequate to feed and protect an infrastructure and a population, not to mention cultivate a tax base.

Successful governance requires attention to issues other than purist ideology.

If al Qaeda succeeds in establishing an emirate but fails to moderate, a valuable global learning moment may occur: Rather than being unseated by Western military force, al Qaeda's experiment in governance could fail on its own terms -- laying bare the fact that black flags and beheadings are of limited utility in preventing polio, building roads, or sustaining an economy. There would of course be a terrible human cost for those forced to live through the experiment, and a host of second-order consequences to consider -- mostly deriving from the perils associated with weak states, which tend to foster regional unrest, instability, and criminal activity, while creating problems with refugees, famine, and cross-border epidemics.

But a hypothetical al Qaeda nation with a specific geographic locale may actually present a more manageable adversary than a stateless terrorist group, making strategic approaches such as containment, destruction, isolation or negotiation more straightforward. America's problems dealing with the Taliban regime in the 1990s are well-documented, but it's hard to look at the current situation in Afghanistan and argue that the outlook is at all promising. There may be options for dealing with terrorist threats emanating from extremist Islamist states that stop short of regime change.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014
 

A New Day for ISIS

The capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is shaking things up in the jihadi world and the region. Here are four points to keep in mind as we try to assess what this means for the regional conflict, but also the war on terrorism.

1. Momentum 

ISIS has been trying to compete with al Qaeda for leadership, both symbolic and pragmatic, of the global jihadist movement. Its efforts to gain influence "off the ground" have so far proceeded in fits and starts, and they were starting to show signs of reaching a plateau, and the particular plateau they had reached was lower in stature than al Qaeda Central. No longer. In the popular jihadist imagination, ISIS is now building a commanding lead. If it doesn't make any major mistakes in its next moves, this could be a genuine tipping point. I've criticized analysts in the past for getting too far out ahead of the curve in anointing ISIS as the new center of gravity for jihadism. We might be getting to the point now where that is a fair assessment.

2. Regional Threat

I'm not a military analyst, but ISIS obviously presents a significant and probably existential insurgent threat to Iraq at this point. I haven't seen what I would consider a definitive estimate of the size of its fighting force. While there has been much talk of an ISIS march to Baghdad, it's entirely unclear to me whether that would involve stretching its forces too thinly and risking serious setbacks. ISIS has shown some signs of discipline in the past. It might be more logical for it to consolidate its current positions than continue expanding. I just don't know.

But there is no question that the type of regional threat presented by ISIS has fundamentally changed. As many have discussed, with Mosul, it has captured heavy weaponry and armored vehicles which it should be able to deploy, and aircraft, which it may not be able to deploy in a long-term manner (although if they can get the planes off the ground, they may be able to spend them on suicide attacks). There is not a lot of evidence to suggest ISIS has the technical capabilities to maintain these new assets (can they build replacement parts? do they know how to maintain an air fleet?), but it's not impossible either. At any rate, in the short term at least, this would seem to add considerable potential to their military strength.

3. Global Terrorism Threat -- Follow the Money

Starting early yesterday and continuing through today, ISIS sources on social media have noted that when they captured Mosul, they also captured Mosul's banks. Sources have consistently reported the haul at more than $400 million. It's not clear how this money is distributed in terms of types of currency, although some reports indicated it was mostly Iraqi dinars, so it's not clear how much spending power this represents and whether ISIS will be able to exploit the full amount.

Nevertheless, this is very significant, and analysis of the fall of Mosul so far has given it short shrift. If the number is accurate, ISIS now has more money than Osama bin Laden ever did -- not accounting for inflation, but also not counting ISIS's previous bankroll and the fundraising bonanza that its conquest of Mosul is likely to produce.

Media coverage has thus far focused on pictures circulated by ISIS of its jihadists driving around in American Humvees captured from the Iraqi army. But you can't fly a Humvee into a skyscraper in Manhattan. Armor travels regionally, money travels globally. ISIS is now arguably in a better position to bankroll global terrorism than al Qaeda ever was.

UPDATE 6/12: To be clear, ISIS may face significant challenges in deploying all this paper currency. After all, they are destabilizing the government that supports it and they may have difficulty converting it into a form they can use. In other words, they are almost certain to lose some of that money in the process of laundering it. They may have a plan for that, and there are also reports they obtained gold from the banks. There is a possibility that their money will not spend as effectively as bin Laden's, but there is not much chance they will fail to profit significantly from all of this. END UPDATE

The smart play would be for ISIS to use this money to build up the economy (and thus popular support) in areas it now controls, but jihadists have very little precedent as builders. Thus far, they have been much better at tearing things down, a drive fueled in part by ideology, in part by temperament, and in part by lack of imagination.

While by no means certain, the most dangerous scenario is not especially unlikely -- that ISIS will allocate some significant part of this money to terrorism. ISIS has dramatically increased its European-language propaganda efforts over the last two weeks. We've also seen terrorist suspects with ties to ISIS arrested in Saudi Arabia, Libya, France and Germany, with several of those happening over just the last couple weeks. The suspects' ties to ISIS run the gamut from loose to strong, but the message is clear -- ISIS wants to make its bones with a terrorist attack outside its geographical dominion. It now has the money to fund such activities lavishly, if it chooses to make that investment.

ISIS fighters have also been aggressively encouraging "lone wolf" attacks from supporters in the West, thus far with few results. As I've written before, this kind of tactic is extremely limited in the long run. It's very hard to get people motivated to act, rather than just talk, and when they do act, they are often ineffective. But so-called lone wolves can do some damage, and they may be more likely to act during a period when the online radicalizing community is pumped up and excited, which is most definitely the case at the moment. In the short term, at least, the risk of individual actor attacks in the West by ISIS supporters is as substantial as it has ever been.

4. What next for al Qaeda?

This is a critical moment for the old guard al Qaeda. After confronting ISIS publicly earlier this year, AQ Central and its leader Ayman al Zawahiri came off looking weak from various perspectives, as it clearly failed to rein the actions of its prodigal child. Nevertheless, AQC has held onto significant loyalties at the core, wresting control of its online forums back from ISIS over the last two months and holding the center by preventing defections from any other major affiliates. Now, it faces the perception that it may have backed the wrong horse in Syria, or worse, that it is actively seeking to hinder what is arguably the most successful jihadist movement in the world today.

AQC needs a new game plan, and fast, but it has very few apparent options on the table. Aside from capitulation to ISIS (which seems unlikely) or a coup within AQC by pro-ISIS factions (which could well happen), one of its few practical remaining plays would be to squander the entirety of whatever resources it has left on an attack against the West, in the hopes of regaining its reputation. The downside to this approach is that it would likely expose AQC's remaining infrastructure (if it has any to speak of) and could result in a catastrophic final blow against the organization by Western forces.

All roads forward for AQC now are paved with massive risk, except perhaps for one -- play the long game, and wait patiently for ISIS to overreach and self-destruct.

This isn't a terrible plan. Nothing succeeds like success, but nothing exceeds like excess. ISIS is currently enjoying the former, but it has a well-earned reputation for the latter.

Related reading: 

Smarter Counterterrorism in The Age of Competing Al Qaedas

ISIS's Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014
 

Al Qaeda Fractures Update and Google Hangout

Here's an updated version of the al Qaeda fractures chart, in advance of a panel discussion via War on the Rocks Monday at noon, which can be accessed from here.


Click the image for a larger version, or click here for a high-resolution PDF.

A quick changelong since the last version:

  • Mokhtar Belmokhtar pledged allegiance to Zawahiri.
  • Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, and to some extent Ansar al Sharia Libya, have begun adopting ISIS messaging and showing signs of integration with ISIS networks as described by Aaron Zelin here and here
  • Al Shamukh forum was purged of its pro-ISIS administrators and restored to the AQC fold. Refugees are currently hanging out on al Platform. 
As usual, this is a work in progress, and I am only human, so if you see necessary corrections you can discuss them with me @intelwire on Twitter. 


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