Month: February 2017

Book review: Islamic State, the Digital Caliphate

The digital world has been a central feature of the Islamic State’s rise to power, driving much of its recruitment as well as building and maintaining its fearsome image. But the strategy behind the mastery has remained mysterious. Islamic State (ISIS) keeps its operations hidden, to leverage the power of surprise and create a sense of unpredictability. 

The group’s mastery of the digital world has been much-discussed in the short years of its existence. In contrast to previous jihadist groups, ISIS is populated by a younger generation of digitally-savvy millennials. Immersed in the online world from childhood, these individuals are naturals in social media marketing, video creation and coding – all of which are critical for developing the ‘digital caliphate’.

In Islamic State, the Digital Caliphate, veteran Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan explores the group’s digital strategy via a series of insider interviews. This unusual level of access offers fresh insights, not just into the particular technologies used, but also into the group’s wider strategy and narrative.

But the book is more than just an analysis of the digital aspects of ISIS (or Islamic State as Atwan calls it throughout the book). It also includes background information on regional history and politics, essential for placing the present-day situation into context. Having this overarching narrative helps the reader understand the complex web of events that led to the Islamic State, while also gaining more knowledge of the challenges facing the entire Middle East.

Inner workings of the ‘digital caliphate’

Atwan opens with a chapter on the cyber caliphate, focusing on how Islamic State handles recruitment, dissemination, brand building, and security. The level of detail about the tools and techniques used is of particular value, and will be important for those looking to discern exactly how Islamic State conducts its operations on a practical level.

The book examines how the group’s operatives use tools such as TAILS and TOR, hashtag hijacking, encrypted messaging services like Kik, Telegram and WhatsApp, and even goes into detail about Islamic State’s own self-produced video game. The reader is left feeling well-informed on the inner workings of the cyber caliphate, along with the (usually inferior) Western government-led efforts to counter its influence.

The roots of Islamic State 

The opening chapter is followed with a trio of ‘Origins’ chapters that examine the key events in modern Middle East history that led to emergence of the Islamic State today. First, Iraq, where ‘the seed that would eventually produce Islamic State’ was planted, when the US tried to engineer regime change during the first Gulf War in 1990. As political Islam grew and mutated within a shattered country, the aftermath of Saddam’s defeat left a void waiting to be filled.

In 2002, the first jihadists entered Iraq from Afghanistan, among them Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founding father of what would later become the Islamic State. Zarqawi wasted no time in building up networks of jihadists within the shaky social and political fabric of Iraq.

Negative sentiment among Iraqis towards the occupying power, America, helped in his mission. The rest of the Iraq chapter details the events that unfolded in post-Saddam Iraq, how these fitted in with the rest of the narrative, and how misjudgement on the part of the Americans made the situation worse.

Next, Atwan brings in three significant terrorist groups: the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State. He explores how each came into being, how they connect with one another, and how their various rivalries play out. The ideological standoff between Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi is discussed, and how this led to an eventual separation of Islamic State from its predecessor, Al Qaeda, and the major differences between the two groups.

It’s interesting to note Bin Laden’s concern for the Al Qaeda brand. He believed it had been ‘tarnished’, not just by Zarqawi’s excessive violence, but also by post-9/11-Madrid-London associations with terrorism and extremism. Such dramatic ‘propaganda of the deed’ could only serve to inextricably link the deed itself with the organisation held responsible; just as the Nazis and the Holocaust were forever linked.

This chapter also delves into the generational divide that caused cracks between the two jihadist groups; one full of grizzled ex-mujahideen, the other of tech-savvy, youthful and imaginative extremists – the ‘new wave’ of extremism. The Arab revolutions of 2011, which unseated so many ‘apostate’ rulers, presented a perfect chance for Islamic extremists across the Middle East.

For decades, these strongmen had imprisoned and persecuted the jihadists; but now their time had come. Crucially, this chapter explains how the Islamic State came to exist in its current form and how it took root within the smoking ruins of Syria.

Leveraging Syria’s crisis

Syria is the focus of the third ‘Origins’ chapter. Atwan examines how Islamic State was able to exploit a political vacuum to become powerful. He includes a useful modern history of Syria, its tribal system and its political environment, from Hafez al-Assad up to his son Bashar, the ophthalmologist-turned-dictator.

The Assads had something in common; they despised Islamists, and the Syrian security service persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Yet they could not stamp it out altogether; new jihadi groups emerged in Syria even after the Brotherhood was outlawed.

Syria’s foreign relations are a fascinating read, especially when considered in the context of that country’s own revolution, which, unlike the others, had a very different flavour. Whereas Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen all toppled their leaders within a matter of months, Syria’s Assad has clung on to this day.

Just months after the first peaceful protests broke out, they descended into full-scale war complete with heavy weapons. The conflict mutated and became a proxy war played out by many different parties, complete with all manner of propaganda. Syria soon spiralled into a complex mess causing death, misery and displacement of millions.

Atwan keeps this complicated story going in an organised flow, drawing together the many strands in a way that helps the reader make sense of the chaos. For seasoned Middle East analysts, there won’t be much new to discover here. However, having the same details presented in a different way can bring new insights and reveal angles one might otherwise have overlooked.

‘Wahhabisation’ of Islam: Branding a faith

Subsequent chapters delve into the life and character of Islamic State ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, along with life inside Islamic State (as told by defectors). Other chapters focus on foreign fighters, the role of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism, and the Western response to the Islamic State. Glimpsing life inside the ‘proto-caliphate’ is fascinating, especially because of how well-organised it is, with various councils to handle everything from education to economics to military matters.

The Saudi Arabian strain of Islam, Wahhabism, receives its own chapter, because the fundamentalist and brutal tenets of this interpretation form the foundations of Islamic State ideology. Atwan explores how Saudi used its oil money to strategically spread ‘the Wahhabi seed’ around the world, especially in the West, through means of mosques, madrassas and propaganda.

Saudi Arabia considered this ‘branding’ necessary to gain and retain legitimacy throughout the Muslim world as the ‘home’ of Islam. However, this ‘Wahhabisation’, promoting an unyielding and intolerant core, has damaged the image of Islam and Muslims in Western minds. It also encourages a mindset among believers that risks leading them down a path into jihadi territory. Together, these factors contribute to creating an environment ripe for Islamophobia and radicalisation.

Countering Islamic State: the future 

Finally, the book closes with reflections on next steps for the West vis-à-vis the Islamic State, with suggestions on military and ideological counter strategies. One interesting idea is the suggestion of another ‘powerful Islamic figure or movement’ being the only way to foil Islamic State and radical Islam as a whole. Nevertheless, he’s convinced that with matters as they currently stand, groups like Islamic State, and the ideologies that underpin them, are here for the long-term.

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate is carefully researched and offers new insights into the group’s inner workings. The use of first-hand interviews with insiders gives the book an extra edge of authority, one that’s based on facts not just speculation.

Backed up by clear explanations of the complex historical context that produced the Islamic State, the book gives a well-rounded picture, not just of the digital caliphate, but of all the geopolitical machinations that created it. It’s a worthwhile read for anyone with more than a passing interest in extremism, counter-narratives, cyber-terrorism, political violence, and of course the Islamic State itself.

Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and perceptions of it soon became embedded in the American psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast. It’s still considered as such today, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

Reconfiguring reality

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at the disposal of propagandists? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement – white supremacists and extremists.

This extremist movement seemed to emerge from nowhere, but fast became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House on a swell of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, on the other side of the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit.

Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search.

It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense.

And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, an apparent straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it’s really just a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is really running the show?

From mosques to swastikas: Images of terrorism

In November 2016 the terrorist Thomas Mair was sentenced to life in prison for the politically-motivated murder of Jo Cox, MP.

Many news outlets featuring headlines about the verdict chose to place quote marks around the word ‘terrorist’. Other terms used in the media to describe Mair included ‘deranged white supremacist’, ‘far-right fanatic’, and ‘neo-Nazi’.

While these terms are both accurate and suitably negative, they also suggest the media remains reluctant to label Mair by one term: a terrorist. Only one article in the Guardian included the word in its headline (without quote marks) as well as in the opening sentence.

This may seem like a trivial problem of semantics. Surely terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ are good enough to describe Mair in light of his actions. But there’s more to it than that.

Perceptions are at the heart of the matter. The point is fairly obvious and it’s been made many times; if this white man had been Muslim he’d have been instantly called a terrorist (without a quote mark in sight). By putting the word in quote marks or using terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’, the media paints Mair’s actions as unusual and an anomaly.

Use of these terms does not imply any ongoing link between white men and terrorism. That’s reserved for brown men with beards – and has been so for most of two decades. Public perceptions of terrorism and Muslims are full of double standards; and the image of both the religion and its followers is now synonymous with terrorism.

Much of that image has been created and reinforced by the constant drip feed of certain narratives in the mainstream media that draw often hysterical links between terrorism, extremism and Muslims. The resulting Islamophobia within wider Western society has formed a grim backdrop to everyday life for numerous Muslim communities. The repercussions have been immense and damaging, ranging from everyday discrimination to acts of outright violence against Muslims and symbols of Islam, such as mosques.

There’s also the added challenge of counter-terrorism measures such as Prevent, which have been accused of a disproportionate focus on Muslims, creating an atmosphere of suspicion where innocent citizens feel singled out and victimised. On top of this, the much-publicised crimes of Daesh (ISIS) have further inflamed the situation. Resentment, fear and distrust of Muslims is at an all-time high.

But in recent months Daesh has taken a back seat . A new group has risen to prominence; the so-called ‘alt-right’, otherwise known as far-right extremists, or white supremacists. The resulting media furore surrounding the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as US president has thrown the spotlight onto far-right extremism. The far-right has always been around – 1 in 3 cases referred to Prevent involve far-right extremism – but hasn’t received so much media coverage until now.

There’s nothing positive about such hateful trends. But against this backdrop, with Daesh fading into memory, perhaps the image of Islam will regain some ground. Society must realise that violent extremism and terrorism are not just related to Islamic groups. Hate and dissatisfaction come in many flavours; with a much broader spectrum than mainstream media coverage suggests. Before Al Qaeda, many people associated ‘terrorism’ with the IRA, i.e. white Catholics.

The image of Islam must start to reflect reality; and people must realise that terrorism and Islam are absolutely not synonymous. It may seem counterintuitive, but perhaps the rise of far-right extremism could help drive this shift in perceptions.