Published On: Tue, May 9th, 2017

DAISH’ Deceptive Operations: Information Warfare in Cyberspace through Rumiyah

By Syed Saqib Ali Shah

Wars are no longer confined to the physical battlefields, terrorist group DAISH has since 2014 embarked on an aggressive propaganda campaign in cyberspace through different channels. Since the debut of its magazine Rumiyah in September 2016, it continues tradition of perpetuating successes in terrorism with strategic distraction from the realities on the ground characterized by the considerable loss of territory and revenue, heavy casualties and low morale among fighters. It is however likely to be more influential in the realm of terrorist propaganda given its wider reach. DAISH’ narratives could easily be localized and tailored to appeal broad spectrum of adherents across the world as translated into ten different languages to fit the readership and dynamics of particular communities in the respective regions from Middle East to Southeast Asia. Each monthly issue is sub-divided thematically and includes a segment on latest but mainly fabricated news updates from the battlefields. The release of Amaq News Agency (released daily), Al-Naba (released weekly) and Rumiyah (released monthly) in conjunction with each other is a telling indication of DAISH’ current media strategy: to dominate and thrive in cyberspace through frames of misinformation and competition with mainstream news.

To avert attention on its military decline, DAISH uses Rumiyah to purvey carefully-crafted narratives amplifying its strengths and reframe its setbacks, while assuring its supporters of eventual victory. DAISH’ epitomizes Rumiyah for the next phase of propaganda warfare. As DAISH progresses into a techno-savvy terrorist organization, it has deployed hybrid warfare in the form of military operations and media engagement through networks in Europe, West Africa, Somalia, Egypt, Khorasan Afghanistan, Pakistan, Caucasus, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The group continues the fight to maintain its self-proclaimed Caliphate, making it an obligatory objective for all its supporters to struggle for.

To intensify its campaign of terror, DAISH used Rumiyah to feature successful terrorist attacks and instigate its supporters to emulate these attacks under what it calls ‘Just Terror Tactics’ as outlined in an article in its second edition. It details explicit instructions on how to carry out self-directed attacks using knives. Rumiyah’ third edition focuses on the use of vehicles to kill. This method of attack was adopted in Berlin where a truck driven by Anis Amri hit a crowd at a Christmas market. The assailant of the truck attack was lauded in Rumiyah as “Soldier of the Khilafah”. The Knife Attack strategy is revisited in Rumiyah fourth edition with an info-graphic offering advice on the usage of knives and choosing targets. Throughout, readers are exposed to various terminologies which reinforce the narrative of a so-called war for establishment of Caliphate, against Kuffar (infidels), Murtaddin (apostates), Tawaghit (tyrannical rulers), Rafida (Shiites) and Sahwat (Syrians or Iraqis who have collaborated with the US-led coalition). These groups of people have been unconditionally identified by DAISH as enemies of Allah. As such, attacks on them have been described as “just terror” acts that are portrayed as not only religiously acceptable but obligatory. The publications exploit selected chapters of Islamic history, often taking out of context episodes of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) to justify the case for migration.

The ever-growing DAISH-centric media apparatus with the addition of Rumiyah has repeated its calls for terrorist attacks to be executed outside the so-called self-proclaimed Caliphate. These attacks serve three purposes: First, to inflict substantial collateral damage on enemy infrastructure in various locations across the world. Second, to display DAISH’ enduring influence by boosting and branding the terrorist attacks. Third, to inspire new young generation, disseminating their terror experiences on internet-savvy. Two 16-year-old Australian teenagers were arrested in October 2016 on suspicion of planning a knife attack. In Tangerang, three Indonesian traffic police officers were stabbed by a 22 year old DAISH supporter in October 2016. The attacker was armed with two unexploded improvised explosive device (IED) and a DAISH sticker. The assailant of the Ohio State University attack in November 2016, 18 year old Abdul Razak Ali Artan, used both knife and vehicle methods as endorsed in Rumiyah when he rammed his car into a crowd on the Columbus campus before charging out with a knife.

Rumiyah’s narratives are targeted at three broad groups of readers, DAISH fighters, supporters and sympathizers; DAISH enemies that includes the Crusaders, Shiites and potential recruits from the large middle ground of Muslims and non-Muslims across the world, particularly Muslim minorities in the West and in conflict zones. Rumiyah articles boast of inflicting considerable damage to its enemies; info-graphics laden with battle statistics of fatalities, the number of military equipment seized or destroyed and the number of istishhadi operations executed are included to counter mainstream media reporting. DAISH’ setbacks are portrayed as temporary or a test by Allah on their faith and religious commitment to struggle for the establishment of Caliphate on earth.

For potential recruits within Muslim communities, DAISH attempts to project how Islamic it is and how closely it adheres to injunctions in the Quran and Sunnah whereas, how others like the Shiites, Sufis, hypocrites and others have deviated from the right path. In this context it appeals people for migration (hijrah) to the greater Levant to live and experience the Islamic way of life in so-called Caliphate. To counter mainstream media depiction of chaos, insecurity and deprivations in DAISH-controlled territories, Rumiyah projects an alt-reality, showing happy and well-groomed children playing or in school, business going on as usual in offices and factories and zakat being collected and distributed to the poor. The exploitation of media and the powerful emotional messaging in Rumiyah draws its lessons from Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s comments on the importance of media that the mujahiddin’s operations need a media orientation towards issues of concern to the people as “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”

The war DAISH is waging goes beyond ballistics and armed operations. It is very information driven, strategically fought in both physical and cyber realms and is likely to persist until their terrorist ideology exposed and overwhelmingly discredited. Unlike Al-Qaeda’s (Inspire) or Jabhat Al-Nusra’s (Al-Risalah), Rumiyah and its predecessor (Dabiq) has demonstrated that the global terrorist struggle involves more than just military capacity but also a proficiency in crafting narratives through digital media. As quoted in Jabhah Al-Nusrah’s Al-Risalah magazine, “A gun can stop a heartbeat but a camera (media) can give life to a thousand hearts.” Rumiyah’s readership is not limited to just its supporters and sympathizers. It gradually finds adherents among DAISH’ enemies and convert vulnerable segments of society. There are serious repercussions arising from this new wave of information warfare.

Three essential steps need to be taken to counter DAISH digital warfare. First, neutralize the producers of Rumiyah and other DAISH and its affiliated online publications. The more should be done to locate the propagandists operating underground in and outside Iraq and Syria. Second, no effort should be spared in preventing and disrupting the dissemination of DAISH online narratives which seek to sow discord between religious communities, shatter the existing social fabric and national cohesion. Since mid-2015, social media networks such as Twitter has suspended over 360,000 suspected terrorist accounts to disrupt the dissemination of propaganda aim at radicalizing and recruiting supporters. Internet national service providers and security agencies should do well to collaborate and intensify cyber police patrols, continuing the annihilation of advocates of religious extremism and violence. Lastly, it is imperative that effective religious and political counter-narratives be crafted by established clerics and propagated worldwide through all channels, from mosques and madris to schools and both mainstream and online media. This requires close collaboration between governments and religious establishments and organizations. The objective must be, to criminalize and marginalize the terrorists and their supporters who dream of building so-called Caliphate through terrorism, inter-religious/sectarian conflict, public disorder and chaos.

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