Rebel Group Consolidation
Utilising a mixed-methods approach, my research examines how Jihadist-Salafist rebel groups expand and consolidate their control over rival insurgent groups and civil society actors. The majority of research on conflict and extremism considers how rebel groups fight against governments, but little analysis has considered how rebel groups fight and compete with each other. This is form of intra-rebel conflict often accounts for more than half of the conflict events within civil wars and is essential to understanding conflict dynamics. Where the academic literature has considered inter-rebel conflict, it is often too narrowly focussed on fighting, ignoring a much broader typology of inter-rebel interactions which includes alliance-formation, poaching, bargaining, cooperating, and economic coordination. While nationalist rebels have received some attention within peace and conflict studies, the consolidation practices of Jihadist-Salafist groups remain almost entirely unstudied, despite the presense of such groups in more than 50% of active conflicts around the world. My research fills some of these
gaps in our understanding of inter-rebel conflict by examining the sources of inter-rebel competition and consolidation within the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian Conflict, which began with hundreds of rival rebel groups have gradually narrowed to include only a few major factions, with the role of the largest cohesive groups being occupied by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This research seeks to examine groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Al-Nusra / HTS), Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL / ISIS), Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), and the Afghan Taliban (AT). As part of this project, multiple factors and mechanisms, including outbidding, rebel governance, media, and foreign fighters are examined in relation to rebel consolidation. Find out more about research on this topic and the comparative strength of major non-state actors active in the conflict by visiting the NSATD database.
Measuring & Analysing Online Extremism
My research seeks to explain how extremist actors (including Jihadist-Salafist Groups and Far-Right Groups) exploit new online platforms to recruit, organise, and spread propaganda which results in offline harms. My current research examines how these extremist groups increasingly use encrypted social media platforms (Rocket.Chat, Telegram, TamTam Messenger Signal) to communicate privately, and seeks to measure the response and regulatory policies of these technology firms. While the online eco-system has become a lot more challenging for extremist actors over the past 10 years, there remain significant gaps in online security which allow these actors to keep leveraging major platforms as well as alternative sites. This research also takes advantage of the large data sets publicly available to generate insights into the views of individual extremists and broader extremists groups surrounding major debates playing out in the public discourse (stretching from pandemics to elections to military interventions). Lastly, my research addresses the constantly evolving methods and loopholes employed by extremists to use evade detection and community standards on major social media platforms. The methods evading automated moderation include leetspeak, broken text posting, image obscuration, fuzzy matching, and secondary indicators to reduce false positives and identify extremist content more accurately at scale.
Analyzing Online Harms
This research project explores the potential of commercially-available targeted advertising technologies to address online extremism and disinformation. In particular it is focussed on how to best identify individual users who are interested in extremist content or disinformation and offer a different and more reliable source of information. While much of the existing research understandingly focusses on explaining how and why extremist groups exploit online harms, much less has considered the positive interventions that online tools can offer in countering extremism. The technology itself remains neutral whiles its applications determine the net impact. Redirect methods offer compelling and targeted approaches to tailor our message to reach users who are vulnerable to extremism, but there is still limited data and analysis on the best practices and long-term impact of this methodology. The primary research focus of this project centres on users who are only beginning to explore extremist content as opposed to long-term consumers of this content and therefore less likely to be responsive to online treatments. While click-through rates remain relatively low when compared with commercial advertising, even low engagement can lead to lower risks of violent extremism. Future research in this field will centre on the role of empathy, humour, and psychology in developing redirect tools that meet users where they are and engage them with social support networks beyond simply counter-messaging.