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Will the Latest Message From Islamic State Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Provoke New Attacks in the West?

IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses in United States and Europe

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Islamic State
This image taken from a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (VOA)

Washington, September 30, 2017 : U.S. intelligence officials examining the latest audio statement claiming to be from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi say, so far, they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

However, there are questions as to whether the message from the leader of the collapsing, self-declared caliphate will cause IS operatives to spring into action. Some analysts see Baghdadi’s continued call to arms as almost a shot in the dark, aimed at rekindling interest despite the terror group’s fading fortunes in Syria and Iraq.

The still-early U.S. intelligence assessment comes just a day after the Islamic State’s al-Furqan media wing issued the 46-minute audio recording featuring Baghdadi, in which he calls on followers to “fan the flames of war on your enemies, take it to them and besiege them in every corner.”

“Continue your jihad and your blessed operations and do not let the crusaders rest in their homes and enjoy life and stability while your brethren are being shelled and killed,” he says.

islamic state
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter takes cover behind a wall on a street where they fight against Islamic State militants, on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, Syria (VOA)

Despite such threats, U.S. officials say the release of the latest audio message is not changing Washington’s approach.

“We are aware of the tape,” a National Security Council spokesman said Friday. “But whether it’s al-Baghdadi or any member of ISIS, the Trump administration’s policy is destroying ISIS in Iraq, Syria and around the globe.” ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.

Still, intelligence and counterterror officials, both in the United States and in Europe, warn that IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses on the ground.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” the head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers earlier this week, calling IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

And while Western counterterror officials say the expected wave of returning IS foreign fighters has yet to materialize, the experience and skill sets of the operatives who have made it back home are ample reasons to worry.

But some caution the new Baghdadi audio message may have more to do with the terror group’s long-term strategy than its desire to carry out attacks in the near term.

“The broadcast boosts morale by contextualizing the hardships facing the group as their losses accumulate by reminding Islamic State militants and their supporters that day-to-day actions are part of a broader struggle, and metrics of progress shouldn’t be assessed in a vacuum,” according to Jade Parker, a senior research associate at the Terror Asymmetrics Project (TAPSTRI).

ALSO READ  intelligence officials , Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Furqan, war, enemies, threats, US officials, raqqa, National Security Council, isis, Iraq, Syria, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, terrorism, Terror Asymmetrics Project ,

Parker also believes that while it is “extremely unlikely” the latest Baghdadi audio will spark or accelerate any IS plots, it might prevent fraying within the organization’s ranks.

“Baghdadi’s silence during the final days of IS’s battle for Mosul was a sore point for many IS fighters and supporters who felt confused and abandoned by their leader,” she added. “This statement was likely released in part to avoid that sentiment with respect to the fight to retain ground in Raqqa.” (VOA)

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English-speaking ISIS Supporters Exploit Messaging App

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up

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English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this illustration, April 13, 2018. VOA

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up on the terror group’s ability to remain a force in Syria and Iraq, according to a new study that examined their behavior on the Telegram instant messaging service.

The report, “Encrypted Extremism: Inside the English-Speaking Islamic State Ecosystem on Telegram,” released Thursday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, looked at 636 pro-Islamic State channels and groups in the 16 months from June 2017 through October 2018.

It found that even as the terror group was losing ground in Syria and Iraq to U.S.-backed forces, and even as IS leadership was encouraging followers to start looking to progress in IS provinces elsewhere, English-speaking supporters turned to Telegram to reinforce their faith in the caliphate.

“These are supporters that like to fight uphill battles,” report co-author Bennet Clifford told VOA. “What supporters are trying to do when they’re engaging with this conversation is attempt to shift the narrative away from loss and provide justifications for it.”

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – An Islamic State flag is seen in this photo illustration. VOA

At the same time, these English-speaking supporters sought to amplify their beliefs, supplementing official IS propaganda with user-generated content while also increasing the distribution of instructional material on how to carry out attacks.

“I think it’s part of an attempt in some cases to spin the narrative their way,” Clifford added.

Attraction of Telegram

IS supporters first started flocking to Telegram, an instant messaging service that promises speed and encryption for private communications, in 2015 as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook began a crackdown aimed at Islamic State’s often violent and gory propaganda.

Since then, IS has been hooked by Telegram’s promise that it will not disclose user data to government officials and by the service’s ability to let supporters organize and share large files, including video.

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“No other platforms appear to have developed the same balance of features, user-friendliness, and basic security that could warrant a new switch,” the report said.

That ease of use has long worried counterterrorism officials, who have watched as IS has used the online ecosystem to help plan and carry out the November 2015 attacks in Paris, attacks on a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016 and the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul just weeks later.

English-speaking facilitators

In those cases, the attackers appear to have been given instructions from IS officials in Syria and Iraq. But Telegram has given rise to several key English-speaking facilitators who have been operating on the periphery.

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – Karen Aizha Hamidon, who allegedly worked to encourage several Indian militants last year to join the Islamic State group in the Middle East, is surrounded by reporters after attending a hearing at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 3, 2017. VOA

One of them, according to Clifford and co-author Helen Powell, was 36-year-old Karen Aizha Hamidon, who helped mobilize sympathizers from the United States to Singapore to join the terror group or its affiliates.

Hamidon, who was arrested by Philippine authorities in October 2017, has also been linked to efforts to establish an IS province in India.

Another key player, 34-year-old Ashraf al-Safoo, took a different approach before being arrested last October by the FBI in Chicago.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, al-Safoo was a key member of the Khattab Media Foundation, which used hacked social media accounts on platforms like Twitter to disseminate IS propaganda.

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“Much of the propaganda created and distributed by Khattab promotes violent jihad on behalf of ISIS and ISIS’s media office,” the Justice Department said in a statement using a different acronym for the militant group.

While both Hamidon and al-Safoo are now in custody, showing the ability of law enforcement to penetrate their Telegram operations, others are likely to replace them because of the ongoing need of Islamic State’s English-speaking supporters to communicate and find larger audiences.

“While there are a number of disadvantages for Islamic State supporters in the use of Telegram from a security perspective they’ll continue to do it because their balance of outreach and operational security,” Clifford said. “There’s not another alternative at this point in time.” (VOA)