BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. As we've heard, the process of understanding, explaining and contextualizing terror yields some ratio of reward and risk. Namely, when does the documentation of evil, perpetuate evil?
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BOB GARFIELD: For the remainder of this hour, we'll look at that dilemma at its most polarizing–the study of jihadist movements. It's a subject rich with emotion, disagreement, and just plain ignorance.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP: And we have won against ISIS. We beat them and we beat them badly. We've taken back the land. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: That's not true. The physical territory of the so-called Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. At one point, the size of the United Kingdom, has been reduced to a square mile in a Syrian village. But ISIS has as an organization, as an idea and as a threat has not been defeated–and it is not idle.
CHARLIE WINTER: I mean it's still getting 12 page newspaper out every single week.
BOB GARFIELD: Charlie Winter with the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation examines the online communications of jihadi terror groups.
CHARLIE WINTER: It's still capable of producing very glossy, shiny videos that still resonate very well among its supporters and still have an ability to grab attention. It's just, right now, the propagaist priorities aren't communicating with the West. Right now, they're thinking about retention, not recruitment.
BOB GARFIELD: Even as US forces seem poised to overtake the last ISIS bastion in Syria, Winter says, the violent struggle continues elsewhere.
CHARLIE WINTER: Let me tell you about a video that was published by the Islamic State's West Africa Province. It's based in Nigeria.
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CHARLIE WINTER: So they opened with a few pictures of children playing in the street.
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CHARLIE WINTER: People going to mosque of, supposedly, idolatrous monuments and tombs being destroyed.
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CHARLIE WINTER: And then there was a beheading, an amputation.
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CHARLIE WINTER: And then would come back to more shots of people worshipping. And all the time was kind of sepia filters across the screen. It was, essentially, casting these things that happened just a few years ago as the new Golden Age of Islam and showing the Islamic State at its best. The point of doing that, to kind of revitalize the idea of a utopian Caliphate is to provide Islamic State supporters with something to continue fighting for.
BOB GARFIELD: It's morning again in Nigeria.
CHARLIE WINTER: That's right.
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BOB GARFIELD: That video was recently put online by ISIS. And just as quickly removed by major social media platforms–which obviously don't want to be seen as having any hand in glorifying terrorism. But Winter founded anyway on Telegram, a Russia based encrypted messaging app. It can also be found on a US site called Jihadiology–a scholarly repository of jihadi videos, edicts, posters and speeches documenting first the breathtaking expansion and now dramatic setbacks of the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Totality has become an invaluable resource I believe for academics and scholars who are trying to study the jihadi landscape.
BOB GARFIELD: Rukmini Callimachi covers ISIS for the New York Times.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: It's a place that warehouses, the videos and the statements of these groups, that are of course being taken down online by YouTube, by Facebook, by Twitter etc, in the interest of not finding a greater public.
BOB GARFIELD: While it may seem inarguable that knowing more is better than knowing less, it's not hard to understand the impulse behind cutting off the supply of propaganda designed to lure disaffected youth into the terror matrix. After all, didn't Omar Mateen, before entering the Pulse nightclub in Orlando to murder 49 people scroll through Jihadiology? Yes, he did. And come on, academic researchers of child pornography, don't repost the porn themselves.
ALI FISHER: I used to work child protection. And when I worked with researchers there, they would never share any of the content they came across. Because whatever they were, it starting from a point of not making things more available.
BOB GARFIELD: Ali Fisher director of the British data consultancy Human Cognition, has written in opposition of open access to archives of jihadi propaganda–and he is not alone. In November, the UK Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee published a report titled The 2017 Attacks: What Needs to Change. Detailing efforts to limit access to propaganda on social media. In recent weeks, the European Parliament has debated similar initiatives. Among its likely targets is the blogging and website platform WordPress, host of Jihadiology. The notion being, once again, that the videos are dandelions and the websites [BLOWING SOUND] scattered the seeds of violence to the winds. Charlie Winter, curator of his own private archive, worries about Jihadiology.
CHARLIE WINTER: I don't think we should whitewash the fact that it is and has been useful for groups like the Islamic State in the last few years.
BOB GARFIELD: And undeniably, ISIS followers do promote Jihadiology among themselves. Not just as a bazaar but as a safe harbor for their ideology.
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BOB GARFIELD: Here's jihadism investigator Ali Fischer reading from a Telegram chat among radicals.
ALI FISHER: These links, by the will of god, do not get deleted. All the while these will help their supporters in their raids on social media platforms. And we advise you, place these links in the comments section on YouTube. Yeah and then goes on to recommend a use of VPN, saying that the individual person in protect themselves and the links that they are talking about that. About 90 something percent of them are to Jihadiology.
BOB GARFIELD: When the bad guys see your work is indispensable perhaps that should give pause. Especially, says Fischer, when society is demanding that non-academic platforms eradicate this stuff.
ALI FISHER: You see Facebook, YouTube under pressure to remove content from its attacks in Russia. And I don't think we can say it's ok for one group just to post widely on the Web and another group, its Facebook team got to remove it. To me, doesn't make a balanced argument.
BOB GARFIELD: Fisher also can't reconcile the fact that some individuals have been jailed for posting jihadi content while scholars, and in some case governments, make the same practice routine. So yes, it's clear that there is at least some level of double standard. Less clear is whether the content in question is actually what lures recruits into the terrorist fold to begin with.
ALI FISHER: There is this assumption that ISIS was particularly successful in getting young people, particularly Westerners, to go to Syria because of its savvy media.
BOB GARFIELD: Amarnath Amarasingam is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
AMARNATH AMARASINGAM: And so there was a kind of causal link drawn in the minds of some policy people in law enforcement that because ISIS was so good at social media that it automatically led to this foreign fighter problem that we're seeing.
BOB GARFIELD: But that formulation Amarasingham says overestimates the impact of the propaganda and ignores the more significant factor–to weigh social media messaging. If you were an ISIS wannabe--
AMARNATH AMARASINGAM: You could reach out to them, you could talk to them, you could get logistical advice, you could ask them who to contact when they're in Turkey to across the border. And so it became a kind of personal interaction and friendships started forming in this kind of online community of jihadist supporters started forming out of this access to these fighters.
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RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: There are a number of people who speak about this material without actually having any real knowledge of how the radicalization process works.
BOB GARFIELD: The Times' Rukmini Callimachi.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Telegram, in their secret chat rooms on this encrypted app, is where the group congregates and anybody that is serious about joining this group finds their way there. If you take away the conveyor belt called Jihadology, you're not solving the problem. You'd have to basically shut off the internet to be able to completely shut down the way through which young aspiring jihadists make their way to--to this ideology and then to the violence that incites.
BOB GARFIELD: Now not all the hand wringing envisions shutting down Jihadiology altogether. The British Parliament is considering the less draconian measure of password protection–and there is some history there. Pieter van Ostaeyen is a Ph.D. candidate at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and a visiting fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. He runs his own archive of jihadi propaganda, which like Jihadiology was open to all visitors and drew approximately 100 thousand of them a month–until 2016 when he says he succumbed to pressure from French, Russian and Indian governments.
PIETER VAN OSTAEYEN: Basically my website is under lock right now.
BOB GARFIELD: To get access, you have to create a Wordpress account and request entry from van Ostaeyen.
PIETER VAN OSTAEYEN: Everybody gets access. Everybody who asks for access to my website, I give them access.
BOB GARFIELD: Because he is a single academic without the resources to vet his applicants. How's he to know whether he's being solicited by a tenured professor or Abu Bakr or al-Baghdadi.
PIETER VAN OSTAEYEN: I know that even jihadis got access to my website, still.
BOB GARFIELD: So I guess my question is what has been accomplished here by those who asked you to put this under lock and key?
PIETER VAN OSTAEYEN: Nothing. If it were to stop terrorist propaganda and to slow down the spread of terrorist propaganda, it was a very bad idea to close down my website because it basically didn't help. Basically they can find their content elsewhere. So what is being accomplished? Nothing, nothing at all.
BOB GARFIELD: And what has been lost?
PIETER VAN OSTAEYEN: What has been lost. The content of a lot of most interesting tracts not only by the Islamic State but also by Al Qaida and some analysis. I had some guest posts on my website of rather prominent foreign fighters and of rather prominent al-Qaeda figures. I think the information should be there for the general public, not only for academics and researchers and not led by media interpretations and by people saying I heard this from a researcher. We need the hard facts. We need the details and once more detailed than footage? Nothing.
BOB GARFIELD: It's not just a matter of general public and academic understanding, Jihadiology has been the source of crucial intelligence. Seamus Hughes deputy director of the program on extremism at the George Washington University, describes his process when, in a court document, he encountered references to an ISIS senior commander. An American named Zulfi Hoxha.
SEAMUS HUGHES: I thought to myself, 'I've never heard this guy before and I tracked this for a living.' And so we started going through all of jihadologies videos until we found people that purported to be Americans and then cross-reference that with friends and family who knew Zufi Hoxha and we were able to tag match up the voice and ultimately the face. Sure enough they found on Jihadiology in propaganda videos spewing jihadi rhetoric.
ZUFI HOXHA: Indeed, America today is the one carrying the banner of the cross and waging war against the Muslims. They're not delaying support its puppets via air land and sea. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Hosea was thus publicly identified as the first American Islamic State member to be featured in a beheading video. Hughes says, by the way, the government for its own purposes uses Jihadology too.
SEAMUS HUGHES: You don't necessarily want your CIA agent in a courtroom in New York talking about ISIS. You don't want to expose your assets and said they're looking for a different avenue in order to get the information into a court of law. And that means they look at jihadolgy in order to get the documents.
BOB GARFIELD: So that's the impact on the frontlines of intelligence. Then there is the matter of just plain history, of context and understanding versus demagogy and myth. Rukmini Callimachi refers to the work of Miami of Ohio Professor Nathan French whose scholarship includes reassembling Osama bin Laden's recorded justification for 9/11. In the few months after the attacks, under government pressure, that material had been all but eradicated from American TV news.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: And these terrorist statements are now pretty hard to access unless you know how to do it as a specialist. And so I've had people actually say to me that they believe that 9/11 was a reaction to the US invasion of Iraq, literally reversing the events and not understanding that the invasion of Iraq came as a result of 9/11.
BOB GARFIELD: More information or less information? Which presents the greater risk. And then there's one other thing. Not just documenting history but documenting responsibility. Pieter van Ostaeyen.
PIETER VAN OSTAEYEN: We will need all of this if there will be, and by god I hope there will be one soon, an international tribunal against ISIS fighters. And we will need as much evidence as possible.
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PIETER VAN OSTAEYEN: And my sincerely hope as everybody starts to realize what they already destroyed by killing off YouTube videos, even of people watching and filming bombings and what have you. Everybody should be aware. Fully aware of what they did.
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BOB GARFIELD: The irony is pretty thick. ISIS has tried systematically to destroy evidence of modernity. And now, with all good intentions, we may ourselves be destroying evidence of the destruction.
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BOB GARFIELD: We've repeatedly reached out to Aaron Zelin who runs Jihadiology, but he declined to comment.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewing, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturverdi. We had more help from Xandra Ellin. And our show was edited this week by our executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han. On The Media production of WNYC studios. I'm Bob Garfield.