Google Uses One Weird Trick to Dissuade Would-Be Islamic State Recruits

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Google has developed a program it hopes will use a combination of search advertising algorithms and targeted YouTube videos to dissuade would-be recruits from traveling to Syria to join Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL).

The project was created by Google’s in-house tech incubator, Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas). Called “Redirect Method”, when search terms that Google predicts someone who might be curious about joining IS are used, text links to anti-IS YouTube videos will display. The keywords include “Fatwa for jihad in Syria” and places used for entry into IS-controlled Syria. When used, links with subtle messages like “Want to join ISIS?” will display. (Though maybe it should consider “one weird trick”.)

This information operation uses the same basic dilution method as the organically crowd-sourced ISIS-chan meme. By adding more anti-IS content to search results, the likelihood of legitimate IS propaganda displaying is reduced. The Google campaign goes a step further by curating a playlist of authentic anti-IS videos already uploaded to YouTube such as “Raqqa under ISIS food lines”. This is in contrast to government information operations like the State Department’s  failed “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign that created their own (bad) content, or France’s “How to Spot a Jihadist” infographic.

Unlike ISIS-chan, this information operation could have the potential to legitimately deter recruitment. Google claims that their anti-IS ad clickthrough rates are around nine per cent, much  higher than the two to three per cent in a typical Google AdWords campaign. Additionally, people seem to be actually watching the videos, with their best performing videos getting an average of eight minutes. That is a longer time than I spend on most videos I actually want to watch.

As we have seen, most IS recruits are ignorant of Islam. It makes sense that these would-be recruits are legitimately interested in what life in IS-controlled territory is like.

While this program is encouraging, it does make me question Google’s ultimate aim here. Are they altruistically investing time and money into counterterrorism, or will this information be used to change people’s minds about other things? It is a new development in the ongoing search neutrality debate. It would be difficult to oppose Google manipulating their results to combat terrorism, but it will be interesting to see how Google uses its new Inception-esque technology to change users minds in the future.

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A Post-Syria Middle East

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Update: The Department of Defense’s Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson answered a direct question about Rmeilan Airfield on Reddit, tacitly acknowledging that it is being used by special operations forces:

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A recent article about a purported American deal to use an airbase in Syria to support operations against Islamic State (IS) struck me as odd. It was not that the United States was further establishing a military presence in the war-torn Middle East — let’s face it, it is 2016 and this the norm — but rather who the agreement was made with: the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG, whom I have written about before (specifically their capacity to recruit American volunteer fighters), have controlled the territory in northeast Syria where Rmeilan airfield is located for over two years. If the claim that the Americans are using the airfield is true (a spokesman for United States Central Command has denied it, despite some evidence to the contrary), this represents a significant step in the end of the state we know to be Syria.

What is a state?

To discuss this concept, the state must be defined. The classical definition of the state in the field of international relations usually starts with sociologist Max Weber, who wrote in 1919 that the state is a “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

Additionally, the declarative theory of statehood adds that a state must have:

  1. Defined territory
  2. Permanent population
  3. Government
  4. Ability to enter into relations with other states, or thus be recognized by other states
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Sociologist Max Weber dropping some knowledge, 1917 (Wikipedia Commons photo)

When we combine these two definitions, it is apparent that Syria is struggling as a state — particularly when it comes to the monopoly on violence and defined territory.  But what makes the question of Syria as a state interesting is the other actors that have popped up inside what was once Syrian sovereign territory and how they have started to check the boxes for statehood. Prominently, groups like the YPG and IS are beginning to look like states.

Kurds and the Rojava state

The YPG controls most of northern Syria along the Turkish border. In the Weberian sense, the YPG looks like a state — they have successfully monopolized the legitimate use of violence within their territory. Though there has been active warfare over the last two years or so, in the opinion of the permanent population of Kurds that live there, it is for the most part the YPG who are the legitimate doorkeepers to the use of violence (not, for example, Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra).

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Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) checkpoint in Syria, November 30, 2013. The sign reads “YPG in every place, YPG eyes do not sleep”. (REUTERS/Rodi Said photo)

However, a monopoly on violence and territory are not the only requirements. The YPG’s Kurdistan must also have a government. In fact, the YPG has established a government: an autonomous area called “Rojava” (West in Kurdish) with four established cantons and a democratic constitution.

The last and most crucial ingredient to statehood is the ability to enter relations with other states. Therefore, if the YPG has made an agreement with the US government to allow the use of an airfield, then Rojava has made an important step toward an eventual statehood.

Islamic Statehood in Iraq and al-Sham

But if the YPG are fulfilling some of the requirements to being recognized as a state, what about IS? After all, “state” is right in their name (by design!) Well, despite the name, there are many who would argue that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. As the former would require another post (or book) entirely, I will only be focusing on the “state” aspect.

“Islamic State reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.”

IS has been effective in brutally enforcing the monopolization of violence. On the one hand IS must continue to fight and win to attract foreign fighters, thus as long as they continue to win, they can claim legitimacy in the simplest “might makes right” terms. But while immigrants to Islamic State-held territory are pre-convinced of IS sovereignty, surely not all of their permanent population recognizes IS’s legitimate violence monopoly.

In this case, I do not think that some contention from their population delegitimizes the claim of statehood. After all, in the United States, an armed militia recently occupied federal lands. In response the FBI shot and killed one of the militiamen and arrested the others. By winning and eliminating the troublemakers, the US retains its legitimate monopoly of violence. IS reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The ability of IS to actually govern has been widely covered. Much like Hizbullah or Hamas, IS does provide services to its population via bureaucratic institutions. But what about the most important element to statehood? Officially, IS is not recognized by any other state. IS can call itself a state all it wants, but until another state acknowledges them as one, they are not in the club. This is not for lack of trying, however. In a recent video, IS recognized Taiwan — perhaps hoping to get a return scratch on the back.

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Islamic State literally destroying the border between Iraq and Syria in a figurative gesture (IS social media photo)

Curiously, a major source of IS revenue is oil sales. Yet if no state has recognized IS, then who is buying their oil? (Assad, actually, among others.) This implies that IS does actually have some sort of de facto recognition from the international community and demonstrates that they do have some ability to enter in relations with other states. For the time being, it appears they can only do so discreetly.

The end of the Syrian state

While the YPG’s Rojava and Islamic State cannot be considered full-fledged states yet, they are certainly on their way. The current state of their existence has delegitimized Syria to a point that the Syria we knew before 2011 has ceased to exist — probably forever. We have seen that various actors in Syria have started to fit the classical definition of the state: monopolizing violence, controlling territory, having a population, and governing. As the global community begins or continues to enter into relations with these actors, new states may form and we will have finally stepped fully into a post-Syria Middle East.


Update: I did eventually write another post on how Islamic IS is. You can read it here.

Featured podcast

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(Middle East Week photo)

I just wanted to write a quick post to recommend to you readers a favorite podcast of mine: Middle East Week. It’s not exactly a weekly podcast (perhaps this is to emulate a Middle Eastern take on time,) but I wish it was because every episode is stellar.

The podcast nails all the essential elements of a good podcast: topic, guests, host, and sound quality. The topic of course is the eponymous Middle East with each podcast varying considerably depending on the guest. If you’re reading this blog, you are probably interested in the Middle East, so this should check that box for you.

Each podcast (like most podcasts) brings a new guest with their own specific expertise, whether that be Israeli elections, humanitarian aid in Syria, or the Saudi war in Yemen. The guests are top tier and I even wonder a bit how this little podcast manages to attract them (though I am very glad they do.)

But I’ve listened to other podcasts where excellent guests wasn’t enough to keep me engaged and that’s where the host comes in. Karl Morand consistently asks thoughtful, captivating questions that show his level of knowledge in the region as well. Another podcast in the natsec world that will go unnamed has a certain host who will repeatedly ask his honored guest, “I’m curious about [insert hugely broad topic here], can you tell me a little about that?” It’s dull and borderline insulting. Morand on the other hand is always prepared and a joy to listen to.

Finally, a podcast is nothing without decent sound quality. The sound quality is always quite good with no tinny phone interviews. No complaints from me.

If you’re looking for a new podcast or a way to learn more about the Middle East while multitasking (driving, doing chores, hitting a new PR at the gym, etc.) then give Middle East Week a try. I think you’ll like it.

You can find Middle East Week on iTunes and on their website.