Documenting the Virtual ‘Caliphate’

 sialamic state propaganda

…. is the latest instalment of the Quilliam Foundation’s research into Islamic State’s propaganda strategy, offering what the London-based anti-extremism think tank calls “a direct, detailed window into the mind of Islamic State’s media strategists.”

quilliamFrom the qualitative analysis that followed the data collection, researchers made a number of intriguing, important discoveries:

  • Over half of all the propaganda was focused on depicting civilian life in Islamic State-held territories. Economic activity, social events, abundant wildlife, unwavering law and order, and pro-active, pristine ‘religious’ fervour underpin the foundations of Islamic State’s civilian appeal. In this way, the group attracts supporters based on ideological and political appeal.
  • Islamic State still markets itself with brutality. However, the intended target audiences for its ultraviolence are decidedly more regional than they have been previously. It seems that fostering international infamy could now be secondary to intimidating its population with a view to discouraging rebellion and dissent.
  • A large proportion of all military-themed events is devoted to showing Islamic State’s war of attrition, with mortars and rockets being fired into the distance towards an unseen enemy. Given the locations from which many of these reports emerge, as well as the fact that the aftermath of such strikes is rarely, if ever documented, it is conceivable that these low-risk, low-cost attacks are rigged, falsely choreographed attempts to perpetuate a sense of Islamic State’s being ‘on the offensive’.
  • The volume of output produced by Islamic State far exceeds most estimates, which have been, until now, necessarily conservative. Disseminating an average of 38.2 unique propaganda events a day from all corners of the Islamic State ‘caliphate’, this is an exceptionally sophisticated information operation campaign, the success of which lies in the twin pillars of quantity and quality. Given this scale and dedication, negative measures like censorship are bound to fail.
  • The quantity, quality and variation of Islamic State propaganda in just one month far outweighs the quantity, quality and variation of any attempts, state or non-state, to challenge the group. All current efforts must be scaled up in order for meaningful progress in this war.

“In many respects IS is operating like a media company. Our response has to be proportionate,” said Haras Rafiq, Quilliam’s Managing Director. “We must realise that there is no elixir that can deliver us from IS’ information supremacy, no catch-all counter-narrative to undercut its carefully cultivated and choreographed image. In this absence, we must instead seek to enrich our understanding. The IS ‘caliphate’ is marketing itself on an industrial scale. If we are to destroy its brand, we must first be able to fathom its depths.”

For a copy of the report, click here.

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How to fight Russia’s civil society crackdown

russia putinIf Russia successfully derails Ukraine’s development by prolonging the fight in Eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his movement to close civic space will be further emboldened, argues Sarah E. Mendelson, Senior Adviser and Co-Director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Donors can play a role helping to make sure that the attitudes and needs of Ukrainians are well understood and that the government is listening and responding to citizens, she writes for Foreign Affairs:

That step is fundamental in preventing a slide back to the type of closed and corrupt government that triggered the Euromaidan protests in November 2013. The revolution was fundamentally about transparency and accountability. Donors can help advance the cause by continuing to focus on state-of-the-art anti-corruption efforts, especially investigative journalism and tracking of government commitments to initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, which puts a premium on participatory budgeting, making it difficult for the Ukrainian government to steal from state coffers as previous leaders had done. To make sure that public opinion is well understood, donors should invest in public opinion surveys and share the data with both civil society groups and the government.

It is also critical to counter the barrage of misinformation, disinformation, doubt, and propaganda that is emanating from Russia about Ukraine. Joint research and policy dialogues are also worthy of support, says Mendelson, who previously worked for USAID and the National Democratic Institute [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy]:

Doubling down on support for Ukraine and supporting the exiled are just two ways donors can respond to the NGO crackdown in Russia, which is also spreading throughout Eurasia. These ideas may be relevant for other regions of the world that are undergoing the same changes. A third way is for donors to engage in dialogue with other donors. Many donors have already come together to talk generally about the dynamics of closing civic space.

A few organizations, such as the Prague Civil Society Centre, are already working together to invest in new efforts. Led by an energetic team, this organization is bringing together activists from across the region to address a range of issues—offline and online, with formal organizations as well as informal citizen initiatives—and filling a real need to engage in new modes of working.

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Why have Ukraine’s reforms gone nowhere?

ukrainesolidarnoscThe demonizing of Ukrainian oligarchs as major impediments to democratization and reform has become a shared mantra of Western and domestic pundits alike, notes Kateryna Smagliy, the Director of the Kennan Institute’s Kyiv Office. But instead of blaming the omnipresent bogeymen—the oligarchs—let’s acknowledge that this view is just too simple to be true. Ukraine’s government is often unprepared to kill the beast of underperforming post-Soviet institutions, she writes for The Atlantic Council:

Parliamentary support of reforms is similarly weak due to internal political rivalries and contradictions within the ruling coalition. The so-called “new professional faces” who got Cabinet posts on the basis of unjustified quotas were neither “new” nor “professional,” while civil-society activists—despite their frenzied efforts to advocate change—are often disunited and too inexperienced to replace the government in the strenuous and intellectually demanding process of political reform….

The only hope is with vibrant civil activists, Smagliy adds:

After almost two years of never-ending debates, the three most prominent “cultural” civic groups—the Reanimation Package of Reforms, Culture 2025, and the Congress of Cultural Activists—decided to combine their efforts and channel their energies into drafting documents and doing advocacy work. It remains to be seen whether they’ll succeed in bridging their widely divergent agendas and overcoming their leaders’ egos to seek assistance from analysts and scholars.

ukraine_county_squareIRIUkraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution toppled a corrupt regime and promised Ukrainians radical change that would bring the country’s governance in line with European standards. But nearly two years later, reforms appear to have stalled, analyst Josh Cohen writes for Foreign Policy:

Ukraine’s parliament has passed only 59 out of 150 reform laws promoted by an alliance of leading civil society organizations amid allegations that the nation’s politicians are merely tinkering with a fundamentally corrupt system. The Democratic Initiatives Foundation [a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy] has just released a poll indicating growing popular anger at the slow pace of change: Nearly 50 percent of Ukrainians believe nothing has been accomplished at all, while 25 percent feel only one-tenth of the needed reforms have been made. The country’s leaders, clearly feeling the heat, are starting to trade accusations about who’s most at fault. To head off populist unrest that could threaten Ukraine’s fragile democratic transition.

State-owned enterprises that have not yet been privatized constitute another source of corruption, says Anders Åslund, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the book “Ukraine: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It:”

Ukraine’s 1,833 state companies generate no profits—but instead huge losses—for the Ukrainian government. The national budget would benefit if the state would just give these companies away, because they allow powerful people to “sit on the pipe.” ….
A small number of “gray cardinals” in parliament control these valuable state companies. Each party has one or two such gray cardinals, whose task is to collect money to finance expensive party election campaigns and pay the underpaid parliamentarians. These secretive men are now being exposed, which will likely lead to their sacking from parliament. New laws are supposed to limit political parties to public financing only, while forcing lawmakers to reveal their true wealth and income.

ukraine euromaidanIn August and September 2015, the Ukrainian government accomplished two major breakthroughs, notes The Carnegie Endowment’s Ukraine Reform Monitor:

It succeeded in negotiating a debt-restructuring deal with creditors, and it made progress toward parliamentary approval of a decentralization package. The first was an unqualified success. The second was a highly controversial event that triggered protests and violence and resulted in several fatalities, reaffirming that constitutional reform will be a difficult challenge for Ukraine. In addition to these major developments, the government used a relative lull in the fighting in eastern Ukraine to advance several less noted but important reforms.

Political and Judicial Reform/Constitutional Reforms

The main advance in political reform in this period came on August 31, when a constitutional package of decentralization measures passed its first reading in the Rada, or parliament, with 265 votes. The package would give local councils the right to establish executive offices, thereby removing an important barrier to decentralization. Other measures include the granting of equal rights to all local communities and a provision for the president, acting through local representatives known as prefects, to dissolve local councils or overrule their decisions.

Anti-Corruption Measures

Legislation on the National Anti-Corruption Bureau was passed; the president appointed the head of the bureau after an open, competitive, and transparent selection process; and 25 special investigators were hired. But the bureau is still unable to begin operations because some key personnel appointments have yet to be made. The Rada has attempted but so far failed to speed up this process.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine proceeded with their own anti-corruption investigations. Dozens of senior officials, including judges and high-level staff of customs, tax, and social welfare agencies, were arrested on suspicion of corruption. There have been no convictions of officials accused of corruption.


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‘New form of fascism’ emerging in Angola

angola Rafael%20e%20Linda%20T_%20Greenfield

A new form of fascism is emerging in Angola as a means for the president to further extend his 36 years in power and the 40-year rule of his Movement for the People’s Liberation of Angola, argues pro-democracy activist Rafael Marques de Morais:

angola-Mavungo1In March, an activist was arrested in the oil-rich exclave of Cabinda, because he wanted to hold a peaceful protest against the mismanagement of the oil revenues in that province. After six months in prison, Mr Marcos Mavungo [right] was recently convicted and given six years in prison by a kangaroo court.

Then, in April, police and military forces massacred pilgrims of a religious sect in the Central Highland province of Huambo. The United Nations feebly called for an international investigation. The massacre has simply been ignored.

Last June, 15 youths were arrested at a book club meeting where they were discussing non-violence and its applicability to the Angolan context. They were accused of plotting a coup against the president. In between, several minor attempts at protests have been violently squashed by the police and security forces.

Marques this week met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield (above).  A former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, he has exposed abuses of power and endemic corruption through his journalism and his leadership of Maka Angola, a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy.

angola rafa.and githonh=go 2pngMarques and John Githongo (left) have been fighting corruption for more than a decade, The Globe and Mail reports:

Mr. Githongo was a member of the Kenyan government when he exposed a $1-billion corruption scandal. He would come to fear for his safety and spend years in exile, before returning to Kenya in 2008. Mr. Marques was arrested in 1999 for a magazine piece that criticized the president of Angola. He was convicted of abuse of the press, but his six-month prison sentence was suspended after an outcry.

Mr. Githongo and Mr. Marques were in Vancouver this week to receive the Allard Prize for International Integrity, which is awarded by the University of British Columbia’s school of law. RTWT

Virtually unchecked, the presidential family and inner circle uses the national oil company, Sonangol, as their cash cow, Marques writes for The Daily Maverick:

Last April, I exposed the president’s son José Filomeno dos Santos, who heads Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, for having diverted $100-million from the fund through a most amateurish scam. Days ago, I dug up another story involving oil money. Sonangol, which is not a bank, lent $731-million to a few privileged officials to build a private cement factory, and illegally wrote off the debt from its books. These are all corrupt acts under Angolan law, but Angolan law does not apply to the power holders who break it.

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Engagement helps Cuban democracy – or kleptocracy?

cuba castro obamaThe United States could end its embargo on Cuba “before full democracy exists” on the island, says US Secretary of State John Kerry. He told Chilean TV that a “full democracy requires time, but there is progress.”

“For instance, we don’t have full democracy in Vietnam, but we eliminated the embargo because we saw progress (…) There was no democracy in China when we normalized our relations and began to make progress,” said Kerry. “Personally, I believe the embargo should be lifted, because it would help the people of Cuba,” he concluded.

He also described Venezuela as a “democracy in trouble,” adding that the upcoming parliamentary elections (Dec. 6) would offer a “measure of what sort of democracy it is.”

But Cuban opposition activists fear that the US rapprochement will legitimize the Communist authorities rather than facilitate democratic change.

cuba rodiles“Legitimizing the [Castro] regime is the contrary path to a transition,” Cuban democracy leader Antonio Rodiles [who was recently beaten by pro-government thugs – right] told Diario de Cuba. Other analysts argue that economic engagement with a corrupt government is more likely to consolidate kleptocracy rather than cultivate democracy.

A few days ago the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo provided a glimpse of what could happen in a Cuba free of commercial restrictions but still under the Castros’ control, writes analyst Pablo Díaz Espí:

During a visit to the island by former president Lula da Silva, in 2011, the Odebrecht Group, a construction giant responsible for the work in the area of Mariel —featuring a new container terminal covering 465 km2 for free trade, located to the west of Havana— allegedly lavished gifts on Raúl Castro.

This incident constitutes part of several judicial “megaproceedings” shaking the South American country’s foundations, already having taken down several important figures related to Cuba.

Marcelo Odebrecht —president of the Group and with personal ties to da Silva— accused of heading a bribery scheme worth 2.1 billion dollars involving Petrobras, which he purportedly overcharged, transferring the financial surplus to executives and politicians. Odebrecht was also sentenced for subjecting employees at sugar and ethanol plants being built in Angola to slave-like conditions.

Former president Lula da Silva (2003-2010), meanwhile, is being investigated for “influence peddling,” particularly in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. …In September Jorge Dirceu, the former treasurer of the Workers Party, educated and trained in Cuba, was sentenced to 15 years of prison for committing (“with sophistication”) the crimes of corruption, money laundering and criminal association.

cuba dissidents Babalublog“It is worth asking whether the lifting of the embargo with the Castros still in power will facilitate a transition to democracy, as its proponents argue,” he writes, “or, on the contrary, give rise to Cubans’ worst nightmare: a failed and exclusive state, corrupt to its core, controlled by a post-Communist cadre of ideological transvestites, propped up in power by new capitalist partners; a genuine feast for wheelers and dealers, unprincipled businesspeople and lobbyists of every stripe, disguised as benefactors and democratic agents.” RTWT

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights (CCHR) has documented 882 political arrests by the Castro regime during the month of September 2015:

This bring the total number of political arrests in the first nine months of this year to 5,146. In just nine months, these 5,146 political arrests surpass the year-long tallies recorded for 2010 (2,074 political arrests), 2011 (4,123 political arrests) and is (tragically) on-pace to become one of the most repressive years in recent history.

These are only political arrests that have been thoroughly documented. Many more are suspected, Capitol Hill Cubans add.

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