A gruesome beheading of a schoolteacher near Paris, France, followed by another decapitation and killing at a Nice church, the shooting of a priest outside a church in Lyon, France, culminating, thus far, with a synagogue attack in Vienna, Austria, seem to indicate a worrying new uptick in ISIS-claimed and affiliated attacks in Europe. The current crisis appears to emanate from the debate over what constitutes free speech versus the limits for hate speech, which were once again tested by the republishing of the Charlie Hebdo images depicting the Prophet sacrilegiously. This act led to a strong outcry among Muslims with a few, apparently affiliated with ISIS propagandists, taking it upon themselves to enact violent revenge, defending their sacred values, the sanctity of their Prophet, and their religion. How free speech and religious tolerance are communicated throughout segments of society and how that debate inspires so-called “lone wolves” to engage in violence – as well as ISIS’s continued success in propagating its virtual Caliphate, spreading virtual jihad over social media and the Telegram app in particular – is the subject of this article.
In recent years, France has taken a tough stance on certain Islamic practices of imposing itself on the secular nation, banning hijabs from public schools and for public servants at work, enacting a niqab and burqa ban, and allowing controversial images of religious figures to be published as evidence of free speech when doing so is perceived as hate speech by much of France’s Muslim minority. Indeed, the ban on religious face coverings remained intact during the coronavirus crisis, meaning that women could be penalized for wearing a burqa or niqab that covers their mouth and nose, but also penalized for not wearing a face mask for the purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19. All of these actions are viewed as Islamophobic by many of France’s Muslim citizens as well as around the globe, and, in the case of the depictions of the Prophet, as outright hateful. Islam does not allow for depicting the Prophet at all, much less in a mocking manner.
While the purpose of legal guarantees to free speech is usually considered to allow citizens to criticize their own governments without fear of persecution, liberal democracies also often put speech like the Charlie Hebdo caricatures in the same category and do not view mocking the Prophet as a type of hate speech. Thus, as French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his support for republishing the Prophet Mohammed’s caricatures, his controversial remarks of Islam being “in crisis” and needing to be reformed in order to make it more compatible with liberal values turned him into a new poster boy of Islamophobia for the Salafi jihadi groups discussing him in the past week over social media. His remarks and the French government allowing the republishing of the Mohammed caricatures not only spurred a fallout with the Muslim world, which saw tens of thousands of Muslims protesting against French Islamophobia, but also exposed France to a series of terrorist attacks in which young men, incited by the propaganda messaging of militant jihadist groups (al-Qaeda and ISIS), translated their religious fervor into brutal violence. In response, two women stabbed two veiled Muslim women near the Eiffel Tower. Attempting to placate the anger of Muslims, Macron, in an interview with Al Jazeera, defended the right of what is seen by Muslims as blasphemy by asserting that he “understands the sentiments of the Muslim world” while reiterating his stance of fighting what he believes to be radical Islam that is incompatible with the liberal values of French society.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, President Macron’s statements and the attacks offered ISIS and al-Qaeda valuable cannon fodder to attack the West in the name of defending Islam and the Prophet, and also offered attractive, relevant trending content. The groups reinforced their narrative of the West being at war against Islam, synergized by the violent efforts of their sympathizers, which could expeditiously boost recruitment and make the cause of defeating “Crusaders” more germane. At the forefront of this social media incitement campaign were ISIS media operatives spearheading “media invasion” campaigns on Facebook, flooding the France 24 media page and Al Jazeera’s Facebook page with threatening messages of “cutting the heads of Frenchmen” and posting gory images of Macron. The modus operandi of these ISIS media invasion campaigns entails copy-pasting the content and images from the ISIS media invasion page to other popular pages. A considerable number of ISIS supporters participated, with the long-term impact still unknown. The perpetrator of Vienna attacks, Abu Dajan al Albani, whose allegiance video to ISIS’s new Caliph, Abu Ibrahim Al Hashemi al Qureishi, was posted on ISIS Telegram channels, was hailed as a “hero” and the terrorist group called on its supporters to impersonate his “heroic deeds,” lending exclusive credibility to the ISIS claims of attacks and bolstering its standing amongst its supporters.
When ISIS had control of their territorial Caliphate, the group required most male joiners to undergo weapons and shariah training. Nowadays, the virtual ISIS Caliphate, as opposed to its territorial precursor training in person, creates a cyber literate class of Caliphate supporters who are trained and armed with the required critical digital skills to maintain operational security while waging virtual jihad through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and rest. The ISIS-linked Electronic Horizon Foundation, for instance, has imparted sophisticated cybertechnology lessons, including on how to make use of VPNs to protect their own personal digital safety on social media and evade surveillance. Likewise, followers are urged to learn how to wage virtual offensive jihad through video tutorials on advanced hacking tools like Linux and Metasploit, phishing, and OSNIT tools. Within this context, bolstered by their ISIS online training, many sympathizers then flock to social media pages to circulate ISIS incitement propaganda. Thus, despite the big tech giants having instituted strident take-down policies, ISIS’s technical prowess stays one step ahead of them, with their virtual jihadists making use of their new skills while jumping between platforms, catching attention on the big platforms and moving interested followers to encrypted ones before their posts are taken down.
(One of the admins of the ISIS groups asks the supporters to hit/thunder report @REPORT_ISIS account, the anti-ISIS advocacy channel responsible for taking down swelling ISIS-linked Telegram channels. In the second ISIS new red poster posted under the hashtag #You have them, unified, ISIS propagandists roughly state: “Allah Almighty said: And fight for the sake of Allah. … It is not hidden from you what the Crusaders are and their hatred against Islam and its people, and the last of that was their offense to the Messenger of God, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in a new chapter of their ongoing Crusade war against Islam and its people. For this purpose, we invite you to participate in an ‘incitement campaign’ in which we incite the shedding of the prayers of the Crusaders and targeting their interests everywhere, especially France. Strive to deliver your inflammatory messages to all platforms, so perhaps the participation of one of you will stimulate a united effort and strengthen his strength and push him to translate this as an action on the ground.”)
(The cybersecurity ISIS expert admin on Telegram offering intermediary hacking lessons for 1,000 followers)
Pro-ISIS Telegram groups of Al Ansar Bank and al Fursan bots have also seized upon the recent anti France protests to provide free fake contact numbers for registering and authenticating accounts for Telegram, etc., while evading detection, SIM cards and free social media accounts to maximize the participation of ISIS supporters as the free social media accounts and numbers provided by ISIS means that the supporters do not have to register with their real numbers on various social media platforms, thus diluting their security concerns, and metastasizing its social media war against France. Angry ISIS munasireen (helpers/supporters) threatened more attacks, slaughters, and bloodshed against the French people, using the trending hashtags of #get them oh monotheist, #hunt them mujahedeen, #getthemunified, #crusader France. With France on high security alert, pro al-Qaeda and ISIS media groups remain jubilant about the news of attacks while pushing for more aggressive propaganda to be further pumped out, threatening even more brutal terror attacks all over France, with the hope that this media frenzy coupled with real life attacks might provide opportunities for them to win over new recruits.
In the last image, on an ISIS telegram channel, the admin asks the followers to contact other private accounts (Ansar bank accounts) for free Telegram and Twitter numbers.
The attacker who beheaded schoolteacher Samuel Paty was glorified by having one of the major ISIS telegram channels named after him. ISIS understands all too well that the promise of glory can motivate copycats. Likewise, in its latest issue of the ISIS weekly newspaper, Al Naba, ISIS hailed the “Muslim Youth who slashed and cut off the head of the cartoonist” and praised the “mujahideen” for out-maneuvering the Western security services in order to get in contact with brothers in Syria so that the explosives could be made in non-traditional ways and low-level attacks could be planned. The importance of launching attacks in their home countries was also reiterated in an Al Naba editorial by quoting the late ISIS leader Abu Mohammad Al Adnani’s incitement to Muslims all over the world to stand up to so-called unbelievers who opposed the ISIS Caliphate: So O muwahed wherever you may be, hinder those who want to harm your brothers and state as much as you can. The best thing you can do is to strive to your best and kill any disbeliever, whether he be French, American, or from any of their allies. “O you who have believed, take your precaution and [either] go forth in companies or go forth all together” [An-Nisa: 71]. In this now past Ramadan statement, Al Adnani, being quoted now, had incited ISIS sympathizers to rise up and use a knife, rock, or anything available to kill those opposing ISIS.
(In the 2nd image, to glorify lone wolf attacks, ISIS-linked channels name the group after the Nice stabbing attacker)
Decrying the majority Muslim sentiment against violence, ISIS, by contrast, called for more violence these past weeks, claiming that only brutal terror attacks can stave off the “infidels” from publishing cartoons of the Prophet. Indeed, the recent attacks, coupled with the republishing of the caricatures, have accelerated the pace of lone mujahid terror content surfacing on Islamic State support channels, content that offers security and safety tips and responds to questions such as “Where does a lone wolf work?” and “Are all countries suitable for the battlefield?” However, it is clear that these attackers are not lone wolves at all, given that they are following the messaging and encouragement of ISIS, whose online content offers detailed infographics in English about hostage-taking, arson attacks, knife attacks, including advice about the choice of knife to strike different body parts, and the choice of weapons and vehicles. Thus, these media channels provide a smooth starting juncture for the lone ISIS mujahid to achieve the purpose of striking his target. Comparatively as observed, the al Qaeda-linked public forums have been less active in disseminating captivating content of anti-France opprobrium, with ISIS still reigning in this regard via its virtual Caliphate.
The Islamic State-affiliated Al Haqiqa Media Centre also circulated a six-page text titled Crusader France and its Hatred Against Muslim Nations, delving into the history of France’s oppression against Muslims, cursing Napoleon for his atheism, and raising questions about the security preparedness of France, declaring Macron to be a “shaky weak figure unable to solve the crisis of miserable French people.” This article proclaims that “its soldiers were killed at every fall, and wherever France landed with its army, unless the creative state found it on the lookout, its detachments would treat them with red flames, and even in their own homes, the supporters of the Caliphate used slaughter knives on the necks of everyone who called and attacked. Where is their security that they talk about in their media?” The article ends with the ISIS author calling out to “the people of Islam” to bomb French diplomatic missions and relief societies around the world, sabotage French public infrastructure, run over French citizens with cars, and stab them with knives.
(The text – Crusader France and its Hatred Against Muslim Nations)
Apart from playing upon the religious sensitivities of its supporters and shifting its attention from French society, ISIS’s Arabic Telegram channels also diverted their energies toward scapegoating Al Jazeera, using hashtags # Aljazeera pawn, and # the abuse of Messenger. The messages in Arabic on Telegram blamed Al Jazeera for offering Macron an outlet to cool down the tensions with the Muslim world and for airing his controversial statements on Islam. This ISIS discourse also aimed at “uncovering Al Jazeera’s conspiracy of spearheading the media efforts of normalization of the Arab world with apostate Jews,” and accused the outlet of playing a functional role in fabricating successes of boycott campaigns, and thus “dissuading” Muslim youth from waging violent jihad. ISIS supporters on Telegram’s Arabic channels also distorted and exploited the French interior minister’s comment about future attacks, fanning the narrative that the West wants to continue to subjugate Muslims and attack Islam. Thus, the longstanding arguments that ISIS and other jihadi groups weaponize: the discourse of the war against honest Muslims by the Crusader West, the longstanding interventions and the Western support for Arab autocratic leaders and the imperial subjugation of Muslims at the hands of Western countries were all used once again to bolster the legitimacy of their narrative and convince supporters that they are on the right side of this war of civilizations.
(1st screenshot credit- from a Tweet by Michael Krona)
This is how governments' rhetoric is taken, distorted and adapted to fit jihadists narrative. Statement from French Interior Minister is echoed in jihadist channels on Telegram and rapidly turns into the longstanding message from #IS and #AQ supporters' on victimisation. pic.twitter.com/FxwSO4Pwr5
— Michael Krona (@GlobalMedia_) October 31, 2020
(Rough translation for the above image: His Eminence, the Honorable, the Venerable, the Vulnerable, the Vulnerable, Macron … France, Al-Jazeera channel specifically to be a platform for Macron?! The first / because this comes in the context of the functional role that the island plays in dissuading young people from jihad, lest they join the method of prophethood, as happened in Nice and elsewhere. The second / in order to make an imaginary achievement for the “boycott campaign”, which they want to infuse the choice of Muslim youth instead of jihad? It is the old “Randy” role played by the island of Qatar. Therefore, we said, targeting these Arab Randians is a victory for the Prophet – may God’s prayers and peace be upon him – we call upon him and incite the believers to him. Finally, the island’s hosting of the Crusader is not considered “macron” after his offense to the Prophet, is this not considered more “normalization” than with the Jews? Is not that a direct offense to the Prophet – may God’s prayers and peace be upon him -?! What is the difference between Macron and Al Jazeera?! But did the island of evil and Macron achieve their goal?! The bullets! The time has passed in which they lead the corner of the generation to the tunnel of “transformed Islam!” It is the time of “home Islam,” and God has reformed for him men who support him with everything but words.)
Adept at distorting the rhetoric of politicians to fit the militant jihadist narrative, a group of 17,000 ISIS supporters on Telegram endorsing the ISIS narrative shows tangible fruition of its psychological and media warfare. It is through the public and private platforms on Telegram that the online communities of ISIS supporters unabatedly amplify the ISIS brand by absorbing and disseminating the group’s ideological and regional discourses, republishing ISIS’s news and media releases, audio messages, images and videos from ISIS official outlets like Amaq and Nasheer News Agency, and Al Fursan Media, while reproducing and aggressively circulating the gruesome ISIS videos with quotes from leaders, commenting on current events, and sharing ISIS nasheeds, speeches of leaders, and ISIS’s battlefield videos, and discussing military strategies thus building and sustaining the virtual ISIS Caliphate.
With around 50 informal Arabic news channels, ISIS has maintained a strong lead among the militant jihadist groups in securing its digital footprint on the encrypted Telegram platform, even after the widespread online culling of Telegram at the hands of Europol’s robust removal campaigns last November, which almost decimated its online presence on Telegram. Yet, despite these removals, the steady flow of ISIS content across all Telegram channels, predominantly Arabic ones and otherwise, and the timely coherent structured quality content that ISIS, despite its territorial fall, still produces for its support base, keeps supporters glued to social media, further reinforcing ISIS’s notion of waging a “productive virtual jihad.”
As communication through Facebook comes with red flags of security and Twitter with word limits, ISIS still sees Telegram as a one-stop-shop for all of its strategic communication. It not only allows the dissemination of larger audio visual files, but also provides myriad communication choices from open channels, private groups and highly encrypted secret chats, along with media archiving and saving options of large files, the combination of which makes Telegram an uncompromising node in the larger framework of the ISIS digital communication strategy.
The new ISIS strategies employed to slip through the cracks of surveillance on Telegram and thus sustain its long term presence on the platform include using names with special keywords (jîh@đ)( dabeq- for dabiq) and long random names for public channels (dy21ggg@) to evade detection by search engines, repeatedly changing the links for private groups so it is difficult to keep up with them for any takedown attempts, forming backup channels for every new group that pops up, and maintaining two separate channels (one public and private) of the same name. (For example, one such channel was Ansar media public and Ansar media private.) In recent days, ISIS on its groups also instructed its followers to report the “REPORT ISIS Telegram channel” that played an instrumental role in taking down many ISIS channels. The result of this blitzkrieg report campaign was that this advocacy channel that was initiated to crack down on ISIS and combat online terrorism was itself taken down within two days after the mass reporting of this channel by ISIS supporters! Furthermore, it cannot be denied that Telegram still acts as a popular rendezvous platform for ISIS before its content departures to other social media platforms for circulation. The stark rise in the use of ISIS Telegram bots also guarantees that ISIS presence remains partially discreet as it continues to deliver curated content for its followers.
Thus, it appears, bereft of a centralized media structure, in the absence of its physical caliphate, Telegram has the potential of mutating into an informal social media central command for ISIS while it simultaneously scrambles to find new safe heavens in and experiment with other lesser-known messaging platforms. In the past, ISIS has had unpleasant experiences with Rocket Chat and Tam Tam and now the media operatives and supporters in the groups are engaged in discussions about the viability and the cybersecurity vulnerabilities of their second most popular Hoop messenger.
Above is an example of ISIS Electronic Horizon Foundation’s electronic tech site warning supporters about the use of malicious websites and the threat of spying by intelligence agencies.
It is also interesting to note that the banning of 1,338 ISIS bots or accounts in three days following the Nice attack has not decisively disrupted the steady stream of information stemming from ISIS media groups, demonstrating its resilient virtual presence and flexibility in moving toward a new set of navigation rules and strategic techniques devising effective alternative media strategies that prolong its survival in a largely hostile virtual/social media environment. In the wake of the loss of its physical Caliphate, not only its virtual survival but also domination in the discourse of jihadist media landscape through production and dissemination of qualitative content that appeals to those who share grievances that ISIS exploits is one of the decisive factors, determining its recruitment and deployment successes in the longer run. As a result, the group’s robust presence on Telegram perfectly fits into this modus operandi and will likely form the backbone of its future media outreach efforts.
Whether Europe will continue to see attacks depends in part on exactly these issues. Can the most lethal terrorist group to date continue to find ways to exploit grievances and activate so-called “lone wolf” attackers out of the population of disgruntled and aggrieved Muslims through its internet-based and social media activity? One would hope not, but the evidence appears daunting indeed that the ISIS virtual Caliphate may be as difficult to remove from power as was its territorial Caliphate.
All translations are rough and should not be considered exact.