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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.

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.

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.