The Nexus of Terrorism: A Trend and Comparison Analysis of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and the Taliban

Charles Book

23 November 2016

Executive Summary

It is likely that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) will remain as the most dominant terror group regarding interest over time on Google Trends of the four samples selected for this study over the next twelve months. The purpose of this study was to conduct a trend and comparison analysis to examine four premier foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs); Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and the Taliban using Google Trends and Tableau 10.0. Coupling this with visualizations created within Tableau 10.0 depicting the geographic locations of global terror attacks, provides insight into the likely relationship between terror attacks and online searches for these foreign terror organizations. The boundedness of this study focuses between the years of 2008 and 2015 due to this time period having the most relevant and available data. The data for this study was collected from Google Trends and the Global Terrorism Database. The utilization of Tableau 10.0 aided in the creation of multiple world maps and line graphs for a clear depiction of the collected data. The results for this study originate from the analysis conducted throughout the process of this project. In the following section, various key assumptions will be addressed regarding the initial stages and interpretation of the analysis.

Key Assumptions

The beginning of this study produced the following two key assumptions. First, that ISIS would prove to have more presence on the internet, with both Google based and YouTube based searches than the other sample organizations chosen for this project. The last key assumption was that maps of global terror attacks, Google based searches, and YouTube based searches would match when compared to each other.

Data Collection and Programs

For this analytic product, the data from Google Trends was collected on November 16, 2016, while the data from the Global Terrorism Database was collected on November 17, 2016. Both data sets originated from Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and then downloaded into Tableau 10.0 for manipulation and analysis. Within Tableau 10.0 the data from both of these sources provided a foundation for the analytic process. In an effort to utilize the most available statistics for this project, the collected data spanned from January 1st, 2008 to December 31st, 2015.

Results

The results for each foreign terror organization in this study will be presented in the following order, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and the Taliban. The maps in this section provide visualizations regarding each group’s strength in internet popularity for Google and YouTube based searches. Within each figure, the Google based searches are represented on top, while the YouTube based searches are below. The maps also display the span and reach of these terror organizations across the globe. In addition to maps, line graphs further illustrate the interest over time along with the months and years they were recorded in. When examining the line graphs, a significant spike is defined by the author as having a score of ten or higher on a scale of zero to one-hundred. To further clarify the interest over time in Google and YouTube based searches, Google Trends articulates that “Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. Likewise a score of 0 means the term was less than 1% as popular as the peak.”

Al-Qaeda

Over the span of 2008 to 2015, the search term “Al-Qaeda” managed to only have one significant spike in Google and YouTube based searches online, that being in May of 2011. This spike is attributed to the death of Al-Qaeda Emir Osama bin Laden. On May 2, 2011, United States Special Operations Command carried out a raid on a private compound in Abbottabad Pakistan, with the intent of discovering and killing Osama bin Laden.[1] This raid ended successfully with US forces killing Osama bin Laden and extracting his body from Pakistan to an undisclosed location. As a result of this raid, Google and YouTube traffic regarding Al-Qaeda spiked during the month of May. Depicted in Figure 1 below is the interest over time for Google and YouTube searches with reference to the search term Al-Qaeda.

figure-1

Figure 1: Line Graphs depicting Google and YouTube based searches on Al-Qaeda from 1/1/2008 through 12/31/2015.

When comparing Google and YouTube based searches as shown in Figure 2 below, the majority of these searches on Al-Qaeda emanate from the Middle East and North Africa. Examination of the map in Figure 3 displays Al-Qaeda’s spread of successful attacks across the globe and the specific countries targeted most frequently. After comparing both maps in Figures 2 and 3, commonalities arose in the form of high volumes of web traffic regarding the search term Al-Qaeda and successful terror attacks by this same group. The countries that share geographic similarities in both maps are Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Algeria. These five countries currently serve as strongholds for Al-Qaeda within the Middle East and North African regions.

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Figure 2: Global maps displaying hot spots for Web searches on Al-Qaeda.

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Figure 3: Global map of successful terror attacks committed by Al-Qaeda from 2008 through 2015.

Hezbollah

While not having as significant interest over time on the internet as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah received a minor amount of attention on YouTube in June of 2013, seen in Figure 4 below. The 2013 conflict in Syria involving Hezbollah and rebel forces among others, spilled over into Lebanon. Hezbollah aided in Syria’s summer offensive in Homs province with specialized military assistance, communications support, sniper fire, and the utilization of special forces.[2] This conflict increased Hezbollah’s interest over time for the month of June, but did not remain a topic of interest on the internet after the month ended.

figure-4

Figure 4: Line Graphs depicting Google and YouTube based searches on Hezbollah from 1/1/2008 through 12/31/2015.

Hezbollah demonstrated a robust internet audience in the Middle East and parts of North Africa from 2008 through 2015 as shown in Figure 5. Regarding Google searches, Hezbollah’s most frequent online audience originated from Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Yemen. Countries such as Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are responsible for the majority of its online traffic within YouTube during those same years. Comparing the maps within Figures 5 and 6, illustrates that of the countries most popular for Google and YouTube searches, Lebanon and Bahrain stand out as the two most notable for terror attacks.

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Figure 5: Global visualization of hot spots for Web searches on Hezbollah.

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Figure 6: Depiction of successful global terror attacks by Hezbollah from 2008 through 2015.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham

In February 2014, Al-Qaeda officially cut ties with one of their most dangerous affiliates in Iraq, known now as ISIS. Represented in Figure 7 below as the red line for both graphs, ISIS had three major spikes for Google and YouTube searches from 2008 to 2015. These spikes in interest over time take place on September 2014, February 2015, and November 2015. Also worth noting is the separation point on the line graph below, where ISIS spikes in February 2014 while Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Taliban remain consistent with online views. This separation point is due to the break between Al-Qaeda and ISIS in February 2014. As seen in Figure 7, web traffic regarding ISIS dropped until August of that same year.

The beginning of the first significant spike for ISIS started in August 2014 when American freelance journalist James Foley was beheaded by so called “Jihadi John.” This beheading gained an enormous following not just on Google, but also on YouTube as well, also depicted in Figure 7 below. The first spike reached its peak when in the following month of September 2014, ISIS released a video of “Jihadi John” beheading American journalist Steven Sotloff.[3]

ISIS reached its second spike for interest over time in February of 2015, due to the release of a video that displayed the execution of a Jordanian air force pilot. ISIS intended this execution to not only receive global attention, but also to intensify the level of involvement from Jordan in the Syrian and Iraqi conflict that was occurring at that time.[4]

The third major spike for ISIS on Google and YouTube occurred during November in 2015, the same month that ISIS attacked Paris, France. This attack greatly enhanced the attention that ISIS was receiving online and in the media.[5] Individuals from all over the world searched the term “ISIS” during and after the attack took place. When examining Figure 8, the hot spots for interest over time occurred in every continent across the globe.

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Figure 7: Line Graphs depicting Google and YouTube based searches on ISIS from 1/1/2008 through 12/31/2015.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Taliban, ISIS stands out as the group with the most dominant interest over time and reach of Google and YouTube searches. After February 2014, no group within this study has been able to compete with ISIS regarding Google and YouTube popularity. With the events in August and September of 2014, February of 2015, and November of 2015, ISIS consistently holds its lead over Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Taliban. Comparing the maps in Figures 8 and 9, does not show a large presence of terror attacks for ISIS worldwide, but within Iraq and Nigeria, ISIS dominates web-based searches.

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Figure 8: Global hot spots for ISIS related searches on Google and YouTube from 2008 through 2015.

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Figure 9: Successful ISIS attacks from 2008 through 2015 mainly centralized in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Taliban

While rather stagnant on Google searches, the Taliban presented two significant spikes in interest over time, one during April 2009 and the second during January 2012. In April of 2009, the Pakistani government began a substantial propaganda campaign and flooded the media with material that countered the Taliban and its ideology. Before engaging in military action in May, the Pakistani government tried to win the hearts and minds of its citizens by publishing large quantities of online and written materials a month in advance.[6]

The second major spike in YouTube based searches arose in January 2012 when the Taliban attacked a government building in the city of Sharan, Afghanistan. Reported in the media, the Taliban launched an attack which killed four government employees and 3 police officers. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and praised the three insurgents that carried it out.[7] This attack gained an abundant amount of attention in Pakistani media outlets in 2012, lending credibility to the significant size of the data point placed on Pakistan in Figure 11.

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Figure 10: Line Graphs depicting Google and YouTube based searches on the Taliban from 1/1/2008 through 12/31/2015.

Even though the Taliban’s online audience was not as expansive and far reaching as that of ISIS from 2008 to 2015, is it highly concentrated within three countries in the Middle East, that being Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. Two of these three countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, serve as the Taliban’s central base of operations not only throughout the Middle East, but globally as well. When comparing the maps in Figures 11 and 12, it can be observed that Afghanistan not only accounts for the highest number of web-based searches, but it also suffers the highest amount of terror attacks among these three countries. With the presence of the United States military and Afghani government forces combating the Taliban within the time frame of 2008 to 2015, it is likely that the online searches on the Taliban were related to the attacks that they carrying out across the country.

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Figure 11: The Taliban’s main (2008-2015) online audience from came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

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Figure 12: The above graphic displays successful terror attacks carried out by the Taliban from 2008 through 2015.

Analytic Confidence

The analytic confidence for this assessment is moderate. Trend analysis and a case comparative method aided the formation of this assessment. Source reliability is moderate to high and all sources corroborated with each other. The analyst worked alone and his level of expertise is moderate. While the complexity of the task was moderate, the time given for completion was sufficient.

Citations

[1] Rollins, John. (2011). Osama bin Laden’s Death: Implications and Considerations. Congressional Research Service. 4. (High)

[2] Sullivan, Marissa. (2014). Middle East Security Report 19: Hezbollah in Syria. Institute for the Study of War. 14. (High)

[3] Friedland, Elliot. (2015). Special Report: The Islamic State. The Clarion Project. 19. (High)

[4] Gambhir, H. (2015). ISIS Global Intelligence Summary. Institute for the Study of War. 1. (High)

[5] Simon, M. (2016). The November 13 Paris Attacks: Rethinking the Concept of Identity. Foreign Policy Journal. 2. (High)

[6] Shams, Shamil. (2011). The Clash of Narratives: SWAT Military Operation against the Taliban. Sustainable Development Policy Institute. 120, 11. (High)

[7] Wahdat, E. (2012, January 10). Suicide attackers storm office in Afghan east, 7 killed. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20120119033446/http://www.trust.org/alertnet/news/suicide-attackers-storm-office-in-afghan-east-7-killed/ (Moderate)

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