An international community of extreme violence

Chat Jihad. How jihadist propaganda dominated the internet

© Fady AlGhorra, Mahmoud Elsobky and Frederik Smets

 

ISIS’ use of internet propaganda has been called the most successful strategic communications campaign ever waged by a terrorist organisation. Its graphic videos of executions have made headlines worldwide. Since it declared its self-styled caliphate in June 2014, tens of thousands of foreign fighters were drawn to the battlefields in Iraq and Syria. And dozens of young men in the West were inspired by the group to commit terrorist atrocities, often killing themselves in the process. 

But how did violent jihadist groups become such successful communicators? And how did they succeed in attracting thousands to their macabre ideology? 

For the better part of a year, we dove into the dark world of ultra-violent jihadist internet propaganda. From the early video messages of Osama bin Laden to ISIS’ sleek cyber-propaganda offensive, it shows how a small contingent of technology savvy extremists has succeeded in waging a campaign of fear with global reach and consequences. 

 

© Fady AlGhorra, Mahmoud Elsobky and Frederik Smets

 

On December 19, 2016, Tunisian terrorist Anis Amri ploughed a large truck into a crowd on a Christmas market in Berlin, killing twelve people and injuring 56. Our team of reporters was working across various locations when the news broke and we started exchanging news alerts on our phones, combing through Arabic and European news sources. 

Not much later the news came that ISIS had claimed responsibility for the Berlin attack. ISIS’ so-called “news agency” Amaq released a video of perpetrator when he was shot by police in Italy a few days later. Germany had just witnessed yet another terrorist attack in Europe. One of many the region had seen since the global terrorists of ISIS had established a self-styled caliphate in 2014.

We questioned why Amaq had become such an important source of terrorist attack claims. It turns out terrorist propaganda is exceedingly easy to find.  

Yemeni soldiers

In early 2017, we bought a laptop and a mobile phone and started setting up Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other social accounts under a fictitious name. To avoid having to register our names anywhere, we bought a SIM card for the mobile phone in the United Kingdom, one of the few countries that still allow the sale of such cards without an ID.  

We started with the obvious searches of keyword on search engines like Google and Firefox in English. Things quickly changed when we started searching in Arabic. We came across jihadist videos on YouTube linking to other files in the description boxes. We followed a breadcrumb trail of inter-linking web addresses. In some cases passwords and instructions appeared on how to access content.   

It took us no longer than ten minutes to find a first ISIS video. That first search sickened even the most hardened members of our team. 

It took us no longer than ten minutes to find a first ISIS video. 

Clicking through dozens of obscure web addresses, we stumbled upon a clip showing sleek images of the beheading and shooting of Yemeni soldiers. ISIS fighters in military fatigues sliced the throats of victims. Blood poured out of the necks, after which the terrorist proceeded in sawing off the heads with a knife before placing the severed heads on the bodies. A few minutes into the video, other soldiers got shot in the forehead.

That first search sickened even the most hardened members of our team. 

© Fady AlGhorra, Mahmoud Elsobky and Frederik Smets

 

Channels and chats

In the following months, we set up accounts on social media and messaging services like Facebook, Paltalk, Snapchat, Telegram, Viber and WhatsApp. We ended up spending most of our time surfing on Telegram, accessing dozens of channels and chatboxes populated by lively communities of jihadist supporters. 

Simple requests to ISIS channel administrators gave us access immediately in most cases. Some channels disappeared when we were doing our research, soon to be replaced by other channels. Most of the ISIS channel administrators on Telegram stream a pretty constant stream of photos, videos and links on the channels, which look like any other chat messaging service. It soon became the channel where we spent most of our research time. 

In early sessions, we chatted mostly in Arabic. We came across jihadists and ISIS supporters purporting to be from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, from the Arabian peninsula and from other countries. 

We chatted in English with people purporting to be from London, Birmingham and cities in the USA, never mentioning details about our location and intentions. We decided to break off conversations a number of times when users started asking about our location. In most of our chats we simply asked members for more information about ISIS and its operations. 

For the better part of the year, our research devices lit up with the most joyous chat messages every time a suicide bomber, gunman, knife wielder of vehicle attacker killed people in Europe or somewhere else in the world. 

For the better part of the year, our research devices lit up with the most joyous chat messages every time a suicide bomber, gunman, knife wielder of vehicle attacker killed people in Europe or somewhere else in the world. 

In Europe, we witnessed reactions to the March 2017 vehicle attack on Westminster Bridge, the May Manchester Arena suicide bombing, the June London Bridge vehicle and knife attack and the August Barcelona vehicle attack.

Every time an attack took place, the on-line jihadist communities started churning out ISIS’ claims, photos, videos and other materials supporting attacks. Conversations were full of talk of “crusaders” and “infidels” being punished for attacking the worldwide muslim community. Some published photos and videos and photos of war victims in Syria in Iraq, claiming that attacks were justified acts of vengeance for such atrocities. 

Monitoring this endless stream of hate and violence was taxing. Even in propaganda not showing violence, ISIS portrays a grim utopia in which lives are expendable, a violent suicidal death becomes a goal in life, and women, men and children are no more than subjects forced into a mediaeval life with severe restrictions and a constant fear of being punished. 

Religious violence and salafi-jihadi ideology is of course not new. It has plagued the Middle East and other regions for decades and has been documented by countless news outlets, academics and other sources.  

The study of violent jihadist media is a relatively new discipline. We read through what turned out to be a vast library of books, research articles and studies on on-line activities of terrorists. We traveled to London, Berlin, Groningen, Istanbul and Tunisia to speak to the world’s experts to reconstruct the history of violent jihadist propaganda. Not surprisingly, this led us back to September 11 and Al-Qaeda. 

From bin Laden to Baghdadi

Al-Qaeda arguably pioneered the use of the internet and media to reach out a global audience in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. 

In the early 2000s, bin Laden and his outfit mostly communicated to the world with audio and video messages distributed via classic news media like Al-Jazeera. Usually a tape was dropped at one of Al-Jazeera’s offices, or journalists received links to jihadist websites and the news media did the rest. As the internet grew, so did the use of internet by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. 

Dutch researcher Pieter Nanninga documented Al-Qaeda’s media ventures for his Ph. D. When we met him at the Faculty of Middle Eastern Studies in Groningen, Nanninga showed us some of the early materials featuring bin Laden. ‘The first bin Laden tapes were long tirades against the West. These were long and boring speeches, nothing like some of the propaganda materials we see today’

© Fady AlGhorra, Mahmoud Elsobky and Frederik Smets

Pieter Nanninga

Al-Qaeda operatives pioneered the use of extremely graphic beheading videos in 2002. Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl was the first westerner to be beheaded on video after having been abducted by an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Pakistan. 

Al-Qaeda then metastasized into other forms and factions, of which Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was perhaps the most notorious. AQI’s leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi is believed to be the operative beheading American radio tower engineer Nicholas Berg in a 2004 propaganda video which was distributed via islamist websites. 

Zarqawi is thought to have “popularised” such extremely violent videos in subsequent years, when he was leading a violent insurgency campaign against Shia rivals and the US army during the Iraq war. A string of these videos published through web outlets under the label of jihadist organisation Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 2004 showed decapitations of British, Japanese and other citizens. 

When AQI morphed into Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006, and Zarqawi and his successors were killed, the propaganda became more and more professional. 2006 also marked the launch of what would become the world’s two foremost social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook. It did not take long for jihadists to take to social media to spread their propaganda. ‘Al-Qaeda had professionalised its media long before it morphed into ISI and then into ISIS’, says Nanninga. 

Global brand

When Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi took the helm of ISI in 2010 and the organisation spread into Syria, it started conquering territory, capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul and Raqqa in Syria, and then quickly morphed into ISIS, declaring a self-styled caliphate on 29 June 2014. 

Shortly after the events of June 2014, ISIS followed through with a rapid succession of graphic beheading videos, most notably the ones showing American journalists James Foley and Steven Stotloff, British aid workers David Haines and Allan Henning, and Frenchman Hervé Gourdel. The beginning of ISIS’ caliphate also marked a surge in propaganda on on-line platforms, most notably on Twitter. 

‘ISIS had this very industrial approach to the internet, the likes of which we had never seen before. They started to completely dominate the internet with their pernicious interprentation of Islam.’

With what researchers believe was an influx of new recruits savvy in social media, video production and other skill sets, ISIS’ video output grew more professional and more prolific. At the height of its propaganda campaign in 2015 and 2016, it churned out hundreds of pieces of propaganda per week. 

Coverage of ISIS’ atrocities by traditional news media did the rest.

© Fady AlGhorra, Mahmoud Elsobky and Frederik Smets

Adam Deen

Adam Deen, a former islamist radical and now one of the leading counter-extremists in the UK with the counter-extremist organisation Quilliam Foundation, saw the propaganda balloon into a global threat.

‘ISIS had this very industrial approach to the internet, the likes of which we had never seen before’, he said when we spoke to him in London. ‘They started to completely dominate the internet with their pernicious interprentation of Islam.’

ISIS became a global brand, carried by a network of thousands of technology savvy supporters, spreading fear and hatred on a global scale. The intense media war waged by IS made countering terrorism all the more taxing for authorities and civil society all over the world.

‘This industrial approach has made things very difficult for counter-extremism organisations such as the one I’m with to counter extremism.’

 

 

This report was produced with support of the Fonds Pascal Decroos voor Bijzondere Journalistiek

© Fonds Pascal Decroos

 

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