Increased surveillance, 'extremist disruption', whistleblower clampdowns: the same 'security' industry asserting ‘western Jihadi’ numbers are the same ones benefiting from their increase

A Skeptics Guide to Syrian Foreign Fighter Hysteria: 6 Reasons the Media Should Start Asking Questions

Increased surveillance, 'extremist disruption', whistleblower clampdowns: the same 'security' industry asserting ‘western Jihadi’ numbers are the same ones benefiting from their increase


Over the past 18 months, there's a good chance your home country has been the "biggest" source of "foreign fighters" in Syria:


Ireland is 'biggest' contributor of fighters in Syria conflict


More fighters going from Denmark to Syria than most other Western nations


CNN: Finland tops list of countries with Muslim fighters in Syria


Saudis Most Likely to Join ISIS


How Belgium Became a Jihadist-Recruiting Hub


Australia Is The Largest Per Capita Contributor of Foreign Fighters to ISIS


Britons 'Make Up Most Foreigners' In Violent Terrorist Group ISIS


Tunisia, after igniting Arab Spring, sends the most fighters to Islamic State in Syria


And there was an even better chance, depending on when you looked, that you were living in a time of unprecedented "foreign fighter" growth --


Foreign jihadists surpass Afghan-Soviet war, storm Syria in record numbers | Oct 2013


Number of foreign fighters from Europe in Syria is historically unprecedented | Nov 2013


Number of foreign fighters in Syria nearly doubles | Dec 2013


Young European converts are swelling the ranks of Islamic State | Feb 2014


ISIS recruits at Record Pace in Syria | Aug 2014


How foreign fighters are swelling ISIS ranks in startling numbers | Sept 2014


From last Wednesday

Foreign Fighters Pouring Into Syria Faster Than Ever, Say Officials


And Saturday:

Foreign Fighters Joining Terror Groups On 'Unprecedented Scale'


The urgency of the media barrage is clear: the war against ISIS was coming home, and we must all prepare to protect of our "homelands" from this looming terror threat. Indeed, the foreign fighters narrative - and by extension, the numbers that prop it up - is the single most consequential policy fact affecting privacy, internet freedom and surveillance since 9/11. A torrent of new security measures has followed on cue, all citing the dreaded return of the "foreign fighter" as the primary reason for the radical new measures:


Australia:


Australia passes security law, raising fears for press freedom | Oct 1 2014

Australia is increasingly concerned over the number of its citizens heading to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside radical Islamists, and police said they foiled a plot by the Islamic State group last month to behead a random Australian citizen.


Australia: Data retention bill introduced to parliament | Oct 29 2014

The bill is the second part of the government's national security reforms. On Wednesday, the Senate passed its "foreign fighters" bill that will allow the government to suspend passports at short notice and make it an offence to travel to certain areas without a valid reason.


France

(Note: the day of the Scottish Independence vote)

French lawmakers back 'anti-terrorism' bill | Sept 18 2014

The lower house of France's National Assembly' accepted an "anti-terrorism" bill Thursday that aims to clamp down on French nationals traveling to fight in Syria, Iraq and other regions....

Minister of Interior Bernard Cazeneuve told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper last week that 930 French nationals had gone to Syria or Iraq to fight with militant groups.

European Digital Rights (EDRi) would spell out the implications:

France adopts anti-terror law eroding civil liberties | Sept 20 2014

On 18 September 2014, the near empty French National Assembly adopted the “law strengthening the provision relating to the fight against terrorism”. In an atmosphere marked by “apocalyptic” anxiety and speeches on the terrorist threat, particularly within the Internet...


United Kingdom


New Anti-Terrorism Law To Tackle Extremism, UK Home Secretary Pledges | Aug 23 2014

Theresa May, announced the UK government's intention to pass new laws to tackle extremist groups within the country. Dubbing the proposed new laws “ASBOs [Anti-Social Behavior Orders] for terrorists,”

The proposals come on the back of revelations that many British citizens are travelling to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Recent reports suggest that there are twice as many British Muslims fighting for ISIS are there are serving in the UK's armed services. (...)

Britain Will Introduce New Laws Preventing Islamic State Fighters From Returning | Nov 14 2014

A new counter-terrorism bill will also prevent airlines that do not comply with Britain's no-fly lists or security screening measures from landing on its territory, Cameron said in an address to Australia's parliament.

Britain's security threat level was raised to its second-highest level in August due to the risks posed by Islamic State fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. Security analysts say foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria now number in the thousands.


Canada


CSIS getting more powers to track suspected terrorists as details emerge of new federal anti-terror bill | Oct 15 2014

The government will continue to be seized with the broader terrorist threats against Canada. We have strengthened laws in this country to deal with the issue of so-called Canadian foreign fighters,”he said. “We will soon bring forward additional measures to strengthen the ability of our security services to monitor aspiring terrorists to, where possible, prevent their return to Canada or to, where that is not possible, give greater tools to be able to charge and prosecute.” (...)


And just this past Wednesday, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key joined the club, announcing a heretofore unknown total of a "handful of Kiwis" currently fighting with ISIS.

New Zealand


New Zealand PM John Key seeks urgent legal changes to deal with foreign fighters and militant threat | Nov 5 2014

"Government agencies have a watch list of between 30 and 40 people of concern in the foreign fighter category," he said.

"These are people in or from New Zealand who are in various ways participating in extremist behaviour.


Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch summed up the fever pitch nicely:


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There's only one problem: more and more, these numbers are looking increasingly bizarre - if not altogether implausible. Their "hockey stick" growth over the past year-and-a-half having run away from the somewhat-plausible earlier figures into an apocalyptic fever amplified by a handful of tabloid anecdotes and unrelated "lone wolf" attacks. Even the most popular early account from the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation - spanning April 2013 to December 2013, displayed a sudden and stark acceleration- increasing the total number of Syrian foreign fighters from 5,500 to 11,000 in a mere eight months, with European totals more than tripling and per capita monthly influx rates skyrocketing by hundreds, if not, thousands of percentage points:


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And this was before 2014.

How did we get here? How did these abstract totals come to be and how did they come to hold so much political purchase? As with Iraqi WMD in fall of 2002, the press has entirely conceded the axiomatic question of "is this actually a problem?" and instead moved on, long ago, to the process story of how our reluctant intelligence services and political leaders will manage the inevitable "crisis". In this post, I will provide six reasons why this assumption is flawed, why the specter of the foreign fighter is as much myth as it is fact, and why the drumbeat of our "Syrian foreign fighter" build up and the reactionary laws being passed in its name make less and less sense with each passing news cycle.


6 Reasons Why the Media Should be Skeptical of Syrian 'Foreign Fighter' Numbers


1.

The government's own numbers simply don't add up

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The Pentagon admitted to CNN’s Jake Tapper two weeks ago that there are only “9,000-17,000 active fighters” in ISIS total, "a figure much lower than previous U.S. estimates" of 30,000. Great, so can someone explain how the hell there are 15,000 foreign fighters in ISIS?


Novemeber 6th, buried within Jake Tapper's otherwise uneventful Q and A with Pentagon spokesman Gen. Lloyd Austin was a very significant revelation:

[Gen. Austin] said their numbers of committed fighters was likely between 9,000-17,000, a figure much lower than previous U.S. estimates.

Okay. That this number is meaningfully less than the previous CIA and White House total of 31,500 is not, on its face, that significant. People overestimate; it happens. The more urgent question is how is this total consistent with last week's UN report citing over "15,000 ISIS foreign fighters":


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More than 15,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and similar extremist groups, according to a new United Nations report.


Repeated everywhere from The Guardian to Vice to The International Business Times:


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The UN's recent total of 15,000, it's important to note, doesn't appear to have been arrived at independent of the CIA's total. Rather, it's simply a repetition of the "official" number first "leaked" to CNN the day after Obama's speech announcing airstrikes on Syria back in September. (go on, read the report, there's no new information)


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How does one reconcile this with Centcom's new claim that ISIS only has 9,000 to 17,000 total fighters? Is ISIS now 70% foreign? 90%? If the Pentagon is willing to casually reduce the total number of ISIS fighters by roughly half, wouldn't it logically follow that present "foreign fighter" totals must also be reduced across the board as well, if not by the entire 50%, certainly some sizable portion?


2.

Once fear is ramped up, the numbers inexplicably get walked back

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The United States and Australian governments have quietly reduced their foreign fighter totals after hyping much larger numbers for months. Their reason: whatevs


Throughout the summer, the total number of Australian foreign fighters who had fought or were currently fighting in Syria was consistently and clearly stated to be between 120 - 150 by top Australian security officials:

Australians fighting in Syria: how many have joined the conflict? | April 2014

“The number of Australians participating in the conflict in Syria is higher than we’ve experienced with previous conflicts, with assessments of between 120 and 150 Australians travelling to the greater Syria region to participate in the conflict.” [said Attorney General Brandis]


Official: 150 Australians fighting in Syria, Iraq | June 2014

"Our best estimate is that there about 150 Australians ... who have been or are still fighting with opposition groups in Syria and beyond" Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corp.


Suddenly, in mid-July, as debate for the new proposed security legislation got underway, the "150 fighters" somehow turned into 58 Australian fighters in Syria and Iraq with another 150 in a "support" capacity:

At least 58 Australians are fighting for Islamic radicals in Iraq and Syria | July 2014

Senator Brandis said the latest intelligence reports indicate about 58 Australians were fighting in Syria and Iraq.

But he said about 150 Australians were being monitored for supporting terrorist organisations, recruiting fighters or preparing to travel overseas to fight.

Eventually morphing into the vague catch-all of "160 Australians involved in fighting in the middle east" just in time for the Foreign Fighters bill vote

Officials believe up to 160 Australians have been either involved in fighting in the Middle East or actively supporting groups fighting there.

And finally, days after the Senate approved all the Foreign Fighter laws in question, Australian Attorney General George Brandis unceremoniously put the total foreign fighter total at 71:


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Compare, to June 2014


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A totally blasé decrease of 50% over eight months without so much as an eye roll from the press. And just so there's no confusion, these are total numbers since the beginning of the war in March 2011 so there's no mathematical way they could, by definition, ever recede.

The Americans, not to be outdone, were even more transparent:

September 4 2014, as Hagel made the case for war:


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September 22 2014, the day the US begins launches airstrikes in Syria, The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman reports, for the first time, the figure to be less than a 100:


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The estimate is less than an earlier and much-quoted assessment of approximately 100 Americans taking part in Syria’s civil war...


A few days later, FBI Director James Comey would quietly lower the number even further, to twelve:


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WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans the government believes is fighting alongside extremist groups in Syria is almost one-tenth the number cited by government officials and lawmakers for months....

..."The figure that I've been operating with is, ballparkish, a dozen still there fighting with terrorist groups." [said FBI Director Comey]

Those caveats have been absent from other accounts by the Obama administration and members of Congress from both political parties.

As the AP's Eileen Sullivan and Ken Dilanian subtly note, the timing couldn't have been more suspect:

The figure of 100 American militants joining the fight in Syria had taken on an urban legend status over the past few months as the Obama administration made its case to the American public for military action in Iraq and Syria. It's unclear what significance the discrepancy has as far as Americans' support for the U.S. military action, which so far has been strong.

That both the United States and Australian governments wildly exaggerated their foreign fighter totals, only to unceremoniously reduce them after the public had already weighed in on important national security issues, should, in and of itself, compel the press to treat the current, "updated" totals with a healthy dose of scare quote skepticism


3.

The Soufan Report, the media’s most cited source, is full of contradictory figures and shoddy sourcing

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Asking for-profit security firms with millions in fresh security contracts to analyze a security threat is like asking Ben and Jerry's to analyze what you should have for dessert.


A June 2014 report by New York-based security firm, Soufan Group has served as the media's go-to reference for the majority of foreign fighter narratives over the past four months. Located in midtown Manhattan between 5th and 6th avenues on 56th, The Soufan Group is comprised of a number of Deep State all-stars, including a former Chief of the FBI's 24/7 Terrorist Screening Operations Center, a CIA Case Officer, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and the author of the report in question, former head of counter terrorism at Britian's top military intelligence outfit, MI6 and Officer of the Order of the British Empire, Richard Barrett.

These esteemed credentials aside, a close inspection of their report shows it to be less a thorough, objective analysis, and more a thinly-sourced marketing brochure for an up-and-coming security startup. The first red flag? When attempting a cursory double-checking of their sources, a footnote on whence the numbers came was hardly grammatical, much less sensical:


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"The evidence of social media"? I can assure Mr. Barrett social media does exist and, as I will discuss later, is a poor source on such matters. But first, let's break down Soufan's most provocative and media-friendly number:


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Tunisia: or how 100's of dead, retired, or moderate fighters reemerged alive, active, and members of ISIS


Though there has been a "leak" by the CIA in regards to the overall number of supposed foreign fighters in Syria (roughly 15,000), most current country-by-country figures are still largely based on Soufan Group's June report. Indeed, just in the past few weeks, Soufan's figures served as the primary basis for four stories in the run up to Tunisia's election - each one built upon the premise that the small and relatively secular country of Tunisia had more foreign ISIS fighters in Syria than any country on earth. First, it begins with a sexy infographic in the Washington Post:


Foreign fighters flow to Syria | Oct 11 2014


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The last sentence summed up the fear in no uncertain terms:

Western officials are concerned about what these individuals may do upon returning to their native countries.


Ten days later, The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick narrows in on Tunisia - the worst of the bunch:

New Freedoms in Tunisia Drive Support for ISIS | Oct 21 2014


As many as 3,000 Tunisians, most of them men under 30, have joined the battle, placing this popular Mediterranean tourist destination higher than even Saudi Arabia and Jordan on the list of the homelands of the 15,000 or so foreigners fighting with the Islamic State and other radical militant groups.


Pierre Bienaime at Business Insider jumps in, playing off of The Times broader theme:

Here's Why So Many Of Tunisia's Youth Are Drawn To ISIS | Oct 22 2014

But it's also the world's single biggest exporter of violent jihadists.

Over 3,000 Tunisians have traveled to fight in Iraq and Syria — nearly a thousand more than the number of people making the short trek from the third-biggest source: Jordan, Syria's neighbor.


And finally, days before the election, the Washington Post trumpets the figure in a similar "democracy on the brink" piece:

Tunisia, after igniting Arab Spring, sends the most fighters to Islamic State in Syria | Oct 28 2014


Tunisian officials say that at least 2,400 Tunisians have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the group — other studies say as many as 3,000 — while thousands more have been blocked in the attempt.


But there's only one problem: all four of these articles are saying the Soufan report is saying something it isn't saying. At all. The criteria for the foreign fighters-by-country numbers (page 13) is clear:


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This is key. The "3,000" figure - as far as it goes - is not a reflection of current strength. It's a number that is meant to reflect, like all the numbers cited in Soufan's report, an estimate of all Tunisian foreign fighters that have traveled to Syria since the civil war began in March 2011 - almost 44 months ago. Indeed, the original "official" source we can assume Soufar is citing from "April 2014"...


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...was claiming that at the time, the total number of Tunisian fighters actually in Syria was only 1,800:


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In his April 2014 radio interview, Deputy Minister of the Interior Ridha Sfar estimated the total Tunisians fighting in Syria to be about 1,800 with another 800 having "returned".

A Ministry of Interior official said that 1,800 Tunisians are fighting in Syria, but that those who have not killed anyone may be eligible for amnesty procedures.

He added that while he did not have an accurate list of those who returned from there, the number was around 800

Now, both The Post and The Times articles (though not Business Insider nor the Post's infographic) have other estimates from other unnamed Tunisian officials, but the Soufan report, as far as it's being presented as an actual number that reflects current fighters, is way off. Rendering the present-tense scare stories about Tunisians fighting in Syria at best overwrought and at worst outright misleading. When the Post, for instance, warns:

Western officials are concerned about what these individuals may do upon returning to their native countries.

One is left impoverished."These individuals" referenced are not all alive, much less in Syria, much less fighting, much less ISIS. This isn't a trivial difference: it undermines the entire thesis - as does Minister Sfar's admission that 800 foreign fighters are already back in Tunisia and have been for many months, if not years. One can assume Soufan simply lumped the 1,800 active fighters with the 800 former fighters, meeting the report's fine print criteria of "total amount of fighters that have gone to Syria (over the past 3 and a half years)" - rounded up to "about 3,000", put it in glossy report and called it a day. But like a game of popcorn, every one of these seemingly minor round-ups and "narrative emphases" compounded one another and some how we went from:

A Ministry of Interior official said that 1,800 Tunisians are fighting in Syria

to --

As many as 3,000 Tunisians [are] foreigners fighting with the Islamic State and other radical militant groups.

Which brings us to sleight-of-hand number two: EVERYONE is "ISIS"

Somehow, over a three and a half year war with a number of conflicting opposition groups, everyone who has traveled to Syria to fight Assad has mysteriously morphed into ISIS for the purposes of pumping up the numbers. Again: all official "foreign fighter" projections, from the White House to Swedish Intelligence to Soufan to French President François Hollande are all expressly in reference to the entirety of the war and the entirety of its Anti-Assad constituency, regardless of ideology. But like some kind of bizarre posthumous Mormon baptism for the NatSac crowd, every generic "foreign fighter" in the Soufan report, when cited by both the media and (more depressingly) Soufan themselves, suddenly become a member of ISIS without any explanation as to why. Soufan, when attempting to explain the taxonomy of fighters at the beginning of their report, even acknowledge not everyone who goes to fight in Syria is a radical, much less ISIS:

While less noticeable and less noticed than those who have joined the more extremist groups, foreigners have also joined constituent parts of the Free Syrian Army.

So, again, how did this --

A Ministry of Interior official said that 1,800 Tunisians are fighting in Syria

become this:


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The Tunisian Deputy Minister, in his interview, makes no mention of ISIS at all. If he were asked how many ISIS fighters left for Syria he probably would have had a totally different answer. And even if Soufan managed to somehow get their hands on a mysterious "official figure" of 3,000 Tunisian foreign fighters outside of the public record (and coincidentally also in April 2014), this still doesn't change the fact that not all of them, based on their own report's criteria, could be said to be ISIS. Indeed, given that the Deputy Minister's total includes all fighters since the beginning of the civil war, it's likely 100's of these fighters predate the rise of ISIS in Syria by many months, rendering the blanket "ISIS" label not just off, but an impossibility.

What we have in this example are two major fallacies that are very common in the Foreign Fighters hype machine:

  1. The Erasing History: Presenting dead, retired, or displaced fighters as a present threat (apparently what the FBI did).

  2. The ISIS sells: Equating all foreign fighters with ISIS without any logical reason to do so.

The more media iterations - social, traditional, political or comedic, in other words, the more likely a given foreign fighter meme will grow more urgent, more ISIS-y, and more epic in scope. Take the case of Soufan's Norway figures, where those simply "linked" with the nordic country magically became a citizen of it:


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Being "linked" to Norway, needless to say, is not the same thing as being Norwegian or living in Norway as the report and subsequent media accounts would imply. Nor, in the case of Finland, would traveling to Syria for the purpose of fighting be, at all, the same thing as traveling to Syria for the purposes of not fighting:


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By definition, the 15 or so who did not travel to Syria to "take part in conflict" cannot be said to be fighters, much less foreign fighters. Invariably though, Soufan's number fudging was fed into a sexed up CNN graphic months later and, just like that, Finland became the Jihadi capital of the world:


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But 30 isn't 15, and when your Muslim population is under 60,000 100% inflations begin to have meaningful political consequence. Finland's SIS, however, wouldn't be the only government agency outright ignored when they didn't deliver the goods. As touched on previously, Soufan and The Washington Post's inflated numbers would be so canonical that even FBI Director Comey's express rejection of them and his insistence the total number of Americans fighting in Syria was twelve, not 100, would largely fall on deaf ears. Despite the fact that he arranged a phone call with reporters and was quoted by dozens of mainstream publications in no uncertain terms, major outlets from NBC news, to CBS to Al Jazeera to The Washington Post inexplicably continue to use the "100 foreign fighter" figure still today:

September 26th:


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Since then:


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In fact, 60 Minutes' Scott Pelley was so married to this figure that CBS's online recap of his interview with the FBI director would inexplicably contradict him on this very subject:


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The linked video:

(Notice Comey, clear as day, says the total is twelve. Twice. Never once coming close to even mentioning the number 100)


Vimeo


The narrative had taken such firm hold on our press that even when intelligence officials tried to dial it back to their faces on national TV it didn't register, much less change the conversation. There was, in the words of serial fabricator and This American Life embarrasser Mike Daisey, a "larger truth". And this "larger truth" would permit us to not just ignore our own public officials when their statements didn't serve it, but also to embrace the rank propaganda of those previously dismissed as crackpot genocidal despots.

To whit: the total number of countries that supposedly have foreigners in Syria cited by Soufan, 81 - a number since repeated by everyone from The Economist to The Washington Post to The Los Angeles Times...


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...is based entirely on a random figure thrown out by the Assad regime in a Sept 2013 UN speech defending itself from accusations of chemical weapon use.

On page 12 of the Soufan report:


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How quickly "the Assad regime" - as its referenced twice in this report - becomes "Syrian authorities" when its conclusions serve the author's thesis. In the speech, Assad's deputy Prime Minister Walid al-Moualem provides no real justification for his number, listing none of the supposed nationalities or explaining how exactly they came to know that 42% of the countries on earth had citizens out to topple his government, but if one were going to nonetheless cite it as authoritative - they would have to carry with it all the awkward political baggage:


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And there you have it. Even though the number referenced is entirely based on the paranoid assumptions of a regime teetering on the brink of collapse, and expressly meant as an indictment of the very western institutions now holding it up as fact: it remains unimpeded. From Bloomberg just this Friday


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While a minority of the remaining report is supported by publically available official statements (Denmark, France), much of it that either contradicts contemporary official statements (Australia, Tunisia) or fills in where none can be found (Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) is said by its author, Mr. Barrett, to have been ascertained via "private" or "closed" meetings. Of the eleven countries I asked him to provide a source on, eight were the product of secret conversations with unknown, unspecified "state officials":


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And with this, one is left with the fact that the majority of the report - and thus most of the media's most popular foreign fighter figures - comes entirely out of a black hole. A list of fragmented, decontextualized numbers bestowed on us by a private consultancy, recited by The Washington Post and CNN and cemented as fact thereafter. Whether or not one accepts or rejects these figures , ultimately coming down to the degree to which they trust the word of ex-MI6 agents and their GSA 84-certified security firms who literally make a living designing paranoid terrorist scenarios.


4.

There still hasn't been a single peer-reviewed study on the "foreign fighter phenomenon"

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Despite the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation's academic trappings, the only numbers they've released come from their "insight" blog, not any published, peer-reviewed studies.


The only foreign fighter source that even attempts a degree of caution or transparency is the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) housed at King's College London, or, more specifically, Aaron Zelin's postings at their website.

Though a great deal of 'foreign fighter' media accounts are propped up by at least one talking head from the ICSR - typically Shiraz Maher, Mr. Zelin, or ICSR Director Peter R. Neumann - and it's associative relationship with King's College London, neither the Center nor the War College has yet to actually publish a single peer-reviewed study on how they arrive at these figures, beyond related considerations like determining who is ISIS and who isn't. Thus far, the only two instances in which they've "released" foreign fighter figures are on the "Insight" section of their website, one in April 2013 and the other in December 2013. Both were written by Aaron Zelin who also posted his findings at the same time on the website of his other job as the Richard Borow fellow at the right-leaning Washington Institute for Near East Policy (One of those bizarre "Middle East" think tanks, like Middle East Media Research Institute, that somehow manages to not have a single Muslim on its board of directors or list of employees. despite ostensibly being about a region that's 93% Muslim).


ICSR Insight: European Foreign Fighters in Syria | April 2013


ICSR Insight: Up to 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria; steep rise among Western Europeans | Dec 2013


Beyond these two blog post from 2013, ICSR offers no other country-to-country estimates, and certainly none that are published as a piece of scholarship. There is nothing wrong with this as such, but given foreign fighter stories in the press are almost always buoyed by someone from the ICSR at King's College London, it's important to note that The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence has never published country-specific estimates in any academic context, nor are the specifics of their methodology or case studies made available for public scrutiny. Thus far, their foreign fighter totals are simply the assertions of Mr. Zelin based on a particular - but altogether unknown - "methodology" of combing through social media, "jihadi forums", and media accounts. The ICSR did not return my requests to specify which studies were peer-reviewed and which were not.


5.

Fake online jihadis: intelligence agencies' dirty little secret and the fraud of social media analytics

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We know the U.S. military and FBI spend hundreds of millions of dollars operating an army of fake online 'extremists'. How ICSR can tell the difference is never really explained


In an April 2014 paper, "#Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks", ICSR lays out how it uses social media to determine which of their "known" foreign fighters are “ISIS”, which are western, and which were both. While this paper does not provide any new estimates as to the total number of foreign fighters, it does however, provide the most detailed explanation to-date as to ICSR's "empirical" social media methodology when determining who are "jihadis" - the same methodology, one can infer, used in previous empirical analysis by ICSR, namely the April and December 2013 country-by-country totals that still serve as a foundation for our high foreign fighter totals. This methodology, in summary, consists primarily of looking at the Twitter and Facebook accounts of supposed extremists, determining if they are radicals, using snowball sampling techniques to find other radicals and going from there.

Before we go on, a quick primer on persona management systems, a largely silent phenomenon I've discussed in great length on this blog (and will continue to do so, so long as there are people who believe Twitter and Facebook are reliable proxies for reality):

First revealed in 2011 by Anonymous hacks on defense contractor HBGary (now ManTech International) as well as reports in the Guardian, and Raw Story, persona management systems, broadly speaking, are elaborate networks of fake online social media accounts designed to disrupt, infiltrate, and otherwise influence the online communications of a specific group of people, typically "extremists".


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Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media | March 17 2011

The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.(...)

The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".

The multiple persona contract is thought to have been awarded as part of a programme called Operation Earnest Voice (OEV), which was first developed in Iraq as a psychological warfare weapon against the online presence of al-Qaida supporters and others ranged against coalition forces. Since then, OEV is reported to have expanded into a $200m programme and is thought to have been used against jihadists across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

And based on reports from just last month, we now know the FBI employs similar technology domestically:


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It shows that undercover FBI agents or informants first identified or connected with the suspects via social media in at least four cases, using fake social media identities to engage them and, in Sheikh’s case, possibly engaging in “catfishing” by luring him into a personal relationship with a phony online persona.


So, how does the ICSR account for this when using social media to determine foreign fighter totals? They explain in their preface:

There are incentives for some to create social media accounts that imitate or mimic those belonging to foreign fighters. This may include individuals seeking increased status, reputation, or influence, while others might be created by journalists or intelligence agencies seeking access to privileged information. This makes it extremely important for researchers to differentiate between authentic and counterfeit profiles.

For the purpose of coding foreign fighters in our database we took those who identified as such, in conjunction with the presence of other supporting content which not just confirmed their presence in Syria but also their involvement in an armed group. For the purpose of coding foreign fighters in our database we took those who identified as such, in conjunction with the presence of other supporting content which not just confirmed their presence in Syria but also their involvement in an armed group.

A few reasons why this throwaway explanation is woefully inadequate and should call into question their entire methodology:

A) Based on what we know from reports and primary source documents, the idea that a layman could differentiate intelligence agencies' bogus online profiles from real ones is absurd on it's face.

In their 2010 solicitation (since scrubbed from the government's website, but a PDF of which can be found here), Air Force Contracting Officer Russell Beasley, makes clear that as a condition of approval, the persona software must prevent "discovery by sophisticated adversaries" - including, presumably, British academics:


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The HBGary emails would explain in further detail the extent to which manipulating "supporting content" such as geolocation was 101 for any persona management system:

HBGary Federal has devised a set of techniques that can make personas appear real, such as manipulating GPS coordinates and using location based services to checkin to specific locations, or using twitter hashtags and specific tweets to make it appear as if a persona is attending a specific conference (...)

They would also go on to demonstrate the importance of multiple consistent social media accounts per persona and, riffing off of a popular Maxim model at the time, the capacity to render entirely life-like and one-of-a-kind persona photography: (via Think Progress)


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With accompanying Linkedin account:


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All integrated in real-time and automated with only the slightest human touch required by HBGary Federal, LLC . And this is just a crude demo circa 2010.

C) The use of these systems to create fake Syrian jihadis isn't just speculation. We now know, based on public documents from a steady stream of recent "foreign fighter" cases in federal court - as well as reports in Vice and NBC News - that it's one of the FBI's most visited tactic when trying to "disrupt" the "flow of foreign fighters":

No LOL Matter: FBI Trolls Social Media for Would-Be Jihadis | Oct 20 2014

Sheikh’s case and several other recent terrorism prosecutions shed light on the growing importance of social media in the battles unfolding in Syria and Iraq -- both as a recruiting tool for Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, and as a means for the FBI to pre-emptively nab the would-be jihadis.

But a review by NBC News of a dozen federal criminal cases related to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East also raises questions about the FBI’s conduct in attempting to head off terrorist recruits and whether they incited them to actions they wouldn’t have otherwise taken.

According to the DOJ's November 2013 criminal complaint, the FBI "Confidential Human Source (CHS)" that was baiting Sheikh on Facebook didn't just create a fake account pretending to be a "nurse' for al-Nusra in Syria, they even went so far as to have this fake nurse create a fake al-Nasura Facebook page:


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Even introducing a position literally referred to by the FBI as an "Online Covert Employee" (OCE), or, an FBI agent or group of agents running extremists sockpuppet accounts:


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The transcript of Mr. Sheikh's pro se cross examination (yes, he's clearly unstable) of the FBI agent in charge of his sting, provides some unique clarity into the factors at work:


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Though the details are sealed due to "national security", a basic understanding of social media leads one to conclude any "al Nusra" facebook page, to be minimally effective, would have to pass some baseline test of verisimilitude - a few hundred likes, some sizable amount of activity, postings, etc. This is important: unlike previous online spaces such as forums and message boards where the FBI could interface with unsuspecting targets without much overhead, social media, by its very nature, requires complex, integrated networks of life-like persona. Simply asserting a one-off "jihadi" without the requisite social connections, supporting details, real-life overlap, and corresponding online artifacts would tip-off even the most naive would-be radical, to say nothing of the harden IS jihadists the FBI and the DoD are expressly charged to disrupt and infiltrate.

In fact, based on NBC News' tally, of the 11 known Americans who have "sought to join Islamist in Syria" thus far, at least four, or 36%, have been "caught" using online fake FBI jihadis.


FBI: Aurora man wanted to join al-Qaida in Syria


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Colorado teen Shannon Conley's support of ISIS raises alarm about American jihadists


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Charge: man in terrorism case “could not wait to spill blood”


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And what the FBI was now doing online was simply a variation of what they had been doing in real life for over a decade. As Human Rights Watch and others have thoroughly documented - the vast majority of FBI terror convictions since 9/11 having been entirely hatched, conceived, and funded by the FBI themselves:


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Nearly all of the highest-profile domestic terrorism plots in the United States since 9/11 featured the "direct involvement" of government agents or informants, a new report says (...)

In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act," the report alleges.

Investigative reporter and author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism Trevor Aaronson offers up a more cynical picture:


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A reality largely confirmed by FBI whistleblower Craig Monteilh.


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And now, a new generation of "Jihadis" driven to Syria largely due to the fact that that's exactly where their FBI handlers insisted they go. All, amazingly, caught just as they were about to leave:


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This is all to say nothing of any similar programs almost certainly developed by other intelligence services - up to and including: The DoD (which, we already know has, at minimum a $200 million a year sockpuppet program), the CIA, British GCHQ, Israeli Mossad, Canadian CISI, the NSA, German BND, and a whole host of other actors - most of whom have far larger budgets, and far less scruples than even our sting-happy FBI.

And here's the rub: one doesn't even need to even give a shit about the implications for this point to land. One doesn't need to find government sockpuppeting problematic or dystopian or creepy or anything. What I submit is simply that adults in 2014 can cease this Randian fantasy that social media is some organic, free market of ideas that can accurately be used as a proxy for reality, while ignoring the well-documented hidden mechanisms of manipulation operating behind the scenes but in plain sight. Socializing on the internet, as Aaron Sorkin quipped in 2010, is to socializing what reality TV is to reality. That we would base, in part, such a consequential threat analysis on its output should serve as sober testimony to just how reverse-engineered much of this threat really is.


Given what we know about the sizable presence of sockpuppetry and given the FBI's long, sordid history of aggressively posing as radical jihadists to lure in vulnerable dupes, does it not logically follow that some meaningful percentage of online terrorist recruiting activity would be the product of both? Empirically, a major outcome-based data point we have - foreign fighter indictments - bears this point out to the tune of at least 36%. Yet ICSR, and by extension Soufan, when assembling their database of "190 western foreign fighters" makes no credible mention of how they account for this fact. Now, there's no indication they could, by the clandestine nature of the process, ever account for it. But nor is there any law of nature or political imperative that assumes they should either. Indeed, the very premise that a secret list of potential terrorists guilty of pre-crime ought to be created in the first place is a strange and ideological loaded premise that was just sort of asserted on to us as a thing over the past year without much public input or reasoned debate.

6.

Total number of terror attacks carried out by "returning foreign fighters" to date:

1

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