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Hiding in Plain Site: Islamic State’s ‘Muslim News’

Hiding in Plain Site: Islamic State’s ‘Muslim News’
20th February 2020 Moustafa Ayad
Moustafa Ayad
In Insights

Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State thrive in ungoverned spaces. Mali is no exception. And neither is its domain registry. In 2013, Mali became the first African nation, and currently the only African nation, to give away its domain .ML for free. At the time there were less than 50 websites with a .ML domain, the Sahel country was seeking international relevance amidst a French invasion to uproot Salafi-jihadist groups laying siege to its expansive countryside, while simultaneously threatening its government, citizens, and capital. As the general manager of the country’s telecommunications agency boldly exclaimed at the time, the move would “put Mali back on the map,” and “show the rest of the world the fantastic opportunities our country has to offer.”

The domain giveaway rolled out in July 2013, and in less than two months, Mali was in fact back on the map — as the country with the most blocked domain in the world.

It would be only a matter of time before Salafi-jihadist supporters would similarly lay siege to the country’s domain registry. In early 2016, a stand-alone Islamic State-affiliated website titled in Arabic Akhbar el Muslimin, or in English Muslim News, appeared on the dark web. Built on a backend that seemed to use WordPress, Imgur, and Cloudflare services, it was a barebones hub for all of the outputs of the respective Islamic State media arms. It was hobbled instantly by inaccessibility at its birth, as it was relying on an .onion domain, suffering from frequent take downs, and hence had limited reach and relevance. As the site’s developers began experimenting with bitcoin donations, authorities and anti-IS hackers swooped in, and shut down the site.

Three years later the site reappeared in plain sight.

Equipped with a freely obtained Malian URL, Muslim News was back in business, and it was “back on the map” as part of diabolical strategy to drive search traffic to the site through a newly obtained Malian domain.

“If You Build It, He Will Come”

 In the 1980s classic baseball film, “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner forgoes his livelihood as a farmer to build a baseball field in the midst of corn stalks after he hears a mysterious voice whisper to him ever so gently “if you build it, he will come.” The revelation sets him upon a path to build a field that eventually brings back to life his father, and some of the greatest players of the game to play in the thick of a cornfield. The film and its signature tagline are now synonymous with making your dreams a reality, and a motivational mantra in some business circles for building products that attract consumers. Muslim News is a product of that mantra.

After years of experimenting with dark websites, penetrating social media platforms in masse only to be summarily expelled by new detection technologies, utilizing encrypted and off-brand messaging services, and attempts at finding a stable online foothold to seed and spread propaganda globally, Islamic State supporters found a loophole, exploited it, and seem to be generating traffic to Muslim News by sheer will and ingenuity.

Stand-Alone

Stand-alone websites, and online forums, have a storied history in the narrative arch that underpins the Salafi-jihadist propaganda playbook, and Muslim News is the amalgamation of its many chapters. Understanding the stand-alone websites of Salafi-jihadists, and specifically their genesis and their adaptations over the years can highlight the generational shifts in tactics and strategies for propagating terror online.

Muslim News may have begun situated on a dark alley on the worldwide web, but it is clearly now on main street. The site, with its innocuous moniker, Muslim News, provides Islamic State with a mainstream, and simple avenue to its content online.

Unsuspecting Google search users looking for “Muslim News” in Arabic find themselves in the midst of a thicket of some 17.5 million websites in less than half a second, with an Islamic State-affiliated website as their glaring first option. Marketing research suggests that more than 71 percent of users click on the first five links during a Google search, and rarely scroll past the fifth link on page one results. Expelled from online platforms in droves, Islamic State supporters have deployed this ‘honeypot’ with simplistic key words as the bait, where unsuspecting users can be conned into thinking the site provides them, as in the tagline for the site on its home page, “an independent platform for Muslim news.”

Researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) verified that this works masterfully for the Muslim News site, and found that over a period of November 2019 to January 2020, more than 52 percent of traffic to Muslim News was a result of organic searches for “Muslim News” in Arabic. In raw numbers, 45,520 searches for “Muslim News” led users firmly to Islamic State propaganda. This was followed by more specific searches, like the site’s tagline, and “Muslim News independent platform,” as well as “Muslim News platform,” all of which covet the No. 1 spot during a Google search session. Altogether, the top four search terms bring you an Islamic State-affiliated website as the highest ranked site every time.  Troubling search terms also seemed to return No. 1 hits through Google search like “in defense of the Caliphate.”

The ingenuity is in the simplicity of its strategy. There is no need to know the URL, which is a convoluted series of numbers and letters, followed by its signature gratis Malian URL, the site relies on Google’s algorithm to find keywords like “Muslim” and “News” to deliver its audience. In other words, the site is built for search.

With a barebones structure, strapped with a simple seven-point navigation sidebar, the site hosts the latest Islamic State videos, audio releases, breaking news bulletins, newsletters and archives of content. Its archives stretch back five years to 23 August 2014. The archive is meticulously curated with links to content that can be downloaded in multiple formats and sizes that make the content easy for sharing. The site is essentially a clearinghouse, an aggregator, and a launchpad to other Islamic State stand-alone platforms across the web.