A few Thoughts on "Counter Narratives" and "Counter Messaging"

If we look at the lives Western foreign fighters led before they decided to go to Syria, we will find that they are truly diverse. We find former Gangsta Rappers as well as converts from well-to-do, bourgeois families among them; we see former pretty criminals, drug consumers and drinkers, but also university student, workers and pupils. What we usually don't find is recruits who used to be politically active.

That's interesting, because it wouldn't be at all counter-intuitive to assume that radicalization can be the result of frustration over not having been able to achieve anything through political activism. But that's not the case, apparently. What we see instead is that many of those who end up waging war in Syria have been radicalized at a dramatic speed. As if there had been a vacuum that needed to be filled as quickly as possible.

In fact, I think this is actually what happens. Many of those who radicalize do it because the ideology of Jihadism offers them simple and all-encompassing answers to all their questions and problems - and it instills them with a deep sense of purpose and meaning, something most other ideas on offer seem to be failing at. Jihadism basically says that you can leave behind your troubled past this very moment; your slate will be wiped clean; all crises are over; all conflicts from your past life are meaningless. You will be a new person, with a new identity. You are truly re-born. Or: Given a second chance.

You have to understand this mechanism if you want to fight Jihadist ideology. My question is: Does the renewed talk about counter narratives and counter messaging take this into account?

As the New York Times is reporting, the US State Department is in the midst of revamping its respective efforts. There is talk of making use of as many as 350 State department Social Media accounts in order to repel the IS's propaganda flow. The "Think again. Turn Away"-Initiative, which hadn't been faring as well as had been hoped for, will apparently be made part of a broader initiative that will also enlist the help of Pentagon and intelligence analysts so as to make sure that messaging is co-ordinated, not only among US agencies, but also with partner states.

One of the inherent problems with a state-run counter messaging proposal is made aptly visible in this quote by Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center: "We try to find ways to stimulate this kind of counter narrative, this kind of counter messaging, without heaving a U.S. government hand in it." The problem is that, quite frankly, the more state involvement there is, the more it smacks of counter propaganda - a concept which is not easily reconciled with our ideas of a free, liberal society.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think it is a mistake to point out blatant lies by Jihadists. I just think that this effort is not addressing the core of the problem.

I don't even like the term counter narrative. Because in my understanding, Jihadism is the counter narrative here. (And that is true even if you take into account the historical  emergence of the Salafiyya in reaction to the rise of the West.) Our problem is not that we need to find an answer to the ideological challenge of Jihadism - our problem is that our original narrative has become too unattractive. It can not fulfill the needs of those who later become Jihadists.

Our first question therefor should be: Why is our original idea not attractive enough anymore? Is it because we don't teach it well enough (in our schools, for example)? Is it, because it is not exciting enough (since party politics are "boring")? Is its, because we can't offer quick and complete solutions, unlike Jihadism? Or is it because we don't really keep our promises (because, e.g., we are all equal on paper, but it is much harder to find a flat or a job if you are a Muslim with an Arabic name)?

To me, it looks like this: The moment in which a 17-year-old starts believing a Jihadist hardliner, he has already stopped believing "us.

But at the same time, this may be true, too: Another 17-year-old, who in the same moment experiences that he is not powerless because he secured funding for a basketball court from the municipality or perhaps because he just successfully registered a demonstration against the next Gaza war, may become quite immune towards Jihadist recruiters.

I don't want to downplay personal factors. Broken families, lack of (male) examples - all of this plays into radicalization processes, as well. But the sense of being unable to achieve or change anything, is also a big driving force.

The truth is that Jihadism has many thousands of voluntary helpers across the Globe who spend hours on hours in front of their laptops trying to spread their ideology. These people are truly committed. If we want to counter their influence, we need more than state-run and state-instigated programs. We need volunteers ourselves, in order to counter the volunteers of extremism.

I have nothing against help from the state, wherever it is helpful and makes sense. But actually, no-one needs a mandate or even a laptop to his own bit of counter messaging. I guess this is my point. We can't and we shouldn't delegate this to the state or its agencies alone.

--

NB: This is a somewhat different version of a German blog post I published on ZEIT ONLINE today

Let's not follow the IS playbook


Yes, the recently published "Islamic Stat" video of the burning to death of Jordanian fighter pilot Muaz al-Kawasbeh was horrific. It was very hard to watch. Just terrible.

In their reporting, many media suggested that this was the most gruesome of its kind so far. CNN called it the "most brutal yet"; German journalists found similar words. Sascha Lehnartz, for example, at welt.despoke of an IS strategy of "continuos escalation." I am sure, the video was similarly described in other countries.

However, I think we ought to take a step back here. Of course the IS intended the video to be an escalation. But is it really? Are we really agreeing that the burning to death of al-Kawasbeh is more gruesome than the mass executions that the IS has perpetrated and filmed? More terrible than the stonings to death of several women? More brutal than the murder of allegedly gay men by throwing them off of high buildings? Are these images really more gruesome than the decapitation videos that the IS has produced? Decapitations that sometimes take minutes?? 

I am asking these rhetorical questions because in my opinion it is impossible for the IS to become more brutal than it has already proven itself to be. The escalation we are talking about here really only pertains to the technical savvyness of the videos and to the ever more skillful addressing of the target audience. This can and should be described and analyzed. 

But do we really want to be taking part in the ranking of the brutality of methods of murder? I, for one, don't think that we should. 

Of course it is conceivable that the IS will try rattle us again and again. Quite possibly they will succeed. They might kill people with methods we wouldn't have thought of. Methods which may seem like taken out of a horror movie. 

But let us at least not follow their playbook in this one respect: Let us not rank murder methods for brutality. As far as I am concerned, my disgust of the IS killing machine couldn't possibly be any bigger than it already is. 

NB: This is a slightly edited version from my German blog post about this topic here at ZEIT ONLINE. 

"Europe only talks about radical Islam"

January 27th 2015 - In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, I interviewed Mustafa Ceric for ZEIT ONLINE. Ceric is the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia & Herzegovina and one of the most important Muslim scholars in Europe. A German version of this interview was published on January, 14th. 




DIE ZEIT: Mr Ceric, you have condemned the Paris attack in strong terms. You have also called it an attack on innocent journalists. There are a lot of people in the Muslim world who believe these journalists were not innocent, but guilty, because they ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed. What do you say to that?


Mustafa Ceric: I would like to postpone the question of innocence for now. We know from the Sira, the recorded history of his life, that whenever the Prophet was attacked and offended, these offences were not only more hurtful than the ones by Charlie Hebdo – but the Prophet did not issue any death sentences. As Muslims, if we want to express our love for him, we do this in our hearts. Of course, the caricatures are not OK. All Muslims feel embarrassed and uncomfortable about them. If Charlie Hebdo wanted to hurt Muslims, the magazine succeeded. If the magazine wanted to offer some kind of social criticism, if it wanted to make clear, that some Muslims have shortcomings – yes, of course, that is true, too. But my point is: You don't love the prophet and show it with a gun.


DIE ZEIT: Al-Qaida, to give just one example, has always argued that cartoonists have to die, when they ridicule the Prophet, because the Prophet himself set an example when he had Ka'ab bin al-Ashraf killed, who had ridiculed him. Is that wrong?


Mustafa Ceric: I don't accept this argument. These terrorists first decide to do something and then seek for arguments. You know what bothers Muslims more? Charlie Hebdo also ridiculed the Jewish faith, and at least one journalist was ousted for Antisemtitism. We want to know: How are we going to solve this puzzle? Or take Anders Breivik, for example. He killed over 70 people. He said he did it as a Christian. Did the media call him a Christian terrorist?


DIE ZEIT: Nobody denied that Breivik believed he was on a Christian mission.


Mustafa Ceric: Perhaps. But it did not lead to hysteria about Christian terrorism in Europe. Why, for God's sake, are the media always talking about „Islamic terrorism“? This is a double standard. What happened in Paris, is not „Islamic terrorism“. I would like to ask the media in Europa to apologize for using the term „Islamic terrorism“.


DIE ZEIT: So the perpetrators have nothing to do with Islam?


Mustafa Ceric: No, this has nothing to with Islam.


DIE ZEIT: If that is so, why did you sign a letter to the head of the „Islamic state“ terror group together with over 120 Muslim scholars, in which you tried to convince Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that his religious arguments were wrong? Clearly you addressed him as a Muslim!


Mustafa Ceric: There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world! When you talk about Islamic terrorism, you are including all of them. That is a verbal crime. Why do you not do the same with Christian terrorists? Or with Jewish terrorists, like the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin? Did anyone blame Moses for what that man did?


DIE ZEIT: But who is blaming the Prophet Mohammed for what the Paris killers did?


Mustafa Ceric: Everybody is blaming Islam!


DIE ZEIT: I find it confusing that you say the Paris attack has nothing to do with Islam, but argue about Muslim theology with the leader of the IS. So let me ask you: Does Paris have anything to do with Islam or not?


Mustafa Ceric: Does al-Baghdadi have to do with Paris?


DIE ZEIT: We don't know yet, but his school of thought is similar.


Mustafa Ceric: We don't know anything about the school of thought of the Paris attackers. I will put it this way: What happened in Paris is against Islam. And against Muslims! It is not acceptable. It is against the values of freedom, against the European values we all hold.


DIE ZEIT: Across Europe, there is a growing problem with young Muslims who are influenced by Jihadists. If you were to speak to a 17-year-old who is in the process of radicalizing and tells you he wants to kill cartoonists because they have ridiculed the Prophet and because the Prophet himself ordered the killing of Kaa'b bin al-Ashraf – what is your argument against that?


Mustafa Ceric: I would tell him that the Prophet has never killed for revenge or for any offence that he suffered. When the Prophet came to Mecca, he forgave the killers of his uncle Hamza. I would tell him: If you love the Prophet, the Prophet will love you for not killing anyone in his defence. The Prophet doesn't need revenge.


DIE ZEIT: According to the Quran, blasphemy will be punished by Allah after you die. There is no prescribed worldly punishment for blasphemy, correct?


Mustafa Ceric: Correct. And if Islam was the way these terrorists represent it, I don't think I would be a Muslim.


DIE ZEIT: As a scholar and a former grand Mufti, are you in competition with radical preachers in Europe?


Mustafa Ceric: Yes. And we need a broader approach to re-socializing and re-educating those who decide to go and fight in Syria and then come back. They need to understand that they are wrong. But the Muslim institutions are weak, they have little resources and many Imams have little knowledge. We need help by Europe's states to establish strong structures.


DIE ZEIT: Why is the radical theology of the IS and al-Qaeda so attractive?


Mustafa Ceric: Young people tend to be rebellious against established systems, that's one reason. But they are also giving them arguments without telling them about their responsibilities. They turn it into an adventure.


DIE ZEIT: What can be done?


Mustafa Ceric: For one, I believe Europe needs a Grand Mufti. We need a voice to calm down things. Not everybody will accept this office, but it will have an effect. But the European states are hesitant to support this.


DIE ZEIT: Muslims could do something themselves to establish that office...


Mustafa Ceric: But we are weak.


DIE ZEIT: In Germany, Muslim groups often find it very difficult to even agree with one another on a local level and on local issues.


Mustafa Ceric: This process is not easy. We need to structure Islam as an official institution. We need better teachers, better Imams, who are from here and not imported.


DIE ZEIT: But who is doing something about that?


Mustafa Ceric: I am fighting radical Imams every day. But even those who are trying to help are sometimes accused of being radicals. Who is an acceptable Muslim for Europeans? It seems like there is almost no acceptable Muslims for the governments or the media. We can't solve this problem alone. Europe complains about political Islam all the time. But Europe also only talks about political Islam.


DIE ZEIT: Should we distinguish between Islam and Islamism?


Mustafa Ceric: I think these distinctions cause a lot of confusion. The Paris attackers should be called neither. They are rebellious murderers. They don't know anything about Islam.


DIE ZEIT: But radical Muslims are often louder than moderate Muslims. They shape the image of Islam.


Mustafa Ceric: But they are not doing this on behalf of Islam! For me, they are destroyers of civilization.

„This threat will stay with us for at least a decade“

What kinds of terror attacks do we have to expect in Europe, and how dangerous are returning Foreign Fighters? Norwegian terror expert Thomas Hegghammer* shares his insights in this interview with DIE ZEIT**.


DIE ZEIT: In the Paris attack, there was a link to Yemen. In Belgium, where the police foiled a terror attack last week, we saw Syria returnees among the suspects. In Germany, the police arrested several Jihadists, some of whom had been to Syria, some of whom hadn't. What do these instances tell us about the current threat?

Hegghammer: Firstly, that it is varied indeed. The security services have to look at different kinds of threats all the time. I would also add to the list the sympathizers of the „Islamic State“ (IS). We have seen plots hatched by IS sympathizers in North America, Australia and Europe. In fact, there have been more plots by IS sympathizers than by actual Syria returnees.

DIE ZEIT: What do all these people have in common?

Hegghammer: Apart from the fact that they are radical Islamists who want to perpetrate violence? Not much, really. They don't organize formally. They take good precautionary measures. That's about it. If you look at their profiles, they are a very mixed bunch.

DIE ZEIT: But it is clear, that the pool of potential terrorists is bigger today than it was a few years ago. Does that mean this threat is going to stay for quite a while?

Hegghammer: O yes, at least for another decade! Syria and the IS phenomonen have given Jihadism in Europe a new lease on life. We will be facing threat levels like this for many years.

DIE ZEIT: Should we expect more attacks, but on a smaller magnitude than we were fearing before?

Hegghammer: It's impossible to make good predication of frequency and scale. The quantity need not go up, but it could. And attacks need not become smaller, there can still be big ones like Madrid or London every now and then. But I believe there are two new trends. We are currently observing more attacks with hand-held weapons than with explosives. And the attackers tend to seek out targets that leave little doubt about the message - like Charlie Hebdo, Jewish schools, Policemen or soldiers -, rather than, say, general transportation systems.

DIE ZEIT: A lot of these plots seems to be results of calls to „individual Jihad“ via „Inspire“ and other Jihadist propaganda. Has this phenomenon now taken centre stage?

Hegghammer: I am not sure. Look at Paris: the Kouachi brothers were part of an old network, exactly like what we used to have in the 2000s. In Belgium, we saw a rather large network of 10 to 15 people. That's not exactly „invidiual Jihad“. The attacks in Ottawa and Sydney, on the other hand, were. We have to understand that new tactics are being added, but old ones are being kept.

DIE ZEIT: You have worked extensively on „Foreign Fighters“. What's more important as a driving factor: adventure and life stlye or religion and ideology?

Hegghammer: People leave for different reasons, but if I were to hightlight one, it’s the desire to be part of a historical project. It's partly escapism. These people want to get away from the West, from corruption and discrimination, and they want to move into this assumedly pure zone where they think they can find true Islam.

DIE ZEIT: We like to think of the Western world as free and able to accomodate all kinds of religious lifestyles. Why does this concept not work for these people?

Hegghammer: Disillusionment is not limited to radical Islamists. Many young people across Europe are frustrated, see no future, are in opposition to the current order. But they have no alternative. The secular, drug-using delinquent in a Paris suburb – where is he going to go? Islamists, in contrast, are being offered an escape route. So availability is a factor here: Syria is easy to get to. It's an utopia that is at hand.

DIE ZEIT: Some Israeli soldiers escape to Goa after military service; some leftists start communes when they are sick of consumerism; but they usually don't turn into terrorists. Where does this element come from?

Hegghammer: Jihadism is a destructive project, concealed in a constructive one. They don't join in order to become terrorists. But they can become terrorists in the process. And our problem is that radicalizing and preparing to go abroad to fight is a kind of activity that is just below the threshold of police intervention. In a way, the reason we have a radicalization problem in Europe is that the Islamists are not that radical. Because a lot of these networks stay clear of terrorist plotting, there is little the state can do against them. If these people were all organized terrorists, we wouldn't have any problem defeating them. But as long as they are operating below that threshold, our hand are tied. All these gateway groups, like Sharia4Belgium, Sharia4Denmark, etc., they have become masters at toeing the line.

DIE ZEIT: So the window to act is too tiny?

Hegghammer: Exactly. And we can't just lower the threshold, or we will end up punishing people for opinions.

DIE ZEIT: Is there any indication of how long it takes foreign fighters to cool down once they return? Or do they stay radical?

Hegghammer: We know very little about Syria returnees so far. But what we do know is the proportion of people who returned from previous battlefields and then plotted attacks. Before Syria, that rate was 1 out of 15 to 20. If you look at open source data about returnees from Syria who were involved in terror plots across Europe, we have so far seen about 10 plots with roughly 20 returnees involved. That is 20 out of 3000 who left to fight abroad, or 20 out of just over 1000 who have already returned, repectively. So far, it is only a small minority who have become terrorists. The question before us is: How do you stop that minority without over-reacting towards the relatively harmless majority?

DIE ZEIT: But many returnees have only returned recently. Some of them still may become active as terrorists...

Hegghammer: Yes, that number will increase. But I think we can already say that the rate is not going to be extremely high. Given the sheer numbers, however, the absolute number of terror plots may well be higher than previously.

DIE ZEIT: How should our societies deal with this long-term threat?

Hegghammer: Some intelligence services in Europe will have to substantially grow, they need more analysts. Not necessarily new methods or new survaillance powers. Adding data usually just means having to process more data. Smarter analytical software can help, but we need more brains, too. Our publics also need to be prepared for more news like what we have heard in the past two weeks, and they need to be persuaded not to panic. Mind you, we are still no-where near the level of terrorist activitiy we had in the 70s and 80s from the far left and far right. We should be able to psychologically tolerate even an increase in terrorist activity.

DIE ZEIT: What other measures are sensible?

Hegghammer: We need a sophisticated system to deal with returnees. We need soft measures to re-integrate those who can be re-integrated, and tough measures to incarcerate those who need to be incarcerated. And there is the internet. I am very aware of free speech concerns, but we have reached a point where something needs to be done about the access of Jhadis to broadcasting tools. JM Berger makes a really good point about this when he argues that the question at stake is not in fact free speech, given that Twitter and Facebook are really like TV stations. Should these people have the right to voice their opinion? Of course! Should they also have the right to broadcast them? Well, I don't think so.

DIE ZEIT: Prisons are also a problem in regard to radicalization.

Hegghammer: And that is a true dillemma. You have three options, none of which is great: Put Jihadists in a prison together, and they will wind each other up. Spread them out, and you will have the risk of the radicals radicalizing other people. Third option: Solitary confinement. But that's inhumane. This dillemma is accentuated by the European tradition of short sentences. In the US, Jhadists get very long sentences. They die in prison or grow old there. In Europe, they will be back on the streets after a few years. For me, all this is a good argument for putting as few people in prison as possible.

DIE ZEIT: How do you prepare for day X? Can resiliance be learnt?

Hegghammer: That's almost impossible, because whether an attack has a unifying or polarizing effect, has to do with the target. And you have no control over that. Take Paris, for example: There is a lot of tension now, the country hasn't simply united after the attack. And that has to with the nature of the target. It was very controversial. When the Twitter-Hashtag „JeSuisCharlie“ came up, that kind of forced people to identify with that controversial target. And lo and behold, within hours you had alternative Hashtags like „JeSuisAhmed“ or „IamnotCharlie“. It was very different in Norway, when Breivik killed 77 people, because it is hard to disagree that killing children is bad. That made it much easier to stand together. 


Thomas Hegghammer is the director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment and an internationally renowned expert on Jihadist ideology, Foreign Fighters and Saudi Arabia. (Foto Credit: Christian Vinculado Tandberg / FFI)





** This interview was conducted by Yassin Musharbash for DIE ZEIT. A slightly edited and shortened German version of this interview was published in the current issue of DIE ZEIT which can be purchased online here. We have a cover story this week called "Living with Terror", apart from the interview you will find an in-depth-story on German reactions to the Paris attack and the Belgian arrests as well as a report from Belgium (and other good stuff). 


The Paris Attacks - one Plot or two?

We have fairly solid evidence by now that the attack on the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was commissioned by AQAP. In total, there are three indications of this:

* On Friday, shortly after the perpetrators Cherif and Said Kouachi were killed by French police, a ranking AQAP cadre first sent a communique to several journalists by email and then posted a series of tweets that amounted to a claim of responsibility by the group

* Even before that, the two perpetrators during their operation had already told a by-stander and later a journalist they they were acting on behalf of AQAP

* Lastly, earlier today, an 11 minute video was published by AQAP. It appears legit and it features high ranking AQAP member Nasir bin Ali al-Anissi. In the video, he not only claimed the attack as AQAP's, but also insisted that one of the two brothers (he didn't say which one) had been appointed amir of the operation and had been in direct touch about the operation with Anwar al-Awlaki. This would in theory be consistent with reports according to which Said Kouachi spent some time in Yemen in 2011.

Overall, there is little reason to doubt that there was indeed a connection between the brothers and AQAP. The idea to attack Charlie Hebdo may very well have been born in Yemen in 2011, at a time when AQAP was experiencing an influx of foreign fighters, quite a few of whom where from France and who quite possibly would have known about Charlie Hebdo and the kind of cartoons the magazine had been printing.

So was this an AQAP attack? 

Yes. But it may have been more than just that.

Because there is another thread to be scrutinized here. On the morning following the Charlie Hebdo attack, a young man by the name of Amedy Koulibaly shot and killed a policewoman in Paris. The day after, when the Kouachi brothers had been tracked down by the police and were holed up in an industrial area near the airport with a hostage, Koulibaly re-entered the stage and took control of a Kosher supermarket. He took hostages as well and let it be known that he would kill these hostages unless the Kouachi brothers were let got.

Of course they weren't let got. But very interestingly, Koulibaly during the hostage situation explained to a journalist that he was acting on the behalf of the "Islamic State" terror organization. He re-iterated this claim in a video he later published. The IS did not claim the attack for itself. But according to some reports, it did praise the attack during a Friday sermon in the city of Mossul.

At the same time, though, Koulibaly also stated that he had co-ordinated with the Kouachi brothers.

Now how does all of that add up? Especially since AQ and the IS are enemies: They are fighting each other in Syria. They are competing for leadership of the global Jihadist movement. It is highly unlikely they respective leaderships would have agreed to a shared plot.

First of all, it is important to note that the Kouachi brothers have known Koulibaly for years. Apparently a while ago they asked him for money, presumably in order to help finance their plot. This may well be how he Koulibaly got into it all.

But what are we really looked at here? 

I believe it makes most sense to treat the Paris incidents as two separate plots. Even though there may have been a degree of co-ordination, perhaps only regarding timing, it effectively were two distinct plots. And intriguingly each of these attacks fits rather neatly with what AQ and IS have asked for and have been demanding or trying to accomplish for a while, respectively.

AQAP as well as AQ Central have been talking about revenge for the cartoons for a long time. In 2010, AQ Central sent an operative to Denmark in order to research Jyllandsposten, the paper that became known in 2005 for publishing Mohammed cartoons. He war arrested in time, but his plan seems to have been to take the staff as hostages and later execute them.

In 2011, German police arrested a man who they accused of having been dispatched by Junis al-Mauretani of AQ Central in order to plan attacks in Europe. Police recovered a notebook in is possesions. One item was about what they believed were potential targets. Charlie Hebdo was among them.

Add to that AQAP's several death lists with cartoonists' names on them and verbal and written threats against cartoonists - and what you get is a clear indication that striking either Jyllandsposten or Charlie Hebdo was something that AQ wanted really badly. Looked at from an AQ perspective, the Kouachi brothers were like two drones that finally and precisely hit their long assigned target. This long term way of thinking, in combination with a taste for precision, is an AQ hallmark.

The IS, on the other hand, has also asked it's followers for attacks in the West, but is not equally focussed on precision targeting. The IS has been talking about very crude kinds of attacks (Killing people with stones or tossing them of high places or even burning crop fields) and it has not spoken about Mohammed cartoons much at all. IS has also made it clear that anybody should feel invited to perpetrate such an attack in their name and that training by them or contact with them wouldn't be needed. That is true of Koulibaly, as far as we know. If his attack had occurred just by itself and the Charlie Hebdo attack had never happened, most experts would have had little trouble classifying it as an event most likely induced by IS propaganda and perpetrated by a radicalized individual.

I am, of course, aware of the fact that AQ and AQAP have also asked for similar attacks, but it wasn't their main approach. It has been for the IS though.

It is therefor safe to say that the acts that Koulibaly perpetrated fit the IS pattern much better than the al-Qaida pattern. Killing a policewoman because she was French and killing hostages because they were Jewish is rather crude. Koulibaly also said these people had to die because France was part of the anti-IS coalition. This is an argument that the Kouachi brothers did not make. But it is an argument that the IS made when it asked for attacks in the West.

So let's agree this was really two attacks that only took place simultaneously because the perpetrators knew each other and didn't mind about their different leanings and also because they obviously didn't care that AQ and IS may not like their unprecedented alliance: What does that mean? 

First of all: Pragmatism beats ideology. Apparently attackers can be more than robots. For Koulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, doing this together was more important than ideological purity. It is telling that in the AQAP video, Al-Anissi devotes a few sentences to this and interprets the simultaneity of the attacks as "co-incidence". he needs to do that to maintain ideological purity, but it is of course not true.

Secondly: We may need to take into account that this may happen again. Security services tend to sort radicals they are keeping track of in terms of known group allegiances. But these can be trumped. In the real life, things can happen that don't happen on an analyst's spread sheet. Both these plots could have happened weeks apart from one another. They only happened at the same time because the guys knew each other.

Thridly: AQ is not dead. It is still a threat, among other reasons precisely because it entertains a long term perspective.



NB: This Blog Post relies in parts on an analysis I wrote for the current edition of DIE ZEIT. It is available for purchase online via www.zeit.de 



The "Islamic State" and the illegal Sale of Antiquities

December 4th, 2014 - As some of you may have noted, a team of 12 reporters here at DIE ZEIT (in co-operation with German public TV programme "Report München") have conducted an in-depth-investigation into the finances of the "Islamic State", covering everything from extortion to taxes to oil smuggling to the kidnapping business. You can find an English version of our article here.

However, you will not find a section on the sale of illegal antiquities there. Why is that -- given that this sort of criminal activity is allegedly a major source of income for the IS? In June, for example, the "Guardian" quoted an Iraqi official saying that "they (the IS, YM) had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone (an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus). The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old," (…).

The reason we didn't cover this aspect in our article but rather published a separate piece in this week's edition (not available online yet)  is simple: We could not find any evidence that the IS is directly involved in the sale of illegal antiquities.

We in no way doubt that antiquities are being stolen and sold in Iraq as well as in Syria. But according to what we were able to find out through our sources in the region, the IS does in fact allow criminals to dig out and steal such antiquities in exchange for a fee -- but is not necessarily involved directly in selling.

Furthermore, we have found no evidence whatsoever of antiquities on the black or grey market whose origin can beyond doubt be traced back to areas that the IS is holding or has been holding. Again: This doesn't mean that private collectors don't buy this sort of thing through illicit networks in a way that wouldn't leave traces. But we can't prove this happened -- and we can't prove that the IS was involved, indirectly or directly. This is important, because the illegal sale of antiquities is nothing that the IS invented. It has been practiced in Iraq as well as Syria for many years by criminal gangs who engage in forging as well. The fact that about a third of the antiquities confiscated by the Syrian customs authority in recent months were fake speaks to that.

Given that we didn't find any evidence we had to assume that the IS is probably not making that much money off of antiquities after all. It the very least, that's a distinct possibility. They may be making some money through the above-mentioned fees, but we assume that it is not exactly dozens of millions they are generating that way.

We have come across anecdotal evidence that IS doesn't mind other people taking antiquities away -- at least those antiquities that they don't think needs to be destroyed straight away (which definitely is a grave problem). Some sources told us, e.g., that in IS territory caterpillars have been used to "dig" up antiquities. But again: We weren't able to prove a direct link.

Perhaps we will know more in a few years when some of the stolen antiquities may, after all, appear on the grey or black market. In any case, we - for the time being - remain sceptical that the sale of antiquities is in any way a major means of income for the IS. At least not if compared to the amounts of many they make off of oil sales, extortion and Western hostages.

Before I conclude, I want to make clear that this research on antiquities wasn't conducted by myself alone. Major research was conducted by my colleagues Fritz Zimmermann and Tobias Timm at DIE ZEIT, freelance crisis reporter Alexander Bühler and Ahmet Senyurt at "report München".











How to (not) deal with Jihadist propaganda on the Web

October 9th, 2014 - Jihadists may dream about the world as it was in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula, but making use of the internet never was a problem for them. They look at it as Godsend. The most democratic of mass media is also the most effective tool for spreading Jihadist propaganda. Is it possible to take this tool away from the Jihadists? 
The short answer, of course, is: No. 
Granted, it has become more difficult for the "Islamic State" in particular to maintain an organized online presence. In June the IS had a Twitter account for every single one of its "provinces", through which the organization spread communiqués, propaganda, pictures and videos. When Twitter shut down these accounts in September, the IS accounts migrated to the Russian Facebook-style Social Media website VK. Two weeks later VK shut these accounts down, too. Until today, the IS hasn't come up with a new, comparable system of accounts. But the material that the group wants to publish still finds it's way. Partly through some of the Jihadist web forums that have performed this function for years now. Partly through other, personal Twitter accounts that are less easy to connect to the IS. And these are just two ways that still work. There are more. They are a bit less obvious now, but if you know what you are looking for and if you are smart enough to change your searching parameters a little, you will find what you are looking for sooner or later. "It's even possible", says Aaron Zelin, a US-based terrorism researcher who also runs the blog jihadology.net for primary-source material, "that they (the Jihadists) might try and create their own platform in the future." 
The EU now seems to be looking into ways to at least minimize the spread of such propaganda. Yesterday, a dinner took place in Luxembourg, to which the parting EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström had not only invited the EU ministers of interior affairs but also representatives of some of the bigger internet corporations and providers like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. I haven't heard about any results of the meeting yet. But a spokesperson for the Commission told me ahead of the dinner that the aim was to foster dialogue between law enforcement and intelligence agencies on the one side and private internet companies on the other side. The idea was to look at "tools and techniques to respond to terrorist online activities". 
I think it is important to understand that talking to the big internet companies may help to limit the spreading of Terrorist propaganda on mainstream platforms. But it will not help stop it altogether. The example mentioned above illustrates that: You may be able to get official IS accounts off Twitter; but already now many of the videos in question are being uploaded to opaque hosting websites that law enforcement has a very hard time identifying, let alone prosecuting. "It does make sense to talk to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter", says Nico Prucha from the Vienna University. "But the other side would have to be equally well connected in order to effectively limit the flow of propaganda." 
Unfortunately, it isn't. And more than that: It is biased, too, consciously or not. Twitter and YouTube have for years not done very much at all to stem Jihadist propaganda. It was the videos of the murders of US journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff that seem to have turned the tide. I tried it: It has become very difficult indeed to find the original full-length videos of their murders on the web. But it is still fairly easy to find the arguably more influential, very glossy and high profile recruiting and propaganda videos "Breaking of the Borders", "Upon the Prophetic Methodology" or "Flames of War". 
The EU, however, seems to also be looking at a second way: Countering the propaganda's content rather than it's publication. Or as Malmström's spokesperson put it to me: a "particular regard to the development of specific counter-narrative initiatives" was to be given at the dinner. 
I personally don't like the notion of "counter-narratives". I know the term has been around for a while. And I understand why it looks like a tempting idea: It seems easy to debunk and de-mistify a a lot of the claims that Jihadists make in their propaganda. But the problem is two-fold. For one, no Western state authorities have any credibility among those that are being targeted by IS propaganda; they would very likely just laugh at such attempts. And secondly: Who would formulate such counter-narratives, based on what authority? Is it, for example, conceivable that the EU lets the world know what a proper interpretation of Koranic verses is and what is not? 
In January 2011 I was at a CT conference in Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia. "Counter-Narratives" were being discussed there, too. In more than just one session. On the second day, I asked the interpreter in his cabin, who was translating between the English and the Arabic, how he rendered the term "counter-narrative" into Arabic. He said he used the word "tashih". Now that means "correction". That's a very different thing from what other people have in mind when they talk about counter-narratives. In Germany, for example, officials tell me that they would like to spread the message that democracy gives everyone the opportunity to play a part in the shaping of a country's policies. I doubt that the Saudis see that as a good counter-narrative. One person's counter-narrative can be very different from another person's counter-narrative. And we have no guarantee that any one of them will work. (In a way, but that's just an aside, the US State department's "Think again, turn away" campaign on Twitter is a kind of counter-narrative initiative. I don't think it is a huge success.) 
Also, I have another, more general problem with the term: I think it is too defensive. Why is "our" narrative the "counter-narrative"? Isn't "theirs"?
So what can we do? I believe we have to accept that Jihadists will be around online for as long as there is a free internet. And in fact, for many researchers and even law enforcement and intelligence agencies, this is an important keyhole through which they can better understand the Jihadists' thinking. 
By this, I am not saying that it is necessarily wrong to try and make it more difficult for Jihadists to gain access to large numbers of people, among them potential sympathizers. But I do say this: Online presence isn't the biggest problem. Even if it were possible to block the Jihadists' access to the internet entirely, they would still be around. In the real world. 
It's a tool. It is not where they live. 

NOTE: This blog post is an extended and somewhat different version of an article I published in this week's edition of DIE ZEIT. If you wish to quote from it, please contact me.