Even though the Department of Homeland Security just identified white supremacism as the most persistent and lethal threat facing the United States today, former al-Qaeda propagandist Jesse Morton cautions that we still need to be weary of jihadi ecosystems.
Was really good to sit with Michael Krona @GlobalMedia_ for this episode of Jihadi Recollections… we discuss the jihadist media ecosystem and why it’s important to keep focus on jihadism as we shift to concern for domestic violent extremism,https://t.co/wWeWcfIy8e
— Jesse Morton (@_JesseMorton) September 20, 2020
Discussing why it’s important to keep a focus on jihadism as the counter terror focus shifts to domestic violent extremism, Morton sat down with Dr. Michael Krona to discuss jihadi propaganda across social media networks.
Krona is an assistant professor at Malmo University and focuses on Islamic State propaganda. He is also the co-editor and author of The Media World of ISIS.
Morton was an active extremist with al-Qaeda from 2003 through 2011 who now runs Light Upon Light and Parallel Networks, where he builds alternate systems of belonging for deradicalized extremists.
In an hour-long podcast, Morton and Krona speak about the evolution of jihadi ecosystems in terms of media communications, the role of social networks in extremist recruitment and the future of the jihadi war against the West.
The Evolution of Jihadi Propaganda
Morton and Krona trace the evolution of jihadi media over the last 30 years, beginning in the ’90s with the advent of the worldwide web.
Beginning with a quantitative lens, Krona first discusses the public assumption that ISIS employs some groundbreaking use of technology, given the sudden burst of the digital caliphate onto the public consciousness.
However, Krona says that ISIS’ presence on the web is not groundbreaking. Terror organizations on all sides have used this technology going back decades.
ISIS had an extremely strong presence on Twitter way before the tech giant began shutting down accounts of terrorists. But although Twitter gave ISIS a vast reach, it wasn’t the terror group’s first encounter with online space.
Moving toward a qualitative assessment, Krona then spoke about how ISIS’ messaging differs from other extremist organizations. Krona, who is a media researcher, noted how media messages are tailored to specific target groups. ISIS has an acute “awareness” of its messaging — who the group’s target is, what the best way is to reach this target and how effective they are.
“… [ISIS has] been successful and they’re able to adapt. Obstacles have come along in the last six years, but they have maintained an online presence and adapted [their] narratives to political circumstances, while retaining a strong online brand.” – Dr. Michael Krona
With the November 2019 shutdown of the group on Telegram — a messaging app popular among ISIS supporters — Krona notes two important points: First, the reach and capabilities authorities and intelligence sectors have when coordinating their efforts. Second, groups like ISIS unfortunately still have vast “human resources” (online supporters) to take that obstacle and turn it into a boon for the group.
As Morton and Krona discuss, following the terror group’s shutdown on Telegram, ISIS supporters expanded to hundreds of other platforms, making them much tougher to track.
“As long as they have a global network of supporters who, in one way or the other, feel included, [they will be able to] continue …” – Jesse Morton
In fact, Morton notes that when defeated on the battlefield, the goal for a group like ISIS shifts to keeping the proverbial fires burning in online spaces.
Is Social Media Responsible for Extremist Recruitment?
Krona doesn’t believe that social media is wholly responsible for recruitment and radicalization, saying that the issue is much more complex than simply removing access to online watering holes.
While it’s understandable to want to put pressure on Silicon Valley, he urges looking toward other solutions as well.
Morton believes that his counter-narrative work can be effectively applied in individual interventions. The deradicalization models Morton has built gives former extremists something else to belong to, something that offers meaning. It resembles a mirror of the extremist recruitment and retention strategy, which essentially gives the person a profound sense of belonging. In short, it speaks to them in a language they understand.
Krona tackles some of this in his book The Media World of ISIS. In 2016, Krona noticed there were a number of academic journals that focused on one thing or one angle in-depth, leading him to offer instead a holistic framework for understanding the trajectory of the media world of ISIS.
Throughout their one-hour conversation, Morton and Krona underscored the need for complex solutions rooted in counter-narratives. Counter-narratives can take many forms, but they always include a form of dialogue and storytelling.
The Long War Against the West
Central to all foreign extremist groups is the goal of creating disorder in the United States so that a foreign group can step in and undermine democracy. Part of this equation includes stimulating political polarity.
Krona and Morton both uniquely warn against taking our eye off the ball when it comes to foreign extremist groups, saying that our national focus on domestic terror is conducive to the long war strategy employed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS against the West.
Meanwhile, Krona is studying the online behavior of ISIS supporters given the sudden landscape changes of the group both geographically and culturally. Krona follows about 200 channels online, tracking the ambitions and narratives of ISIS leaders and their supporters. He then compares regional realities with online chatter.
Almost daily, Krona asks himself: How do the forums compare to the larger, geographical landscape?
Answering that question, Krona has observed that jihadist expansion and operations in the African continent are not being discussed on an individual supporter level. What is being discussed online is the organization as a whole, the ideological construction of the caliphate, and discussions of the way forward.
The dominant discussion among supporters, regardless of their ethnicities, shows no fear of diminished influence. Instead, ISIS supporters see themselves as an important part of the propaganda machine.
In other words, online communities are independently growing despite ISIS losing ground and declining geographically.
Morton and Krona also highlight the necessity of maintaining a close watch on these groups in light of our recent focus on COVID-19.
“We can’t lose focus just because media isn’t covering it. When Bin Laden died, people thought that was it, but then three years later we had Islamic State. When media attention goes down, that’s when it’s even more important [to remain vigilant].” – Dr. Michael Krona
Krona believes jihadist organizations shift their focus on galvanizing supporters and engaging them during what otherwise seems like a “downtime” due to the lack of media attention on them.
The two offer another example of jihadist resilience and adaptation despite the celebration by the media of the downfall of ISIS: Within a few days of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death, there had already emerged a new strategy to maintain the organization.
“These are not groups that come and fold with political opinion. They build steadfast ground to stand on; they have a greater presence online. Islamic State is entering a new phase with a new leader. This time they also have a highly equipped and vastly reaching human resource supply with online supporters to help spread the movement even further while reinforcing official narratives coming from official ISIS channels. There are more Salafi jihadists supportive of 9/11 now than there were when 9/11 happened.” – Jesse Morton