One Researcher Discovered a Giant Library of Islamic State Propaganda

The discovery was reported after a six month long investigation by Wired

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A giant cache of Islamic State propaganda – named the Caliphate Cache by the ISD –  has been discovered on the internet, a Wired investigation reports. The cache – which is one of the largest known of this kind – contains 4000 separate folders, 90 000 pieces of content, and attracts around 10 000 unique visitors a month.

This library of information relating to ISIS and other, lesser-known terrorist organizations like the Tawhid wal-Jihad Group and Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin is stored on a decentralized cloud storage software called Nextcloud. Moustafa Ayad, a deputy director of the counter-extremism think tank Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the man who discovered the disturbing cache called it “a blueprint for terrorism, complete with footnotes.”

“It’s everything anyone with an inclination for violence would need to carry out an attack,” he told Wired.

Within the thousands of folders, Ayad found tips for hijacking planes, making your own chloroform, subverting security (both online and offline), creating explosives, hiding weapons, and more. It also hosted thousands of videos; of prior attacks, torture and execution videos, sermons, and lessons in ideology. It also opened a window into the more mundane aspects of life under ISIS, like their school curriculum which taught six key subjects: English, PE, Arabic, Koranic Studies, Geography and History, and ‘Ideology’.

The content is available in multiple languages including Arabic, English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Bangla, Turkish, and Pashto, reports Wired, and it isn’t all violent.

According to the BBC, “most of those drawn to the Caliphate Cache are 18- to 24-year-old males in the Arab world, with 40% of the traffic coming from social media, largely via YouTube.”

Ayad first discovered the Caliphate Cache by following a link in someone’s Twitter bio. He later found that this is the way such content is spread: covertly, often with shortened links or links embedded in pictures. Propagandists also hijack certain accounts – like a fan of Justin Bieber’s in one instance – to discreetly spread Islamic State (IS) messaging. Beyond social media though, links to the cache can be found in the comments section of what Ayad called “a kind of Jihadi Netflix,” and is woven throughout media and news stories found on the likes of Muslim News.

Researchers believe this online library of IS content and the many others like it are an attempt to preserve IS beyond losing their territorial control in 2017 and 2018. That the cache began to develop rapidly in 2019 backs this claim.

The cache exists as a kind of back-up drive for the so-called Islamic State, a time capsule capturing the moment when Isis stood at the peak of its power, and now monumentalising that moment at a time when that power has been undercut…Isis can continue to offer “‘services”’ – propaganda, support, tutorials – to people across the world that consider themselves its citizens, thanks to its hold of digital territory, even after losing its geographic foothold. 

Despite being reported to UK and US authorities straight away, the cache remains online. An open-source accessible by anyone.

Enormous efforts have been made both by governments and the technology giants to clear Isis off of their platforms, and they face a much more hostile environment online than they did, say, in 2015. Yet counter-terrorism experts, officials, and the tech giants all complain that fighting terrorists online is like a game of whackamole. You hit one part of it, and it pops up somewhere else; before you’ve even raised the mallet, it’s popped up somewhere else too. 

BBC Monitoring senior jihadi specialist Mina Al-Lami told Wired that this type of decentralised storage software is a “staple” for Jihadis. “The attraction for jihadists of these platforms is that the developers of these decentralised platforms have no way of acting against content that is stored on user-operated servers or content that’s shared across a dispersed network of users,” he told the BBC.

And, just like clockwork, as Wired’s investigation came to a close, two more similar caches popped up. One also on Nextcloud and another on a similar service called OpenCloud.

As of now, the cache is still open, still attracting visitors, still spreading propaganda, presumably alongside hundreds more. This continues to be an uphill battle for researchers and governments.

“There is a phrase that’s always associated with terrorists: Baqiya wa tatamadad” Ayad tells Wired: “remaining and expanding”.

You can read the complete investigation here.