ISIS is back with new tools

IS operators are excited about using AI for propaganda

Shahid Javed Burki May 27, 2024
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


The claim that the West’s operations against the Islamic extremist groups had succeeded was highly exaggerated and premature. Those who are at the forefront of the Islamic campaign see it as the effort to save their religion. They have found new reasons and tools to continue with their activities. The exceptionally bloody response to the Hamas attacks on Israel in October 2023 has destroyed the Gaza Strip and killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children. This has provided another reason for the Islamic extremists to continue with their operations.

The March 2024 attack on a concert hall in a Moscow neighborhood signaled the reemergence of the Islamic State (IS) as a lethal force. The Moscow operation killed at least 133 people and injured many more. But Russia is not the country in which the group has a presence; it is active around the globe. That it had not lost its potency has been demonstrated by the revival of activity on Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Operations carried out by those who are aligned with the extremist groups have claimed the lives of dozens of military personnel. The group continues to find recruits from the areas where the citizens believe that the Western powers along with the Jewish state of Israel are working hard to destroy Islam.

The extremists have been able to overcome the setbacks suffered from the many operations carried out by the United States intelligence services and the country’s armed forces using new recruitment and propaganda tools. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been particularly effective in this context.

There were reports that four days after the Moscow attack a video started circulating on a private platform managed by IS. The 92-second broadcast showed a news analyst in a helmet and wearing a military uniform saying that the Moscow operation was a part of the war being waged by “the Islamic State and the countries fighting Islam”.

The Washington Post front-paged a story titled ‘ISIS allies embrace AI to spread propaganda’. It was written by Pranshu Verma, a correspondent obviously of Indian origin who looked at several videos put out by IS on the sites it was operating. In these, the anchor in the story was “fake, an artificial intelligence generated clone created by media program called News Harvest”. “Since March, the program has offered near-weekly dispatches about Islamic State operations around the globe. Made to resemble an Al Jazeera news broadcast, the program marks the emergence of AI as a powerful propaganda tool,” wrote Rita Katz, co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group. “For ISIS, AI means a game changer. It’s going to be a quick way for them to spread disseminate their bloody attacks to reach almost every corner of the world,” she wrote.

IS operators are excited about using AI for propaganda. On March 15, a supporter, “Al Kudi 500” made a case on a private messaging server for why fellow supporters should adopt AI. “It would be great if the brothers produced videos regarding daily news, as an alternative to reading the news in text and looking at images like how news channels like Al Jazeera talk about events. Technology has evolved a lot, and this would be easier to do nowadays, especially with the use of AI. Media is as important as physical warfare, or even more. Because it has very big influence over the people.”

Seven days after the Russian attack, an ISIS functionary belonging to a group called Hisad posted the first video of the attack on Moscow on the private messaging platform News Harvest. Six episodes have followed on the website, providing overviews of ISIS operations around the globe, including in Niger, Cameroon, Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), said the episodes are not made by the official arm of the ISIS but thought that it was possible that the group has created an AI media division since it has always been quick to adopt cutting edge technology. Since those who work in the area don’t have to come together in a few places and can work from home, the IS is recruiting people with appropriate skills from many places around the globe. Well-trained people in large countries such as Pakistan that have hundreds of thousands of people with the skills needed by IS is an obvious target for recruiting for AI. The IS is looking for recruits that would do the fighting but also those who can spread its messages.

According to Stalinsky, pro-IS media outlets are seeking people with the skills that would build their capacity to communicate not only with Muslim groups but also those they regard as their enemies. Message obtained by MEMRI sent out on April 23, 2024 shows the IS seeking experts in poster making , writing articles, video editing, and expertise in Adobe Photoshop, Premiere and AI. “O mujahideen of media, read the post, the media is waiting for your response,” went the message.

Those who are pioneering the use of AI and related technologies to spread their word had not expected opposition from some traditional Islamists who question whether artificially generated depictions of humans are forbidden under Islamic law. “Do not show face or face of animations as it is haram” messaged an IS supporter called Hamed 123 to the creator of the News Harvest series on a private platform.

Many in the West worry that the use of AI for spreading its message and giving news about its operations would increase its potency. For instance, Aaron Zalin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said AI could aid in the growth of homegrown extremism by offering people anywhere the ability to imbibe propaganda, create AI generated media and become involved with the extremist group. “If you throw as many pieces of spaghetti at the wall, eventually one of them is going to stick. It could provide more avenues for the vitality of this type of content,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 27th, 2024.

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