Archiving the Islamic State in Real Time

25th May 2021

A new report by ISD and the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the United States Military Academy at West Point offers a preliminary survey and analysis of one of the largest known online repositories of Islamic State materials, which was initially identified, accessed and documented by ISD. 

Through a mixed-method analysis, the authors seek to increase understanding of how violent extremist groups and their supporters manage, preserve and protect information relevant to their cause. This Dispatch provides an overview of their findings. 

* Given sensitivities concerning the inadvertent promotion or glorification of terrorist material in pursuit of research, the authors chose to use the pseudonym “Cloud Caliphate” for the repository rather than broadcast the domain name.

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The “Cloud Caliphate” sits centrally amongst a set of Islamic State websites ISD researchers have tracked on the open web for the past three years. Functioning as the archive of choice for a series of Islamic State websites built by the same support organisation, it serves as a means to keep the memory of the “caliphate” alive. Even though password-protected, researchers were able to gain access to the cache’s full content through a series of links shared through a phalanx of “sockpuppet” social media accounts promoting it as the “largest Islamic State archive.”

Since October 2019, researchers have analysed the content and monitored the cache’s traffic, distribution and connections to networks of Islamic State support groups clawing their way back onto Telegram while settling into new climes on platforms like Hoop Messenger. There appears to be a decentralised network of accounts sharing links to the cache, however, the site’s administrators appear to be a relatively centralised hub of supporters, building new pro-Islamic State websites, uploading and organising content, and promoting the resource across an array of platforms. The cache features content in more than seven different languages, including Arabic, French, German and English as primary languages, and Russian, Turkish, Farsi, Bangla and Uyghur as less-common secondary languages.

The cache’s content is vast: On June 30, 2020, for instance, the cache held 97,706 folders and files. To put this in context, that amounts to nearly three times as many pieces of content disrupted in the EUROPOL anti-Islamic State campaign on Google, Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram in November 2019. During the time Islamic State supporters and outlets were reeling from the EUROPOL disruption, the cache was unaffected and was, in fact, growing in size. Another way to understand the cache’s size is to compare it to other virtual or physical drives. The “Cloud Caliphate” repository holds about 75% more data than all the devices seized during the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, including five computers, multiple mobile phones, 100 USB drives, DVDs and CDs.

While analysis of the cache’s content is ongoing, this series of notable findings provide the national security community and terrorism researchers with valuable insight into the use of archives as central features of violent extremists’ online activity.

Files within the “Cloud Caliphate

The Genesis Files

The cache’s folder on the “Genesis of the Islamic State” splits into two sub-primary folders, one called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) and the Mujahideen Shura Council of Iraq. JTJ was founded in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004 was subsumed by al-Qa`ida in Iraq under the official name Tanzim Qa‘idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn. The Mujahideen Shura Council of Iraq was the umbrella organisation that hosted the al-Qa`ida group, and it “was designed to put an Iraqi face on al-Qa’ida’s efforts in the insurgency.”

These two folders contain 60 videos from both organizations, all of which are primarily of hostages, attacks on various Iraqi, American, and British civilians and forces, as well as JTJ’s announcement of al-Zarqawi’s and other ideologues’ deaths. The folders represent a minuscule portion of the overall breadth and depth of the cache (0.15%) but indicate the importance of tracing the origins of the Islamic State to these two groups. They also show how much content currently exists online in relation to the two groups and their video media outputs, much of which was previously limited to legacy salafi-jihadi message boards and websites.

The Ideologues Files

It is important to note the acceptability of several al-Qa`ida figures in the cache, specifically Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. However, in the same vein, it is similarly vital to mention the disdain for al-Qa`ida’s current leadership found in the content, and the schism that erupted between the two factions that appears to have affected the developers of the cache. The version accessed by researchers over the past 10 months featured a folder, innocuously named “New Folder”, which houses a virtual trove of slanderous material meant to discredit al-Qa`ida, its affiliates, and the group’s leadership, specifically al-Zawahiri. The “New Folder” contains crude, ready-made responses to notable salafi-jihadis on social media, as well as numerous curated posts attacking al-Qa`ida-linked ideologues, affiliates and their statements.

The “Scholars of Jihad” Files

The late Umar Mahdi al-Zaydan, a Jordanian and former colleague of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (a notable salafi-jihadi scholar), has the most content attributed to him and stored in the cache. For a time, al-Zaydan was supposedly a potential spokesperson replacement for Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (official spokesperson and a senior leader of the Islamic State) after al-Adnani was killed. Al-Zaydan was reportedly killed in 2017 in Mosul, and beyond the fractious relationship with his peer al-Maqdisi, researchers know relatively little about the man. Understanding al-Zaydan’s life, ideology, and impact on the salafi-jihadi movement is arguably key to understanding the schism between ideological counterparts-turned-rivals.

Content tied to al-Zaydan, Turki bin Mubarak al-Binali, and Anwar al-Awlaki make up 31% of the “Scholars of Jihad” folder. Al-Binali, a Bahraini who reportedly served as the head of the Islamic State’s scholarly research body, was believed to be relatively close to al-Baghdadi, though al-Binali and his associates had tense relations with other Islamic State members due to ideological differences. Al-Awlaki, meanwhile, is regarded as “al-Qa’ida’s most effective English-language recruiter.” Though al-Binali and al-Awlaki are different figures in many ways, both are known in terrorism studies circles and media because of their influence on their respective movements.

The “Emirs of Jihad” Files

An emir is the title given to Muslim rulers. By creating a distinction between scholars of jihad and emirs of jihad, the creator(s) of the cache disaggregate leadership from salafi-jihadi scholar influence. The ability to understand the Islamic State from its origins requires an understanding of its leaders and their visions that set the tone for its eventual rise in 2014. Within the cache, each of these ideologue folders contains a seerah – “prophetic biography” – sub-folder, demonstrating the level of organisation and curation within this part of the drive. Unlike the “Scholars of Jihad” folder, the biographical accounts of these ideologues were deliberately curated with video seerahs. Only three of the emirs do not have video seerahs: Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Osama bin Laden, and Hamza al-Qurayshi.

The seerahs of leaders such as Abu Abdallah al-Jabouri and Abu Anas al-Shami speak to an era when there was a focus on building consensus among jihadis in Iraq to fight the invasion, as well as a concentrated effort to present them as Ba’ath dissidents that were both religious scholars and intellectually strong. Analysis of both al-Jabouri and al-Shami’s seerahs suggest that it is not just the biographical sketches of the key ideologues or noted “emirs,” but rather, some of the forgotten stories and integral personalities that laid the ideological and operational groundwork for the self-proclaimed caliphate.

Contemporary Digital Archives

Seemingly managed by sympathisers of the Islamic State, the “Cloud Caliphate” offers researchers, policymakers and counterterrorism practitioners additional insights on how and why groups and their adherents maintain archives of such material. From a sociological standpoint, such caches serve to curate a shared history of the movement. At the operational and tactical level, digital archives help the online contingents of the group rally in the face of setbacks, particularly when adherents promote such resources across numerous information and communications platforms.

While the research community has studied the production, themes and dissemination of Islamic State-related content, whether produced by the group or its supporters, it dedicates less attention to the role of contemporary digital archives. ISD and CTC’s work attempts to address that gap, as the authors believe violent extremists’ efforts to build, protect and maintain caches of information could remain a common practice in the years ahead. Particularly as the Islamic State grapples with its future on the ground, historical archives like those stored online in the “Cloud Caliphate” will likely be critical to forging a shared identity for supporters, much like any archive.

 

This is the first in a two-part series providing an overview of new analysis by ISD and CTC, which focuses on Islamic State(IS)-affiliated content stored on digital archives, and the method of creating hubs of information to preserve such materials. Part 2 will look at the links between the cache and a real-world IS case.

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