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An Indonesian religious organisation has teamed up with an Austrian university to test online counter-terrorism strategies aimed at tackling Islamic State (ISIS).

Over the coming months, the two partners will run a digital campaign designed to penetrate jihadist discussion forums and undermine ISIS’s theological arguments, say researchers at the University of Vienna. They stress that such efforts must be grounded in solid theological counter-argument and steered by Muslim civil society groups with the requisite religious understanding.

The Austrian team has been working with theologians from Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian Sunni Muslim organisation with 30 million members. The organisation’s media and education campaigns have helped rein in extremism, says Nico Prucha, a project member and researcher at King’s College London, United Kingdom.

“The wings of ISIS that produce fatwas [legal rulings] and the like are deeply familiar not only with core Islamic texts but also … the four traditional schools of Sunni jurisprudence and medieval commentators and theologians.”

Aymenn Al-Tamimi, Middle East Forum think-tank

Together, the partners have developed religious arguments to counter ISIS’s, which they will promote on social media based on their analysis of the group’s Twitter use.

Counter-measures should quiz ISIS’s theological justifications for violence and challenge its attempts to “reframe and rebrand Islamic identity”, Prucha says. “If we attack theological interpretations that justify killing people and building an Islamic state, we can deprive ISIS of the very ground from which they blossom.”

The team will use core ISIS hashtags and affiliated keywords to promote alternative messages about Islam on ISIS forums, he says.

But Aymenn Al-Tamimi, who analyses ISIS operations for the Middle East Forum think-tank, which aims to promote American interests in the region, says he thinks promoting theological counter-messages is “rather a pointless exercise”.

“The wings of ISIS that produce fatwas [legal rulings] and the like are deeply familiar not only with core Islamic texts but also … the four traditional schools of Sunni jurisprudence and medieval commentators and theologians,” he says. Theological counter-arguments will stumble, he fears, because “it becomes a game of citation and counter-citation that can’t be won”.

Instead, Al-Tamimi says, the strategy should be to focus on the humanitarian fallout from ISIS operations such as the poor quality of life in ISIS-held areas of Iraq and the group’s indiscriminate targeting of areas held by Sunni rebels in Aleppo province, Syria.

But Prucha says it is important to use religious arguments to counter the flood of propaganda emerging from the group. ISIS video makers can access online platforms such as ‘Jihadist Scholar’, which holds around 300,000 documents dating back to 1980s Afghanistan, he tells SciDev.Net. These repositories provide jihadist arguments and “concepts that are narrowed down in times of war and grievance” to be repackaged as hard-hitting propaganda films.

Those best placed to rebut these are Muslim civil society groups and authoritative Muslim scholars, who can ingest this propaganda and provide an alternative, positive picture of Islam that undermines ISIS, Prucha says.