Daesh retreats online to ‘virtual caliphate’

This undated file image posted on Aug. 27, 2014, by the Raqqa Media Center of the Daesh group, shows a jihadist waving their flag from inside a captured government fighter jet following the battle for the Tabqa air base, in Raqqa. Back in 2015, when the jihadists held a huge swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, they also commanded a huge digital presence, flooding the web with slick propaganda lionizing their fighters and romanticizing life under their rule. (AP file photo)
Updated 10 January 2018

Daesh retreats online to ‘virtual caliphate’

PARIS: On the brink of defeat in Iraq and Syria, the Daesh group has been taking refuge in its “virtual caliphate” — but even online, experts say it is in decline.
Back in 2015, when the jihadists held territory the size of Italy, they also commanded a huge digital presence, flooding the web with slick propaganda lionizing their fighters and romanticizing life under their rule.
Today, with many of the top Daesh leaders either dead or on the run, what remains of the group’s once-sophisticated propaganda machine is also a shadow of its former self.
Their media centers destroyed, remaining propagandists find themselves struggling to maintain an Internet connection while battling surveillance from international intelligence services.
The group is less and less vocal on the web, largely leaving supporters whom it cannot control to speak in its name.
“It’s almost as if someone has pressed the mute button on the Islamic State,” said Charlie Winter, a researcher at King’s College London who has been studying Daesh communications for years. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Between November 8 and 9 the group even went completely silent for a full 24 hours in what Winter said was an “unprecedented” break from social media.
In 2015, when Daesh was ruling over roughly seven million people in Iraq and Syria, its propagandists produced “content from 38 different media offices from West Africa to Afghanistan,” Winter said.
But by December, more than three quarters of these outlets had been “almost totally silenced,” he added.
Albert Ford, a researcher at US think-tank New America who has studied the exodus of foreign fighters to join Daesh, also said the group’s media output was “falling off considerably.”
“Fewer places to get information, fewer ways to upload it,” he said.

LOST 'GOLDEN AGE'
Back in March as Iraqi forces were ousting Daesh from their long-held bastion Mosul, an AFP journalist was able to pick through the wreckage of what was once a jihadist media center.
Between the burnt walls of the villa in an upscale part of the city were the remains of computers, printers and broadcasting equipment.
In the months before and since, the US-led military coalition fighting Daesh has repeatedly announced the deaths of senior jihadist communications officers, usually in air strikes.
Among them was the top strategist and spokesman Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani, killed in a US strike in northern Syria in August 2016.
These days Daesh propagandists mostly use the web to encourage supporters to launch attacks on their own initiative, with the much-weakened group unable to play a direct hand in organizing them.
These calls are often issued via the “deep web,” a heavily encrypted part of the Internet which is almost impossible to regulate, or the Telegram app.
Winter said he had seen a trend emerging of posts seeking to cultivate a sense of nostalgia among supporters for the height of the group’s power.
By portraying events three years ago a “golden age” stolen by “the enemies of Islam,” Daesh is hoping to convince new recruits that such times could come again if they join the cause, Winter said.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said the principal danger of Daesh now lies in what he calls “enabled attackers.”
A jihadist recruit such as this would have “no previous ties to terrorist organizations,” Hoffman said.
“But he is furnished very specific targeting instructions and intelligence in order to better facilitate and ensure the success of his attack.”
Such wannabe jihadists need look no further than the Internet for abundant advice that has been available online for years — and will merely pop up again after any attempt to remove it.


Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

Updated 12 August 2020

Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

  • President Ghani’s order to release 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners opens way for negotiations

KABUL: The Taliban have rejected calls for a truce before the long-awaited talks with the government get underway. They said that the possibility of a cease-fire could be debated only during the talks.

“When our prisoners are released, we will be ready for the talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Tuesday.

“A cease-fire or reduction of violence can be among the items in the agenda of the talks,” he said.

This follows President Ashraf Ghani signing a decree for the release of 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners on Monday — who Kabul said were responsible for some of the worst attacks in the country in recent years — thereby removing the last obstacle to the start of the negotiations set by the Taliban.

However, Kabul has yet to announce the date of their release.

Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed peace council, said that Doha, Qatar, would be the likely venue.

“Deliberations are continuing, and no decision has been made on a firm date yet,” he said.

Ghani pledged to release the prisoners after the Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly, voiced support for their freedom.

After three days of deliberations the Jirga, which comprises 3,400 delegates, said that its decision was for the sake of “the cessation of bloodshed” and to remove “the obstacle to peace talks.”

After the Jirga’s announcement, Ghani said that “the ball was now in the Taliban’s court” and that they needed to enforce a nationwide cease-fire and begin talks to bring an end to more than 40 years of war, particularly the latest chapter in a conflict that started with the Taliban’s ousting from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001.

The exchange of prisoners between the government and the Taliban was part of a deal signed between the insurgent group and the US in Doha in February
this year.

The prisoner swap program — involving the release of 5,000 Taliban inmates in return for 1,000 security forces held by the group — was to be completed within 10 days in early March, followed by the crucial intra-Afghan talks.

February’s deal between the Taliban emissaries and US delegates, led by the US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, came after 18 months of intensive and secret talks, amid growing public frustration in the US about the Afghan war — America’s longest in history.

Ghani, whose government was sidelined from the February accord, initially voiced his opposition to freeing the Taliban inmates.

However, faced with increasing pressure from the US, Kabul began releasing 4,600 prisoners in a phased manner.

The intra-Afghan talks are also crucial for US President Donald Trump, who is standing for reelection in November and is keen to use the pull-out of forces and the start of negotiations as examples of his successful foreign policy. However, experts say the next stage will not be easy.

Analyst and former journalist Taj Mohammad told Arab News: “The talks will be a long, complicated process, with lots of ups and downs. It took 18 months for the Taliban and US to agree on two points; the withdrawal of all US troops and the Taliban pledging to cut ties with militant groups such as Al-Qaeda. Now, imagine, how long it will take for the completion of a very complicated process of talks between Afghans who will debate women’s rights, minorities rights, election, Islamic values, … the form of government and so on.”

For some ordinary Afghans on the streets, however, the planned talks have revived hopes for peace and security and “are more needed in Afghanistan than in any other country.”

“I am more optimistic now than in the past. All sides have realized they cannot win by force and may have decided to rise to the occasion and come together,” Fateh Shah, a 45-year-old civil servant from Kabul, said.

Others spoke of their dreams to “go back home.”

“I have been away from my village for 19 years, and as soon as peace comes, we will pack up and go there,” said Rasool Dad, a 50-year-old porter who lives as a war-displaced person in Kabul, talking of his desire to return to his birthplace in southern Helmand province.

However, 30-year-old banker Sharif Amiri wasn’t very optimistic about the future.

“Even if the talks turn out to be successful, that will not mean an end to the war or the restoration of security. There are spoilers in the region, at home and at an international level who will try to sabotage peace here,” he said, hinting at rivalries among countries in the region, including major powers such as Russia, China and the US, who have used Afghanistan as a direct and indirect battleground for years.