This is a transcript of the first episode of the Intelligence Podcast: OSINT and its application, a podcast about the various broad applications of open-source intelligence. Visit our podcast page to find out more.
In the last episode of the Intelligence Brief Podcast’s season one, Lynn Dudenhöfer sat down with Tore Hamming, Senior Research Fellow at the ICSR International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, to discuss the black box of intra-Jihadi dynamics and infighting, as well as the use and challenges of OSINT collection methods in academic research.
Read the interview in which they explore Jihadi propaganda tools, the Al-Hol detention camp in Syria, as well as the importance of creating a good system of data collection and the evergreen necessity to understand OSINT as one of many tools in a greater toolbox of intelligence methods.
Some sentences were shortened and edited for clarity.
Q: Could you provide some information about your professional background and your current roles?
Tore Hamming: I would actually like to begin by speaking about my academic background because it’s quite diverse. And perhaps a bit unusual for this kind of study.
I began studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Sociology at the Copenhagen Business School. Then I studied for a Master’s degree in International Security at the French Sciences Po, before eventually doing my PhD at the European University Institute in Florence. Basically, since 2012, my focus has been on extremism, Islamic extremism, and jihadism but my background is a bit varied.
Professionally, I held various government roles, a few relate to work on extremism. Now I am a Senior Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College. It’s truly a tremendous centre when it comes to research on extremism and political violence. I’m also running my own consultancy where I research and analyze all issues relating to extremism, especially jihadism, for government organizations, private clients, and so on.
If there is any day-to-day, what does it look like? Maybe you could list some of the usual tasks you deal with on a day-to-day basis.
It’s really difficult because most days are very, very different. It depends on the kind of projects and tasks I’m involved in at the given time.
One thing I always do is first thing in the morning when I begin working, I check for new information or data. I check the various platforms I use to see if al-Qaeda, Islamic State, the Taliban, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) figures have posted something new. They always do. This was really an important routine, while I was doing my PhD and it could easily take a few hours per day. Both because of the scope of the information shared – it was enormous – but also because I had to save it to my computer. Cataloguing it in my databases, all that kind of stuff. It was really time-consuming.
Nowadays, I would say I probably spend 15 minutes each morning and before I end my working day, just to see if anything new came up. That’s the only routine I have, otherwise, it’s very different. Sometimes I sit and monitor individuals and groups. Sometimes I spend my time writing larger reports and other analytical products. It’s quite different.
For your PhD, you have done extensive fieldwork. How long did you collect data in the field and where exactly did you source it from?
Formally I began my PhD back in 2015 but the research for it really started in 2012, when I was doing my Master’s degree in Paris and the war in Syria broke out.
I downloaded Telegram, I was on Twitter, and I saw that all this information from the war was being disseminated and shared. For me, a young student interested in political violence, the access to information was amazing because you had so much data. Even though I didn’t have at that time a clue about what I was going to do afterwards, I started to make my databases. So for years, every evening, I was just saving data, putting it into my databases. When I began my PhD in 2015, I already had quite a big amount of data. But as you say, for me fieldwork has always been extremely important because I think OSINT is valuable but it can only do so much. Especially when we’re talking about a very clandestine movement, as the jihadi movement really is.
I really wanted to go into the field and speak to the actors, so I went to Morocco a few times to Jordan. I went to London where you have quite a few senior al-Qaeda figures as well. But Jordan was really my main place to go.
Do you have any advice regarding collecting your own data and then categorizing it so that it makes sense?
I don’t know whether I have any good recommendations. I think there are so many other young researchers and analysts out there, who are already much more capable than me when it comes to this. Because it’s really a field that is moving so extremely fast.
I quickly realized that the amount of data was so enormous I had to somehow categorize it so it would make sense to me years afterwards. Especially when you do a big project like a PhD, you really have to sort out your data. For me it was just about really spending the necessary time putting it into a system, making backups all the time, and making sure you could always easily find your information. Also, when you’re writing your articles, it really makes it a lot easier if you always know where to go in what folder to get what kind of information. Since I was also working a lot with just screenshots of conversations and Telegram, it was a lot about thinking about how to name those files. To put them into a folder. All that sounds really basic. But over the years I realized if I knew from the beginning how I should have done it, it would have saved me a lot of time. There’s a learning curve.
From personal experience, I can agree. Backups are very important and if I had started making or creating backups early on in my career, it would have saved me a lot of time now.
Given your background, I would like us to cover several topics today. First of all, I would like to discuss intra-jihadi dynamics of conflict and especially the rivalry between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. How do these groups differ? What are the internal dynamics Essentially, the research you’ve done for your PhD.
The second topic I would like to cover is how as a researcher you use open-source intelligence. Do you use it in combination with any other intelligence methods? Where has it proven useful and where it has proven less useful to you?
Before we dive right in to discuss the first topic, could you briefly explain the term Jihad or Jihadi as opposed to Islamists and Islamic? I am asking you to clarify because sometimes these terms are almost used as synonymous by mainstream media which leads to general confusion about the correct terminology.
I don’t think there actually is a widely accepted definition of jihadism and actually, that’s one of the issues. And also one of the things I worked on in my research because I really had to define what I was looking at and what I was not looking at. At least the way I define jihadism is that it involves actors, who consider jihad – “holy war” – not only acceptable but necessary. For them, it’s a methodology to implement their political objectives so you can have other groups like, let’s say, Hamas, who would also accept violence, but they would also consider alternative methods. Such as involvement in more or less democratic processes as an acceptable venue to obtain power. For me at least the way I look at jihadism, it’s only actors who consider these alternative methods illegitimate therefore it would include al-Qaeda the Islamic State. In fact, the Taliban would be somehow in a grey zone because they were negotiating with the US and all that. I only look at what I would call hardcore Jihadis.
Now, that we’ve got the terminology out of the way, let’s touch upon the topic of your PhD. While mainstream news outlets obviously differentiate between al-Qaeda and Islamic State, internal dynamics between Jihadis remain predominantly unclear. What exactly was the focus of your PhD thesis and how did you approach this issue of identifying infighting within the groups?
It really began back in 2013, when I was following closely the Syrian war and suddenly I started to read about these incidents of al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq, who were starting to criticize one another and at some point they were even starting to fight one another. I thought they were part of the same group. They’re fighting for the same thing, they want an emirate if not a caliphate in the end. Why are these guys fighting one another when they are also fighting the Americans or the Assad regime? I realized it was really a black box when it comes to the internal dynamics of jihadism, not just in Syria but basically around the world. Only a very few studies had looked at the internal dynamics at the time. The focus was always more on what kind of terrorism threat it posed to the western world especially.
I decided to just try and gather all the information I could about how these groups and individuals spoke about themselves, spoke about their rivals. Just to see if I could get some sort of understanding of why they were suddenly fighting one another.
I think the history of the evolution of the conflict between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is pretty well known now. We have the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, who was part of the al-Qaeda network. And then when the war in Syria broke out the leader in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, send in a small group of rather senior figures to Syria to establish a front group called Jabhat al-Nusra. But only about a year after the group migrated from Iraq to Syria, there started to be some sort of problems between the leadership in Syria and the leadership in Iraq. As we now know, it ended in February 2014, when the al-Qaeda network in the region split up. The group in Iraq disaffiliated with the al-Qaeda network and Jabhat al-Nusra became the new al-Qaeda representative in Syria.
Then they started to speak really negatively about one another and at some point, they also started to direct their guns and explosives against one another so that’s kind of the history about what happened.
I think when it comes to the why for me, at least in the PhD my argument is this has mostly to do with power for the sake of power itself. Power to define the correct jihadi creed, the correct jihadi methodology. Power to recruit, power to get funding. For me, that’s the most important thing – divergence in ideology and creed.
I don’t really see that as a particularly strong explanatory driver because these differences have always been there. But at some point, we see that these groups are able to collaborate even though they have differences and at other points, they fight one another. Substantial differences are not particularly important, it’s more about how these groups perceive themselves. To say it very briefly, al-Qaeda has always seen itself as an important part but one part of the jihadi movement. Whereas the Islamic State, they were considering itself the one and only. For them, you had to join them. For al-Qaeda, you could always just be another jihadi group fighting for the same purpose.
This really created a lot of tension within the jihadi movement because the Islamic State suddenly came and said, “You have to dissolve your group”. You had to join the Islamic State and fight under their banner.
Essentially, one could say that the drivers for intra-jihadi conflict then are not purely ideological but rather also political and economical. Is this assessment correct?
Certainly. I would say it’s mainly political, that’s also why the title of my book is “Political Jihadis”. It’s also about ideology, not least because it’s framed through ideology and creed, but the main driver is political.
That’s the important part, that it’s framed through ideology, but it is not purely ideological. There is another point I would like to briefly address which is adjacent to this in terms of differences between the two groups.
How would you say the strategies used to reach their target audience or potential like-minded individuals differ? Which main propaganda tools are used by the groups? Do you have any insights on that?
Before the Islamic State came around, I think we were all impressed by al-Qaeda and the propaganda output the group had. The videos, perhaps not so much the speeches, but at least the videos, the music, all that was quite professional, I would say. But still, when the Islamic State came out in 2013-2014, it really also came with the revolution of propaganda output. The group was extremely talented when it came to the production of videos. Islamic music, all graphic productions – whether we are talking about posters, infographics, or all that. And they managed to do so in a way that really appealed to the youth especially, both in the West and also in the Middle East, which was an extremely strong factor for its success in recruiting people.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people in Denmark, who went to Syria. They were telling me about how they were sitting together in their basements, watching these videos coming out from Syria and just saying, “Wow, we want to be part of this. We want to go there because we have seen these videos. They are not just some lunatics running around, they are professional soldiers. You can see that from the videos, they know what they’re doing, and we want to be part of it”.
I would say that Islamic State’s online propaganda is surely a powerful marketing and also recruitment tool for sure.
My next question is also related to what we’ve been talking about but not about your PhD thesis anymore. I would be interested in learning more about a topic that was mentioned by Amarnath Amarsingam in our last webinar namely the al-Hol detention camp in Northeast Syria, which holds internally displaced persons including the wives and children of dead or captured Islamic State fighters. About 93 per cent of the people are women and children and about half of them are under 12 years old. The camp residents reportedly are not allowed to leave the camp and according to ReliefWeb, the safety of the camp residents and access to medical care seem to be somewhat of an issue.
This situation seems like a bit of a tinderbox. Could you provide any information or insights as to what this potentially means for the future?
This is a major problem. It has been so since March 2019 with the fall of Baghuz and it has only become more serious ever since. Personally and professionally, I think it’s a major problem that states are not taking back their nationals. I think this is going to be extremely defining for the future of the extremist movement just as we saw, for instance, with Camp Bucca prison in Iraq. Back in the day, it was really the place where the future militants would radicalize, meet one another, and come out of prison with an extremely strong network. I think in five, ten years’ time, we’re going to talk about their various camps in North-eastern Syria in the same way. This is where the future generation of militants was created and they were radicalized or further radicalized because of our actions or inactions.
I think there are extremely strong arguments from a security, judicial, and ethical side to take them back but obviously, we have seen over the past few years politically it’s extremely difficult in the West to do that. Some states, France most recently, are perhaps starting to look at it differently, taking a greater number of their nationals back home. The US, as we know, have been saying it all the time, asking European states to take their nationals home because this is going to be a major issue in the future. I think what’s really interesting about this whole debate is, all professionals working in the military, security, research, and the humanitarian sector are saying exactly the same. Take them back.
But on the other side, you have politicians and populations in the West saying, “No, we don’t want these people back, they betrayed their home country, they are not Danish/ German/French anymore”. Because they did what they did. Still, you have an extremely historically-strong professional argument to take them home.
I really liked how you phrased that. Radicalized by our actions or rather inactions in this case. That is for sure something that we should think about.
We’re moving on to OSINT… How do you utilize OSINT as part of your work?
Well, I use it all the time. I use it as my main data collection method. From the beginning, I’ve been present on various platforms, many of them encrypted where I basically try to find information, engage with people from time to time, and observe people. Obviously, the most utilized platform nowadays is Telegram. I also use Rocket.Chat, Element and others quite extensively. As I said earlier, I have a daily routine where I observe these platforms and collect all the data that is relevant to my specific research and study. It really is something I use and it has only grown over the years because of the new opportunities that OSINT really offers.
That said, I think there are also some limitations to what you can do with it but maybe we can get back to that later on. One thing I also use a lot, which I would say is kind of an OSINT-related discipline, is basically where you engage with people online on these platforms but not through your own persona but through other profiles. That’s something I use quite extensively depending on the project.
It‘s very interesting, this is a method that has not been mentioned in our podcast before. You did touch briefly upon the limitations of OSINT and I want to dive into it a bit deeper. We always talk about the strengths of OSINT and what it can do for you. Obviously, that’s very valuable and as you said, you’re using it as your main data collection method.
But does OSINT fall short as an intelligence method and, in order to prevent that, what other intelligence methods did you combine it with?
I think the main problem is confirming the information you find through OSINT because there is so much information out there. So much disinformation, and so many rumours. And I myself have seen some information and then afterwards shared it to realize later it wasn’t true. In fact, it was wrong information shared intentionally or unintentionally by certain actors.
The problem really is, you don’t know who is speaking on these platforms and especially from a research perspective, it’s extremely difficult to use information where you can’t really confirm the person who is saying it because it could be just a random person sitting behind a computer, sharing some rumours on Telegram and then all the researchers, intelligence officers, and analysts are saying that this or this happened. Or this person died or whatever, but in fact, it’s not really the case.
We saw it recently with the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was rumoured to be dead many times before, most recently in the fall of last year when several researchers started to disseminate that he was dead just to later be shared that he was in fact still living. I think we have to be extremely careful about what we trust, and how we use the information that we gathered because it’s extremely difficult to actually prove, confirm or verify that information. I think we have to consider OSINT as a useful tool but only one tool in a greater toolbox where we always have to triangulate and verify information through other methods. That’s why I also have always been a strong proponent of speaking to people. Obviously, that’s difficult when we’re talking about clandestine groups with actors who are extremely difficult and also sometimes dangerous to meet with.
Still, my experience has been that the best information I’ve received is always from people themselves. Meeting them face to face, gaining their trust over long periods of interaction. And that has been extremely useful to confirm things I have previously read online. For me, the combination is really useful.
I can always also give an example of my research on the domestic extremism scene here in Denmark, which I believe is quite telling because, over the years, extremism in Denmark or extremists in Denmark have really changed quite a bit. Due to the whole situation in Syria with the Islamic State, people here in Denmark became suddenly much more cautious about how they presented themselves online. Previously they were proud to say that they were supportive of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State but after several prosecutions of people, who returned from Syria, the whole discourse started to change.
If you wanted to study the extremist scene here in Denmark purely through OSINT, you wouldn’t get far. You could identify some groups but they would be talking about themselves in a very moderate way. You wouldn’t really be able to infer much about them. I would say what I did was start a HUMINT operation of some sort. Really engaging sources in the extremist environment in Denmark, speaking to them and meeting with them on a regular basis. By doing that, I could draw a picture of the extremist movement in Denmark that otherwise wouldn’t be possible to draw up.
You touched upon a lot of different points there. Triangulation is absolutely vital and combining OSINT with HUMINT is very promising. This has actually been repeated time and time again by previous guests on our podcast. It’s definitely something that many researchers or professionals in the intelligence community swear by; this combination of OSINT and HUMINT and possibly even IMINT.
Would you be able to recommend any tools or resources to our audience, let’s say, to junior researchers?
I mainly use the various quite well-known communication platforms, so Telegram, Rocket.Chat, Element, all these places. Also, some of the more old-school internet archives are extremely good for information. But other than that, I’m not so much into the whole geolocation and all that kind of stuff. I’m not the right person to ask about that but I think it really depends on the kind of project you do. The kind of data you’re searching for. What I would recommend is that people should spend quite a lot of time creating a good system, making sure that they have good security when they do this because studying extremism is also a sensitive matter. You need to be certain that you have a good security setup with a VPN, burner phone, or whatever you want to use. Just to make sure that people cannot identify and locate you, that’s extremely important.
And then also establish a good system of how to actually structure your data when you find it. I remember back in the day, Thomas Hegghammer a renowned professor of extremism and jihadism, wrote that when he started studying this, the challenge was to find information. But because of the internet and extremist use of the internet, now the challenge is not to find information; it’s actually to navigate the extreme amount of information. Make sure you know what you’re looking for because otherwise there’s just so much out there and it’s easy to end up spending all your time looking for data.
At some point, I realized that while doing my PhD research, I probably spent five or six hours per day just being online on these platforms instead of actually writing my thesis. When speaking to my supervisor, he told me I have to stop doing this to be able to move on in my research process and actually start drafting the chapters. But for a data geek like me, I was just so into finding new information instead of actually analyzing it. I think what we’re seeing now is a trend of an extremely talented pool of young people, who are very good at doing OSINT, finding information, geolocating, and making maps of where all the attacks of Islamic State and al-Qaeda have taken place.
But I think they also need to strengthen themselves in analyzing their data instead of just finding data. Intelligence is not just finding data; it’s also how you treat the data and I think that’s quite important to note.
I think it’s definitely great advice, especially that part regarding young researchers, OSINT or intelligence professionals. They have to strengthen their analysis capabilities because report writing or even short press releases are a big part of the job.
I have a question about the future. From your perspective, what is the future of intelligence investigation in your profession? How will it change or what could be improved?
I think it has a bright future. I think what we’re seeing now is that more and more people are beginning to use it. We’re seeing some extremely interesting results. A lot of very interesting data and occasional analysis is coming out which is shaping our common understanding of extremism and political violence.
I think OSINT is here to stay when it comes to studying extremism. We’re constantly seeing new tools and new platforms popping up and a big part of the work on using these tools is actually keeping up to speed, understanding the platform migration, where to go now, and where to look for information. I think constantly keeping yourself up to date, and understanding new tools to use is going to be valuable. But also understand that this is one part of your toolbox, as I said earlier. I think it’s important that we become increasingly critical in how we use it and how we report the information collected through OSINT. Perhaps by using additional intelligence techniques or another kind of data compilation but I think we need to – not just in quantity but also in quality – enhance our use of the methods we have at hand.
The Intelligence Brief Podcast: OSINT and its ApplicationIntra-Jihadi Group Dynamics and the Use of OSINT in Academic Research
Tune in for the last episode of the season, where Tore Hamming, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, and Intel Desk Lead, Lynn Dudenhöfer, discuss the black box of intra-Jihadi dynamics and infighting, as well as the use and challenges of OSINT collection methods in academic research.