The Middle East’s digitised battlefields

Armed groups are using high-quality cameras and videos to recruit members and build support in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

Fighters in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries are sharing high-quality videos on social media [Reuters]

A group of mud-brick, single-room houses, flanked by lone palm trees, establishes the video clip, shot from higher ground. The scene then switches to a GoPro camera video feed. To the dramatic beat of anasheed music [religious or nationalist songs], balaclava-wearing fighters jump from a pick-up truck in a series of slow motion shots.

This is not, as some may first suspect, a video game. As you watch animated overlays of red targets tracking fleeing soldiers, what you are viewing is a surprise attack on a Yemeni army checkpoint. The ambush in the Heinan region of Hadramut Province in Yemen, is led, and recorded, by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters.

The increase of inexpensive, quality cameras in the hands of armed groups has coincided with the evolution of these groups in the region. In Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as well as restive areas in North Africa, they curate a variety of social media accounts for propaganda purposes.

Twitter is often used to announce the deaths of fighters and update followers with victories in battle. Instagram is now the medium for mobile images of war. YouTube and LiveLeak are becoming increasingly important tools when staking out a strong social media presence.

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In Iraq, where sectarian violence has further fractured the country, groups like the Islamic State, formerly Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have released multi-part documentaries. Prior to their siege of Mosul, the Islamic State group had already established itself as a tech-savvy militant group.

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In the past, the public only had rare glimpses into attacks when grainy videos were sent to news stations or uploaded to the internet. Often of choppy quality, voices were scratchy and frames froze or were too blurry to be able to make out anything in the sea of pixels. This lack of quality was the result of poor bandwidth access, and low-resolution camera phones and video recorders.

Now, with the arrival of compact cameras rivalling previous professional-grade models, fighters have access to high-quality recording devices. GoPro launched its first inexpensive, high-resolution wearable digital cameras in 2007. Today, camera makers market inexpensive models capable of capturing high quality, high-definition images.

Viewers not aligned with the groups have taken notice of the quality, with one commenter praising the films for their Hollywood-esque production value. Often, even movie posters are created to raise anticipation for an upcoming film.

For governments wanting to blunt militant groups, internet suppression is often used as a scorched-earth tactic.

“Generally speaking, most non-democratic or weakly democratic regimes that view internet openness as a challenge buy deep packet inspection technology from western or Chinese sources. This is then calibrated to keep unwanted content out,” says Chris Bronk, a cyber security expert and Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Private companies, like Israel’s WireX systems, produce software for deep packet inspection. This technology intercepts and collects data from social networking sites, allowing for analysis and tracking of content uploaded by opposition groups.

Cyber jihadists are tech savvy and active on social media. This material gets distributed via YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and it becomes impossible to contain.

by - Laith Alkhouri, Flashpoint Partners, group monitoring technology in conflict areas

In Syria, the government has strong control over internet access. Documents obtained by Reporters Without Borders detail how the country’s internet infrastructure was originally designed to include tools allowing the government to monitor and filter internet usage. “The Syrian Electronic Army has been highly effective in employing both DDoS and other techniques to disrupt media outlets and online news providers,” Bronk says.

Recently, the Iraqi government has taken steps to shut down access to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, according to the Toronto-based Citizen Lab.

“Governments have tried to reduce the influence of online radicalisation by attempting, and sometimes succeeding, in defacing primary password-protected jihadi web forums, where this sort of material first gets distributed. This didn’t seem to help, as cyber jihadists are tech savvy and active on social media. This material gets distributed via YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and it becomes impossible to contain,” said Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at New York-based Flashpoint Partners, a consulting group monitoring the use of technology in conflict areas.

When it comes to propaganda, these groups primarily aim to lure in the local population, as well as foreign fighters. However, because of relatively low internet penetration in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, none of which exceed 25 percent, the videos are most effective in drawing in foreign nationals. In December 2013, estimates from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace placed the number of foreign fighters in the Syrian civil war at between 5,000-10,000 on the Sunni side, with the number among Shia fighters also around 10,000.

These fighters have come from more than 60 countries. Demonstrating the link between video production and recruitment, in one scene in The Clash of Swords video (which is no longer available online), a Bosnian fighter and other foreign nationals tear up their passports to show their support for an Islamic state with no borders.

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While most videos are taken down soon after being posted, the average shelf life can be extended due to the thrill factor and slick graphics. For example, AQAP’s GoPro video, first released on May 14, has been posted and re-posted by users, generating tens of thousands of views.

The videos, despite being primarily for recruitment, are not all created equally, however.

According to Charles Lister, a Visiting Fellow at Brookings Doha Center specialising in jihadist movements in Iraq and Syria, these films vary wildly by group and geographic region. Iraq has a consistent presence online, while Yemen has scaled back dramatically.

“In Yemen, officially-released AQAP videos are still comparatively rare, so when they are released, it makes sense that the group will have consciously taken the time and effort to produce something that will genuinely be effective,” Lister said.

The most recent player, Syria, is also the most fragmented in its social media approach. “Video quality often varies in Syria, but that’s more a result of the huge quantity being produced. Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and especially [Islamic State] tend to produce high-quality video several days after a filmed event,” Lister explained.

The sophistication of the cameras plays an even larger role than recording attacks: establishing shots, which appear to give context to the armed attacks or bombings, are also used for reconnaissance.

“With the use of such cameras, clearly for propaganda purposes, violent groups are able to give the audience a better view of the planned attack. Importantly, jihadi groups are better able to assess security measures using these cameras, thus avoiding unplanned or unexpected developments before attacking,” Alkhouri said.

“It’s an enormous advantage to have when conducting any sort of guerrilla warfare.”

Source: Al Jazeera