Category: Middle East

Inciting the Interwebs: A short history of ISIS propaganda

ISIS is becoming old news these days. Recent coverage of the group talks about reclaiming its territory, freeing its captives, or the implications of its dwindling supply of funds. One gets the impression that the group’s very survival is now on the line. To an extent, ISIS has lost some of its former potency. Written from the perspective of a content strategist, combined with insights from academic experts on terrorism, this article will explore the various elements of ISIS propaganda; how they work together to promote the group’s goals; the ingredients of its success; and how ISIS might maintain its brand in future, in the light of recent territorial losses.

Many of horror: viral videos 

Not long ago, ISIS was shocking the world on a regular basis with its barrage of blood-drenched videos, gory tweets and declarations of violence against the West. At the time, there seemed no limit to the group’s barbarity. I remember travelling to Amman in early March 2015, just weeks after ISIS released a video showing the immolation of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. The Jordanians I met on that trip were sombre yet enraged. They wanted to wipe ISIS out immediately, and the government responded to public sentiment without hesitation; promptly executing ISIS-linked prisoners and launching warplanes against ISIS targets within a matter of days.

Kasasbeh’s murder displayed a shocking new angle of ISIS brutality, which had already been established via previous videos showing the beheadings of Western captives. At the time, these videos were the most visible aspect of the group’s strategy vis-a-vis Western audiences. The intention was to incite fear and provoke responses, both of which worked very well. The videos initially gained traction from widespread sharing across ISIS social media accounts. Social media companies targeted and shut down these accounts en masse, but the videos had already gained such notoriety in mainstream media that many people sought them out nevertheless.

Goals, target audience and ‘customer’ personas

The foundation of a good content strategy is knowing who it’s for and what their problems are. Using that knowledge for guidance, content can be produced to address those problems and offer helpful solutions. In the case of ISIS, the intended target audience is large, consisting of Muslims the world over. ISIS wants to convince its audience that restoring the caliphate and building a ‘brave new world’ is their religious duty. But of course, not every Muslim is susceptible to this narrative; in fact, most don’t support ISIS at all. So ISIS went a step further and segmented its target audience to focus on those with more specific grievances. Perhaps some parts of the target audience were angry at the humanitarian situation in Syria. ISIS offers them a solution: come join us and fight against Assad, freeing the Syrian people (fellow Muslims) from tyrannical and secular rule. ISIS also offers a compelling narrative of friendship and belonging, which is undoubtedly appealing to those who feel they don’t fit into Western society. Apart from violence designed to intimidate the enemy, ISIS propaganda also includes ‘fluffier’ images of its members eating chocolate and playing with kittens (a nod to the Prophet Muhammed’s fondness for cats). A sense of religious duty forms the overarching ‘grand’ narrative, drawing on themes from the Qur’an and various Hadiths (sayings of Muhammed) to create credibility and imbue ISIS content with indubitable religious overtones.

Varied mediums, consistent messages

ISIS first become notorious via its shocking videos, along with the resulting press coverage and wider discussion they generated. If anything, the mainstream media was the most important vehicle for spreading these videos around the world, helping ISIS establish its brand and gain infamy. We can link this effect directly to the 21st century media business model that relies on clicks to earn its money. But that’s a topic for another article. Most content strategists these days like to put video at the forefront of their campaigns, as it’s emotive and generates much attention, with YouTube alone receiving billions of hits every month. ISIS doesn’t just make videos of blood and gore. The group also makes a whole range of propaganda videos full of positive sentiment, displaying life inside the ‘caliphate’, promoting the ‘duty’ of jihad, and showing testimonials from the group’s foreign fighters.

Apart from video, ISIS leverages a number of other mediums to spread its message and achieve its goals. Twitter was a key element in the early days, with ISIS supporters using techniques such as hashtag hijacking to make sure the content reached wide audiences. For example, during the Brazil World Cup in 2014, ISIS supporters ‘imaginatively hijacked hashtags such as #Brazil2014, #ENG, #France and #WC2014 to gain access to millions of World Cup Twitter searches, in the hope that users would follow links to the group’s propaganda video.’ (Farwell, 2014)

On top of smart moves like the above, the group’s armies of supporters would be constantly tweeting pro-ISIS messages in both English and Arabic, praising victories and challenging opponents, while offering tantalising glimpses of the attractions of life inside the Syrian ‘caliphate’ in Raqqa. After Twitter and Facebook started mass takedown campaigns of jihadist accounts, ISIS supporters were driven underground into the dark recesses of the ‘deep web’, and also onto encrypted channels such as Telegram. But for those who want to find it, ISIS content is never far away, and has firmly established itself on a number of regular channels outside the reach of the authorities. And by now it hardly matters, as the brand of ISIS has been built and has acquired the desired resonance, as well as, some might claim, the desired geopolitical effects.

Reshaping perceptions: Dabiq

The magazine Dabiq is another core element of ISIS content strategy. Produced in English, with slick and professional design, Dabiq is a cut above the jihadist magazines that came before. According to a 2016 analysis by Haroro J. Ingram, Dabiq has two goals: 1) to convince its target audience to travel to the caliphate, and 2) to convince them to conduct acts of domestic terrorism. It does this by offering its audience an ‘alternative perspective’ of the world that drives their radicalisation, while also using diverse messaging to create a ‘broader system of meaning’ (Ingram, 2016) that resonates at a deeply emotional level with its audiences. Good content marketing is all about engaging with emotions, which accounts for much of the success both of Dabiq and of ISIS content strategy as a whole. The Ingram analysis is particularly interesting, because rather than simply attributing ISIS’s success to its sophisticated content production techniques, Ingram delves deeper and explores the group’s attempts to shift the perceptions of its readership using carefully crafted messaging that resonates at fundamental levels.

Louder than bombs: the mainstream media

For ordinary content marketers, coverage in the mainstream media is one of the best forms of publicity available. Every day, companies spend a lot of money on PR activities to get their brand in front of journalists and featured in the news. As a terrorist organisation, ISIS also understands the power of the mainstream media and has harnessed it to devastating effect; ‘louder than bombs’ according to Charlie Winter’s recent Media Jihad report.

Based on Winter’s analysis of an ISIS-produced strategy document entitled Media Operative: You Are a Mujahid Too, the report details exactly how ISIS constructs its highly coherent and carefully planned media strategy. One prong of the strategy involves the mainstream media, which the document calls the ‘media weapon’. The below quote in particular shows how ISIS aims to use this ‘weapon’.

“Anyone who knows the Crusaders of today and keeps track of that which infuriates them understands how they are angered and terrorised by jihadi media. They – the curse of Allah the Almighty be on them – know its importance, impact and significance more than any others!”

ISIS strategists know how to manipulate the mainstream media for the group’s own ends. In today’s clickbait world, the more shocking the story the more airtime it gets. As a result, the deeds and hence the group responsible for them attract even more attention; analysis, critique, anger, hatred, disgust, and sometimes, inspiring love and obsession.

Media ‘jihad’, as ISIS calls it, has ‘ “far-reaching potential to change the balance in respect to the war between the Muslims and their enemies” and, for that reason, “is no less important than the material fight.”. Not only does it offer a way to “intimidate and threaten the enemy with violence,” it can make adversaries act irrationally by “infuriating them” and ensnaring policymakers into ill-conceived knee-jerk politics’ (Winter, 2017).

The latter is precisely what has happened. The world’s media has responded predictably to every piece of ISIS propaganda, disseminated it far and wide, and in the process made the group legendary for its brutality. In the short time since ISIS emerged the world’s mood has shifted. We have become more suspicious of strangers, more fearful, and less compassionate. Hatred and distrust between Muslim communities and non-Muslims has reached a fever pitch, culminating in major political shifts that gave us Brexit and Trump’s presidency. Those campaigns gained momentum by playing on people’s deep-seated fears of the ‘Other’, in this case Muslims. Without the fearful propaganda of ISIS writ large in the minds of Western populaces, perhaps matters would have turned out differently. Sowing discord was always part of the strategy, and it’s working. The question is now, how to reverse the tide?


References

Haroro J. Ingram (2016) An analysis of Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine, Australian Journal of Political Science, 51:3, 458-477, DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2016.1174188

James P. Farwell (2014) The Media Strategy of ISIS, Survival, 56:6, 49-55, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2014.985436

Charlie Winter (2017) Media Jihad | http://icsr.info/2017/02/icsr-report-media-jihad-islamic-states-doctrine-information-warfare/

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.

Arabic update, two classes later

It’s been a week now since I started my course in Syrian Arabic on Italki. At first I was sceptical about learning with an online tutor, but after just two classes I’m convinced it’s an excellent method.

I’ve learned more vocabulary and grammar than I did in attending 10 weeks of in-person group evening classes, and I’ve spoken more Arabic than in two years of living in Qatar. So what have the classes been like?

Well, it’s a bit intimidating at first, being face-to-face with a stranger over Skype video chat and compelled to speak the language you’re learning. My Arabic is still basic, so I had to drop a lot of English into the dialogue with my teacher, Fadi.

Fadi is from Syria and lives in Italy; an experienced Arabic teacher. The best thing about the class was Fadi’s determination to keep me speaking Arabic as much as possible. He spoke in English only when necessary (and his English is top-notch) to help me understand, or when I asked him to do so. This Arabic-first approach was challenging and could be tiring at times, but it’s what I wanted and it certainly makes me learn faster.

After the first class I’d already remembered many of the long-forgotten words from my days in Qatar (although some of these were entirely different in Shami). Fadi gave me an extensive homework task of conjugating two verbs; to find and to look for, followed by using those verbs to create as many example sentences as possible. My sentences were pretty short, but at least I managed to construct some. I’m getting faster at reading Arabic now, which makes the overall learning process easier.

The second class was better because I’d become more familiar with Fadi and his teaching style. I was ready to speak in Arabic, even if it felt strange, and I was already starting to understand most of the words he was speaking to me. But Syrian Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) differ in many ways, all of which I’ll have to learn (and unlearn) during this course.

For example, Syrian Arabic has a distinctive word for ‘please’ (iza btreedi), that’s completely different from the usual min faDhlak, as found in MSA.  And the language has regional variations within Syria too. Between classes I tried practicing my new skills with friends via Facebook.

One friend, originally from the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor but currently living in Damascus, told me that his own Shami language isn’t perfect. He explained it’s because the people of Deir Ezzor have their own dialect, different from Shami, which includes two letters not even found in the Arabic alphabet! People who want to use the letters need a special app to input them on phones or computer keyboards.

This is fascinating and I can’t wait to learn more Arabic. There’s a entire hidden world waiting to be discovered. In the current climate of intolerance and bigotry, with idiots like Trump creating anti-Muslim policies, it’s important to expand cultural understanding and ability to communicate. Perhaps Arabic can help me do that more effectively.

Here’s my second homework, a dialogue at passport control in China.

٢٥/١/٢٠١٧

وَظِيفة:

صباح الخير

صباح الخيرات جواز السفر اذا بتريدي

تفضل…

شكرا. شو اسمك؟

أنا اسمي   سام/ سامنثا Samantha

و انتي منين؟

انا من بريطانيا. انا صحفيَّة

طيب تفضلي، هي بسبورك، اهلا و سهلا فيكي الصين!

 

Nuanced communities: Mapping ISIS support on Twitter

As every content marketer knows, creating resonant narratives requires intimate knowledge of the audience in question.

Nowhere is this more true than in attempts to counter the potent messaging of ISIS. The terrorist group is infamous for its ability to attract recruits from across the world to commit violence in the name of the ‘caliphate.’

ISIS has been a fixture in the global public consciousness for over two years, from its dramatic emergence in summer 2014 to facing near-decline earlier this year, followed by resurgence with its latest attack on Berlin just weeks ago. Long before Berlin, the group had already become notorious for the quality and power of its social media messaging, professionally produced videos and slick English-language print publications.

Concerned national governments and civil society groups have made numerous attempts to counter the ISIS narrative in various ways, ranging from shutting down followers’ Twitter accounts en masse to creating alternative narratives that aim to discredit the group, its ideology and its actions. But despite all these attempts, attacks against European cities remain a very real threat.

As another gloomy and blood-soaked year of ISIS activity comes to an end, the group shows no sign of fading away. Although it has lost physical territory in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing risk of the ISIS virtual caliphate persists.

A whole range of diverse factors determine an individual’s likelihood to become radicalised, many of which have been studied in significant depth elsewhere. Social media is not necessarily the most influential factor, but it undoubtedly plays a role.

RAND, a US-based think-tank, conducted a detailed research study, published in 2016, to examine ISIS support and opposition networks on Twitter, aiming to gather insights that could inform future counter-messaging efforts.

The study used a mixed-method analytics approach to map publicly available Twitter data from across the Arabic-speaking Twitter-verse. Specific techniques used were community detection algorithms to detect links between Twitter users that could signify the presence of interactive communities, along with social network analysis and lexical analysis to draw out key themes from among the chatter.

Research goals were to learn how to differentiate between ISIS opponents and supporters; to understand who they are and what they are saying; and to understand the connections between them while identifying the influencers.

Lexical analysis uncovered four major groups, or ‘meta-communities’ among the Arabic-speaking ISIS conversation on Twitter. These were Shia, Sunni, Syrian Mujahideen, and ISIS Supporters. They are characterised by certain distinct patterns in their tweets. Shia tend to condemn ISIS and hold positive views of Christians/the West/the international coalition fighting ISIS. This is unsurprising considering the long-standing hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims and the fact that ISIS is a Sunni group.

The Syrian Mujahideen group is anti-Assad, holds mixed views of ISIS, and negative views of the coalition. ISIS supporters talk positively in bombastic overblown language about ISIS and the caliphate. They insult Shia, the Assad regime, and the West. Notably, their approach to social media strategy is by far the most sophisticated of the lot. And finally, the Sunni group is heavily divided along nationalistic lines, which includes most countries of the Arab world.

Key findings of interest

1. Unique audiences, essential nuance

Telling the difference in large datasets between ISIS supporters and opponents was key for this study. RAND researchers chose an easy way; Twitter users who tweeted the Arabic word for ‘Islamic State’ (الدولة ا س مية ) were considered to be supporters, while those who used the acronym ‘DAESH’ (داعش ) were opponents. This dividing line isn’t foolproof but, based on what’s known about the significance of these two Arabic terms, it seems a valid way to approach the task. Research discovered that although opponents outnumbered supporters six to one, the supporters were far more active, producing 50 % more tweets daily.

This could point to a couple of things. Firstly the outnumbering suggests that the majority of the Arab world (or at least the Twitter sphere) is anti-ISIS; while the volume of pro-ISIS tweets could suggest passionate support for the group, or on the other hand could point to the presence of armies of pro-ISIS bots or perhaps the use of astro-turfing. The latter two could be an interesting case for new research, especially in the present climate where the curtain has been lifted on use of social media bots, astro-turfing armies and persona management software.

2. Jordanian pilot, Turkish soldiers

The researchers also plotted Twitter activity levels for all four groups, between July 2014 (when ISIS emerged and announced itself to the world), to May 2015. Notable findings were firstly that both the anti-ISIS groups (Shia and Sunni States) showed similar activity patterns, suggesting that both were responding to the same ISIS-related events. All four groups experienced a large spike in activity in early February 2015, when ISIS released a video showing Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive.

After this event, the ISIS supporters activity decreased sharply, while the Syrian Mujahideen’s grew to almost match the Shia and Sunni States groups. Possible explanations (assuming the ISIS supporters are not bots) could include outrage at the murder of a fellow Muslim, and/or outrage at the way he was killed, burning, which is forbidden in the Qur’an. It would be interesting to compare the Twitter response to al-Kasasbeh’s murder with the response to another ISIS burning video, released last week, where two Turkish soldiers were killed.

This comparison could reveal further insights about the nature of the original 2015 spike; or reveal changing attitudes towards Turkey, which has started fighting against ISIS in recent months and has most likely become hated among the group’s supporters as a result.

3. Social media mavens

The ISIS supporters Twitter community analysed in the study showed particular features that made it distinct from the other groups. The supporters group members were more active than the other three groups (despite smaller numbers overall). They tweeted a lot of pro-ISIS terms and phrases, predictably. But most notable about this group was their fluency and command of advanced social media strategy, as shown by their use of certain terms on Twitter. In the study, the supporters group used disproportionately high levels of terms such as spread, link, breaking news, media office, and pictorial evidence.

In general, ISIS has always been exceptionally conversant with social media marketing tools and techniques, in fact far superior to the efforts of many national governments. I would be very interested to see a study that uncovers who exactly is responsible for the ISIS propaganda, what their backgrounds are, and how they were recruited and trained (if indeed they weren’t already expert in this area).

4. CVE insights from Twitter data

Finally, the report offers insights for policy-makers and for those engaged in online CVE efforts across the Arab world. The most important of these is a reiteration of the need for counter-messaging that’s not just tailored, but that shows deep levels of insight into the mindsets of its target audiences. Research like this can help reveal useful themes and connections to build upon.

Also, the ongoing efforts by Twitter to ban pro-ISIS accounts has undoubtedly driven many of them to other channels, most notoriously Telegram. Analysing activity on new channels would be of great use in revealing any shifts in ISIS supporters focus or mindset. Much in the landscape has changed since this report was released, and continues to do so at a rapid rate.

Tackling Levantine Arabic

New challenge for 2017: Arabic!

Today I’ve scheduled two trial Arabic lessons on Skype, with teachers I found using the iTalki website. The classes are going to focus on the Levantine dialect, which I feel would be the most useful for the work I eventually hope to do.

I’m still a beginner but not completely new to Arabic. I recently completed a level one course at SOAS, which was somewhat disappointing because it didn’t progress as fast as I’d hoped. We learned the alphabet, which I already knew quite well, studying a few letters per class. The course was quite expensive too, at £300.

So I’ve been casting around for other ways to learn Arabic, looking for a method that would allow me lots of interaction with native speakers. I discovered iTalki thanks to recommendations from friends who’ve used it to achieve a useful level of Arabic.

I’ve been interested in Arabic since 2011, when I visited my first Arab country: Qatar. Arabic looks daunting, which encouraged me further having already mastered Mandarin (and been surprised by how doable that was). I signed up for a Modern Standard Arabic course at the local Berlitz school in Doha, and began. I didn’t make much progress. To my disappointment, the words and phrases I learned in class weren’t much use on the streets of Doha. This was the case for two reasons.

First, the large expat population of Doha (it’s around 80% foreigners and 20% Qataris) meant that English tended to overrule Arabic as the language of the Doha street. Captive audiences, such as taxi drivers and waiting staff, who’d been frequent targets of my Mandarin attempts in China, usually spoke better English than Arabic. Most of them were expats from the Philippines, India, or Pakistan.

Second, my Arab friends from Lebanon and Qatar told me the vocabulary I learned in class was different from the Arabic they spoke in daily life. I felt discouraged. All that effort to learn something that wouldn’t necessarily help me to communicate better. Instead people told me to choose an Arabic dialect and focus on learning that.

But I had no idea which one to choose. If I studied Gulf Arabic, would I be confined to only Gulf-based interactions? If I went for Egyptian Arabic, would people in Lebanon understand me? These questions, which seem trivial now, were enough to confuse me, and put me off from learning Arabic for a couple of years.

After two years, I left Qatar with knowledge of the Arabic alphabet that was shaky at best, plus a few polite words and phrases. That was the extent of my Arabic arsenal.  In contrast, I’d picked up Mandarin quite fast in China, because I was compelled to speak it every day in many situations. That, for me, was the key to Mandarin.

Fast forward to 2017 and I’m ready to try Arabic again. This time I’ve done better research. I’ve found out that Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) isn’t the best focus for someone who wants to communicate with Arabs on an informal basis. People may understand MSA, but they probably won’t use it.

Instead it makes more sense to focus on a common Arabic dialect used in a region that’s of interest to the learner. I can study some MSA alongside that, but learning to speak and understand the chosen dialect should be first priority. My focus will be Levantine Arabic, as spoken in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I plan to blog a bit about my progress, starting with a review of the two trial Skype lessons I’m doing this week on iTalki.