'Punching in the Dark'
Why Islamic State Is Winning the Online War
It sounded like jihadi megalomania. "We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women." Every Muslim is to kill a "Crusader," the extremists wrote, especially in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, France and Germany. What the West was about to face, they warned, would be more terrible than anything in the past.
These words were printed in Dabiq, the elaborately produced Internet magazine of Islamic State and appeared in February, just a few weeks after the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
We now know that the extremists meant what they wrote.
Until last Friday, there had been only one incident in which suicide bombers blew themselves up in a major European city -- in London in 2005. Now German security experts believe almost anything is possible. The German government reacted promptly to the Paris attacks, increasing controls at borders, train stations, airports and other vulnerable locations. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence service, began paying even closer attention to the roughly 420 individuals in Germany classified as potentially dangerous Islamists. The surveillance network in the Salafist community was tightened to the greatest extent possible.
Nevertheless, the security services were forced to acknowledge that their hands are tied in other respects. The attacks in Paris were greeted with cheers in part of the German-language web, and young Islamists repeatedly shared images of the dead and of shell-shocked citizens on Snapchat and Twitter.
"And never pray for one of them who dies, nor stand at his grave, for they do not believe in Allah and his envoys, and they died as evildoers" supporters of "Wacht auf" (Wake Up), a Salafist group in Offenbach near Frankfurt, wrote on Facebook. A German-speaking fan of jihad wrote, supposedly from the "heart of the caliphate": "IS is strong and capable of revenge."
In the world of social media, the Islamic State is having a devastating effect -- and, so far, the authorities in Germany and beyond have been hopelessly at a disadvantage.
Sophisticated Online Propaganda
There are now growing fears that German Islamists could become even more radicalized as a result of the Paris attacks, and that they will emerge from the virtual into the real world. "The series of attacks in France can serve as a model, or at least as an incentive, for copycat killers to concoct their own plans," fears Holger Münch, president of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). In this sense, he added, the reactions on the Web, some of them "euphoric," are cause for concern.
The government's fears were evident on Tuesday afternoon, when a number of "terror suspects" were arrested in a town near the western city of Aachen and then released a few hours later. They were also clear on Tuesday evening, when a soccer match between the German and Dutch national teams were canceled at the last minute after authorities had received information about a pending attack. Those fears won't disappear.
Experts with the BKA, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and the BfV have long known that this was precisely the intention of Islamic State. They are astonished at the level of sophistication with which the supposedly Stone Age Islamists are making use of all digital channels available. Scholars of Islamism have attributed fully 46,000 Twitter accounts to IS propagandists and supporters.
There are roughly 1,000 IS videos circulating on the Internet. Some depict slow-motion beheadings, mass executions by firing squad and slaughter on the battlefield, but others show laughing children in schools, artfully back-lit grain harvesters and police officers directing traffic. The message is clear: Look at how powerful and magnificent the "Caliphate" is.
A nine-and-a-half-minute video published on the Internet in late September, called "The Feast Day of a Mujahid," depicts the wonderful life of "Abu Youssef al-Almani" (Youssef the German), an Islamist poster-boy with blue eyes and a red beard, as he drives away in a small car from a tranquil deployment at the front to pick up his son from a grandfatherly man. He then strolls through a market where the booths are filled with products. He buys diapers, chocolate and a toy Kalashnikov for his son, whom he then dresses in an IS uniform.
This is the emotional and professionally produced "reality" IS presents to its supporters around the world. Contrary to widespread belief, these romanticized version of jihad are more effective recruiting tools than the group's splatter films.
In October, the Quilliam Foundation, a British think tank, published an article titled "Documenting the Virtual 'Caliphate'." To write the piece, researcher Charlie Winter spent 30 days studying IS publications. He examined a total of 1,146 videos, photo essays, audio files and other pieces of propaganda material.
His conclusion is that, while brutal violence is omnipresent in many documents, more than half idealize the IS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq as a Middle Eastern utopia. Other clips convey a sense of togetherness and camaraderie, and the generosity of IS toward converts -- a depiction that is too good to be true.
Dangerously Effective Videos
Still, the message is having the desired effect, even in Germany. Since IS grandiosely proclaimed its "caliphate" in June 2014, the BfV has registered a significant increase in the number of Salafists. Today, there are supposedly 7,900 in over 100 networks of 10 to 80 individuals. A senior security official sounds almost resigned when he says: "IS Internet propaganda has an immensely emotionalizing effect that cannot be overstated."
In most cases, the radicals' message resonates with young people with few prospects and a gloomy outlook for the future. This has been the case in some neighborhoods in Berlin and various parts of the Rhine-Main region, near Frankfurt. It was also the case in Lohberg, a 6,000-inhabitant section of the northwestern city of Dinslaken, where the messages from the Web and a small number of recruiters were enough to prompt two dozen young men to go to war in the name of Allah. Almost all of them died.
And it was the case in Tannenbusch, a section of Bonn, where radical imam Ibrahim Abou Nagie is an influential figure. Marco G., who is from Tannenbusch, is currently on trial in the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court. He is accused of attempting to stage an attack on the main train station in Bonn in 2012 and conspiring to murder a right-wing extremist.
Tannenbusch remains an Islamist stronghold today. Bearded men with skullcaps and women dressed in full-body veils attract little attention in the streets, which are lined with barrack-like apartment buildings. The upscale neighborhoods of the former German capital are on the other side of the Autobahn.
Several young men from Tannenbusch likewise left to fight for Islamist utopia in Syria. The authorities have counted more than 750 people who traveled from Germany to Syria and Iraq, of which about a third have apparently returned home. Prosecutors are inundated with cases. The number of investigative and criminal cases being handled by the federal prosecutor's office in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe has almost doubled since March. The number of case files relating to Syria and Iraq has jumped from 68 in March to a three-digit figure today.
Even many of those who have never gone to the Middle East are under heightened observation since the end of last week. The police began to ascertain the whereabouts of known extremists immediately after the Paris attacks. Officers paid visits to Islamists considered potential threats to let them know that they are on their radar.
But given how charming and full of promise IS appeals are, it remains unclear how successful this tactic can be. Islamic State is "the first group of its kind to have figured out what it can achieve through social media," says former FBI agent Ali Soufan. Islamist propaganda in the Internet acts like a combustive agent, says Berlin psychologist Ahmad Mansour, a former Islamist who has just published a book titled "Generation Allah. Warum wir im Kampf gegen religiösen Extremismus umdenken müssen" ("Generation Allah: Why We Need to Rethink Our Approach in the Fight Against Religious Extremism").
Many young Muslims now derive much of their information about Islam from the Web, says Mansour. They increasingly live in a digital parallel society, he argues, in which Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have replaced mosque congregations.
There are still houses of prayer, like the Al-Nur Mosque in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood, where preachers of hate are allowed to spread their ideas. But they can only convey their message at specific times and only to small audiences.
In contrast, the sermons of radical preachers spread like wildfire on YouTube. Cologne convert Pierre Vogel, who speaks with equal eloquence about energy drinks, video games and paradise, has about 120,000 fans on Facebook. "The Salafists' convictions may feel as if they were from the Stone Age, but they are pioneers in the digital religious arena," says Mansour.
In the ears of school dropouts, the unemployed and social outcasts, the caliphate's pitchman have what sounds like a convincing message: Become members of an elite that is writing history; don't follow the infidels, follow us instead. "Salafists are the better social workers at the moment," Mansour says critically.
The Islamic State has also turned itself into a global brand, with its own imagery and badge: a black flag depicting the first surah of the Koran. Its followers fill their conversations with empty phrases, like Subhanallah (Glorious is God) or Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God). They listen to their own songs, known as Nasheed music, which is often purely a capella. The lyrics of one song read: "We are the soldiers of God. Our path is the path of the true victor."
Former German rapper Denis Cuspert has performed Nasheed music in the name of IS and enjoys virtually cult-like status in German Islamist circles. He was reported dead, once again, after a US airstrike in Syria on Oct. 16 -- but the report may have been premature. German security authorities believe that Cuspert is still alive, citing as potential proof a recording of a conversation between Syria and Germany intercepted after Oct. 16. If he is indeed alive, the Berlin native may continue spreading messages of hate against his former homeland.
Politicians in the West have been virtually powerless against the professional, global and decentralized advertising campaign of the Islamic State. In September 2014, officials with the German Interior Ministry stated that it was important to acknowledge "that a sort of pop culture that glorifies Islamic State is developing in Germany."
At that time, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière issued a ban on the activities of IS supporters in Germany. Since then, anyone who distributes IS symbols on the street or online can be sent to prison for several years. "The providers have become more attentive since then, and they delete things more quickly," say representatives of the ministry.
But those officials also know that nearly everything that has ever appeared on the Internet stays on the Internet. Something that was deleted on Facebook can quickly reappear on Snapchat, Diaspora or the Russian network vk.com.
Messenger services are making life especially difficult for the authorities. Chief among them is Telegram, a free app created by two Russian brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov. The company supposedly has its headquarters in Berlin, but it has also been linked, through Great Britain, to shell companies in Belize and the British Virgin Islands.
The company claims that it blocks terrorist content, but until this week, that didn't appear to include messages from Islamic State. In recent days, images have appeared on Telegram of Islamists handing out sweets in the streets of Syria to celebrate the Paris attacks. "The security authorities are investigating," Interior Ministry officials said when asked about Telegram. On Wednesday of this week, the app makers announced that they had blocked several dozen IS channels, and were working on a simple way for users to report "objectionable public content."
Misguided German Initiatives
For authorities, it remains a tortoise-and-hare game. This summer -- months after the ban on the activities of IS supporters was issued -- they detained a 13-year-old boy who was trying to find someone to take him to Syria. He reportedly became radicalized after receiving information on the WhatsApp messaging service. Adolescent boys and girls are increasingly falling for the sanctimonious pitchmen of jihadism. This explains why the authorities were not surprised to hear rumors about very young assassins being involved in the Paris attacks.
In Europe, authorities are wondering how they can stop children and adolescents from slipping into the spiral of radicalization. So far, the somewhat helpless response in the European Union has been to present European teenagers with counter narratives that oppose the terrorists' romantic portrayals of jihad.
The security authorities are also seeking "key witnesses" throughout Europe, that is, former fighters who became disillusioned and returned from the Middle East, and could now offer credible accounts of inhumane everyday life under IS. The only problem is that they are coming up short. There are certainly many who regret fighting in Syria or Iraq, but this doesn't mean that they have developed any new affection for the European countries they came from.
In Germany, the Federal Agency for Civic Education is developing a virtual counteroffensive, with the help of YouTube stars like Berlin know-it-all Florian Mundt, aka LeFloid, who was even allowed to interview the chancellor in the summer, and Hatice Schmidt, who normally appeals to tens of thousands of teenage girls with her makeup tips.
Schmidt recently began explaining key concepts in Islam from an enlightened perspective at #whatIS. The YouTubers enjoy "substantial credibility on the Web," says agency head Thomas Krüger. "We are hoping for a viral effect."
He could be waiting for a long time, says Vienna jihadism researcher Nico Prucha. Government-promoted counter narratives are not the way to penetrate into the networks of IS sympathizers, he explains. It is abundantly clear, says Prucha, that the West lacks a strategy to combat IS ideology. "We are like boxers punching in the dark," he adds.
Renowned terrorism expert Peter Neumann, a professor at King's College in London, agrees. "The more the establishment gets upset about and condemns IS, the more it appeals to certain young people." The only option is to offer them a similarly attractive program, he explains, noting that Germany lags behind countries like Great Britain and the Netherlands when it comes to prevention. According to Neumann, Berlin lacks an objective and a structure. "Germany needs a national plan of action," he adds.
There have been some promising approaches, says Neumann. In Bremen, for example, an intercultural mediation initiative called Kitab is already handling 150 cases. Many young people were on the verge of leaving for Syria, but the group managed to deter them with intensive conversations and activities. The project is managed by two educators working on a part-time basis -- "a joke," Neumann says.
In the future, a nationwide office will coordinate the preventive work of initiatives like Kitab. The Budget Committee of German parliament recently approved a budget of 300,000 ($320,000) for the program.
But Neumann believes that governments should also work hand-in-hand with operators of social networks to stop the spread of Islamist pop culture, and that they should launch a joint fund to pay for additional projects. "Imagine this: You announce a contest on YouTube in which contestants are asked to explain why IS is wrong. The winner gets 10,000. You would receive 5,000 videos in no time. Four thousand are junk, but 1,000 of them are effective -- 1,000 videos against the IS propaganda." He recently took the idea to the United States, says Neumann, and even the deputy secretary of state met with him for an hour. "Everyone thought it was a great idea."
But, so far, he says, nothing has come of it.
By Maik Baumgärtner, Jörg Diehl, Martin Knobbe, Maximilian Popp, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid, Andreas Ulrich and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan