Skip to main content

Mapping the online presence and activities of the Islamic State’s unofficial propaganda cell: Ahlut-Tawhid Publications

Abstract

This paper, which takes the form of a case study, aims to contribute to the debate on activities of the Islamic State’s unofficial media bureaus. Based on tools of open source intelligence, as well as a limited content analysis, it maps the online presence and activities of Ahlut-Tawhid Publications (AHP). Its means of distributing pro-Daesh content in the surface web as well as its general impact are discussed. It also deliberates on the interconnectedness of AHP with other online propaganda cells supporting the self-proclaimed “Caliphate.” This paper argues that this group was part of the ongoing online campaign of the Islamic State in the World Wide Web in 2018 and 2019. It maintained quite an impressive and long-lasting online presence, combining the potential of the most popular microblogs, hosting services and social media with the flexibility of standalone websites. In contrast to the most recognized propaganda cells of Daesh, such as al-Hayat Media Centre or Amaq News Agency whose productions have been quickly detected and removed from the mainstream webpages for years, AHP kept a low profile for the most part of 2018. In effect, it benefited from its relative anonymity and for months operated a network of pro-IS distribution channels throughout Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 environments. This ceased to be the case in 2019, when most of them were incapacitated (banned) by law enforcement or abandoned. It is clear that the attention given to proliferating propaganda through the surface web decreased at this time, probably in favor of the Telegram communication software, as the discovered statistics suggest. The only active (still updated) locations—partially related to Ahlut-Tawhid Publications—belonged to the Bengali Ansar network. It has to be stressed, however, that AHP failed to spark increased attention of Internet users.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 2

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 3

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 4

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 5

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 6

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 7

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 8

Source Reddit.com

Fig. 9

Source Wayback Machine/Tumblr.com

Fig. 10

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 11

Source Internet Archive

Fig. 12

Source Medium.com

Fig. 13

Source Bitchute.com

Fig. 14

Source Scribd, DocGo, EDoc

Fig. 15

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 16

Source Open source intelligence

Fig. 17

Source Drive.google.com

Fig. 18

Source Open source intelligence

Notes

  1. Ahlut-Tawhid Publications was labeled by the TRAC Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium as an unofficial Islamic State entity in February 2018 (TrackingTerrorism 2018).

  2. The author follows the U.S. Director of National Intelligence’s definition of OSINT, which states that it is “intelligence produced from publicly available information that is collected, exploited, and disseminated in a timely manner to an appropriate audience for the purpose of addressing a specific intelligence requirement.” (Williams and Blum 2018).

  3. In this context, it is surprising to note that in recent years there has been little academic interest in exploring the usability of open source intelligence as a research tool in analyzing the digital presence of terrorist organizations. Obviously, the very theme of OSINT techniques has been frequently discussed in academia (Williams and Blum 2018; Trottier 2015; Tabatabaei and Wells 2016; Bazzell 2016), but there are very few up-to-date papers (Dawson et al. 2018; de Smedt et al. 2018; Condon and Weyers 2019), which attempt to outline how these tools can be used to detect and curb terrorist activities in cyberspace, which are—in fact—qualitatively different from other criminal activities in cyberspace. In effect they sometimes require a different set of methods, combined with a broad knowledge on the specificity of terrorist ideology.

  4. It was impossible to extract additional information on the background of the website, including the details of the registrar (via who.is), which were anonymized.

  5. However, it proved to be a real, valid address.

  6. This identity could be, however, fake.

  7. Usernames could constitute, in fact, fake accounts based on counterfeit personal data.

References

  • Bazzell, M. 2016. Open source intelligence techniques: Resources for searching and analyzing online information. Scotts Valley: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berger, J.M., and J. Morgan. 2015. The ISIS Twitter Census. Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter. The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Analysis Paper 20.

  • Bloom, M., H. Tiflati, and J. Horgan. 2019. Navigating ISIS’s preferred platform: Telegram. Terrorism and Political Violence 31 (6): 1242–1254.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Clifford, B., and H. Powell. 2019. Encrypted extremism. Inside the English-speaking Islamic State ecosystem on telegram. Washington, DC: The George Washington University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Condon, C., and J. Weyers. 2019. Where the bodies are buried: Geolocating the execution site linked to a Canadian ISIS commander. Waterloo: iBrabo.

    Google Scholar 

  • Conway, M., M. Khawaja, S. Lakhani, J. Reffin, A. Robertson, and D. Weir. 2019. Disrupting Daesh. Measuring takedown of online terrorist material and its impacts. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 42 (1–2): 141–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dauber, C.E, M.D. Robinson, J.J. Baslious, and A.G. Blair. 2019. Call of Duty: Jihad—How the video game motif has migrated downstream from Islamic State propaganda videos. Perspectives on Terrorism 13 (3).

  • Dawson, M., M. Lieble, and A. Adeboje. 2018. Open Source Intelligence: Performing Data Mining and Link Analysis to Track Terrorist Activities. In Information Technology—New Generations. 14th International Conference on Information Technology, ed. S. Latifi. Cham: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • De Smedt, T., G. de Pauw, and P. van Ostaeyen. 2018. Automatic detection of online jihadist hate speech. CLiPS Technical Report 7.

  • Droogan, J., and S. Peattie. 2017. Mapping the thematic landscape of Dabiq magazine. Australian Journal of International Affairs 71 (6): 591–620.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • EUROPOL. 2019. Online jihadist propaganda. 2018 in review. https://www.europol.europa.eu/publications-documents/online-jihadist-propaganda-%E2%80%93-2018-in-review. Accessed 02 Jan 2020.

  • Gråtrud, H. 2016. Islamic state Nasheeds as messaging tools. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 39 (12): 1050–1070.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jacoby, T. 2019. Islam and the Islamic State’s Magazine Dabiq. Politics and Religion 12 (1): 32–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kibble, D.G. 2016. Dabiq, the Islamic State’s magazine: A critical analysis. Middle East Policy 23 (3): 133–143.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lakomy, M. 2017. Cracks in the online “Caliphate”: How the Islamic State is losing ground in the battle for cyberspace. Perspectives on Terrorism 11 (3): 40–53.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lakomy, M. 2018. Picturing the Islamic State’s online propaganda: Vanishing or resurfacing from the World Wide Web? RSCAS EUI Working Papers 70.

  • Lorenzo-Dus, N., and S. Macdonald. 2018. Othering the West in the online jihadist propaganda magazines Inspire and Dabiq. Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict 6 (1): 79–106.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Macdonald, S., D. Grinnell, A. Kinzel, and N. Lorenzo-Dus. 2019. Daesh, twitter and the social media ecosystem. A study of outlinks contained in tweets mentioning Rumiyah. The RUSI Journal 164 (4): 60–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Milton, D. 2016. Communication breakdown: Unraveling the Islamic State’s media efforts. West Point: United States Military Academy.

    Google Scholar 

  • Milton, D. 2018. Down but not out: An updated examination of the Islamic State’s visual propaganda. West Point: United States Military Academy.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pieslak, J., and N. Lahoud. 2018. The Anashid of the Islamic State: Influence, history, text, and sound. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1457420.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Robinson, M.D., and C.E. Dauber. 2019. Grading the quality of ISIS videos: A metric for assessing the technical sophistication of digital video propaganda. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 42 (1–2): 70–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shehabat, A., and T. Mitew. 2018. Black-boxing the Black Flag: Anonymous sharing platforms and ISIS content distribution tactics. Perspectives on Terrorism 12 (1): 81–99.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tabatabaei, F., and D. Wells. 2016. OSINT in the Context of Cyber-Security. In Open source intelligence investigation, ed. B. Akhgar, P.S. Bayerl, and F. Sampson. New York: Springer International Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. 2019. ISIS’s media network: Developments in 2018 and future courses of action. https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/isiss-media-network-developments-2018-future-courses-action/. Accessed 21 Feb 2019.

  • TrackingTerrorism. 2018. (PDF) Ahlut-Tawhid Publications (Unofficial Islamic State): From Dabiq to Rome Newsletter Issue #2February 2018. https://www.trackingterrorism.org/chatter/pdf-ahlut-tawhid-publications-unofficial-islamic-state-dabiq-rome-newsletter-issue-2-februar. Accessed 11 June 2019.

  • Trottier, D. 2015. Open source intelligence, social media and law enforcement: Visions, constraints and critiques. European Journal of Cultural Studies 18 (4–5): 530–547.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weimann, G. 2004. Www.terror.net. How modern terrorism uses the internet. United States Institute of Peace Special Report, 116.

  • Weimann, G. 2014. New terrorism and new media. Washington, DC: Commons Lab of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weimann, G.J. 2019. Competition and innovation in a hostile environment: How Jabhat Al-Nusra and Islamic State moved to twitter in 2013-2014. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 42 (1–2): 25–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weirman, S., and A. Alexander. 2018. Hyperlinked sympathizers; URLs and the Islamic State. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1457204.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wignell, P., S. Tan, K.L. O’Halloran, and R. Lange. 2017. A mixed methods empirical examination of changes in emphasis and style in the extremist magazines Dabiq and Rumiyah. Perspectives on Terrorism 11 (2): 2–20.

    Google Scholar 

  • Williams, H.J., and I. Blum. 2018. Defining second generation open source intelligence (OSINT) for the defense enterprise. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Zelin, A. 2015. Picture of didn’t happen: A snapshot of the Islamic State’s official media output. Perspectives on Terrorism 9 (4): 85–97.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Miron Lakomy.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lakomy, M. Mapping the online presence and activities of the Islamic State’s unofficial propaganda cell: Ahlut-Tawhid Publications. Secur J 34, 358–384 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41284-020-00229-3

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41284-020-00229-3

Keywords

  • Islamic State
  • Propaganda
  • From Dabiq to Rome
  • Ahlut-Tawhid Publications
  • Open source intelligence
  • jihad