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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

ISIS: The State of Terror

Jessica 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, 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 information will be posted here when it is available.

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




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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jihadist Hostages and the Shape of Things to Come

Update appended, Tuesday, 9/2/2014, 8:50 a.m. 

The recent beheading execution of hostage American citizen and journalist James Foley by the breakaway "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria has set the stage for a preview of how IS's war with al Qaeda may play out.

Both IS and its chief rival, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, hold a number of Western hostages between them, with al Nusra capturing 45 United Nations peacekeepers just this week, and IS threatening to behead another American, Steve Sotloff, in the immediate future should the United States continue airstrikes on its positions in Iraq.

Back in February, Clint Watts presciently outlined the possible consequences of jihadi competition in the post-al-Qaeda era. The most dangerous scenario he outlined was that competing jihadi groups would seek to outdo each other in brutality and attacks on the West. This scenario is also known as outbidding, a form of costly signalling of a terrorist group's intent.

In the unfolding, or rather ongoing, hostage crisis, we may be getting a preview of whether AQ and IS intend to escalate into an outbidding competition or whether one side will flinch.

It's a pretty safe bet that IS won't be the one flinching. With its graphic execution of Foley widely released and promoted online, the so-called "caliphate" is signalling that it desires to be seen as the organization bringing pain and death to the West, and prospects for the next hostage they have threatened appear to be dire.

In contrast, a week after Foley's execution was announced, Jabhat al Nusra returned Peter Curtis, another American journalist, after a deal brokered by Qatar, the details of which are unknown.

Timing is everything. It's not clear exactly when the Curtis deal reached the point of no return, whether it was before the Foley execution was announced, or if the execution of Foley may have helped spur the negotiations along. Furthermore, given that the U.S. is now ambiguously considering airstrikes in Syria, al Nusra may have wished to lower its priority on any potential target list. Al Nusra has executed prisoners in the past, albeit more discriminatingly than IS, so it's highly unlikely the decision to release Curtis came from the goodness of its leaders' hearts.

With the Curtis release, al Nusra may or may not have been signalling that it wants to position itself as less extreme or less brutal than IS. We just don't know, there are too many variables.

The capture of the U.N. peacekeepers, however, may set the stage for a more conclusive message. The fate of these hostages and the speed with which a deal is reached or ruled out may provide insight into al Nusra's next moves. If al Nusra decided to try to outbid IS, it now has a powerful card to play.

If al Nusra quickly completes a deal, on the other hand, it may point to an outcome that has been hinted at elsewhere in their public activities and online circles -- the intention to position themselves as less extreme than IS. Of course, there is plenty of room to be very extreme, while still being less extreme than IS, but the outcome of an outbidding war between Nusra and IS would be horrific, and for many reasons, we should hope the conflict between Nusra and IS does not go in that direction.

UPDATE: On Twitter, Charles Lister of the Brookings Institute also raised a complicating factor in evaluating how this goes -- al Nusra needs money, and a hefty ransom payment, if offered, may shift the calculus here. IS has also released hostages in exchange for ransom, and it solicited ransom for Foley (although the amount they requested clearly indicated their preference for executing him). It should be interesting to see how this plays out now that the issue of ransoms has come to the forefront. END UPDATE

Another major question mark is whether al Nusra's next move will be reflective of the broad direction of the wider al Qaeda movement.  As reported previously, there is reason to think al Nusra is not getting guidance from al Qaeda Central these days. If that's true, al Nusra may make a strategic call (in either direction) that is not in keeping the wishes of AQC, further fracturing the al Qaeda global network.

Finally, AQC has its own card to play, and IS is arguably trying to force its hand. American hostage Warren Weinstein was kidnapped by al Qaeda in 2011. The terrorist organization has periodically released proof-of-life videos featuring Weinstein, the most recent being some months old. In addition to its other goals, IS may have been reproaching AQC for its handling of Weinstein.

Al Qaeda has indicated that Weinstein would not be released unless convicted al Qaeda supporter Aafia Siddiqui is released from imprisonment in the U.S. The Islamic State pointedly offered to exchange James Foley for Siddiqui (among other U.S. prisoners) before it executed him. This demand was likely aimed directly at al Qaeda's credibility and contains an implicit critique of AQC's handling of Weinstein. This is, in some ways, a lose-lose scenario for AQC. If it responds by executing Weinstein, it looks like it is chasing the Islamic State's tail. If it continues to hold him under threat without taking action, IS comes out looking like the group that is more likely to get things done.

All of the activity around these hostages is, to some greater or lesser extent, proxy for each organization's larger intentions. If we see an escalation of violence against Westerners in the matter of hostages, particularly from al Nusra or al Qaeda, it may point to the start of a similar dynamic in regards to terrorist attacks on Western interests abroad or at home. If we see de-escalation, it could mark the start of a different kind of ideological struggle to contain the Islamic State by its own horrible brethren, a conflict whose ultimate consequences are yet unclear.

TUESDAY UPDATE: In an extremely relevant development, Voice of America reported Monday that al Nusra had delivered a list of demands to Fiji, the country whose soldiers were captured while under the U.N. banner.

While Nusra did ask for some money, what is far more significant is that they asked to be removed from the United Nations designated terrorist group listings. This is an extremely powerful signal that al Nusra may not intend to outbid the Islamic State, but that it may intend to change direction and position itself as a less extreme alternative.

The implications of this are far-reaching. There is little precedent for an al Qaeda affiliate renouncing the title of "terrorist," and it is likely that the Western response will be confused at best. It's early to parse out the nuances, but it's possible this could be a watershed moment between al Nusra and al Qaeda, as well as between both groups and the Islamic State. Updates soon.

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




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Saturday, August 30, 2014

10 Things You Need to Know About Reporting on Terrorists on Social Media

Some guidelines for journalists reporting from extremist content on social media:

  1. I'm calling it. "Terrorists are on social media" is officially not news. You should not be writing a story which features "terrorists are on social media" as its lead and/or nut graf.
  2. If you know more about social media than about terrorism and extremism, turn the story over to someone who knows more about terrorism and extremism. It's easier for them to understand how social media works than the other way around.
  3. Just because someone says they're with the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL), or al Qaeda, or anything else, doesn't mean it's true. If you don't know how to determine whether an account is actually associated with the group, don't report on its content.
  4. If your only context for understanding a Twitter account is the content of its tweets, you should not be reporting from it.
  5. Specifically, as to the above point, it is almost always incorrect to say "IS is saying" or "ISIS is doing" based on a Twitter account if you don't understand its context.
  6. Random people tweeting awful things is not news.
  7. Random people tweeting specific threats is not IS making specific threats against America.
  8. Amplifying IS talking points without context is not news. Consider whether you're reporting news or just helping IS scare Americans more effectively than it could ever do on its own.
  9. Nine times out of 10, it is not necessary to publicize extremist Twitter and Facebook account handles when reporting from their content.
  10. Most mainstream media reaches a far larger audience than any IS social media account. Consider whether you are taking a nobody and making him or her a somebody by guiding your much larger audience to his or her door. 
Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Saturday, August 23, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft Evil-O-Matic, ISIS Edition

As the self-styled Islamic State continues to make headlines with its atrocities, American pundits, Congressmen and Senior Officials are rapidly running out of ways to describe the terroristic so-called caliphate. As a public service, I am providing the H.P. Lovecraft Evil-O-Matic, which will automatically generate a useful description of IS for your New York Times thinkpiece, your Vice News voiceover or your impending congressional testimony.

To show you how it works, I've juiced up President Obama's statement from last week on the organization is still calling ISIL.
The eldritch nauseating cancer speaks for no religion. The endless mutating fungus's victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches hideous skulking weasels to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what the gelatinous revolting worms did yesterday, and for what they do every single day. The faceless dissolving plague has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is a veined nauseating tumor. The boneless decaying sludge may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is the shapeless gaping chimerae terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their ensorceled mewling scream, and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.
Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Monday, August 18, 2014

For Global Jihadist Supporters, Islamic State's Massacre Wipes Out Any Sympathy Over U.S. Strikes

The self-styled Islamic State dealt sparked a major backlash among global jihadists online who were incensed by its reported massacre of 700 tribe members, mostly civilians, in Deir Ezzor province in Syria. 

Negative hashtag references to the Islamic State, using the derogatory Arabic acronym Daash, soared from Aug. 8 to Aug. 18, increasing by 44 percent. When hashtags referring to Daash along with a reference to the massacre specifically were included in the count, the total soared by 85 percent. 

The surge in negative sentiment toward IS took place concurrently with airstrikes on the self-proclaimed caliphate by both the United States and the Assad regime and during the period during which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down, which IS has claimed as a victory. 

In other words, IS not only managed to completely erase all the goodwill it might have accrued from battling jihadists' hated enemies, but it added considerable negatives on top of that. 

Hashtags related to U.S. strikes on IS surfaced in the top 100 hashtags during the August 8 collection period, but they disappeared in the August 18 period.  

Methodology: 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 somewhat less than 3 million tweets for each collection period, which included a substantial amount of overlap from one period to the next. 

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. Two of the original seed accounts were suspended by Twitter, most recently Hajjaj al Ajmi, but there is so much overlap among the accounts that it made only a fraction of a percent of difference in the number of tweets examined. 



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Zawahiri Falls Off The Map, Is Rebuked By Top Al Nusra Figure

UPDATED: 11:17 a.m., see note below 

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has stopped responding to messages from the terror network's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, according to an extraordinary open letter published online yesterday by a top Nusra figure, Abu Maria al Qahtani.

According to Qahtani, Zawahiri went silent around the time that AQ splinter group, the Islamic State, declared a "caliphate" and demanded fealty from all other jihadi groups around the world. In a reproachful tone, Qahtani asked whether Zawahiri's intermediaries were delivering the messages, or whether Zawahiri knew about this grave emergency and just didn't care to help.

Qahtani writes, in an open letter addressed to Zawahiri, that al Nusra has been sending urgent messages to Zawahiri for two months, requesting that he speak out against the Islamic State's caliphate declaration, referring to IS as Kharijites (a derogatory reference to an early schism in Islamic history). Despite the letter's tone, Qahtani continues to refer to Zawahiri with respect, as an authority figure.

In the letter, al Qahtani says he is embarrassed to be making this public appeal, but he cannot be certain whether Zawahiri is aware of the situation and just doesn't want to help, or whether Nusra's messages to Zawahiri are being delivered by the designated intermediaries, whom Qahtani implies may not be trustworthy.

Last year, Ibrahim al Afghani, a figure with longstanding ties to al Qaeda and Zawahiri, published an similarly controversial open letter to Zawahiri in which he pleaded for the al Qaeda leader to intervene in a dispute within al Shabab, al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia. Afghani was killed soon thereafter by al Shabab's leadership, as was Omar Hammami, an American Shabab recruit who issued similar public pleas for al Qaeda intervention.

Al Qaeda made no response to either man while they were alive, but a leaked video this year from Adam Gadahn, an American al Qaeda member believed to be close to Zawahiri, condemned the killing of both men as Islamically unacceptable.

All of this together casts serious doubt on whether al Qaeda is in steady communication with any of its affiliates. Although individual instances of contact have certainly occurred, Zawahiri's response times have not been adequate to address the growing number of crises faced by AQ and its affiliates on the global stage. (I noted signs of this situation developing in a February article for Foreign Policy.)

The letter from Qahtani is an order of magnitude more significant than the earlier rebukes aimed at Zawahiri's silence, since those came from dissenters who were defying al Shabab's AQ-sanctioned leader, Ahmed Godane.

In contrast, Qahtani has been part of the leadership of one of al Qaeda's most important affiliates, currently under tremendous pressure from Islamic State advances in Syria, increasing disenchantment with Nusra among global jihadists community, and this weekend's arrest of Shafi al Ajmi, one of the organization's top fundraisers, in Kuwait. His letter is both a criticism of Zawahiri and a warning that the al Qaeda leader is in danger of losing control of one of its top two affiliates.

UPDATE: However, after several conversations about this post, it's important to note that Qahtani's status with al Nusra has changed recently, with more than one person describing his status as "rogue," although the consensus is that this is not a clean or total break. I initially omitted mention of this since the circumstances of Qahtani's problems with Nusra leadership are decidedly unclear, but it's an important point that I should have included in the first version of the story. I omitted it mainly because rumors about Qahtani's status have been a weekly occurrence for some time.

In some ways, this undercuts the significance of the rebuke, making it deniable for Jabhat al Nusra's emir, Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani. However Qahtani still represents a significant constituency in al Nusra, and it's possible that deniability is the reason why this letter was attributed to him.

Either way, it's indicative of problems, but slightly different ones. If Qahtani made this move without sanction from Jowlani, it may point to a potential splintering of al Nusra, which has been the subject of some speculation recently. If the letter's release was sanctioned, it allows al Nusra to make a strong expression of discontent with al Qaeda Central's leadership, while providing a face-saving opportunity to later deny or downplay the tone of the letter. END UPDATE

It's also worth noting that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the other half of the top two, has issued two statements in recent days which carefully hedge around the issue of the Islamic State, opting not to openly condemn its declaration of the caliphate and instead praising its military advances and supporting its engagement in battle with U.S. forces in carefully parsed terms. This could reflect a lack of direction from Zawahiri, but it may also be a pragmatic effort to walk a middle line, out of fear that AQAP could splinter if it openly condemns IS.

Humera Khan contributed to this article, but the views expressed are mine.

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




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Sunday, August 10, 2014

What's In a Name?

The Islamic State, the self-styled "caliphate" that was once called al Qaeda in Iraq, has had its share of rebrandings and also its share of brand confusion. Most recently, it was called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), with the translation or transliteration from Arabic into English providing much fodder for pedantic commentary (and I am not exempting myself from that category).

When the Islamic State dropped the -IS or -IL from its name at the end of June, concurrent with its declaration that it was now a caliphate, it seemed this was the end of the inside-baseball naming controversy. But no, when President Obama announced military strikes on IS this week, he continued to refer to them as ISIL.

The rationale, as explained by Matt Apuzzo of the New York Times and others, is that referring to the Islamic State by its' self-appointed name would legitimize its declaration of the caliphate.

This idea is at worst absurd, and at best wildly inconsistent. Extremist groups always adopt a name that reflects their greater ambitions, and as a rule, we refer to them by the names they choose. Do we legitimize the concept of a white-only state when we refer to the Aryan Nations? Do we legitimize Marxist-Leninist philosophy as shiny when we use the name Shining Path? Are we implying that fascism will bring a Golden Dawn when we talk about the Greek political party?

No, no and no. Ultimately, I suspect this comes back to a fundamental problem I've discussed before in the U.S. government's approach to Muslim extremists -- condescending overkill. The theory is that "legitimizing" IS by referring to it by its chosen name will have repercussions in the Muslim world that would not somehow apply to Christians when we talk about Christian Identity.

The Islamic State is not a special case, and ironically, we elevate its claim to legitimacy when we treat it differently from every other two-bit megalomaniacal movement that seeks to establish itself as the claimant of a global mandate.

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




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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gaza Dominates Talk In Jihadist Finance Networks; IS Still Struggles for Acceptance

Twitter users who influence the support and financing of jihadist movements in Syria have undergone a massive shift in priorities since June 1, with more and more attention shifting away from the Syrian conflict and toward Gaza. 

An analysis of the top 200 hashtags in jihadist financier social networks (methodology is defined below in more detail) showed more than twice as many references to Gaza as to Syria during the collection period around August 8 -- 32,513 hashtags mentioning Gaza by name -- compared to zero hashtags mentioning Gaza in data collected around June 1.  

Despite this, references to Syria and Iraq both increased over the two-month period, suggesting an substantially increased amount of interest in conflicts in Muslim lands, even as the users seemed to become disenchanted with almost every individual faction in Iraq and Syria. 

While hashtag references to Syria more than doubled, references to Iraq increased more than eight times. References to the Islamic State (under three different names) more than tripled, while references to Jabhat al Nusra didn't even double. 

References to al Qaeda vastly trailed references to all factions in Syria. While some of that is very probably attributable to illegality and social stigma related to supporting al Qaeda relative to the other groups, I think the data point is nevertheless noteworthy and at least partly indicative of AQ's struggle to remain relevant in a dynamically changing field. Certainly, if AQ Central had made any noteworthy news during the two-month period, it would be reflected here more strongly. 

Other charts of interest: 

References to the Islamic State continue to vastly outstrip references to all other Syrian factions. Love it or hate it, people are talking about it. 

References to the Islamic State under its chosen official name briefly closed ground with references to the group under the derogatory nickname Daash around July 24, before the gap opened up again in the August 8 collection (which includes only one day of tweets related to the U.S. bombing of IS positions in Iraq). During that two week period, IS unleashed a torrent of pictures of atrocities it had carried out in Iraq, including countless beheadings and videos of mass executions, which may account for the increase in negative references. 

Similarly, in the July 24 collection, references to IS under its proper name briefly outstripped references to Daash, a trend which also reversed itself in the ensuing two weeks. 

These results only include use of the hashtag of each group's formal name, without editorial commentary. Two IS hashtags emerged in the wake of U.S. military action in Iraq, which were not counted. If they were added to the positive references to IS, it would have resulted in a significant spike in positive references, but the comparison to past periods would not be valid since hashtags such as those referring to the announcement of the caliphate were not included in previous totals. Nevertheless, just for a sense of perspective, here's what that would look like: 

The next installment in this series should reflect more accurately whether IS is gaining sympathy or legitimacy from U.S. action against it. 

Methodology: 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 somewhat less than 3 million tweets for each collection period, which included a substantial amount of overlap from one period to the next. 

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. Two of the original seed accounts were suspended by Twitter, most recently Hajjaj al Ajmi, but there is so much overlap among the accounts that it made only a fraction of a percent of difference in the number of tweets examined. 

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




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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.

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




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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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