Monitoring jihadist online media with Mina al-Lami
Monitoring jihadist online media with Mina al-Lami
Mark: Today, we're joined by Mina Al- Lami. Now, Mina leads BBC Monitoring's jihadist media team, and today, we'll be talking about the latest developments in the online world of jihadist media. Mina, welcome to the podcast.
Mina Al-Lami: Hi, Mark.
Mark: Maybe you could give us an introduction to you and maybe give us a bit of an insight into how you got into this line of work.
Mina Al-Lami: So, yes, as you said, I head the jihadist media team at BBC Monitoring. And for those of you who don't know what BBC Monitoring does, BBC Monitoring's mission is to understand and report on what media around the world are saying, and that's really to inform BBC's overall journalism, as well as our users in the government and commercial organizations. Monitoring was set up in 1939 to cover Hitler's propaganda machine. And years later, we're covering all sorts of different propaganda machines, including ISIS propaganda machine and al- Qaeda's. So the jihadist media team is made up of six journalists, myself included. And as you can imagine, we have a lot of experience in monitoring the activities and media operations of jihadist groups from IS to al- Qaeda, Boko Haram and al- Shabab. And it's really that combination of constant watch over a long period of time that gives us that edge in terms of spotting trends as they emerge. So we're always looking at all of these different factors about the jihadist media landscape. Now, in terms of how did I get into that field, well, it's kind of one thing led to another thing, but I would say it's really kind of living the jihadi mesh myself. I think it all started with the US- led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which I witnessed, and it was just really seeing the country where I grew up that was a relatively secular country under the Ba'ath party regime, to seeing the quick transformation and the rise of militant Islamic groups, whether it's Shia Muslims or Sunnis Muslims. As I said, the transformation was very fast, but it was also very scary. And at the time, I worked for the United Nations actually in the security information sector, and my daily job was to report on the daily security incidents, the threats, and a lot of those threats were part of what I was living on a daily basis in Iraq that was informed by the daily incidents, the trends that I was seeing in the country. And then an opportunity came in the UK at Royal Holloway University of London to work on a big project that was looking at online radicalization. And I joined that project. I was very lucky to join that project, and one thing led to another and I moved from that project to another at the LSC. And finally, that brought me to the BBC, the jihadist media team in 2013.
Mark: Really fascinating career there already. And maybe you could give us a historical overview of how jihadists have used the online space.
Mina Al-Lami: So from the early 2000s until about 2012, jihadists really used the traditional discussion forums. It's kind of like the websites and there's a discussion section and members would discuss ideas. So that was what they used for years. And these were more like echo chambers. These were very highly controlled, regulated forums. Any kind of dissent or different opinions among the jihadists would be removed by the administrators. Then I'd say between 2008 and 2010, jihadist definitely dabbled with Facebook. And there were a number of, I remember what they called, the invasion or the rate or the incursion of Facebook one and two, part three, but they didn't have a lot of success there. Even back then, Facebook was quick to remove jihadist content and accounts. It was the younger generation that were trying to convince the old guard why it was important to move on to Facebook because that's where the potential recruits are. That's where the young people are. Then between 2012 and 2013, there was a big push, an en masse move to Twitter. And one of the reasons behind this was the so- called Arab Spring. Jihadists felt they were really left behind. All of a sudden they saw these young people organizing themselves and using Facebook and Twitter to organize all these protests, and regimes that were there for years were toppled as a result of these peaceful protests, and jihadist felt left behind. And so they figured," Actually, we need to be there where the young people are." And so there was a move, again, an en masse move to Twitter where groups set up their official accounts. So inaudible, its predecessor, had its official account there. Al- Qaeda's branches in Yemen and in North Africa, they all set up their accounts there, and so did the clerics and the ideologues. And that is what, in terms of the move from one platform to another, this is really important. Once you have the heavyweights setting up shop on a platform, the rank and file feel, " Okay, so this is a platform that we can trust," and that's what then really pushes that move and you have more and more people joining. Whereas sometimes when you have a new platform and you have people, jihadists who are not really established using it, there's probably more reluctance to embrace it compared to when the heavyweights join it. And I remember at the time in 2013, for example, al- Qaeda, as it calls itself, al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, or al- Qaeda North Africa, they even launched a Q& A and they invited the media and they invited people to interact with them. And they said," This is great to have Twitter because we want to break the hijeminy," as they said," of mainstream media. We want to bypass mainstream media." So this was a great opportunity for them to reach a global audience without any filters. So there were a number of these attempts to reach out and present a different picture. This all of course changed with the beheading videos of IS in 2014. In the summer of 2014, there was a big push from Twitter to close down the accounts of IS and its supporters, and of course this eventually also affected al- Qaeda. And for a while there, for months, IS still, between 2014 and 2015, IS still tried to use Twitter, but it was through indirect ways. So they had a network of front accounts that didn't say IS officially, but they were Abou so- and- so, Abou so- and- so, and we knew that these were actually IS media operatives and they were pushing out the official propaganda. But after that, there was a further push to eliminate them. And for a while, they actually embraced the decentralized platforms. So around August and September of 2014, they used a range of decentralized platforms, Diaspora, Twitter, and Friendica. And all of a sudden, we saw official IS accounts, a string of them actually on these platforms. And then they were, again, surfacing all the beheading videos, the nasty propaganda. And again, of course you have reports on them in mainstream media, they get removed, they get shut down. And then an opportunity came when Telegram launched its new feature called Channels in 2015. And actually, IS even before that, it was already using Telegram as a means of communication and calls and everything. So again, there was another massive push, an en masse move from Twitter then to Telegram in 2015, and they never looked back really. Jihadists loved Telegram. It offered them the privacy, the encryption, a lot of flexibility, a lot of tools that were available. They had the ability to embed your videos and your content within Telegram, the cloud, the space it offered. These were all very attractive to jihadists. So between 2015 and late 2019, jihadists really, I mean, Telegram was their go- to platform. Now, within that time, it's not that they didn't try to go back to Twitter. I'll come back to Telegram in a bit with the clampdown, but just to say that jihadists are actually gutted that they can't properly exploit the popular web platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. That's where they really want to be. Even though they really use Telegram a lot still now for years, in my opinion, it's still the second best. The best and the top platforms would be the popular platforms because they want to reach a global audience. Telegram, it's kind of back to the echo chamber in a sense.
Mark: Yeah. Like you said, I guess if you're on those mainstream platforms, that gives you more of a shop window, doesn't it, in terms of reaching out to mainstream society, whereas if you were kind of pushed away on these maybe lesser platforms, some of which are a little bit more obscure perhaps, you're less inside that shop window, I guess, aren't you? But I mean, is Telegram still important to jihadist communities online, or is the picture more complex these days?
Mina Al-Lami: I think both, I would say definitely Telegram is still a key platform for jihadist. Now, there was of course that unprecedented move by Telegram in November 2019 to eliminate the IS network from Telegraph, but also the al- Qaeda one. And I think, in my opinion, it was the first time that I saw the jihadist network, the operation confused, a bit unsure what to do. And the reason for that, and in my opinion, even moving forward, the impact comes when multiple platforms take action against these jihadist users. So of course, if you have Twitter doing it or Facebook doing, they're pushed out, of course, they can use Telegram, they can use other platforms, but what happens when all of these platforms collectively take action? It kind of disrupts their operation. I wouldn't say, of course, it doesn't end it, it doesn't deal a massive blow they can't recover from, but it certainly does disrupt it at least temporarily. And I remember at the end of 2019, the network was definitely disrupted and you could see them jumping from one platform to another experimenting with one platform after another. And of course with that experimentation comes fragmentation, fragmentation of the message, issues of trust. Every time they embrace a new platform, or not embrace, experiment with a new platform, they're always asking questions, and you see them in their discussions. Can we trust this? Will they share our data with the government, with security forces, with a third party? How will they use our data? And you can see warnings from media groups," Don't use TamTam or Hoop. They collaborate with, I don't know, governments, and don't use this platform." So at the time, you saw a lot of discussions because they were using, simultaneously, they were trying still to use Telegram, but also going onto TamTam and Hoop and inaudible and lots of other platforms that they experimented with. And also, they were asking these questions, can we trust these platforms?
Mark: In your view, as someone who is at the coalface of this on a day- to- day basis, in terms if you fast forward right up to the current day, would you say there is a platform today that is like the center of gravity for jihadists?
Mina Al-Lami: I think I would say the center of gravity still is Telegram. Jihadists have a love/ hate relationship with Telegram. On the one hand, they've complained about Telegram in the past and they said," Oh, it can't be trusted just like other platforms," but on the other hand, they see that they can get some opportunities through Telegram. But along with Telegram, they use range of other platforms, such as Rocket. Chat, the decentralized Rocket. Chat. They use Signal, they use Element, but I feel that each one of these serves a different function, or at least there's a different focus. So for example, for Rocket. Chat, which offers jihadists a lot of stability and resilience, but because of the the nature of the platform itself, it is a bit clunky, it's not very user- friendly, I feel they use it more as a point of dissemination of material, as an archive, as a place where material is stable, you can draw on constantly, and then disseminate it widely. Signal is used for more of the encrypted messaging among the members, but for Telegram, there are still constant efforts, even as their accounts get shut down, there are constant efforts to go back to Telegram. So I would say Telegram is still the center of gravity, but alongside that, they use a range of other platforms for the sake of resilience actually.
Mark: Have online crackdowns on jihadists affected the way that you and your team go about work online? Has it made it more difficult for you guys to track this activity, or indeed, has there been new opportunities opening up? What's your view on that?
Mina Al-Lami: It's definitely has complicated as well as prolonged the process of going out and finding material. Because in the past, it used to be all neatly contained in one platform, more or less, which was Telegram. And you'd have a al- Qaeda, IS, their supporters, media groups, all in one platform. So again, very contained and neat. And then since then, we've had them scattered across various platforms. And so if you want to check something, if you want to do any kind of data analysis, then you would have to go across various platforms. And of course each platform has its different ways of use. We also have to familiarize ourselves with these new platforms. There may be platforms that we're restricted because of our editorial policy because of various laws here, we're restricted. So that's another barrier. But also I think that for these platforms themselves, some of them, these are small companies running them. So I think it's also been difficult for these platforms to cope. So you push these jihadists away from the more established platforms and apps and they go onto these smaller ones that probably don't have a lot of experience in dealing with jihadists, a big jihadist presence on their platforms. They don't have the resources to fight them and move them out. And so you have a lot of jihadists lingering on these platforms, exploiting them for months. But it's also very interesting. You learn a lot. And I think jihadists are also experimenting and learning and we learn as we go. We see how they're behaving and what they're doing and how they're coping. And I think it's just interesting to see because it kind of gives you insight into the future. If something like this happens again, if there's a clamp down, where are they likely to go, how are they likely to behave? So, yeah, it's all very interesting. It's all part of that going down the rabbit hole, which is really fascinating.
Mark: Got it. So in terms of the future of this particular area, inaudible prediction time I guess, for want of a better phrase, where do you see this online community heading? Because it seems to be always on the move. I mean, you could say the same thing of a number of different extremists communities out there, but these guys always appears to be on the move, always looking for the next platform or whatever else. And at the same time, of course, you've got online crackdowns being taken forward to various different levels of intensity on various different platforms. So you've got this cat and mouse game ongoing, but where do you see is the most extremist activity in the online space heading inaudible say in the next five years, for example?
Mina Al-Lami: Yeah. I mean, yeah, that's a million dollar question, but I guess a lot of it depends on the action that will be taken by countries, by governments, by these big technology companies and the smaller technology companies. What kind of action will be taken against these jihadist groups? Of course, a lot has been done already, but will there be more collaboration across platforms? Because I think that will really make a difference. And as I said, in late 2019, we saw the impact of that when when it happened simultaneously, the clampdown, how it affected, how it disrupted their operations. So I think it depends again on policy, on action against jihadists online. But of course, jihadists, they don't have access to mainstream media or they can't distribute flyers on the ground, so they will always fight for their presence online. That's their only means of communicating their messages. So of course they will always try whatever they can to stay online. And in terms of what they will use in future, it really depends because I would say just tell me what is the next big app? What is the next big platform that young people will embrace? That's where you'll find jihadists. They'll always look for the next popular platform, but also another factor for them is privacy and anonymity and encryption and the security of people on these platforms. So they'll look for the combination of popularity of a platform and whatever safety and encryption it could give them. And they've developed their own apps, so at least it remains to be seen if they will do more of that, but again, with apps, they're vulnerable. You could work very hard on creating your own app, like their website, and it gets shut down. But recently, for example, we've had a very popular high profile pro al- Qaeda media group launching its own app, and it's been there for months. So that's another area where they might try to experiment with, of course, decentralized platforms. I mean, they offer them a lot of stability and resilience already. So there might be kind of innovations in that area. It's currently, I don't think it's as popular as other platforms, only because it's quite closed. So they don't have that openness where they want to reach a global audience. But the developers of decentralized platforms, I mean, the whole selling point is that no one can take action against the servers that are run by the users. And that is a very attractive prospect for jihadists.
Mark: Thank you, Mina. Well, it's been a really fascinating conversation and great listening to your insight. Thanks so much for sharing your insight, and hopefully speak to you again soon.
Mina Al-Lami: Thank you, Mark. My pleasure.
Mark: To learn more about how James can support you and your organization with social media research, email the team intelligence. unit @ james. com.