Category: Violent Extremism

Fearful milieux: Perceptions of Islam in an age of Trump

Muslims living and working in the United States are being forced to reconsider their futures in light of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, announced this week.

Citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Somalia will be denied entry for 90 days while the new Trump administration “tightens” already draconian visa laws. The move has been widely lambasted, with critics comparing it to the atmosphere of 1930s Germany that led to the Holocaust. In a sick irony, Trump announced the refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

There are many implications arising from this ban, all of them worrying. But rather than causing us too much speculation on an uncertain future, the US Muslim ban offers a pressing opportunity to explore the social and political attitudes that have created a zeitgeist where this ruling could emerge. What kind of narratives has the public absorbed to lead large swathes of it in a direction where a Holocaust-esque move could become socially acceptable? Fear is somewhere at the heart of the matter. But how did it get there, take root and flourish?

Researchers have traditionally used focus groups, polls and interviews to analyse social attitudes. Pew polls and YouGov surveys give a useful indication of generalised attitudes to certain topics. But people are less likely to offer their true opinions in a formal research situation. Instead, they may sanitise or edit their responses to appear more acceptable to the researcher. One of the more objective ways to capture true social attitudes is by analysing what people say and do when they think no-one is watching.

Shaping the online narrative

Rhys Crilley and Raquel da Silva take this exact approach in their recently published research, ‘Talk about Terror in Our Back Gardens’,  which examines attitudes among the British public displayed online, in relation to British foreign fighters joining ISIS in Syria. They argue that the views of ordinary members of the public, as well as media and elites, play a key role in shaping and generating the discursive environment, through which people filter their opinions on foreign fighters and terrorism, and form views on Muslims and Islam as a whole.

Crilley and da Silva analyse a range of online comments from social media, forums and newspaper comment sections. What they discover is problematic and disturbing, but unsurprising in light of recent developments. This research is important because it indicates how the stage has been set for the ramping up of racism, intolerance and division that has now become part of official government narrative, embodied in the figure of Trump and his administration, delivered to the masses through harsh policies that would have once been inconceivable. Although this particular research focuses on a UK sample, I strongly believe that US results of a similar study would reflect a related range of troubling views. The process seems to unfold something like this:

  1. Filtering down of certain narratives from elites/media to the masses
  2. People reproduce and reinforce (and sometimes challenge) those narratives through means of online discussion (‘echo chambers’)
  3. Narratives then become part of the social ‘milieu’; as a result society becomes fearful, divided and more likely to back repressive policies such as Trump’s Muslim ban. This sense of victimisation could also feed into the variety of factors that push certain vulnerable individuals into violent extremism

Religion seen as key driving force

In analysing the online comments, Crilley and da Silva focus on, a) the motivations people attribute to foreign fighters, as well as, b) their views on suitable government responses. The most striking feature of a) is that the most commonly-held view (51% of the sample chose it), that foreign fighters ‘are pursuing their own religious beliefs’, is one that has been consistently disproved by counterterrorism experts and behavioural psychologists alike. In contrast, just 2% of respondents chose the option that foreign fighters ‘seek adventure or excitement’, although that is probably a more common driver than religion.

So far, the conclusion is clear: British public opinion still believes religion is a key driving factor for foreign fighters, despite expert research showing the contrary. This fixation on blaming religion (specifically Islam) carries disturbing implications about the nature of British social attitudes towards the country’s Muslim community, and towards Islam in general.

Cruel and exceptional

Things get worse in the second part of the research, which focuses on the public’s views of suitable ways to deal with foreign fighters returning to the UK. The majority of comments (38%) want to ‘forbid them [foreign fighters] from returning’, while 32% of comments suggest foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Only 5% of comments suggest a view to ‘allow them to return to the UK’.

Let’s unpack the possible sentiments behind the first two responses. Forbidding foreign fighters (who are British citizens) from returning to the UK would mean rendering them stateless. For starters, this is illegal under international law. But more than that, the fact that such a large proportion of the British online public suggests stripping away the citizenship of foreign fighters, points to an innate belief that British Muslims are less than ‘British’.

This raises questions such as: Would forbidding return still be as often suggested if the people in question were non-Muslims, specifically white Britons? Does being Muslim make them ‘less British’ in people’s minds? I suspect the answers to these questions would be ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively.

The second most popular response was that foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Types of punishment discussed usually fell into the ‘hard’ category, such as deportation (without trial), life imprisonment and even death. The latter suggestion is particularly disturbing as some see it as the ‘only thing that will stop British Muslims fighting in Syria’ and the ‘only way’ to silence their ‘vile inhuman ideologies’. This, mentioned in conjunction with the singling out of British Muslims, suggests a high level of contempt for their human rights.

In fact, many of the comments recommend cruel and exceptional punishments, implying a ‘state of exception’ that puts British Muslims outside of the law. It dehumanises them, reducing them to a status better suited to ‘savage and wild animals’. Attitudes of this kind emerge in the mainstream media and filter downwards into the general population largely by means of online commenting.

Fear, propaganda and the online world

Terrorism inspires such primordial fear that it has become an effective tool for manipulating public opinion. These views drive the zeitgeist and, leveraged in certain ways, can propel societies into situations such as the Holocaust. We haven’t learned from history, despite many illusions of progress. Those illusions have now been shattered by the election of Trump and what has followed.

The power of the online world must not be underestimated. Harnessed effectively, it’s probably the best propaganda tool the world has ever seen. As we’ve now seen, it can shape the outcomes of elections and shift global opinion in startling directions. Critical thinking is the solution; but, as the work of Crilley and da Silva shows, much of society remains quick to jump on the bandwagon, targeting certain groups without pausing to analyse the facts.

Ranking CVE effectiveness around the world

Ranking countries and cities on their various merits is a familiar concept to practitioners of place branding. Can this approach be used to rank the effectiveness of global CVE efforts?

Many rankings have been created assessing everything from a nation’s dollar brand value to the level of good deeds it contributes to the world as a whole.

You may have seen the latest editions of ‘World’s Happiest Countries’ (with Sweden, Denmark or Bhutan usually leading), or perhaps ‘World’s Most Violent Cities’ (a death knell for the winner’s tourism industry). These rankings are usually based on hard data (e.g. census data, statistics on violent crime, value of exports, etc), combined with results from various surveys that assess people’s perceptions of the country in question.

The recently released Global Terrorism Index (2016 edition) combines approaches from country branding and terrorism studies to create an index that measures levels of terrorism activity affecting 162 countries (although some of these do not show any activity whatsoever). The index attempts to systematically rank the countries based on levels of terrorism activity.

Unsurprisingly (but perhaps contrary to widespread belief…), the ranking is topped by Iraq, closely followed by Afghanistan (2nd), Nigeria (3rd), Pakistan (4th) and Syria (5th). Together, these five countries accounted for 72% of all terrorism-related deaths in 2015. In contrast, the highest-ranked Western country on the index is France, ranking at number 29.

The GTI is a useful exercise, producing valuable insights into the economic and social impact of terrorism, while also examining the drivers that increase its likelihood in the first place. Terrorism has become the biggest global fear of our time, but the GTI helps put Western fears into perspective. As always, it is not the West that suffers most from terrorism.

Despite ISIS having fallen out of the spotlight in recent months, the issue of global terrorism shows no sign of abating. In fact, it has mutated and arisen in a different (although not new) guise; that of the far-right. In light of this ongoing and constantly changing threat, it is clearly of significant benefit for countries to compare notes on ways to counter violent extremism (CVE), while also taking stock of their own efforts. In light of this, a new research idea comes to mind; one that analyses the effectiveness of CVE efforts around the world. The end result would be a ranking of nations according to their effectiveness in this regard.

Many experts agree that a holistic approach to CVE is needed to help determine its effectiveness. One suggested solution is a comparative scale of CVE effectiveness. In the wake of 9/11, counterterrorism (CT) policy and practice has been largely focused on military and law enforcement measures, which target the perpetrators of attacks. This approach is right and necessary but also overly narrow; failing to fully address the conditions that drive groups and individuals into violent extremism in the first place.

More recently, a combination of better research and concerted efforts by a number of high-level government officials has highlighted the need for prevention measures that deal with the threat in a more sustainable and strategic way. Doing that requires measuring whether or not progress is being made. At present, there is no common set of indicators to assess CVE progress. There is also a distinct lack of compiled data on the effectiveness of CVE efforts around the world.

The proposed CVE Effectiveness Index would address these gaps, drawing on lessons learned from the Global Terrorism Index, along with other relevant indices, including the Good Country Index, the Digital Country Index, the Global Peace Index, and the Freedom House indices.

The new index would potentially track CVE progress (or lack of) across all relevant countries, based on indicators developed and data generated by civil society, combined with a layer of big data and sentiment analysis. A ‘whole of society’ approach should be adopted throughout the project, with strong focus on the role of civil society and community actors in driving national CVE efforts.

To construct a useful index a range of quantitative and qualitative data would be needed. Possible sources could include census data, the World Values Survey, safety/security perceptions survey, government data on various indicators related to terrorist activity/recruitment/incarceration, along with conducting social media sentiment analysis that targets online conversations within the country in question.

Once all the data sets have been fully analysed and the ranking compiled, the results should be displayed for easy access using a dedicated online platform, which would include a world map (using Tableau or similar tool) and drill-downs of data by country (and city/neighbourhood, if data allows).

Much work is still needed to decide on the most pertinent data, along with devising a suitable framework for measurement. One possible framework would approach the data on three levels. The top level would be ‘communications’, (including how effective the country is at monitoring online comms, conducting takedowns of extremist materials, shutting down user accounts, creating and spreading digital counter-narratives, and so on).

The next level down would be ‘community’. This level would analyse effectiveness of the country’s efforts to create outreach and dialogue mechanisms with communities, including grants and capacity-building measures toward CVE objectives. In addition, are there any CVE training programmes in place for individuals and groups working in law, social work, education and healthcare? If so, the effectiveness of these would be analysed, according to measures yet to be determined.

And lastly, the ‘individual’ level. This would include assessing whether the country has any intervention programmes designed to identify, dissuade, counsel, and mentor individuals at risk of committing to extremist violence. If so, how effective are they?

As well as data from sources such as the census, World Values Survey, perceptions surveys, etc, the proposed study should also include a layer of data gleaned from listening to social media conversations in the country being studied.

To achieve this, tools such as Crimson Hexagon could be used to gather data and analyse sentiment from across social media channels. In 2011, Crimson Hexagon conducted a research project to determine European and Arab sentiment regarding the Syrian war. Data gathering for the project involved training an algorithm to look for patterns in posts and mentions of keywords relating to the war and to Syrian refugees.

Doing this for the proposed CVE index would enable researchers to determine overall public sentiment as well as highlight any significant shifts in sentiment around keywords related to terrorism and violent extremism.

To make this index a reality the next step would be to select a range of data sources to measure. How accessible and reliable are they likely to be? Will every country be able to offer the same data sources? Then, it would be necessary to narrow down the framework and decide on the final version, decide which resources would be needed, create a timetable for delivery, look for partners, and seek sources of funding.

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.

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.

Istanbul: Next target in ISIS narrative

The Reina nightclub shooting, which killed 39 and injured over 40 during the early hours of New Year’s Day, is the first attack on civilians in Turkey that ISIS has officially claimed. The gunman remains on the run at the time of writing.

Mass attacks on civilians have become an ISIS hallmark. In Turkey, the goal to kill civilians differentiates ISIS from other groups who have launched similar attacks, such as TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) or the PKK. Both of the latter (which are linked to each other) tend to target military and/or police targets, instead of civilians (although they can often be killed in the process).

Turkey – and Istanbul in particular – has suffered many terrorist attacks during 2016. Three notable incidents were the Ataturk airport bombing (June), the Sultanahmet suicide bombing (Jan), and the Istiklal Street suicide bombing (March). Interspersed with these have been numerous TAK and PKK-claimed bombings aimed at taking down police and military targets.

There have been other ISIS-attributed attacks in Turkey, such as the November 2016 Diyarbakir car bomb, but none as deadly as the Reina shooting. This style follows a pattern already seen elsewhere, with the Orlando nightclub shooting and the Bataclan shooting in Paris. Although ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially claimed the Diyarbakir attack, that was aimed at police. The Reina shooting represents the first time ISIS has claimed an attack of this nature against civilians in Turkey, a Sunni-majority country. It’s important to note that most of the victims at Reina were Muslims.

So why has ISIS changed the modus operandi of its attacks on Turkey? One theory is that, in the past, the group considered Turkey an essential gateway for foreign fighters to reach its heartland in Syria. This theory could have been valid when the borders were still porous in 2014, but makes less sense now that they have been closed. It is also questionable in light of recent ISIS attacks on Turkey, which have killed many Turks and other Muslims. Why would ISIS attack Turkey if Turkey were still covertly helping it?

Another idea, explored in more detail here, suggests that ISIS tailors its attacks to resonate more effectively with specific audiences. Knowing the group’s tendency to follow best practice in content strategy, this would seem logical. Killing Sunni civilians (as in the Reina attack) would seemingly contradict the interests of the main ISIS support base. Killing your target audience is probably not the best way to engage with them…But somehow ISIS is able to justify its actions enough to retain influence and make them work within its propaganda narrative.

The new focus on Istanbul as an ISIS target could also fit within the original ISIS narrative as outlined in the group’s propaganda magazine Dabiq. The magazine talks at length about the many battles leading up to the conquest of ‘Constantinople’ (as Istanbul was known during Crusader times), which precedes the final showdown against the ‘Crusaders’ (i.e. Western coalition forces). If ISIS and its supporters are still following this narrative, it is possible that the latest attack on Istanbul is a natural progression along the apocalyptic storyline of ISIS propaganda.

Could this ISIS-claimed attack on ‘Constantinople’ be a step towards fulfilling another part of the Dabiq propaganda narrative? From an ISIS perspective, Muslims who frequent nightclubs (and most likely drink alcohol) would be seen as apostates – and hence, in the mind of an ISIS adherent, their killing would be justified. That, combined with the Turkish army’s recently increased offensive against ISIS in Syria, could be reason enough to put Istanbul in the firing line. Unfortunately, it seems we can expect more attacks on Istanbul during 2017, as the conflict between the Turkish state and ISIS ratchets up even further.