Countering the jihadist narrative - the future of the War on Terror
It has been seventeen years since Al-Qaeda staged the September 11 attacks in the USA but the War on Terror is far from over. Violent jihadist groups are still operating freely in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa and horrific terrorist attacks on civilians are still happening in many parts of the world.
As long as the instability continues, jihadist propaganda will somehow keep oozing out of the internet. ‘This is the struggle of a generation.’
For the closing chapter of this series we were sifting through the transcripts of the many talks we had at the Terror Feeds conference in Berlin back in November.
Echoing the exasperation of many, most terrorism experts agreed that without lasting safety and security in the Middle East and other unstable regions, violent jihadist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda will continue to find breeding ground for recruitment.
Researcher Charlie Winter of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) warned in his keynote speech not to think that we now live in a ‘post-Islamic State world’ in which authorities can sit back and expect a sudden end to murderous jihadist attacks on civilians.
‘The caliphate is still very much there. Terrorism and propaganda will, now more than ever, be its lifeblood. ISIS will demonstrate that it is still has that destabilising potency.’
Intelligence services around the world are gearing up for a long struggle. Intense monitoring of jihadist internet activities has become a core activity of most anti-terrorism units around Europe. Police and intelligence cooperation between countries has been stepped up massively in recent years. Most of those efforts happen behind the scenes.
‘The caliphate is still very much there. Terrorism and propaganda will, now more than ever, be its lifeblood. ISIS will demonstrate that it is still has that destabilising potency.’
‘Terrorism has affected all countries in Europe’, said a German anti-terrorism officer who spoke to us on condition of anonimity. A muscular, tall guy in plain clothes, he told us how the German intelligence agencies have beefed up their electronic anti-terrorism units considerably since the December 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin.
The Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence service, has recently received more authority to monitor electronic communications. Even in a privacy-conscious country like Germany, more CCTV cameras are being installed everywhere. In most German states, police now have extended authority to detain terrorism suspects for a certain time without a formal indictment. Tapping into Germany’s huge internet infrastructure for surveillance has become easier for law enforcement, within certain limits.
‘We get a lot more information to work with these day’, says the officer. ‘We obviously still have to work our way through legal due process and make sure we work strictly within the law, but we are definitely spotting more jihadist activity now and plots or potential plots are disrupted very regularly.’
With an estimated 900 foreign terrorist fighters having left Germany to join terrorist groups in the Middle East, Germany is also increasing monitoring of what happens outside the EU. The German foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), has upped its activities. The now 400 agents of its anti-terrorism unit, the TE, were the first to move to the huge new BND building in central Berlin, marking how prominent it has become.
‘The BND, probably with MI6 in the UK, definitely take the lead in monitoring what’s going on but we see more info coming in from the smaller countries as well. We very much have the feeling now that things are moving more smoothly that they did years ago.’
But the German agent confirms it’s way too early for intelligence services to lower their guard. ‘This will probably be something we will be dealing with for a long time’, he says. ‘It will be a struggle of a generation.
‘I mean, you can have all the computer tools you want and have hundreds of agents only doing counter-terrorism at the BND, but some terrorist activity will always remain under the radar. Especially when it happens in areas of the world where we have little or no way of setting up an effective cooperation with intelligence and security services.’
In the wake of the 2016 Christmas market attack, much of the focus of the German intelligence services was on the Tunisian perpetrator Anis Amri. He had come to Germany through Italy and got radicalised in part through contacts with the radical German-based Iraqi preacher Abu Walaa.
Tunisia was also the country of origin of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the perpetrator of the Nice Truck attack, only a few months before the Berlin attack.
We wanted to find out how Tunisia became such a prominent source of jihadist recruits.
Tunisia has long been one of the countries topping the lists of numbers of youth being recruited into terrorist networks
The North African country was the scene of the first Arab Spring protests in late 2010, leading to the ousting of long-time authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Islamist party Ennahda, long proscribed under Ben Ali’s rule, came to power with the secular party Nidaa Tounes. The country has since known more or less stable governments under president Beji Caid Essebsi.
Despite the relatively peaceful transition to a parliamentary system, Tunisia has long been one of the countries topping the lists of numbers of youth being recruited into terrorist networks.
The country’s lifeblood tourism sector was hard hit by terrorist shootings of tourists in the famed Bardo museum in Tunis and at a beach resort near the coastal resort of Sousse in 2015. High unemployment and dire economic perspectives pushed many in the young population to desperation.
Figures of the American think-tank National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) showed that some 6,000 mainly young male Tunisians joined the ranks of ISIS and other groups in Iraq and Syria. Our own undercover research also showed a strong presence of Tunisian jihadist supporters and foreign fighters on jihadist media outlets. With ISIS’ military defeats in the Middle East many of those young Tunisian fighters now want to return. Intense political debate in Tunisia’s National Assembly soon followed.
In January 2017, the Tunisian assembly set up a parliamentary committee to investigate how such an enormous number of young people got recruited into the ranks of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Opposition parties blame Ennahda for being complicit, turning a blind eye to jihadist operatives and recruiters in the country. The president of the committee, Nidaa Tounes MP Leila Chettaoui, resigned from her post in protest.
We travelled to Tunisia to find out more and met with Issam Dardouri, a police trade unionist who testified before the committee. In late 2017, Dardouri accused Ennahda Justice Minister Nouredine Bhiri of allowing returned ISIS operatives into Tunisia to recruit people into violent jihadist groups. He cited confidential documents from 2012 showing that an extremist preacher had been allowed access to prisons.
In recent years, Dardouri launched accusations of visa fraud and other practices by the security apparatus in Tunisia to facilitate the work of jihadis. This got him the ire of the Ennahda establishment and many in the security services. Several arrests and indictments for defamation followed. Dardouri was imprisoned for months.
When he spoke to us in Tunis, he pointed out that many of the thousands who joined ISIS were recruited in prison. Tunisia’s prisons have been overcrowded with young people arrested in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks. The government declared martial law and arrested many on questionable grounds.
Weed and prisons
Under pressure of conservative elements in government, Tunisia also introduced draconian drug laws, which got many jailed for a long time on petty cannabis offences. Human rights sources said the prison population soared to 53,300 in late 2016, twice the number of a year before. According to Human Rights Watch, half of the prison population was held without charge. A third were held on cannabis charges.
‘Normal prisoners are held in the same rooms as dangerous terrorist operators’
Dardouri, who knows the Tunisian criminal justice system inside out and spent his time behind bars in some of Tunisia’s most notorious prisons, has long been warning that violent jihadist groups used prisons as recruitment tools.
‘Normal prisoners are held in the same rooms as dangerous terrorist operators’, says Dardouri. During his time in prison, he met jihadis involved in the murder of human rights lawyer Chokri Belaïd and murderous attacks on the Tunisian army in the Chambi mountains near Kasserine, where elements linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Sharia have been staging a violent insurgency.
‘A solution to this problem needs to be found urgently’, says Dardouri.
Dardouri also points to considerable on-line efforts to recruit young people. ‘Terrorist organisations now have whole divisions specialising in media and recruitment operations’, says Dardouri. ‘Many operations and much of the recruiting has happened on-line through the social networks.’
Like many activists in Tunisia, Dardouri now fears for his life. The jihadists have targeted anyone promoting change in a country where young people have few perspectives. We spoke to rapper El Général, whose militant songs against the Ben Ali regime provided defiant young protesters with a protesting soundtrack.
El Général told us of Emino, an anti-government rapper who was arrested on cannabis charges, got radicalised in jail and pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015. Emino has since become the darling of many of the jihadi supporters we encountered during our research time in the on-line jihadi communities.
The Tunisian hip-hop community has pushed back, however. Young rappers like DJ Costa and Dya Hammadi have been vocally speaking up against ISIS and other groups. They gathered a following of many thousands across North Africa but this has put them at considerable risk.
DJ Costa saw his brother turn to a jihadi group. Hammadi was at some point kidnapped and abused by an old school mate who had turned into a jihadi. The bars and youth houses across the country where young activists meet have been targeted. Some have been killed.
In Tunis we spoke to some of those young activists. Seifedinne Jlassi founded the street art activist group Fanni Raghman Anni a few years ago as an underground arts resistance movement to the Ben Ali regime. He, too, was targeted by the islamists.
In the years after the revolution, Fanni Raghman Anni staged several colourful street art performances criticising ISIS, the death penalty and human rights abuses. The group morphed into an NGO helping refugees in the Middle East and promoting an alternative outlet for many of the young people’s frustrations, producing stage plays and street performances and offering education. ‘But every time we hit the steets, we were met with threats and abuse’, says Jlassi. ‘Many of us were confronted with violence.’
Jlassi’s flat was torched in 2015. Sound and video equipment was destroyed. Some of Fanni Raghman Anni’s performers had to watch their every move.
‘At some point I had to be cautious in speaking with three guys in my classroom’, says Ramy, one of the activists. ‘They started citing the Quran and the Hadith to me and I could feel they were trying to lure me into their ideology. Some in my class actually joined Da’esh. Some disappeared, some are in prison. Others are not far from being seduced into joining.’
Fanni Raghman Anni managed to turn quite a few youth away from the extremists. The activists have received support from the Anna Lindh Foundation, an inter-governmental organisation promoting cultural understanding in Mediterranean countries. But with few staff and very limited means, Jlassi and his associates still struggle to get the leverage they need to turn the tide in Tunisia.
Attempts to counter the narrative of jihadist groups in the West are mostly still in their infancy in th meantime.
One of the early failures was the US State Department’s attempt at countering ISIS accounts on Twitter with the ‘Think Again, Turn Away’ campaign in 2013.
The State Department officials running the campaign accounts saw themselves dragged into endless on-line wars of words with jihadis. Campaign materials were mocked savagely by jihadi internet trolls. ‘ISIS and Al-Qaeda made that campaign into one big joke’, says Belgian jihadism researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen. ‘And a big joke it was.’
The vast majority of intelligence agencies and counter-terrorism organisations we spoke to did not want to go on the record on their counter-narrative activities
Several governments and other organisations have attempted to set up counter-narrative programmes and campaigns, many of which have been financed by the big technology companies. The vast majority of intelligence agencies and counter-terrorism organisations we spoke to did not want to go on the record on their counter-narrative activities.
‘The minute it becomes known that we as a state agency are sponsoring a counter-narrative organisation, it loses all its legitimacy and power’, says an operative of an intelligence agency of a Western European country. ‘Managing such operations requires the strictest of communications management. With the internet, even the smallest leak can travel around on-line communities like wildfire.’
Google has opened up on its counter-narrative operation in the meantime. The tech giant’s Redirect Method channels those who search terrorist content on-line to curated on-line materials that counter the terrorist narrative. During an eight week trial period in 2015, Google managed to reach some 321,000 individuals looking for extremist content on-line, leading them to watch half a million minutes of curated ‘counter-narrative’ materials.
Gauging the effects of watching these materials is, however, very difficult, leading some experts to question the effectiveness of such mass methods to counter the terrorist narrative. ‘More direct engagement with people on-line is the only thing that really works’, says the intelligence operative.
The American think-tank Brookings Institution and other expert organisations have long argued that direct engagement is key to turn people away from violent jihadism. But this requires a massive investment in staff and resources.
In a YouTube debate, Alberto M. Fernandez of Brooking quipped that European authorities should hire a few thousand Syrian and other Arabic speaking refugees to fight groups like ISIS on-line.
Direct engagement with potential recruits has become part and parcel of many countries’ prevention strategies. The UK has had some succes with its Prevent strategy, which engages with teachers, community leaders and others to help direct vulnerable youngsters to Channel, a deradicalisation programme involving trained social services, theologians and other practitioners.
The strategy attracted criticism because it purportedly pushed teachers and community leaders into reporting people to authorities. The Prevent programme has also repeatedly been criticised because it has on occasion failed to keep youngsters from radicalising.
Ahmed Hassan, the perpetrator of the botched attack on subway station Parsons Green in London in September 2017, was referred to counter-radicalisation counsel under the Prevent programme some two years before he planted the bomb that fizzled and injured people on a train.
Belgium’s regional authorities invested in a similar local approach with ‘de-radicalisation’ agents in several key cities and several programmes to accompany radicalised youth. As in Britain, the Belgian programmes have been lauded and criticised. International experts often compliment the cities of Vilvoorde and Mechelen for their close-contact, local approach, often likened to the multi-agency approach of the Danish city of Aarhus, which is often quoted an international model for de-radicalisation.
Our year of reserach made clear that the end of the so-called caliphate is not near
Many authorities and practitioners involved in deradicalisation now work together in the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network. It is a growing community dedicated to sharing best practices, including on-line strategies. But for all these efforts, on-line jihadist communities have proven to be very adaptable and are evolving.
Our year of reserach made clear that the end of the so-called caliphate is not near. ISIS may have all but lost its territory in Iraq and Syria. Many now wonder what the group’s next moves will be.
The narrative on the internet has already evolved.
End of the ‘caliphate’
The fact that ISIS held territory to which people could travel to build a utopian life, can no longer be used as a convincing argument for recruitment. On-line crackdowns by internet companies, killings of propaganda operatives like al-Adnani, military losses and increased counter-terrorism have drastically shrunk the size and reach of ISIS’ propaganda.
Researcher Charlie Winter showed this steep drop in output in one compelling graph at the Terror feeds conference in Berlin.
In August 2015, at the height of ISIS’ ‘reign’ in parts of Syria and Iraq, its media operatives churned out some 900 pieces of propaganda a month. That figure dropped to around 500 in February 2017, and to less than 300 in September 2017. Many of ISIS’ central media organisations and most of the regional media outlets have gone dormant.
Winter’s more recent figures point towards a slight recovery of propaganda production in the early months of 2018, but the volume is nowhere near it was in years before.
Other researchers confirm that trend. ‘It is clear that with the loss of territory, ISIS’ capabilities to produce high quality video productions has gone down considerably’, says Dutch jihadism researcher Pieter Nanninga.
The reduced operating space inside Syria and Iraq and the territorial losses of the self-styled caliphate have pushed ISIS to shift its message from state-building and building an utopia for muslims to ‘being a victim’ once again of the oppression and attacks of the west. ISIS is flipping its strategic communications, turning its obvious military defeat into the promise of an eternal series of comebacks.
‘The propaganda now often features nostalgic images of the caliphate that was once so great, but which has now come under attack’, says Nanninga. ‘ISIS now says it is retreating to the desert, but it asserts that it will come back later, with much more force. They invoke parallel stories from the life and battles of Muhammad, who at times had to accept defeat and retreat, only to come back victorious later.’
‘ISIS now says it is retreating to the desert, but it asserts that it will come back later, with much more force’
In Berlin, Charlie Winter showed how ISIS’ branding shifted from showing images of utopian proto-state to images of war and victimhood in the latter months of 2017. Fighters in military fatigues are shown in magazine, defying a rain of coalition bombs falling down on them, or ISIS member ‘heroically’ making their last stand in suicide attacks.
Gone are the idyllic scenes of fruit sellers helping the poor and children - almost always boys - swimming in the Euphrates shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.
The final month of our own on-line research showed, however, that the propaganda machine is still very much present on-line.
Much of the old propaganda is still being used and re-used turning Telegram and other messaging apps into an enormous repository of jihadist propaganda. Fanboys and sympathisers keep tapping into that digital archive to keep the on-line jihadist fires burning. Today, young people are still attracted to the violence and extremism.
YouTube held around 70,000 of videos of Al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki until most of them were removed in a crackdown in 2017. Around 20,000 videos remain on-line now. YouTube says that it is mainly content containing news reporting or critical analysis of al-Awlaki’s speeches and messages.
‘Terrorism will become more important for them than ever’
New trends in jihadist propaganda are already emerging in the meantime. Nanninga, Winter and Van Ostaeyen have been noticing that Al-Qaeda is stepping up the quality of its media products. Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden seems to come more to the forefront in propaganda pieces.
Another worrying trend is that ISIS is now even more pushing for attacks in Western countries. ‘Terrorism will become more important for them than ever’, says Charlie Winter. ‘They want to show that they still have this capacity to inflict harm on people.’
Seeds of hope
Where the on-line terrorism threat goes from here is difficult to predict.
‘I don’t like the term cyber-caliphate’, says Pieter Nanninga. ‘ISIS used media before they conquered territory and now they will simply continue doing just that. They will continue to spread their message. That message will be adapted, they will keep saying they are the organisation that defends ‘true’ muslims, that they are the ones that follow the ‘pure’ islam.’
So is there any hope that the phenomenon will disappear at some point?
Adam Deen of counter-extremism organisation Quilliam thinks there is. ‘I think we are seeing the first seeds of things that may work. They’re slow and incremental steps being made.’
‘We have to understand that the reason of this troubled situation we’re in now is because these kind of noxious ideas, these islamist ideas, have been running amok for two decades. What I usually say is that the decisions we make now, the wins that we have now, are not for tomorrow.’
‘They’re for the next ten, twenty, thirty years.’
This report was produced with support of the Fonds Pascal Decroos voor Bijzondere Journalistiek.