Category: Book Reviews

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.

Book review: Propaganda and Counter-terrorism

First published in 2015, Emma Briant’s book Propaganda and Counter-terrorism has gained relevance in recent months, as the world comes to terms with the power of propaganda to propel dramatic social and political changes.

At the time of writing, there are just days left before Donald Trump enters the White House, amid a furore of fake news and accusations that have surrounded his presidential race. Propaganda has never been more relevant, especially in our digital age, where technology has the power to obscure identity, location, and source – along with the concept of truth itself.

Set in the context of a post 9/11 media environment, Propaganda and Counter-terrorism explores how the British and US governments adapted their propaganda strategies to address the perceived threat of global terrorism, which became top of the agenda after 9/11. In the Iraq War that followed, both sides collaborated not only to fight Al Qaeda, but also to produce propaganda of all stripes. Their goal: to change hearts and minds, both at home and in the theatre of war.

But, as Propaganda and Counter-terrorism reveals, that was not the only goal. Through extensive interviews with high-profile sources, including journalists, military officials and defence analysts, author Emma Briant explores the unseen story of post-9/11 propaganda. She explains how the UK and US governments aimed to change existing systems of propaganda, which were seen as ‘outdated’ within a fast-evolving global media landscape where messages could travel at lightning speed across disappearing boundaries.

Early on in the book, Briant dives into a detailed unpacking of the terminology used in the book. She defines propaganda as the ‘deliberate manipulation of representations, with the intention of producing a desired effect among the audience.’

Briant points out that propaganda can involve facts as well as untruths, and does not always have to be perceived in a negative light. She lays out the different categories of propaganda, from white (truth), to grey (uncertainty), and black (lies). One could argue that the use of ‘fake news’ in the US election is a perfect example of grey propaganda.

In subsequent chapters the book deconstructs Anglo-American collaboration in propaganda efforts, power-sharing within the relationship, methods used and mistakes made. There is a key focus how the ‘war on terror’ narrative was constructed and delivered, not just by government, but also by many social institutions including the media.

The book includes a case study of the Iraq War, which some sources describe as ‘tragedy and farce’ and a ‘failure of journalism’. The problems arising from this failure have been far-reaching, fuelling anger and resentment within Iraq that has led to unending conflict. The resulting destabilisation has created an opportunity for the rise of ISIS; a brutal terrorist group with the most advanced propaganda ever seen.

In the final chapter, Briant examines how US/UK-led attempts to counter terrorism risk denial of dissent within society, both at home and abroad. She refers to ‘democracy building propaganda’, which shows ‘sustained lack of understanding’ of non-Western cultures, while building a disproportionate fear of terrorist attacks among foreign audiences. This is problematic as it encourages a view of ‘us and them’, which is harmful and hampers efforts to build international cooperation.

My concern is that the view of ‘us and them’ is only becoming more pronounced. We now live in a Trump-led world, which is veering towards increased nationalism. It’s a world where borders are reinforced and societies encouraged to look inwards, glancing outwards only with fear. As Briant highlights in her closing chapter, ‘dominative foreign propaganda cannot create lasting peace and stability, indeed it shuns true intercultural understanding’.

One of the book’s main strengths is its analysis of extensive source material, which draws on the expertise and insider knowledge of numerous defence, intelligence, security and PR professionals, both in the public and private sectors. These are the people at the coalface of propaganda planning and delivery.

Their input gives the book distinct authority and instils the reader with confidence in the ideas expressed. I’d have liked Propaganda and Counter-terrorism to also examine the role of social media, fake news, and post-truth in shaping approaches to propaganda, but realise this was probably outside the scope of this book at the time of writing. Hopefully these topics will be addressed if there’s a follow-up.

Propaganda and Counter-terrorism is an important read, if not always an easy one due to the sheer breadth of source material and depth of analysis contained within. This is valuable and makes the book a heavyweight in its field. Readers who persevere to the end will gain a host of new insights and intersections relating to the role of propaganda both now and in the future; essential understanding in the current climate.

Book review: Old and New Terrorism

“The new terrorism cannot be understood without making sense of the dynamics caused by late modernity and globalisation”

– Dr Peter R. Neumann

To better understand terrorism I knew I needed a basic knowledge of its underpinnings. Not just the ‘Islamist’ terrorism that we hear so much about these days, but all kinds of terrorism throughout the ages – from its birth during the French Revolution to its most modern incarnation in the form of ISIS.

I wanted to learn from a source that was credible yet readable, where the key points were not buried under layers of academic bluster. With that in mind I chose Old and New Terrorism by Peter Neumann.

War of the worlds

Neumann sets the scene with a colourful image of terrorists ‘whose aim was to liquidate all satanic forces and destroy all life on earth’. This HG Wells-esque quote, attributed to the pre-eminent terrorism historian Walter Laqueur, draws the reader in with high hopes for an entertaining yet informative read.

Although the ‘earthquake machines’ Laqueur warns of have not yet become reality, the description illustrates the changing nature of terrorism; a fact Laqueur was quick to discern. In delineating these changes, Neumann first outlines the situation of many of the old guard from the 70s and 80s, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Irish Republic Army (IRA), and shows how they abandoned violence during the 1990s.

He contrasts this tactical shift with the rise of ‘new and more dangerous forms of terrorism’, beginning with the first World Trade Centre attack in 1993 and developing into the present-day threat of ‘lone wolf’ attacks on European capitals.

Old and New Terrorism explores how and why terrorism has changed. This is more than just a surface-level analysis; Neumann digs deep to uncover the global social and political shifts creating the conditions to foster terrorism in its modern-day form. He believes that understanding the nature of these changes is essential; that ‘the new terrorism cannot be understood without making sense of the dynamics caused by late modernity and globalisation’.

Going global

Globalisation is a core theme that runs consistently throughout the book, underpinning most of the arguments. In the first chapter, Neumann examines how terrorist groups operate, focusing on how their structures and modus operandi have adapted to globalisation. Of course, the internet features prominently along with the rise in cheap travel. Both developments allow the easy flow of people and information across borders, enabling potential terrorists to build global networks and immediately reach audiences that span entire continents.

Politics is another central focus of the book, in particular how the forces of globalisation and late modernity have influenced politics and shaped the terrorist agenda in response. Neumann points out that these developments have benefitted ‘an increasingly cosmopolitan elite’, yet also triggered a rise in political views that hinge on ‘particularist forms of ethnic and religious identity’, rejecting the liberal, secular and inclusive norms promoted by globalisation.

The clash of different mindsets enabled by globalisation has dredged up further opportunities for terrorist groups to exploit. This is the context within which we must understand the rise of religiously inspired terrorism, especially the politicisation of religion.

Shock value

Continuing the theme of globalisation, Neumann investigates how the new 24/7 media cycle has created saturation and desensitisation; causing today’s terrorists to use even more shocking tactics to spread their message, and create the necessary psychological ‘shock’ effect upon their audience.

Also, the need for brutal violence is made easier for those who wield it because their particularist ideology defines all members of different ethnic and religious groups as the ‘Other’, and consequently as ‘infidels’ or ‘subhumans’ whose harm can be justified within the terrorist paradigm. Neumann points out that this alarming lack of restraint combined with the need for ‘shock value’ creates an environment where the most extreme violence becomes possible.

Neumann concludes by arguing that governments and societies are ‘ill-prepared to face new terrorism due to a lack of international cooperation. He highlights the need to challenge terrorist messages in the virtual spaces where most of their supporters reside, i.e. on social media, in online forums and, increasingly, within the dark web.

Neumann argues against imposing globalist ideologies such as liberal values and cosmopolitanism, as this runs the risk of creating further ‘ideological blowback’. He suggests instead that solutions lie in ‘softening the interpretations’ of various religious, ethnic and national identities, and ‘providing avenues through which they can be expressed non-violently’.

Age of anxiety

Old and New Terrorism offers a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter, situating the phenomenon of terrorism within a wider context of global politics and social trends. This is vital knowledge for anyone who still believes that religion is the sole driver behind terrorist acts. I found the chapter ‘From Marx to Mohammed? Religion and Terrorism’ particularly insightful in its discussion of the recent return of religiously inspired terrorism.

Neumann explains that terrorist groups ‘always reflect broader ideological currents’ and that the recent rise in ‘backward’ terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, is not a contradiction to globalisation and modernity, but instead an inherent feature of the processes that drive them.

He refers to the insecurity and anxiety perpetuated by late modernity and globalisation, that has ‘challenged people’s sense of control over their own destiny’ and led some to look backwards to simpler systems to make sense of their world. This, combined with massive social and economic change, has left some groups behind, in particular immigrants to Western societies, many dealing with their own cultural identity crises on top of a whole raft of economic and social challenges.

The book’s narrative flows with ease. Neumann explains his points  clearly and succinctly, leaving the reader with a host of new insights and the tools to think critically about potential new directions in the subject matter. This book provides a well-rounded explanation of terrorism, although I’d have liked to read more about the digital world and how online propaganda is used by, and against, terrorist groups.

As Old and New Terrorism was published in 2009, shortly before the rise of ISIS, perhaps this is a subject for a future book. I would recommend Old and New Terrorism to anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the logical drivers behind this seemingly unpredictable modern phenomenon.