The role of OSINT in understanding VEOs
Speaker 1: Welcome to the World of Intelligence, a podcast for you to discover the latest analysis of global military and security trends within the open source defense intelligence community. Now, onto the episode, with your host, Harry Kemsley.
Harry Kemsley: Hello, and welcome to this episode of World of Intelligence at Janes. As usual, Harry Kemsley, your host and my co- host, Sean Corbett. Hello, Sean.
Sean Corbett: Hi, Harry.
Harry Kemsley: Sean, we've been talking about a variety of things in recent episodes. We've started to blend from these conceptual and considerations piece now increasingly looking at how open sources can be used in an applied way. Given the interest that is being shown in violent extremist organizations, I thought it'd be good for us to actually look at how open source can be used in that topic area. I'm delighted to invite two guests, Joana Cook and Shiraz Maher. Hello, Joana.
Dr. Joana Cook: Hi.
Dr. Shiraz Maher: Hello, Shiraz.
Dr. Joana Cook: Hi, Harry.
Harry Kemsley: Dr. Joanna Cook is an assistant professor of terrorism and political violence at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Laden University in the Netherlands. She's a senior project coordinator and editor in chief at the International Center for Counter- Terrorism, also in the Netherlands, and an adjunct lecturer at Johns Hopkins University in the US. She's the author of a Woman's Place US Counter- Terrorism since 9/ 11, referred to as groundbreaking and a tour de force. She regularly appears in international media and engages with governmental and international bodies to discuss her research, which focuses primarily on terrorism and counter- terrorism with a specialization in the roles of women, children, and gender dynamics. She's the lead investigator of the EU funded project Prepare, which focuses on the risks, stigmas and resilience factors of children in violent extremist family environments, and has recently conducted extensive field work and visits in Iraq. Dr. Shiraz Maher is the director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at Kings College London. He's a recognized expert on the current Middle East crisis and jihadist movements. Indeed, the BBC has described him as one of the world's leading experts on radicalization. While the Washington Post has called him a respected specialist on Islamic State. His book, Salafi Jihadism, the History of an Idea, has been widely acknowledged as a groundbreaking exploration of the political philosophy behind contemporary jihadist movements. Let's turn to, first of all what we mean by VEOs, what do we mean by violent extremist organizations? Then if I could ask you to just give us some sense, Joana, of what that has meant for you in terms of your findings and Shiraz, if you have anything to add to that afterwards, then please do so. What do we mean by VEOs and what are your initial findings that we've talked about through your book, Joana?
Dr. Joana Cook: Sure. Thank you very much, Harry. Violent extremist organizations are organizations, largely non- state organizations who use violence and the threat of violence to pursue their goals. When we're looking at terrorist organizations in particular, they often have political goals in mind and it is the threat or intimidation or the use of violence to pursue those. These are often actors that do not pursue constitutional means, democratic means of engaging in change, and really those who will use the most violent and extreme means in order to try and push their agenda. When we're talking about violent extremist organizations, we're talking about the groups that your listeners would know are often the listed terrorist organizations or those that otherwise would use illegal means to pursue change.
Harry Kemsley: Would that be similar to the same as another acronym we use quite frequently, non- state armed groups? Is that the same sort of, or is there any distinction between those two acronyms?
Dr. Joana Cook: I think the way that I would distinguish them slightly is that when we look at terrorist organizations, they are very much based on distinct ideologies. When we look at groups like ISIS, Al- Qaeda and others, Hezbollah, Hamas, there's often a very distinct ideological basis within those. That's what really distinguishes terrorist groups from other armed actors who might fall slightly more into the rebel governance or rebel group category where ideology may or may not be as apparent. For the groups that I tend to focus on quite primarily are Islamist groups and they are groups that have very clear ideological basis that informs their goals and the way that they choose to pursue those goals.
Harry Kemsley: That's great, thank you. Shiraz, if I could ask you then perhaps to get us started, in terms of your findings. You clearly have done a lot of study, you've captured that in the book as we've said a couple of times, and I mentioned earlier. What are the findings that you've taken from that study?
Dr. Shiraz Maher: I think two things really leap out. The first is that if you recall all the way back to September the 11th, George Bush comes out to address the world in 2001 about what's transpired. He's really talking about one group, Al- Qaeda, and this other group that's hosting it called the Taliban. These two things emerge and you have this quite top- down structure within Al- Qaeda. It almost has a military type of structure with a commander in chief, Osama bin Laden at the top of this tree. Then it's splintering downwards from that in the way we might think of a conventional armed force. What's transpired over the last two decades of what we might call the war on terror years is the splintering of this movement. You've seen a complete alphabet soup of different groups emerge in all kinds of different territories, whether that's in the Horn of Africa, whether that's in South Asia, across the Sahel, and of course, most dramatically in North Africa and the Levant, particularly in Syria and Iraq. In addition to that splintering and diversification of the threat, you're also seeing that these are groups that are highly dynamic. They are not just simply popping up with the old whack- a- mole approach of terrorism, such as we saw either with 9/ 11, 7/ 7, the Madrid bombings. They've started to think about longevity and that longevity is often tied into both holding territory and socializing local populations into their agenda. The book really aims to get into that side of it to say, well, what is happening? What are the different things that we're doing? We are seeing, one of the big themes, for example in the book is looking at the use of social welfare activism by these groups in different places. Through the provision of services, the state might be either incapable or unwilling to provide for people. These groups are the ones who are setting up alternative structures. That's a very powerful thing because in a sense, we take for granted our basic human security. That is our access to food, clothing, shelter, and those kinds of things. For many people though, that's not a given. If you do have a group on the ground that is able to provide that, people don't often have the luxury to say, " Well, we don't really like their ideological viewpoint about Western values or these types of things. It's about getting your children fed, keeping your family safe, ensuring there's a roof over your head." Again, the book really drills down to that side of it to understand what those governance structures are looking like.
Harry Kemsley: Sean, just before I come to you, so what I think I've heard, Shiraz, is the very structured view that we had 20 years ago has been replaced by two things. A much more splinted dynamic, much more aggressively dynamic by the sounds of it, environment for these groups. Equally, that they're in some ways putting roots in, they're trying to find territories, communities that they can actually start to" own." Social activism is the phrase you've used. We'll explore that for a bit in just a second, for sure. Sean, you wanted to come in at that point though, I know.
Sean Corbett: Yes. It was really neatly put actually, Shiraz. It's something that we were looking at in the defense intelligence side for many years. Obviously, most of our careers was shaped by countering the VEOs. One thing that worked on at the strategic level, particularly within our permanent joint headquarters with my commander of joint operations, and we called it, we need a bigger map. Because at that stage, and we're talking about 2011 onwards. Really, what we were seeing is exactly as you say, the splintering and proliferation actually of these different groups. The key question for us, which I don't think we ever satisfactorily answered because there was a debate, was how much of it is directed? How much of it is inspired and how much of it is a local thing inspired by social factors? It's the thing. Is all terrorism local? Because if you look at, and we can go into as many examples as you like, but if you look at each individual country or area, there is always local factors and there's always different interpretations according to that locality. The key question is, but how joined up is it? This is where of course, the Islamic State came up because that was their basic intent or was it? It's really interesting that all the stuff that you found from an open- source perspective really reflects the real challenges that we had in the secret world, if you like, to identify and understand these things.
Harry Kemsley: Sorry, Shiraz. Just before you come back on that. One thing that occurred to me, Sean, as you started your piece there was my recollection of in defense military intelligence, the desperate attempt to try and give structure to that which we were facing as a terrorist group. I think what Shiraz has described is that, that aspiration was never going to be met because things were too dynamic, too splintered. Maybe at the beginning with the way Taliban and Al- Qaeda were working together, there was some structure that the military could apply itself to. Because the military loves to find structures that it thinks it can then dismantle by one way means or another. When things are splintered and agile and dynamic, it's very hard to pin down the node to the network because nobody really knows what that network is. Joana, sorry. Sorry, Shiraz, you were going to come back on that point from Sean.
Dr. Shiraz Maher: I was just going to say, I think it's really actually to answer that question, probably six or one and a half dozen of the other. It's to the extent that there is of course great localism at play. The dynamics affecting insurgency in Yemen are different to those in the Horn of Africa, despite them being quite close. They're very different to the dynamics taking place in Syria and again, which play out differently to what's happening in the tribal areas of Pakistan and so on and so forth. There is clearly a great deal of localism that does come into play. I think you can also see some quite large- scale acceptance amongst some of the groups, for example, that the rather brutal Draconian ways in which they had previously sought to impose themselves of the local populations hadn't been particularly fruitful. Unsurprisingly, when you go in and brutalize people, they tend to turn against you. Those populations were turning against those groups, particularly in the late 2000s. Therefore, once we got into that post 2011 phase, there was a sense of more dynamic thinking amongst these groups to say, " How do we govern by consent, or at least not by consent in the way that you and I are think in the democratic sense? At least by classic consent, where people will say we could tolerate them, we're willing to cut us off forced the impact here."
Harry Kemsley: Particularly when, as you say Shiraz earlier, the roof over your head, the food on the table, the clothes on your back are being provided by social activism as you described it, which is, wherever I get my roof, I'll take it because I don't have a roof otherwise. Joana, perhaps we can swing this conversation then from these initial thoughts that you've captured in your book towards, so how did you do that? How did you use the open- source environment to drive your insight and your thinking here? Because as you know from this podcast, we're seeking to understand the power and potential of open source. Let's go back into there and have a look at how did you use the open- source environment to inform and derive insight that you've now captured in the book?
Dr. Joana Cook: Sure. Well, I think when we're talking about Islamist governance as well, it's important to think about the complexities and the dynamics and the different ways in which they envision and implement governance as well. Really, understanding all of the different nuances and distinctions in terms of what that looks like in terms of their administration, their structures, their exercises of power, how they codify jurisprudence, for example. These are all very distinct aspects of governance. It's also, each of these has a slightly different way in which they are expressed, in which they're captured by these groups and how they're presented publicly by these groups too. With the book, we have some world- leading experts, each complete experts on the groups in which we look at in there. One of the areas that I know almost all of us have utilized is the propaganda produced by these groups. This is the way that these actors have tried to advertise and really appeal to their public, the public that they're trying to appeal to, the support base they're trying to appeal to, to offer a different vision of governance to what they experience in that local context. In many of the case studies that we look at, they are in areas that have either been actively in civil conflict or are in conflict. They have power vacuums. There's often very little governance. A lot of what is presented in propaganda by these groups tends to be their vision of governance and how that is being conducted by the group. ISIS, as an example, I'm just going to keep coming back to because it's one I've focused on the most here. In terms of social welfare activism, trying to demonstrate through videos where they're handing out goods to women and children, where they're helping build roads and really build infrastructure. This is a way that in their own propaganda that they were producing. They were demonstrating or trying to highlight, we are able to produce governance and we are able to build those roads and keep that water going. I think with, and for anyone who looks at open- source intelligence, this is going to be true for all. With the rise of the internet, with more and more of this messaging going online, with more communications going online, it has become one of the most effective ways in which these groups can communicate with audiences. We've seen that whether it's publications they produce online, whether it's videos they produce online statements, they produce online, or creating even their own news channels and highlighting some of this work. I think the propaganda is one of the most prominent ways in which we as scholars and researchers have really been able to see how these groups themselves are trying to present their work and their ideas and their vision for governance.
Harry Kemsley: What kind of challenges, Shiraz, do you have to overcome though when you're looking through propaganda? Some of the material can be quite extreme, some of it can be quite difficult to penetrate in terms of understanding where it's coming from, what it's really trying to say. How do you overcome the challenges that propaganda or channels of various types present for you to actually then derive these insights that you've captured? What are the challenges you've got to overcome?
Dr. Shiraz Maher: I'd say there's probably three challenges ranging from the very pragmatic to the more theoretical. On the one hand, there is researcher safety involved with looking at after some of the stuff. Some of material, particularly from jihadist groups of course, is extremely graphic, extremely violent. It's about having a framework in place to ensure the safety of individuals who are going to be looking at that kind of material for long periods of time. I think it's an area where the academic community in particular to be quite slow to move, but recently the center, which I'm co- director, ICSR and other places as well I should say, have begun to look into it more and more and creating frameworks and best practices in order to promote researcher safety in the space. That's one aspect. Second thing is, some of the material is just incredibly dense and very, very complex, particularly again, if I'm talking about jihadist material. It can be even some of the Muslim background such as myself who grew up in the Middle East. Some of this stuff is just so loaded with incredibly dense theological references. They can take ages just to work out exactly what's going on and stuff. I suppose it's an interesting part of the challenge. The third one, at the very practical end is the operating environment for these groups is very different today than what it used to be at the start of, for example, the Syrian conflict in 2011. Which is back then, I remember when someone messaged me and say, " The video of James Foley had been released." Now, that was originally released by ISIS on YouTube. That's where you went to get it. The way I found the link was going onto Twitter. You go onto Twitter, get that link, find it, and then you have that video. Now today, the idea of putting up a violent extremist link to a video either on YouTube, Twitter, any of the mainstream social media platforms, it's just something that would not happen. The policies are much more robust. There's a lot of algorithmic programming on those platforms where I think over 98, 99% of the detection actually takes place by the machine before any human reports it or it's detected by a human. There's a huge amount of automation that's gone in to clearing that material off the web. Practically getting hold of that material today is harder. Accessing it is harder. There are repositories that are being run by some people. I mean, look, many of them are one- man bands. There's no criticism of the individuals, but they're not particularly user- friendly is I suppose, the takeaway. The work has got harder in that sense. Particularly someone as myself who's a historian, you're looking at lots of documents. You're trying to get through a number of pieces of material to build a picture of what happens over time. It can be frustratingly and painstakingly slow. Of course, some of this material just, no one's backed it up, it just disappears into the ether. You also know sometimes that you saw something, but it's lost. That's frustrating.
Harry Kemsley: Sean, I know you want to come in here, but just before you do, I think I'd like to come back in just a moment, Joana, Shiraz, into the disinformation, deliberate misleading of the audience and then misinformation just by happenstance, not quite understanding something. Let's come back to that point in a second, because you mentioned just there, Shiraz, about as a historian, you're trying to build the picture. Well, of course, the picture you're trying to build is" as close to truth as it can be." I'm keen to understand that a little bit more. Sean, I know you wanted to come back though.
Sean Corbett: I just want to reiterate what both of you alluded to. Actually, Joana used the word complexity, and that's absolutely critical. This for me is why it's so important that we get brilliant experts such as yourself to look at this. I worry these days that the five- minute attention span, if you like, and maybe it's a generational thing, we live life by soundbites now. Certainly, something as complicated and difficult as this, unless you get your point across in the first two minutes, the standard person on the street is just not going to read it. The complexity and you're trying to get through what is doctrine versus what is propaganda. Of course, there are so many views. I've spent hours and hours in the wee small overnight looking at various different documents, all the rest of it. All of which seem in themselves fairly logical and fairly straightforward. What's accurate, what isn't accurate, what is just designed to? Of course, you mentioned the propaganda piece, it's a lot easier to get people above propaganda if you just give them a five- minute spiel and a bit of video and all the rest of it than it is to get really into the depth. That's a really strong point, which is where coming back to the open- source intelligence people, not everybody can be an instant expert. In fact, nobody can be an instant expert, particularly in this case.
Harry Kemsley: Just before we step into the disinformation, misinformation, I do recall years ago being in a military headquarters ops room looking at real- time events and frankly, not understanding what I was seeing and needing a cultural advisor alongside me to actually explain, no, that's not malicious gunfire. That's a wedding, and they are celebrating the wedding by firing Kalashnikovs into the sky. There are lots of much, much better examples than that. The point I'm making is to the point that you made in your challenges piece, Shiraz, in terms of the penetrating the theological aspects of some of the propaganda, let alone understanding it. To your point, Sean, about our ability to understand what we're seeing in order that we can act upon it in an appropriate way. Joana, I come to you then about how do we triangulate all these different sources to get to" ground truth?" I'm curious to know your view on that.
Dr. Joana Cook: I was actually just about to put on the lecture hat and talk about triangulation of sources. Because one of the most critical skills I think that our students really need today is critical assessment, critical thinking. With the rise of misinformation and disinformation, it's going to be one of the most essential skills to develop going forward. As I was thinking about this question a little bit, I've been mulling this over this week, and particularly in the field of terrorism studies and looking at groups who are willing to utilize violence to pursue their means. One of the areas I'm really thinking about a lot lately is the rise of artificial intelligence too, and how we will see this being amplified in the coming years as well. There's a couple areas that I think, whether it's looking at deepfakes, whether it's looking at videos of statements by politicians that are being manipulated, so it looks like they're saying different things. Ways to really stoke grievances, those grievances that might be willing to push people over the edge to join these groups, to take up arms, to take up violence, to pursue their goals. I think we're going into a very complex time. I'm going to keep using the word complex because it really does encapture what we're looking at here. I think there's a lot of risks inherent with the rise of AI that we have already seen being used by violent extremist organizations previously. Really, considering how those could further be amplified and disseminated on a scale that we just really haven't seen before. It was only 30 years ago where to disseminate propaganda, you would get it on a USB stick with a couple of files on it, or you would hand over a publication or two in the flesh. Today, you can get terabytes of data transferred across the world in seconds. When you're able to operationalize that with AI and multiply that on scales that we've just never really had access to in such a systematic and automated way, there are a lot of concerns with how these groups will use misinformation and disinformation to exploit grievances, to exploit frustrations felt by people. If people do not also have the skills to be able to distinguish what is real and what is not real, I do see a lot of reason for concern forthcoming here as well.
Harry Kemsley: I'm going to come to you in just a second, Shiraz, as a historian. Because Sean and I often talk in the intelligence context about trade craft, meaning the capture of good process, good judgment and good sources to derive insights. Historians, ultimately, are trying to do exactly that. You're trying to find a series of sources. You're trying to understand those sources to come to a view about a historical perspective on something. I'm keen to plunder your mind a bit there in terms of how you perceive these challenges, these rising problems. By the way, we did have a podcast a while back where we looked very specifically at missing disinformation around deepfakes. The takeaway there was AI is starting to make it such that the human won't be able to detect the miss and disinformation. Prior to that, we were talking in another podcast about the need for data literacy as being one of those defenses against the environment that we're now facing, the challenges we're facing in the information environment. I'm not convinced that, that will be enough. I don't think that being data literate in itself will be enough. Certainly, the takeaway I had from that miss and disinformation podcast we did, Sean, was it's a pretty gloomy future if we've got AI, counter AI, counter AI and US humans just watching this tennis match going on. Basing that challenge as the military intelligence community are, it sounds to me, Shiraz, that's not that different in terms of problem set to the historian who's trying to capture an understanding to represent historical fact.
Dr. Shiraz Maher: I think that the historian's view of the past is always going to be partial. Suffice to say, if you're not there, you're not witness to the event and you're not going to be witness to the whole event. Even if you are there, you're only ever going to be able to build a partial picture. I often think to myself, how different is this from some of the earlier work I used to do? Before I did my PhD on all this Jihadism stuff, but I actually came to it five years after finishing my MPhil, which I actually looked at, well, tangentially I looked at Muslims who fought in the trenches during the First World War. That was also very interesting. Because at that point, you would go either to the British Library and look at the archives there or to the what's now the public records office. Again, a Danny Q access hard copies of military census who had picked up these letters. These were letters being sent from these chaps in the trenches back home to British India asking various questions about all kinds of really fascinating things, whether it was all the way from burial rights to their both curiosity and I suppose enamored nature with French food and all kinds of different things that they were experiencing in the trenches. Again, you're only subject to what the senses then took forward. Even with that picture, it's still very partial. You don't know what you're missing. You don't know why you're being allowed to see what you are being allowed to see and so on. I think that's an inherent part of the process, and it comes back to the point Joana was making, you're always going to look to triangulate information. It reminds me a bit of the tip a math teacher gave me back at school, which was, you might punch something into your calculator, let's say it's 37 times 24, and you can't immediately calculate what that's going to be. You have a rough feel, if your calculator comes back with a seven- digit figure, it just feels wrong. Instinct. You've obviously punched it in incorrectly. They will say, " Look, if wild number comes back, you have an instinctive feel and you'd do it again." It's that same sort of thing I think here. If we are building this picture of the past and we understand there should be a particular arc to this and we're not finding that, then there are probably other explanations and you're probably going to look to triangulate the information with other pieces. In the context of the Syrian Civil War, for example, you would triangulate that with interviews that you could conduct, official statements that were coming out, official statements from both the groups, but also, from governments. What's Obama or the British government or the NATO is saying about what ISIS is doing a particular time. What are victims of the group saying they report massacre at that time? All these kinds of different things to help you understand whether a version of events feels are true or not. A really good example of that actually might be the British journalist, Anthony Lloyd from The Times who did a really good reconstruction of perhaps what happened with John Cantlie, the last British hostage in Syria. It's a fascinating podcast, but one of the things that I remember discussing with him was this fact that there was a view and there was a rumor really, which was hard to substantiate, that candidly had been killed in Mosul as a result of just the general war that took place. He was a victim at that point. We know there was a video of Cantlie inside Mosul made at a particular date and time, by which point you could see that Mosul had been pretty much besieged, had been blocked off, and there were really very few escape routes out. That means by probabilities, he was in the town at that time, and then there's a secondary piece of information corroborating or suggesting that he may have been killed. It feels about right, and given what else we know. It's that kind of way that you might look to say, how can we test the veracity of a particular piece of information that we're being given?
Harry Kemsley: I'd like to go back on that note about partial view. Because I'm of the opinion, I'm happy to be shut down in flames, of course. I'm of the opinion that the open-source environment is so incredibly vast, incredibly varied and moving and changing so quickly that actually these days is probably easier to get a less partial view than it would've been going to the public records office when as you say, that which was stored and kept was censored to some extent by somebody in some process. Sean, go ahead.
Sean Corbett: It's something that I feel really keenly having, if you like, suffered the people who write the history, it is true, are those that tend to win or certainly those ones that tend to articulate it and get heard most. The political angle of it cannot be ignored. I'm thinking specifically about both the Libya campaign and Kosovo where the reality on the ground and what actually happened is somewhat different from the messaging that has now been accepted as the ground truth, if you like, or certainly the narrative. Of course, the same is going to be, always going to be the case in other areas, as Shiraz said as well. I think it behooves us to make sure that we don't have that certainly conscious bias, but I was going to say unconscious bias, but how do you know you've got unconscious bias if it's unconscious? Back to that objectivity, and as we always talk about the trade craft, making sure that you look at all sources, all perspectives that you can possibly get heard of. Yes, of course, you've got to weight them. The proof of the pudding always is in the, okay, that was my assumption. What has actually happened to either support that assumption or to actually challenge it?
Harry Kemsley: When looking at these security challenges, what other sources of VEOs then would you say are high value?
Dr. Joana Cook: I was thinking quite a bit about Bin Laden's bookshelf, and I'm not sure if you've talked about that on another podcast as well. It might be an interesting just little point to bring into the discussion at all, aa how violent extremist organizations use open- source intelligence. The Department of National Intelligence, they do host Bin Laden's bookshelf. In the Abbottabad raid, all of the files that were taken are now open access. Actually, there are programs like the DNI's Bookshelf or the Harmony program at West Point that do have violence extremist items or items found with them that are now open access for researchers as well. It's a really great resource for us to look at these a bit more, but we don't have to talk about that at all, but I just, I don't know.
Harry Kemsley: Would that also not be a great way of understanding the inspirations, the foundations of thought that we've seen come through, people like Bin Laden, looking at what he's been reading? Is that not a reasonable extrapolation? He's been reading this stuff, he's got to this place, we can see where it came from now.
Dr. Joana Cook: Absolutely. Nelly Lahoud has just done an excellent book on this. She's reviewed the entire bookshelf tediously and been able to really look at that. We have seen more initiatives again, by whether it's West Point, whether it's DNI, where these documents that have been amassed from some of these locations from violent extremist actors more generally are being made open access or through, they're giving permission to researchers to access these files. It's an incredible resource for us to work hand in hand with intelligence that is being gathered out there where we can also bring our academic and our research hats and try and help interpret it in different ways.
Harry Kemsley: Sean.
Sean Corbett: I think that's a great point actually, Joana. For me, that blurs the distinction between classified intelligence and open- source intelligence. Because when those documents first came out of the raids, they were incredibly highly classified, such that those of us in the community were trying to get hold of what was in there and we couldn't. Unless you're in that particular compartment and there's a handful of people, you couldn't. Now to hear that they're out in the open domain, it gives you a little bit of a wry smile because why wouldn't they be? At the end of the day, they had to be triaged, they had to be analyzed initially to see if there was any real intelligence value of particularly actionable intelligence value. Having looked at that, it's doctrine. Basically, it's a library. I think that's a really good point.
Harry Kemsley: Guys, I think we'll start to circle this round. I'm going to ask both you, Shiraz and Joana for a one- liner takeaway that you'd like the audience to remember from this conversation. I think that's probably sometimes the most effective way of getting the audience to remember at least one thing, and we'll do that right at the end. For me though, I think what I'm taking away, and Sean, I'm going to go first this time just to make sure that I eat your sandwiches before you get a chance to make them. I really do like part of our conversation we've had today around how we're using propaganda and the real challenges that's creating now with AI and how that's getting in the way. We've talked about it before. For me, I don't think we've answered that question. I don't think we've really got to the bottom of how do we deal with this emergent threat to understanding when AI is so sophisticated, so capable, and increasingly so that the human is increasingly unable, even just through data literacy to spot the difference. I do take the point you made Shiraz though about that just doesn't feel right. If all we're left with is that feeling in the water about, it doesn't, then we are probably going to get left behind, I suspect by AI capabilities. For me, that's probably the big takeaway for me today is that sense of the trade craft, the historian's approach being increasingly chipped away, made less secure by capabilities that are coming through on the open- source environment. Joana, I want to come to you next. What's the one thing you want the audience to take away from this conversation today? Sean, you are going to go last, Sean.
Dr. Joana Cook: Well, I think Harry, that I offered a perspective of slightly doom and gloom before, and that is certainly part of how I still think about the place that we're going to. I also think about the opportunities that AI can provide in this space as well. I'll give you one example. In 2018, me and my colleague, Gina Vail, we saw a gap in what we knew about ISIS at that time. There was no global figures that helped us understand what proportion of people traveling to join the Islamic State were women, and what proportion of those were minors being taken over there as well. We were able to, through a very meticulous open source search where we searched over 90, 000 items across three databases and triangulated this as we could. We were able to get together a global data set of women and minors who had traveled to join Islamic State and demonstrate with evidence that 25% of those that were traveling were women and minors. We could also see that there were significant data gaps as well. Out of all the countries we looked at, there were 80 countries, we could ultimately include only half those, even had statistics on women and minors. There were a lot of challenges. We were able to demonstrate something that hadn't been demonstrated before through the use of open- source intelligence. I also think now about the opportunities that AI may lend to this. The painstaking search that we did, how could we use AI, for example, to help facilitate that search? How could we use it?
Harry Kemsley: That's a great point.
Dr. Joana Cook: How can we use AI to also better understand dynamics of these groups, bring that information together more effectively, use it for our purposes to better understand the groups, their motivations, the actors involved, aims? All of the components that help us understand those tactics, strategies, objectives, and so forth. There is a doom and gloom angle to it, but if used correctly, I think it can also be an asset to researchers who are using open- source intelligence to understand these groups, their dynamics, their actors, and so forth. I continue to look at women and minors today, and I've just finished an EU funded project looking at children who grew up in violent extremist affiliated families. Really, understanding how the life and development of children is impacted. If dad's a neo- Nazi, if mom's a jihadist, how does that impact the life of the child? There's not a lot of public information about these, but what there are, are narratives in the public space by individuals who've grown up in those types of families that help us better understand, things like the impacts of missing parents if they're dead or in prison, the kind of traumas that they've experienced, if they experienced alternative curriculums or were put into alternative peer groups and so forth. There are, again, through those open- source narratives and stories and journalistic accounts that have helped us better understand that where there has been little research. As a researcher, for me to go and speak with children from ISIS affiliated families that have come back, there's a lot of ethical issues with that. It is a way to help square that a little bit more and access information in a way that is helping us build our understanding more thoroughly. Again, through triangulation of sources, not only those open- source narratives, stories, news reports and so forth, but then also, speaking with practitioners and extended families and so forth. I think that's another useful way that open- source intelligence has helped us understand an aspect of violent extremist organizations, and particularly those affiliated with or impacted by them that we might not think about as primary actors, but those on the periphery of those most violent actors.
Harry Kemsley: Using AI for positive as well as negative, I think is the piece in there that you've highlighted. I think that's a good point, Joana. Thank you.
Dr. Joana Cook: I guess that was a little bit longer than a single takeaway line, wasn't it?
Harry Kemsley: No, it's a good line. Doesn't matter how long the line is, it's a good line. Shiraz, your takeaway for the audience.
Dr. Shiraz Maher: I think I've come back to where I started really in that the groups we're looking at, the groups we're talking about in terms of governance. These adversarial groups that don't stay static. They react, they innovate, they adapt. They're pioneering, which I think speaks to the fact that they have been so resilient and been able to endure two decades of a war on terror. Technology goes hand- in- hand with that. The hardest movement, I would say has always been actually really very much at the forefront of technological innovation, understanding it, utilizing it, and finding malignant uses for it. There's been this sense of innovation on their side that has been relatively dangerous in terms of utilizing, harnessing what's already there. I would expect to continue to see now as AI become something more prominent in the public domain as we're looking towards increasingly decentralized social media platform. It's not something we've talked about a lot here, but putting information on the blockchain, for example, would make it extremely difficult to remove content once it's there. If I upload an ISIS video to YouTube, YouTube will just simply remove it, and once it's gone, it's gone. If I put it on the blockchain and you know how to find it on the blockchain, you can't actually remove it from there. All you can try to do is block the tools by which individuals might find it. My point being, this is going to continue to be an adversarial space, both of innovation on our side where governments, I'm sure all kinds of people and GCHQ and all sorts of places that will be trying to develop technologies to thwart and get ahead of that. Then in the exactly same way, all kinds of people out in the deserts of Deir ez- Zor in Syria and elsewhere. We'll be thinking of ways to get ahead of that to do it. We're going to continue to see adversarial shifts in and around this, and that's going to define again, the next phase of whatever that tussle between ourselves and the Jihadists looks like.
Harry Kemsley: The VEO use of technology, I remember a book I read, goodness me, a number of years ago. I think it was Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, which is basically looking at how the Taliban were using the information space back in the early part of this century, and they were doing it quite effectively. What you are saying, Shiraz, is that, that effectiveness and that use of technology is actually blazing a path in many ways. They're really, really using the technological environment to their own effect very, very well. Sean, the final word for you.
Sean Corbett: I got two points, but they're very brief ones. One is a thread that I come back to again and again, but I think it is never more pertinent than here that you need that combination of what I would call trade craft, that you call trade craft, with that expertise, the experience and the deep understanding. Then overlay it with the technology which has been braved, if we've any chance of actually understanding what is actually going on. Then to take it forward from that. I think it's really important that people like yourselves are doing this. Because we ignore this particular security challenge at our peril. Harry, you've heard me say this again and again, is that we are all being, and it's not distracted, because it's very serious and it needs that focus. We are looking now predominantly at state- on- state actors, whether that is Russia invading Ukraine, whether it's the belligerent China trying to increase its influence. It's almost as if we've done that counter- terrorist piece so we can just park it. We don't need to worry about it. Someone needs to worry about it, because this is not going away. With the ungoverned spaces and the increasing food insecurity, war insecurity, you are going to ferment more and more environments in which this will be incubated. We need to keep looking at it. If the defense and military and the agencies aren't looking at it in as much depth as they were, and even if they are, we still need that foundational deep understanding of what is going on and what the context is.
Harry Kemsley: Well, thank you, Sean. Shiraz, and Joana, what can I say? Thank you so much for an engaging conversation and for taking the time to speak with us today. In the link for this podcast, there will be details of the book that you've written, and I sincerely hope that, that gets read widely. Because as Sean just said, this is not a topic that's gone away. This is a topic that has been somewhat masked by recent state- on- state activities, but is still very, very much a matter that we need to think about. Shiraz, Joana, thank you so much for joining us and for our listeners, we'll be back soon. Thank you both.
Dr. Joana Cook: Thank you so much.
Speaker 1: Thanks for joining us this week on the World of Intelligence. Make sure to visit our website, janes. com/ podcast, where you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts, so you'll never miss an episode.
Dr Joana Cook and Dr Shiraz Maher authors of 'The Rule is for None but Allah: Islamist Approaches to Governance' join Harry Kemsley and Sean Corbett to discuss the role that OSINT has to play in understanding violent extremist organisations and the challenges in doing so.