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While Jihad Waged in Iraq and Syria, Counter Narratives Go Online

BY Onnik James Krikorian | Thursday, July 3 2014

This is an infographic of attack metrics released by ISIS showing their 7,681 car bombings, suicide attacks and other acts

In a move as swift as any blitzkrieg on the ground, al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) took many by surprise this week by announcing the creation of a ‘Caliphate.’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s leader, was proclaimed ‘Caliph’ and leader ‘of jihadists everywhere’ while the group also announced that its name was to be changed to IS (Islamic State).

The news was spread through perhaps ISIS’s most important channel of communication — the Internet.

Indeed, if others had been as attentive as the editor of IntelWire and author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name of Islam, the move might not have come as such a surprise. J.M. Berger had already noticed attempts by ISIS, also known as ISIL, to crowdsource online reaction to both long before, and even if presented as some kind of grassroots call to action.

“I think they used it as an opportunity to gather information about how the idea would be received and to anticipate the criticism they would face,” he told techPresident. “I don't think there was much chance they would have changed course, but it probably shaped the nature of the announcement.”

Intended to not only demoralize the Iraqi army as well as the country’s embattled Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, it was also likely another attempt to recruit foreign fighters to the join the ranks of a group considered ‘too brutal’ even by al-Qaeda. According to a recent policy briefing by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), around 6,000 to 10,000 foreigners are believed to enter Syria each year. Ten percent come from Europe. Many fight with ISIS.

The report also highlighted the use of head-mounted Go-pro cameras on the battlefield to present combat in such a way as to appeal to those potential recruits brought up on first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty.

Even an @ISILCats Twitter account curates photographs of fighters posing with kittens. “I Can Haz Islamic State Plz :)” the account’s tagline reads. An Android app, Dawn, also made headlines with its ability to post to the Twitter accounts of its users, bombarding the site with 40,000 tweets when ISIS took the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul at the beginning of June.

The app was removed by Google last month for violating its community guidelines. However, that was three months after it appeared.

A sampling of the @ISILCats Twitter account

Social Media Experts

With VICE magazine having already dubbed ISIS “Total Social Media Pros” in what some are calling “The YouTube War,” the group has since hijacked World Cup hashtags and launched its own, #CalamityWillBefallUS, threatening to take the war to mainland America. It even produces its own infographics.

“The use of social media among young people going to join rebel groups in Syria and Iraq has exploded,” Richard Barrett CMG OBE, a former British Intelligence official in charge of counterterrorism and co-founder of what was to become the United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF), told techPresident. “It is their main source of information and communication.”

Barrett, now Vice President of the Soufan Group and an advisor to various counterterrorism think tanks, is also concerned by the possibility of foreign fighters returning home with a militancy further honed in battle. “The consequences for society of so many people being exposed to the violence and brutality of war and to radical extremist groups at the forefront of the fighting are unpredictable, but unlikely to be positive,” he says.

Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have of course suspended extremist accounts, but not nearly quickly enough. And when one account is taken down, another opens up just hours later almost identical in appearance and promoted through supporters active on a multitude of platforms. Aware of this problem, governments and others working in this area are therefore looking to counter the propaganda with their own.

Counter Narratives

Until recently, this primarily meant making the Internet a more divisive and difficult environment for terrorists and other violent extremists to operate in. The U.S. Gov-ernment’s Center for Strategic CounterTerrorism Communications (CSCC) is a prime example of this, ‘trolling’ extremists in multiple languages even if opinion on the effectiveness of such a strategy is divided.

“Trolling is ineffective for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and meaningful dialogue is needed with individuals, even when we disagree with everything they represent,” says Humera Khan, Executive Director of Muflehun, a D.C.-based think tank specializing in preventing radicalization, and recipient of the 2012 FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award.

Unfortunately, many non-governmental actors have not been as active although that’s not to say that nothing is being done.

“Social media and online tools are crucial for our work,” says Khan, explaining that Muflehun has held workshops to help youth combat hate speech and extremism. “Our audience are young people and the online space is part of their life. For many youth, online and offline are seamlessly integrated and we need to communicate with them through all channels.

“We also have some projects planned for meta-narratives — counter and alternative narratives — to push back against the ideology of al-Qaeda and others as well as to address the political situation in the Middle East.”

Another group particularly active in this area is the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), also co-chair of the European Union working group against Internet Radicalization. While this includes countering extremists of all types including the far right, the London-based organization is also concerned by the relatively large number of British Muslims taking up arms to fight with ISIS and other extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Can violent extremists be reformed? A video explaining the work of the Against Violent Extremism network

In 2011, ISD worked with Google Ideas and others to create the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network. Rachel Briggs OBE, ISD’s Director of Research and Policy, Security and Counter-Extremism, says the online site has proven successful.

“We now have over 300 former extremists and over 150 survivors as members,” she told techPresident. “All of them work tirelessly to push back on violent extremism. They are inspiring people and we connect them together so they can collaborate and learn from one another. We bring the private sector to the table offering resources and know-how that members can access in order to develop new projects and initiatives.”

“There are no more credible messengers than those who have been touched personally by violent extremism,” adds Briggs.

Abdullah-X, a counter narrative Youtube channel created by a former extremist addresses at-risk-youth in this video: "Allah does need not your so-called martyrdom when the fight out there is about power and influence."

Of particular note is Abdullah-X, a YouTube channel recently launched by a former al Muhajiroun extremist in the U.K. Although not directly involved with the project, Briggs was in terms of monitoring its pilot stage and says that the channel reached 50,000 people in just 6 weeks.

“From previous campaigns, I know that you can spend a long time simply building your audience before you can do anything with them,” she explains. “The fact that we reached so many so quickly shows the value in being razor sharp with your targeting and of having a great product. Finally, governments are speaking out on the need for counter-narratives, often quoting Abdullah-X as an example of what can be done.”

An analytical case study by YouTube made available to techPresident bears that out, concluding that the channel “offers a good example for other counter-narrative efforts.”

“Prior to the launch, Abdullah-X relied on grassroots activities to spread his message, speaking directly to young people at schools, conferences and events,” it reads. “The creator’s YouTube channel brought his message online with rich storytelling that spoke directly to the curiosities, concerns and questions of young people [finding] success with quick, interactive and fast paced content that made smart use of YouTube features such as call to actions via annotations that engage the audience.”

Nevertheless, Briggs sounds a cautionary note and urges governments, civil society, and technology companies alike to become more involved in the battle now literally being waged online.

“We know that violent extremists such as ISIS are running extremely well oiled communications machines,” she says. “They have technology hubs producing and churning out content and they don’t leave this to chance. They have apps to seize control of Twitter accounts to use as their mouth pieces, and they help their members to build their technical skills. Those things are not happening on our side and they need to.”

There is some movement forwards though. Last month in Abu Dhabi, the International Center for CounterTerrorism — The Hague (ICCT) and the Hedayah Center, an independent body born out of a 2011 meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), brought together experts specializing in this area to develop an effective counter-narrative framework. Briggs and Khan were among them.*

As the meeting was held under the Chatham House rule, specific details can’t be reported, but techPresident can reveal that an increased use of online tools and innovative approaches featured prominently. Briggs also says that, in cooperation with technology companies, ISD plans to launch an ‘innovation hub’ to “bring together effective messengers with the technology, campaigns and production skills they need.”

But is it all too little too late?

“Why would it ever be too late to do something about this?” Intelwire’s J.M. Berger responds. “Would it have been better to act earlier? Sure, but it's not like this issue is going away any time soon. Or ever.”

*The author of this article also participated in the ICCT-Hedayah closed group meeting in Abu Dhabi on developing an effective counter-narrative framework.

Onnik James Krikorian is a journalist, photographer, and media consultant from the United Kingdom. From 2007-2012 he was the Caucasus Regional Editor for Global Voices.