BRUSSELS — On March 22, 2016, as ISIS-built bombs ripped through Brussels Airport and a key metro station serving the offices of the European Union, killing more than 30 people, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, one of Belgium’s most experienced analysts of international terrorist groups, saw the news and immediately began tweeting insights and retweeting information as he arrived at work.
After pausing to call his family to make sure everyone was safe, Van Ostaeyen then tried to tweet a warning that the emergency had limited phone service across Belgium. That’s when he realized that his account, widely considered one of the most insightful sources of information about Belgium and ISIS, had been suspended. He’d been accused by Twitter of pushing terrorist propaganda and had his account frozen.
After widespread outcry from other analysts, Twitter quickly reinstated his account but the incident was a warning to other terrorism analysts who closely monitor and often catalogue and translate internal documents from Islamist groups: The democratic protections usually offered to journalists might not apply to analysts and scholars who collect and post information intended to lend insight to terror activity.
The issue came to a head this past week after what was reported to be British intelligence services — either domestic (MI5) or international (MI6) or perhaps both — had asked Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy and one of the world’s best known experts on terrorist organizations, to either close his personal blog devoted to extremist groups or to limit access to it via a password registration system. Zelin, who declined to comment for the record, says he’s currently considering the request.
But Zelin’s experience highlights growing concerns that a crackdown on terrorist propaganda is crippling legitimate academic study into terrorist groups and could hobble scholars’ access to ISIS-related materials that researchers have collected for years. Even counterterrorism officials are expressing concern about the impact, which they say has placed them in the uncomfortable position of imposing limits on researchers in response to political pressure to prevent terrorist recruiting on the internet.
“It’s not popular to admit but of course these archives are critical for study,” said a Belgian counterterrorism official who was not authorized to speak to the news media. “But we also face a political situation where we have to request people to put passwords on archives of ISIS and al Qaida propaganda.”
The official said there was little choice but to crack down. “It was a moral and political disaster,” he said. “We had to ask the tech companies to crack down because we were watching ISIS use the internet to build a very large threat, and more than just propaganda, they were actively using it to direct operations.”
“Having this data is of obvious benefit to us all,” he said. “But letting anyone access the data at any time is not politically welcome at this time.”
He said the difference between academic research and journalism has never been more stark. “Journalism has certain protections and traditions as does scholarly research. But only one has a clear legal framework for assessing their behavior,” he noted.
This issue has been percolating since 2014, when ISIS seized much of Iraq and social media companies moved aggressively to prevent ISIS from using their sites to disseminate propaganda videos, including the recorded murders of US and British hostages in Syria. At the time, there was little opposition to limiting ISIS’s ability to reach tens of millions of people immediately with morbid execution videos, long winded rants defending ISIS policies, and video reports from captive British journalist John Cantlie.
But academics are concerned that the effort to crack down on Zelin’s site and others now is conflicting with traditional rights of academics to collect materials, write about what their research shows and share their views with others.
Joshua Landis, an expert on Syrian politics at the University of Oklahoma, said that the attempt to restrict access to Zelin’s site is particularly worrisome because it shows officials still can’t tell the good guys from the bad. He notes that the most dangerous corners of the internet remain unmonitored, while Jihadology, Zelin’s blog, is easily found.
“Jihadology is an essential resource for all of us who are concerned about the contemporary Middle East, the War on Terror, or the intellectual and political history of Jihadists and Salafi groups. Many of the best scholars and specialists post on [it],” he said in an email. “It covers the history of individual fighters, of Jihadist militias and offers tons of translations of Jihadist texts.”
Landis has long used websites and blogs like Jihadology.net or others such as Jihadica.com as resources that collate information from around the deeper parts of the jihadi movements, which often span the world yet can be secretive and require collective efforts to study. In particular, Zelin’s blog offers deep translations of ISIS documents , often obtained by researchers such as Aymenn al-Tamimi, who posts huge amounts of the group’s internal documents in English on the blog.
Tamimi himself has been repeatedly refused entry to countries around the region despite being a UK citizen while doing research and currently believes he has a de-facto ban on entering the United States because of his research and travel.
Landis has had his own problems with internet banning. Earlier this year, he linked from his blog, Syria Comment, to an ISIS statement condemning Syria’s Druze population as un-Islamic and thus a target for violence. Twitter responded by banning any link to his site.
“A broad protest went up and Twitter relented, explaining that it was a mistake caused by some protocol or algorithm that needed further refining,” Landis recalled. “The experience, which was very frustrating, taught me how arbitrary the entire social media censorship is. Ever since Facebook and others have been slammed for being too permissive with information, the online environment is getting a new and untrained police force that often shoots and asks questions later.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Zelin declined to provide details on how he was notified that British officials were concerned about the content of his site, and he would not say if there was a specific post that had drawn their attention. Britain has been repeatedly struck by terrorist attacks since 2015, including the 2017 Manchester suicide bombing of an Ariana Grande concert that killed 23 people and wounded 129.
But placing a password on his account would likely cut readership severely. Van Ostaeyen said that traffic to his blog, which focuses on Belgian jihadis, dropped from 546,000 visitors in 2015 to 1,232 last year. The irony, he said, is that he was told that India’s intelligence service, not Belgium’s, had requested that he set up a password system.
The drop is such that Van Ostaeyen says he barely posts anymore beyond just maintaining a repository of documents.
“Websites like jihadology, jihadica, Joshua Landis’s and Aymenn al-Tamimi’s and my own site are clearly meant for academic and research purposes only,” he said in a message to BuzzFeed News. “I explicitly mention that on my own site here, https://pietervanostaeyen.com/about/.
“Nonetheless, I realise that our websites occasionally have been used by Jihadis. Even my own website since it has been password protected has been mentioned in Jihadi Telegram accounts.”
Researchers are also concerned that even collecting the information puts them at risk of running afoul of the law.
“I have a 256-gig iPhone I carry everywhere and have it set up to immediately download anything that gets released,” said one well known terrorism expert, who asked not to be named discussing behavior that might be considered technically illegal but completely necessary for their work.
“So I’ve got a giant archive of hard-to-find ISIS propaganda videos on my phone and in backup drives but I also cross international boundaries carrying this stuff to meetings, conferences and, yes, it’s illegal, and I could be detained. But there’s no other way to do this work.”