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


Friday, May 22, 2015
 

Weekly Brief 5/22/2015, Bin Laden's Bookshelf and More

The U.S. government this week released a very large batch of documents seized during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. While many in the media rushed to make listicles out of bin Laden's English-language reading list and marveled at the al Qaeda job application (just like they did in 2007 when the last one appeared), those who want to take a more measured and thoughtful approach need turn only to Clint Watts for advice.

Clint used to work on the U.S. government's Harmony Program, which declassified important documents from the war on terror, so he knows a little something about sifting through long pages of sometimes turgid prose by al Qaeda leaders. Writing for War on the Rocks, he gives some very useful tips on how to work through the stash.

Related resources:
-- J.M. Berger
RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS

A new type of financier supporting Islamist armed groups emerged during the initial years of the Syrian conflict. These Gulf-based financiers openly advertised their activities on social media, using the medium to attract donations from across the Gulf. The international community moved slowly to neutralize these financiers, but in August 2014, the US government sanctioned two of the most prominent individuals, Hajaj al-Ajmi and Shafi al-Ajmi of Kuwait. Although the sanctions announced in August 2014 did not target all of the individuals publicly fundraising for Islamist armed groups in Syria, it did create a new environment in the Gulf. By Asher Berman

Why Terrorists Weep: The Socio-Cultural Practices of Jihadi Militants
How the non-military activities of terrorist groups can shed important new light on how extremists think and behave. Related resource: The Bored Jihadi, a new reading list and noteboard focused on jihadi culture. Both by Thomas Hegghammer

ISIS WATCH

Within a matter of days this week, the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, seized with apparent ease the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in both cases seemingly coming out of nowhere to rout government forces. Yet a closer look at the two battles shows the group following a longerterm strategy, in both cases biding its time, taking territory mainly from other insurgent groups. Then, after years of war, attrition and corruption had left the government forces demoralized and, particularly in Syria, hollowed out, it attacked, overrunning them.

Despite months of an American-led bombing campaign, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has conquered the Iraqi city of Ramadi. It is a major setback, and it should compel policymakers to assess whether our strategy -- which in the near term boils down to containing and disrupting ISIS while we bolster stable governance in Iraq -- is working. What it should not do is prompt half-baked calls for inserting more American troops into Iraq. By Brian Fishman.

A central goal of the Islamic State is expansion. This week, the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, took over key cities in Iraq and Syria. It aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries. A year after announcing its expansion goals, it is operating or has cells in more than a dozen countries.

ISIS Finances Are Strong
The Islamic State has revenue and assets that are more than enough to cover its current expenses despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group’s finances, according to analysts at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization that researches public policy.

The President discusses ISIS, Syria and more.

Palmyra’s capture provides the extremist group with a strategic base from which to advance on key Syrian state-held areas.

In seeking to explain the recruiting success of the so-called Islamic State (IS), Western analysts tend to view the group through the lens of its most provocative acts: staged executions, destruction of heritage sites and calls to bring about the “End of Days.”* Yet while its Western enemies are preoccupied parsing the allure of its spectacular savagery and zealous apocalyptic ideology, IS is carefully cultivating a parallel appeal to its core Arab constituency, not through shock and awe but through routine and accomplishment. The brand that IS media most regularly markets to inhabitants of IS-controlled territory and supporters is that of a powerful but pragmatic actor sensibly governing a caliphate where they and their families can live and work, not just fight and die.

* J.M. Note: These aren't necessarily inconsistent with the article; in fact the local propaganda contributes to the group's Millenarian appeal.

Lonely Man Finds a Home in Islamic State
When Mark Taylor began visiting a New Zealand mosque about four years ago, worshippers there saw him as lonely, a little lost and possessing a childlike view of the world. They didn't see any anger or radicalism in the security guard who said he was a former Army soldier. And so they were not only appalled but also worried for him when he resurfaced last year in Syria, describing himself as an adventurer and posting social media messages under the Twitter handle "Kiwi Jihadi."

TERRORISM WATCH

The Purge: How Somalia’s Al Shabaab Turned Against Its Own Foreign Fighters
Counterterrorism agencies have long been preoccupied with the threat posed by the recruiting successes of the Somali terrorist group al Shabaab in Western countries. In recent years, however, al Shabaab has turned on the foreign fighters in its own ranks, waging a brutal campaign to purge the perceived spies from its midst. An intimate account of the Shabaab civil war was provided to The Intercept in a series of interviews conducted with a current member of al Shabaab and a source who has maintained close contacts with the group.

Exit From Refuge Was on Bin Laden's Mind
Osama bin Laden was considering leaving his hideaway in Abbottabad, Pakistan, just months before Navy SEALs stormed his compound and killed him, according to a trove of documents seized from his compound during the raid and declassified this week by the Obama administration.

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, May 15, 2015
 

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief, 5/15/2015: Return of the Sith, ISIS in Pakistan, More

After weeks of conflicting and inconsistent reports about his alleged incapacitating injuries, self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi surfaced this week in an audio recording that did little to settle the question. The recording vaguely referenced events in a March-to-April time frame and seemed to almost studiously avoid anything that would give the impression it was intended as proof of life.

Most of the content of the lecture was tedious recapping and predictable exhortation. While it reiterated previous calls for Muslims to join the Islamic State immediately, Baghdadi took unusual pains to explain that this call was not a sign of weakness. ISIS doesn't need the recruits, he explained, the recruits need to be with ISIS to save their souls. Saying "I'm not desperate" when no one has asked is a little like volunteering "I'm not racist."

Baghdadi covered a massive range of topics using an excessive number of words, so much that it was easy to miss the fact that some of his choicest words and one of the longest single sections of the speech was devoted to Saudi Arabia. Baghdadi made a number of pointed comments about Saudi willingness to bomb its neighbor but not to take up arms "in defense of Muslims" in Syria, Burma, Palestine and so on.

"Their treachery has become clear even to the laymen of the Muslims. ... So their masters from amongst the Jews and Crusaders had no more use for them. And so their masters began to replace them with the Safawī (Safavid) Rāfidah and the Kurdish atheists," Baghdadi said. "When Āl Salūl realized their masters’ abandonment of them, their disposal of them like tattered shoes, and their replacement of them, they launched their supposed war against the Rāfidah of Yemen. And it is not a storm of resolve, rather it is the kick of a dying person, by Allah’s permission, as he struggles during his last breaths."

ISIS WATCH

Minnesota Teen Terror Recruit Back in Prison After Violating Terms of Halfway House Agreement
Abdullahi Yusuf, a Somali-American who pleaded guilty to conspiring to support terrorists in the Middle East, has been taken into custody for allegedly violating conditions while living in a St. Paul halfway house. Yusuf drew national attention after a federal judge decided to place him in a halfway house and provide counseling for him rather than hold him in custody while awaiting sentencing. Yusuf’s alleged violations were not detailed in court records.

Review Roundup: The State of Terror
A look at the reviews for the new ISIS book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. "Smart granular analysis... nuanced and readable... a profound act of counterterrorism... packed with useful insights... big-brained research on political violence and some of the most acute thinking about the insurgency that is around today..." Buy it today.

Gunmen Ambush Bus in Pakistan, Killing Dozens
At least 43 people were killed when gunmen ambushed a bus in this southern port city, Pakistani officials said, in a sectarian assault that was the country’s first major attack claimed by Islamic State.

NSA director says ISIS ideology 'increasingly resonating' with Americans
The head of U.S. Cyber Command said Monday that the ability of ISIS to recruit adherents online is "a trend that is clearly increasing, not decreasing" and that the terror group's ideology is "increasingly resonating" with Americans.

Virginia woman sentenced for lying about ISIS bomb plot
A Virginia woman who tried to help a teenager join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and carry out a suicide bombing was sentenced Monday to 4½ years in federal prison for lying to the FBI about the plot.

Journey to ISIS: From an Astrophysics Student to Shell-Shocked Islamist Fighter
A Turkish foreign fighter's diary provides a unique glimpse into the everyday miseries of life in ISIS-held Syria and the psychological toll of air strikes on new recruits.

Defenders Of Minn. Men Accused Of Trying To Join ISIS Claim Entrapment
Lawyers for the four Minnesota men accused of trying to join ISIS say the FBI entrapped them.


TERROR WATCH

The Unknown American Al-Qaeda Operative
By Arif Rafiq. An American-born terrorist, al Qaeda leader's Ahmed Farooq's life and recent death reveal the deep cleavages within Pakistan's society.

The Detail in Seymour Hersh’s Bin Laden Story That Rings True
Hersh contends that “the C.I.A. did not learn of Bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the U.S.”

Al-Qaeda linked group brags about killing after blogger hacked to death
As the world reacted to the news that another secular blogger in Bangladesh had been killed in a machete attack in the north-eastern city of Sylhet, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed the attack on social media.

Four jihadists killed in clashes with Tunisian army
Four jihadists were killed Thursday in clashes with the Tunisian army in a mountainous region near the border with Algeria, the defence ministry said.

Inspectors in Syria Find Traces of Banned Military Chemicals
International inspectors have found traces of banned toxic chemicals in at least three military locations in Syria, four diplomats and officials said, less than two years after President Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle the country’s chemical arsenal.

RESEARCH HIGHLIGHT

“It's More Than Just a Name”: A Theoretical Approach to Eradicating Terrorism Through Propositions of Organizational Naming
The following study offers a series of propositions highlighting the effects and implications of organizational naming and labeling practices and their subsequent effects on the framing of terrorist organizations and activity. by Jacqueline S. Bruscella

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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Monday, May 11, 2015
 

Review Roundup -- ISIS: The State of Terror



Here's a roundup of reviews for ISIS: The State of Terror, the new book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, on sale everywhere: 

Washington Post: "Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... Stern and Berger offer a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group."

Literary Review: "Stern and Berger draw on internet-based sources, big-brained research on political violence and some of the most acute thinking about the insurgency that is around today. ... Stern and Berger's book is packed with useful insights and also seeks to explain the different aspects of ISIS."

Salon: "Understanding ISIS, who it appeals to and why, as well as how it sees itself, isn't something we're supposed to do. One purpose of ISIS' savagery is to make us react without thinking, to compel us to view the world as it does, as a stark conflict between good and evil demanding immediate, dramatic action. In that light, consider 'ISIS: The State of Terror,' a profound act of counterterrorism."

The Telegraph: "Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger have produced a clear and succinct account of the rise of the fanatics... This book's achievement is to demonstrate how ISIS fits within the spectrum of blood-soaked jihadism."

Evening Standard: "One can only conclude, with the clarity of recent hindsight, that we should have seen it coming -- at least when seen through the lens of ISIS: The State of Terror, a new history of the threat by US academics Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. ... a timely and important history of a movement that now defines the 21st century."

Prospect: "Perhaps the most interesting comparison to make is between IS and apocalyptic cults. Stern and Berger cite the examples of Heaven's Gate and the Branch Davidians, whose members attempted, or were pressured into, mass suicide on the basis that the end was nigh. THe eschatology of IS has found fertile soil."

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."

New York Times: "The authors do nimble jobs of turning their copious research and their own expertise on terrorism into coherent, accessible narratives that leave us with an understanding of the Islamic State's history and metastasis, and its modus operandi. ... The most compelling sections of the Stern-Berger book are devoted to comparing ISIS and Al Qaeda. ... The authors describe Al Qaeda as an exclusive 'vanguard movement,' a 'cabal that saw itself as the elite intellectual leaders of a global ideological revolution that it would assist and manipulate.' ... ISIS, in contrast, is more of a populist start-up operation."

Pragati: "Jessica Stern’s earlier book, Terror in the Name of God, was notable for her in person research with terrorists from around the globe, and JM Berger, whose book Jihad Joe is the definitive account of American recruits to Al-Qaeda. Together, they have a formidable insight into the motivations and means of the Islamic State –- motives and means which we will still need to face, even if IS itself goes into decline.

The Independent (Ireland): "...an engrossing book in which two scholars of Islamic terrorism describe the rise of a formidable jihadi movement... The jihadis are master propagandists, and the authors' description of the workings of the ISIS publicity machine is one of the strongest parts of a book full of insights... illuminating..."

Kirkus Reviews: "A detailed study of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from its rise out of al-Qaida to its intended fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecies. ... this book offers much to learn about ISIS and an expanded understanding of current events."

Mick Endsor: "ISIS: The State of Terror is a brilliant analysis of a group that, in a matter of years, has gone from the verge of extinction to one of the single greatest threats to peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond. Many more pages will undoubtedly be written on ISIS in the coming years but Stern and Berger have set the standard here."

The Malaysian Reserve: "The book expertly focuses on the timelines and events that led to ISIS as well as the people within the organisation... A serious in-depth look into ISIS that doesn't feel as if it's just another Western 'liberal' propaganda. A must read, especially for those living in Muslim countries whether you're a Muslim or not."

New York Times: "[Stern and Berger] dissect the Islamic State's messaging in some detail, showing how the cruelty is aimed at recruiting a very specific demographic, 'angry, maladjusted young men' attracted to a total war against unbelief. ... The authors contrast the Islamic State's messaging with Al Qaeda's, and show why ISIS has ultimately been more successful."

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, May 8, 2015
 

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief, 5/7/2015: Senate Hearing on ISIS Recruitment, Garland Attacks, Book Reviews and More

VIDEO OF THE WEEK  





The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on the terrorist use of social media as a recruiting tool, a timely subject in the wake of the ISIS-inspired Garland, Texas, terrorist attack on Sunday (see below).

Witnesses included J.M. Berger of Intelwire, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror; Peter Bergen, director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation; Mubin Shaikh, author of Undercover Jihadi; and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

J.M. Berger's written testimony

GARLAND ATTACKS

Texas Attacker Left Trail of Extremist Ideas on Twitter
Counterterrorism officials on Tuesday were studying the electronic trails left by two men killed by a police officer as they shot at a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas, looking for any direct ties to the Islamic State extremist group in Syria.

F.B.I. Says It Sent Warning on One Gunman in Attack at Texas Gathering
Three hours before two gunmen opened fire outside a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Tex., the F.B.I. sent a bulletin to the Garland police warning them that one of the men might show up at the event, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, said Thursday.

Texas Shooting Suspect Elton Simpson's Private Messages: 'The Noose Is Tightening'
Private Twitter messages written by one of the suspects in the weeks before the Garland, Texas shooting Sunday reveal a man who had turned against his country. "Soon you won't be able to live in America as a Muslim. The noose is tightening," Elton Simpson wrote in a March 14 message seen by the FBI and obtained by ABC News.

BOOK REVIEWS 

The Future of Violence,  Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum
We’re entering an era in which smaller and smaller groups can project violence in unprecedented ways, even rivaling the destructive capacity of states. This shift in power dynamics is the topic of The Future of Violence, a new book by Benjamin Wittes at the Brookings Institution and Gabriella Blum at Harvard Law School. The book addresses one of the most fundamental challenges of our century—how can we structure our society so that these newfound technological powers don’t end in catastrophe?

Anonymous Soldiers by Bruce Hoffman
Between 1917 and 1947 in Mandate Palestine, the Irgun and its splinter group, the Lehi, were determined to oust the British and establish Jewish independence by whatever means necessary. Bruce Hoffman’s “Anonymous Soldiers” is a gripping narrative history of that struggle.

ISIS: The State of Terror reviewed in Pragati
Jessica Stern’s earlier book, Terror in the Name of God, was notable for her in person research with terrorists from around the globe, and JM Berger, whose book Jihad Joe is the definitive account of American recruits to Al-Qaeda. Together, they have a formidable insight into the motivations and means of the Islamic State – motives and means which we will still need to face, even if IS itself goes into decline.

ISIS WATCH

In a propaganda war, U.S. tried to play by the enemy’s rules
The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, had direct backing from President Obama, help from the CIA, and teams of Arabic, Urdu and Somali speakers who were thrust into the fray on Twitter and other social-media platforms. In seeking to change minds overseas, however, the CSCC also turned heads in Washington. Experts denounced the group’s efforts as “embarrassing” and even helpful to the enemy.
Hamas arrests dozens of Islamic State supporters
Palestinian Islamist group makes arrests of dozens of Salafi-jihadists linked to ISIS after bombings, Gaza sources say.

Terror plotters linked to IS released after minimum sentences, despite fears
Convicted terror plotters who are now linked to Islamic State were released from prison after serving their minimum sentences, despite authorities fearing they remained at risk of extremism, because of a federal law that granted automatic parole.

Aussie jihadist Neil Prakash spreading Boston bomb blueprint
The top Australian fighter and ­recruiter within Islamic State — former Melbourne rapper Neil Prakash — is providing the group’s supporters in the West with detailed bomb-making ­instructions that were used by the Boston Marathon bombers before their 2013 attack.

RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS

Canadian Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria
This article examines the flow of Canadian foreign fighters to the Syrian and Iraqi theaters, placing it in the context of earlier Canadian involvement in jihadi groups, and in particular other recent cases, such as Somalia.   by Christopher Anzalone

Islam and resistance: Hamas, ideology and Islamic values in Palestine
An analysis of the historical evolution, values and Islamic reference points of Hamas. Interviews and surveys, as well as Hamas’ ongoing use of Islamic terminology and the Islamisation of the Gaza Strip, reveal that religion remains intertwined with the movement’s political and social activities.   by Tristan Dunning

Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Persistence in a Global Context
Since 2005, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of transnational insurgents fighting in the Middle East, and they appear to have become the face of the jihad movement. However, of the dozens of foreign fighter contingents around the world in recent decades, only about half have been Islamists. The difference between the other contemporary and historical foreign fighter groups and the jihadis is not one of mobilization or effectiveness, but of persistence.   by David Malet

TERROR WATCH

Four arrested in German raids on anti-Muslim 'terror' group
German police arrested four people Wednesday accused of belonging to a far-right "terror" organization that acquired explosives for attacks on Muslims and refugee homes, federal prosecutors said.

Why Assad Is Losing
Syria's rebels are making sweeping gains, as foreign powers up support and work with Islamist fighters. But the regime isn't about to go down without a fight.

Syria Is Using Chemical Weapons Again, Rescue Workers Say Two years after President Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, there is mounting evidence that his government is flouting international law to drop jerry-built chlorine bombs on insurgent-held areas.

Al Qaeda Branch Claims Responsibility for Bangladeshi Blogger’s Killing
The leader of Al Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent has published a video claiming responsibility for the death of Avijit Roy, an atheist Bangladeshi-American blogger who was killed by a group of men with machetes

White supremacists stole my identity to spew hatred on the Times of Israel

The Times of Israel published an article on its website containing a graphically violent and racist diatribe against the Palestinian people and calling for their “extermination”. The despicable article was attributed to me and was accompanied by my photograph.    by Josh Bornstein

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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Thursday, May 7, 2015
 

Social Media: An Evolving Front in Radicalization

The following written testimony by J.M. Berger was submitted for a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Full video of the hearing can be seen here.

The self-styled Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, is not the first group to employ social media as a tool for recruitment and propaganda, but its innovative and aggressive approach has afforded it an unprecedented level of success, and its activities will likely provide a template for future extremist initiatives.

Since the beginning of 2015, at least 30 Americans in 13 states have been subject to law enforcement action for attempting to join ISIS or carry out violence inspired by ISIS. In every case, a significant social media component was found in the radicalization or recruitment process.

In cases where a clear trajectory could be determined, about one-third of the suspects appear to have been radicalized by al Qaeda-affiliated content prior to the rise of ISIS, and only later shifted allegiance to the Islamic State. The remainder were reportedly radicalized by ISIS directly. While this points to the growing influence of ISIS among those vulnerable to radicalization, it also highlights the fact that this activity takes place in an evolving context, rather than being an entirely new or different problem.

While trends can be detected, those radicalized continue to defy generalization. The majority of those charged were males under the age of 30, but almost 20 percent were women and approximately 30 percent were older than 30. About 30 percent of the cases involved some discussion of a violent plot in the United States, with most of the remainder involving efforts to travel to Syria and join ISIS there.

The role of global social media has made it possible for adherents of even the most outlying extremist ideologies to connect and communicate. In addition, the increasing ease of global travel makes it possible for the most committed and fanatical to gather in specific geographical locations.

Furthermore, a proliferation of technologies for inflicting mass casualties empower those who are frustrated in their efforts to travel to Iraq and Syria to act violently at home, often with outsized consequences that echo through the 24-hour news cycle.

In the blunt numerical context of a world with 7 billion people or a Twitter monthly active user base of 302 million, active supporters of ISIS barely register. They represent a fraction of 1 percent of Muslims worldwide, and an even smaller fraction of the world’s population.

But when adherents of a violent ideology can connect and communicate swiftly and easily, these tiny percentages add up to hundreds or even thousands of people who can congregate or act in loose concert, exerting a disproportionate impact on global politics and world events. Social media is a critical tool for organizing such activity.

There are three major components to ISIS’s social media campaign.
  • The first is disseminating propaganda to generate support for the group and attract potential recruits and supporters locally and abroad. 
  • The second is disseminating propaganda designed to manipulate its enemies’ perceptions and political reactions. While some of this material purports to demoralize and deter potential enemies from taking action, its real intent is often to inflame animosity and engage foreign countries in a wider regional war. Some of this propaganda also aims to undermine the unity of the coalition opposing ISIS. Its terrorist actions are synchronized with this goal.
  • The third major component is recruitment. Here, the broad strokes of ISIS’s highly visible propaganda campaign give way to a host of smaller, individualized activities. 
Due to its unusually large size (in the context of extremist groups) and its large contingent of foreign fighters, ISIS can attack the recruiting problem using a wide variety of tactics, with staffing levels that allow for a very high ratio of radicalizers to potential recruits.

ISIS has cultivated recruiters and radicalizers who speak the native languages of Western countries. In some cases, as in Minnesota, supporters and recruiters work on the ground and synchronize their bricks-and-mortar operations with online outreach. In other cases, it pursues purely online initiatives, benefiting from the sense of remote intimacy that comes with constant contact using always-on media.

These approaches are detectable in open sources, up to a point, although recruits who reach a critical decision-making stage are often shifted off of public social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to private social media such as Kik and WhatsApp, where interactions cannot be directly observed using open-source tools.

In Garland, Texas, on May 3, 2015, two apparent ISIS supporters were killed attempting to attack an event that involved drawing the Prophet Mohammed. A police officer was wounded.

ISIS supporters online had openly urged attacks on the event for more than a week prior, and while the attack was thwarted, it was not prevented.

The challenge in such cases is separating the signal from the noise. ISIS supporters online generate a very substantial amount of noise, yet it is relatively uncommon for a specific attack to be so clearly reflected in data preceding its execution. Therefore caution should be exercised when relying on open-source intelligence to anticipate attacks. ISIS supporters are likely to become more vocally threatening if they believe U.S. law enforcement will allocate resources every time they name a specific target.

The increasing disruption of ISIS’s most visible propaganda activities -- on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and increasingly Twitter -- has decreased its ability to broadcast its message to the widest possible audiences. The crackdown by social media providers has created tradeoffs in detecting recruitment.

When broader propaganda efforts are disrupted, recruitment increasingly shifts to a peer-to-peer model of individual relationships. For instance, one of the most commonly observed interactions involves foreign fighters in Syria speaking directly to vulnerable young people in the U.S. using private Facebook messages. This activity is harder to detect in open-source, but not necessarily impossible. New and better techniques are needed to identify both recruiters and at-risk populations.

But while detection and interdiction for purposes of countering violent extremism become more labor-intensive as a result of suspensions, these disruptions also increase the amount of time and energy ISIS must expend to find and attract new recruits. Adherents are persistent in returning to the field with new accounts, an activity that can be countered more effectively but probably cannot be entirely defeated. The bottom line: Extremist activity on social media cannot be eliminated, it can only be weakened.

Current efforts to counter ISIS activity are inhibited by two key challenges.

The first is commitment. ISIS supporters rarely tire of promoting their message, and they are not easily deterred. Faced with an aggressive spike in suspensions on Twitter, they have mounted a variety of labor-intensive countermeasures that keep them in the game, albeit at a reduced level.

The process of reporting pro-ISIS users for suspension requires a steady and ongoing commitment. Twitter suspensions are reportedly based primarily on user reporting of abusive content. If the reporters get bored or distracted, the network gains time to regenerate. Only a consistent effort will produce a consistent result, but the current level of pressure is certainly having some effect.

This leads us to the second challenge, which is the near total outsourcing of anti-ISIS activity online. To date, the vast majority of Twitter abuse reporting is apparently done by hacktivists. The largest and most organized efforts to counter ISIS online, either through reporting or the spread of competing messages, include:

  • “Anonymous,” an amorphous collection of anonymous vigilantes, including significant numbers who engage in unrelated illegal or antigovernment activities.
  • Foreign and domestic activist networks and political groups that are predicated on anti-Muslim sentiment, at times including the language of overt bigotry. 
  • Foreign government influence operations, such as Russian, Syrian and Iranian programs, whose operations include substantial activity adversarial to U.S. foreign policy and inimical to our national security.
  • Other hacktivists of unknown origin who deploy spam techniques and malware against ISIS online. Recent examples include content that appears to originate in Japan and Saudi Arabia, but may be deliberately misleading as to its origins. 
Similar to the bricks-and-mortar military coalition against ISIS, members of these networks have a variety of motives for participating, not all of them consistent with American values, or our security and foreign policy goals.

A great many Muslim voices oppose ISIS and its values on a daily basis, however these efforts tend to be organic, rather than highly organized campaigns, especially in English. While such individual voices are crucially important, Muslims seeking to counter ISIS should also pursue more organized strategies. Within the Muslim-American community, programs are already in development to address this gap.

If the U.S. government wishes to directly counter ISIS online, such initiatives will require latitude to engage in trial and error. Programs must be prepared to produce and disseminate extremely high volumes of content. In the current political environment, where back-seat drivers and courters of controversy are found in abundance, this is a difficult proposition.

Government efforts are also subject to limitations on how we conduct information operations, or more bluntly, propaganda. Liberal democracies require that such operations be truthful and acknowledge the concerns of multiple constituencies. And activities undertaken on social media, especially in English, are subject to high levels of scrutiny and instant critique.

Any efforts to move forward in this space must create opportunities for experimentation and allow room for missteps. I am not optimistic that this administration and this Congress are capable of giving a government agency the latitude necessary to successfully undertake a more aggressive approach.

Unfortunately, this means the burden falls on volunteers, activists and community groups. As noted above, private sector players who are currently most active in countering ISIS bring a lot of baggage to the process. Furthermore, private sector groups often lack the funding and manpower needed to be effective. ISIS deploys thousands of activists to promote its messages on a daily basis. To be effective against ISIS, we must be prepared to deploy similar numbers.

Some of the limitations I have discussed here may be surmountable. If they are not, we are left with relatively few options.
  • First, we can continue under the current scenario, which is already having a detrimental effect on the performance of ISIS online networks. 
  • Second, we can find ways to incentivize private sector participation in anti-ISIS initiatives. There are considerable complications here, including the fact that government support (either moral or financial) can delegitimize organizations working to counter violent extremism in the eyes of their target audiences. The government’s expectations of potential partners also limit the field. For instance, it is doubtful government-supported activists would be permitted to engage in frank discussions about politically sensitive U.S. policies that are important to target audiences. 
  • Third, we can create government information programs that involve a large number of accounts focused on generating substantial volumes of anti-ISIS activity online, while taking a conservative and limited approach to the content. As the example of Russian online propaganda demonstrates, there are benefits to simply injecting noise into contested online spaces, but such efforts must take place at a very fast tempo in order to have an effect. A modest success in this space may also help pave the way for more innovative efforts in the future.
  • Fourth, we can deploy intelligence and other reporting assets to expose the current standard of living within ISIS territories. Recent news reports suggest deteriorating conditions in major centers such as Raqqa and Mosul, but these are based mainly on eyewitness accounts. To counter ISIS’s highly visual propaganda, we must obtain and distribute images and video that undermines its extensive propaganda depiction of a high-functioning state. This step is critical to undercutting ISIS’s powerful millenarian appeal. 
In conclusion, it is important to remember that the study of social media is relatively new and rapidly evolving. Unpredictable outcomes are inevitable in highly interconnected networks. While social network analysis offers great promise as a way to understand the world, we are still at an early stage in determining which approaches work. ISIS’s social media campaign has evolved and adapted significantly over the course of its short history, and if we seek to meet them on the online battlefield, we must do the same.




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Monday, May 4, 2015
 

Elton Simpson 2010 indictment and documents

One of the shooters identified in the ISIS-inspired Garland, Texas, shooting attack was indicted in 2010 for lying to an FBI agent in relation to a statement he previously made to an informant regarding a desire to join al Shabab. The case is thin compared to most terrorism indicments in the United States, and it resulted in a sentence of three years probation. Documents from the case are linked below.

Read the documents

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Friday, May 1, 2015
 

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief, 5/1/2015

CHART OF THE WEEK


Much has been made about the crumbling momentum of the Islamic State, aka ISIS or ISIL, on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and while it has compensated in various ways for the military challenges it faces, there has also been a shift in its public profile, sparked in part by some welcome introspection in the media about how to cover ISIS's atrocities, but also by a significant number of competing news stories and overall media fatigue -- the public, and some in the media, are starting to adapt to and push back on ISIS's strategy of escalating atrocities.

Developments relevant to al Qaeda in Yemen have also amplified interest in ISIS's primary competitor, although at a far lower level than produced by the Charlie Hebdo attack in January.

Chief among the competing stories is the unrest in Baltimore. A useful observation here is that Web searches for Baltimore on any given normal week far outstrip searches for either al Qaeda or ISIS on any given week, even when interest in ISIS was at its peak. Normal life in a major American city trumps jihadist showmanship for interest in all but the most extreme circumstances, and certainly on every day for the past year.


ISIS WATCH

American Charged With Islamic State Ties Contacted Jamaica Cleric: US Official
An American woman arrested last month for trying to travel to Syria to join the militant group Islamic State was in touch with a Abdullah al Faisal, an Islamist preacher from Jamaica who has pledged loyalty to ISIS, a federal law enforcement official said. Faisal, who was the spiritual leader behind the now-defunct Revolution Muslim, is one of the important figures in English-language radicalization and specifically the radicalization of Americans, comparable in many ways to the more notorious Anwar al Awlaki.

Islamic State has killed over 2,000 off battlefield since June: monitor
Ultra-radical Islamic State insurgents have killed at least 2,154 people off the battlefield in Syria since the end of June when the group declared a caliphate in territory it controls, a Syrian human rights monitor said on Tuesday.

Where the Islamic State Gets Its Weapons
An investigator has found evidence suggesting that the Islamic State had obtained weapons flowing into Syria from East Africa.

3,000 More Foreign Jihadists Join ISIS
Foreign fighters from around the globe continue to pour into Iraq and Syria to join up with the self-proclaimed Islamic State—despite ISIS’s loss of two major cities, four U.S. and military officials told The Daily Beast.

Man ordered held after alleged threats in Islamic State case
A Minneapolis man was ordered detained Wednesday after authorities say he got angry and used his Twitter account to threaten law enforcement officers after some of his close friends were arrested for allegedly trying to join the Islamic State group in Syria.

Saudi Arabia Says It Foiled Attack on U.S. Embassy, Arrested ISIS Supporters
Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it has arrested a total of 93 people with ties to the ISIS in recent months, foiling their plans to carry out multiple terrorist attacks which included a strike on the U.S. embassy.


TERROR WATCH

An ultra-nationalist Russian biker gang is invading Europe, and Poland isn’t happy
Not many motorbike groups can claim to have a head of state as a supporter, but the case of Russia's Night Wolves is an exception. President Vladimir Putin has publicly embraced the group.

German police thwart Boston-style plot to bomb cycle race
German police overnight thwarted a terrorist plot by a radicalized couple, a plan they suspect involved bombing a bicycle race near Frankfurt.

The Death of Rustum Ghazaleh
While the precise reasons and results of his demise are impossible to judge, this curious affair has been a rude shock to supporters of President Bashar al-Assad—and the mysteries of Ghazaleh’s death are sure to fuel speculation for years to come.

Chad: A precarious counterterrorism partner
The Republic of Chad is building a reputation as a leading African state in the fight against terrorism.

How Al Qaeda's Syrian Affiliate Jabhat al Nusra Is Trying To Take Northern Lebanon
As Nusra has made incursions into Lebanon, it has repeatedly asserted that its sole focus is Syria, its goal to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. But the al Qaeda affiliate's handling of Abu Omar’s death has opened a window onto a counternarrative: that Nusra may have designs on wider slices of Lebanon and ultimately seeks to create a Sunni emirate that would sprawl across Syria and reach the Mediterranean.

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Monday, April 27, 2015
 

Berger's Rule of Radicalization

Today, I realized I never formally published this in a lasting format, so here it is, for posterity:
On average, 15 percent of any given population are assholes, but considerably less than 1 percent are violent assholes.
Or the broadcast-friendly version:
On average, 15 percent of any given population are jerks, but considerably less than 1 percent are violent jerks.
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Saturday, April 25, 2015
 

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief 4/24/2015

LATEST FROM J.M. BERGER

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.

RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS

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

ISIS WATCH

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.

TERROR WATCH

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.

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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.


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BOOKS

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ABOUT

INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.

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