The rise of lockdown radicalism

Author: Farooq Yousaf

COVID-19 lockdowns throughout the world have aggravated socio-political inequalities, especially in the Global South as governments try to respond to the pandemic. Various terrorist, radical and violent extremist groups, especially the so-called Islamic State, are trying to cash in on these inequalities to propagate hate-filled narratives.

Filipino soldiers are pictured on the site of an explosion in Jolo Island, Sulu province, Philippines, 24 August 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Nickee Butlangan).

In Nigeria, for instance, Boko Haram has called the closure of mosques — a precaution taken in response to COVID-19 — a direct ‘attack on Islam’. Similarly, there remains fear among security experts that as the lockdowns continue to confine people to their homes, radical and violent extremist groups are gaining an opportunity to radicalise ‘younger’ audiences who are spending more unsupervised time on the Internet.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s (ASIO) Deputy Director-General Heather Cook, speaking at the Australian Parliament’s Joint Intelligence and Security Committee, also warned that the conditions arising out of the pandemic have provided extremist groups, including neo-Nazi organisations, the means to radicalise more people.

In a recent meeting of the UN Security Council on pressing global security issues in August, counter-terrorism experts noted a spike in the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) online activities. Experts also reiterated the importance of repatriating terrorist families stranded in the Middle East to prevent IS from spreading its influence. These concerns indicate that the threat from violent extremist and terrorist groups such as IS remains within both ‘virtual’ (online) and ‘physical’ (family) networks.

In recent months, IS’s online propaganda campaign — unlike its coherent media campaigns during the group’s peak before 2017 — has mushroomed, with supporters all over the world running individual campaigns. According to Michael Krona, much of the IS literature is now propagated by IS supporters through bots on Telegram and other social media platforms. Moreover, in order to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies, IS and its supporters have increased their online activity in recent months through the constant renewal of online hyperlinks and the migration to and from different platforms.

Security agencies in South Asia have also witnessed a spike in IS’s online activity intended to radicalise a younger audience. India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) reported a rise in online activity from IS supporters, especially in the southern states of Kerala, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, where 122 accused have so far been arrested. Bangladesh similarly reported a surge in online IS propaganda activities mainly targeting urban, educated youths.

Family terror networks remain a prominent feature of IS’s global operations. These networks, even today, present a major global security threat mostly because of legal, social and privacy concerns that make it challenging to monitor family units and their activities extensively. Several high-profile terrorist attacks under the banner of IS, in recent times, have involved marriage and relatives. In one instance on 24 August, ‘widows’ of two prominent IS militants carried out twin suicide bombings in Jolo town in the Philippines, killing 15. Similarly, this October, security agencies in the Philippines arrested another woman planning a suicide attack in the country. Rezky Fantasya Rullie is believed to be the wife of a militant killed in Sulu in August and possibly the daughter of two suicide bombers who conducted an attack on a Catholic cathedral in Jolo in 2019.

That members of the same family unit are involved in radicalisation activities and terrorist attacks warrants attention from security strategists and policymakers. With lockdowns in place in most of the world and IS supporters increasing their online presence, the probability that traditional conservative families will be targeted by IS for radicalisation is higher. In such families, older male members are generally revered, making it easier to persuade both younger and female members into joining extremist political, religious and violent groups.

There is now a specific focus among extremist groups on recruiting female operatives, especially in Bangladesh, suggesting these groups are increasingly turning to women to radicalise other members of the family. Other groups in South Asia such as Lashkar-e-Taiba — the Pakistani militant group accused of engaging in proxy-warfare in Indian Kashmir — have effectively targeted and used females to convince their sons to wage jihad against India.

The twin threats of virtual and physical recruitment present short and long-term implications for states in the Global South that lack the infrastructure and capabilities to combat radicalisation and terrorism. Although technological advancements enable the monitoring of terrorists on online networks, monitoring and countering physical family networks still presents significant policy challenges.

As witnessed in the well-coordinated 2019 Easter attacks in Sri Lanka — involving members of two families — even though the operational capacity of IS has taken a significant hit in the Middle East, the threat of online and family terror networks, especially in South Asia, cannot be underestimated.

Farooq Yousaf holds a PhD in politics from the University of Newcastle, Australia.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

Covid-19 and the threat from Islamic State’s online and ‘family’ networks

Dr Farooq Yousaf

Following its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to tighter territorial, border and air controls, the Islamic State may seek to use unconventional methods for its radicalisation and recruitment drives. Two such methods are stepping up its online presence and propaganda and exploiting family ties to expand its networks.

In a 24 August 2020 meeting of the UN Security Council on pressing global security issues, counterterrorism experts reiterated the importance of repatriating terrorist families to prevent IS spreading its influence across countries and regions. The meeting also noted a spike in IS’s online activities targeting people confined to their homes amid Covid-19 lockdowns. For example, the June 2020 ‘lockdown’ edition of The Voice of Hind, an English-language online magazine published by IS supporters in India, even encouraged IS supporters to use children to spread coronavirus among disbelievers.

Family terror networks have been a prominent feature in IS’s global operations. Those networks present major global security threats largely because of legal, social and privacy concerns that make it challenging to monitor the activities of family units. Several high-profile terrorist attacks under the banner of IS in recent times have involved people related by marriage and by blood. In one such instance, on 24 August 2020, the ‘widows’ of two prominent IS militants carried out twin suicide bombings in Jolo in the Philippines, killing 15 people.

In 2018, Australia suffered a terrorist attack that was a consequence of the radicalisation of two Bangladeshi sisters by IS. On 9 February, while studying in Melbourne, Momena Shoma stabbed her homestay host in her quest to ‘become a martyr’. Shoma was initially radicalised online when she started following hardline preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki and watching IS videos. Two days after the attack, when security agencies raided Shoma’s house in Bangladesh in further investigations, her sister, Asmal Husna, attacked the security officials in another IS-inspired attack.

The sisters’ case also suggests that IS is increasingly looking to attract and recruit female operatives in ‘active’ roles, especially in South Asia. By attracting women into its fold, the group seeks to promote itself as a global enterprise for both men and women, unlike other terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, which, even though they have some female operatives, mainly recruit men. By 2019, 16% of foreign terrorist fighters in IS were women.

The underlying factors leading to the involvement of members of the same family or the whole family unit in radicalisation and terrorist attacks warrant attention from security strategists and policymakers. With Covid-19 lockdowns in place in many countries and IS increasing its online presence, the probability of traditional conservative families, confined to their homes, being targeted for radicalisation becomes higher. In such families, male members (fathers, husbands and brothers) are treated with respect, making it easier for them to persuade both younger and female members to join violent political or religious groups.

Although technological advances have enabled the monitoring of terrorists in online networks, monitoring and countering physical family networks present significant policy challenges. There are also gaps in security infrastructure, especially in the global south, for understanding and dealing with the role of kinship and family ties in terrorist recruitment and radicalisation. As is evidenced by the well-coordinated 2019 Easter attacks in Sri Lanka involving members of an affluent family, even though IS’s operational capacity has taken a major hit in the Middle East, the threat of family terror networks there and elsewhere shouldn’t be underestimated.

It’s still too early to gauge the real impact of IS’s exploitation of ‘family’ terrorism using comprehensive online recruitment strategies in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is timely to start a discussion on the importance, and vulnerability, of kin and family networks in contemporary radicalisation and terrorist recruitment. To prevent and counter this threat, a good starting point could be a focus on the family unit as an essential determinant of radicalisation and recruitment. For experts in preventing and countering violent extremism and for policymakers, traditional family structures can be vital tools in deradicalisation. This is because disapproving relatives, respected within the family, can help dissuade family members from joining radical and violent groups.AUTHOR

Farooq Yousaf received his PhD from the University of Newcastle and is an assistant editor of the journal South Asia Research. He is the author of Pakistan, regional security and conflict resolution: the Pashtun ‘tribal’ areas, to be published by Routledge in November. Image: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images.

Originally Published on The Strategist

[Publication] Islamic State and Kin Terrorism in the Post-COVID-19 South Asia: Exploring the Possibilities and Implications

Yousaf, F. (2020). Islamic State and Kin Terrorism in the Post-COVID-19 South Asia: Exploring the Possibilities and Implications. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses. 12(5). 21-25

URL: https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/CTTA-September-2020.pdf

Synopsis:
Since territorial and organisational setbacks in Iraq and Syria, coupled with improvements in financial and border controls, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group is employing unconventional strategies to attract recruits, such as the use of kinship and family networks. This paper discusses the potential of kinship and family ties in IS’ terror recruitment in South Asia. This study underscores that kin terrorism remains understudied in South Asia and requires systematic investigation for a better understanding in relation to terrorist recruitment. The paper concludes with the recommendation that future CT and PCVE strategies in South Asia should factor in kin terrorism and the role of familial networks in recruitment and radicalisation to effectively counter the twin threats of extremism and terrorism.

Forthcoming Book with Routledge: Pakistan, Regional Security and Conflict Resolution

1st Edition

Pakistan, Regional Security and Conflict Resolution: The Pashtun ‘Tribal’ Areas

By Farooq Yousaf (Copyright Year 2021)

This book shows how colonial legacies and the postcolonial state of Pakistan negatively influenced the socio-political and cultural dynamics and the security situation in Pakistan’s Pashtun ‘tribal’ areas, formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

It discusses the history and background of the former-FATA region, the role of Pashtun conflict resolution mechanism of Jirga, and the persistence of colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) in the region. The author argues that the persistence of colonial legacies in the Pashtun ‘tribal’ areas, especially the FCR, coupled with the overarching influence of the military on security policy has negatively impacted the security situation in the region. By focusing on the Jirga and Jirga-based Lashkars (or Pashtun militias), the book shows how Pashtuns have engaged in their own initiatives to handle the rise of militancy in their region. Moreover, the book argues that, even after the introduction of constitutional reforms and FATA’s merger with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, little has changed in the region, especially regarding the treatment of ‘tribal’ Pashtuns as equal citizens of Pakistan.

Historically and contextually informed with a focus on North-West Pakistan, this book will be of interest to academics studying South Asian Studies, peacebuilding, terrorism, and traditional justice and restorative forms of peace-making.

URL: https://www.routledge.com/Pakistan-Regional-Security-and-Conflict-Resolution-The-Pashtun-Tribal/Yousaf/p/book/9780367465698

How will Trump’s halting of WHO funding impact global COVID-19 response?

Dr Farooq Yousaf

In what came as a major shock to the global community, American President Donald Trump, earlier this week, announced that he is suspending American funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The United States (US) president was critical of the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that the body “failed in its basic duty”, relied too much on the Chinese government’s information and, therefore, should be held accountable. During a media briefing on April 14th, Trump announced,

“Today I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess [its] role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”

His critics have since argued that Trump has simply used this decision as a diversion tactic, fending off criticism aimed at his administration for not only mishandling the pandemic but also not taking it seriously. Moreover, philanthropists like Melinda Gates have warned that suspending the funding is “as dangerous as it sounds” as the world needs the “WHO now more than ever”.

Even though the WHO has refrained from directly criticising the decision and President Trump, the body’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that the politicisation of the coronavirus pandemic can lead to many more deaths. He stated,

“If you want to be exploited and if you want to have many more body bags, then you do it. If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicizing it.”

The WHO was formed in 1948 and was mandated to assist its member states with primary healthcare along with a supervision of global public health issues and emergencies. The WHO is made functional and operational through voluntary contributions from its member states. However, as seen in the chart below, the US is, by far, the biggest contributor to the WHO. Therefore, President Trump’s decision to suspend the funding can have far-reaching consequences in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.

Photo: AFP

It is also worth noting that even though the Trump administration is now pinning nearly all the blame on China, the US president was all praise for the Chinese government in January for its tackling of the Covid-19 pandemic. On January 25th, Trump tweeted,

China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

However, keeping aside Trump’s decision, a lot of questions have also been raised about how the WHO initially handled the situation. The body is accused of not taking the threat of Covid-19’s human-to-human transmission seriously in January.

On December 31, 2019, after gaining knowledge of the first coronavirus cases, the Chinese government informed the WHO of a pneumonia-like case in Wuhan. Then on January 14, 2020, the WHO shared initial Chinese investigations on the virus, stating that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. It was on January 22nd, following a brief visit to China, that the WHO stated human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus was happening in China. However, the WHO also took the position of praising China for its response and commitment to transparency in handling the outbreak.

Therefore, even though Trump did mainly use the WHO to divert blame for the shortcomings in his own leadership, his critique of the global health body still carries some weight.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, and following Trump’s WHO announcement and back to back accusations against China, many have now pointed out the visible and growing cracks in global, especially Western, cooperation to deal with this crisis.

Back in 2014, the US effectively responded to the Ebola outbreak by sending in medical supplies and troops to West Africa. However, this time around, the US is virtually absent from the global debate on the outbreak’s unified response. Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Italian Institute for International Affairs and a former European Union (EU) policy adviser, summarises the US absence in the following words,

To me what is so striking is the complete absence of the US from public debates. The US is basically off the map, and China very much is on the map.”

Moreover, by calling it a “Chinese virus”, the Trump administration has already made its intentions clear of not wanting to cooperate with China on the pandemic’s global response. Secondly, the “idea” of the European Union has also come under question as Italy, amid its coronavirus crisis, felt it was abandoned by the EU member states. The EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen issued an apology to Italy, on behalf of the EU, saying,

“Too many were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand. And yes, for that, it is right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology.”

On the other hand, after announcing a state of emergency in March, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic issued a call for help from China, stating that “the only country that can help us is China”.

In short, the coronavirus pandemic has effectively led the global community on a path towards a reset; this includes a reset of the global economy, healthcare facilities, bilateral and multilateral ties, and climate change policies. However, even with these developments, it is too early to predict whether the US will lose its status of a ‘global power’.

Originally published by Express Tribune

What can Pakistan learn from Australia and New Zealand’s COVID-19 response?

Dr Farooq Yousaf

As the global community is still finding ways to contain the deadly spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), both Australia and New Zealand are effectively working towards “flattening the curve” of daily new cases of COVID-19 infections. These two countries present concise case studies of effective tackling of the deadly pandemic not only for Pakistan but also for the rest of the world.

As of April 10, 2020, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan stand at 6152, 1015, and 4601 respectively. Even though the number of cases in both Australia and New Zealand is still on the lower side, compared to other “western” states, their response has been somewhat swift, systematic and aggressive.

Fig 1: Confirmed COVID-19 Cases (Until April 10, 2020)

Australia has enforced strict measures for both its citizens and residents as well as international visitors and visa holders. On March 19, Australian PM Scott Morrison, without any prior warning, announced to close the country’s borders to all “non-citizens”. This meant that other than Australian citizens, permanent residents and those on special status visas, no one was allowed to enter the country after the PM’s announcement.

Moreover, the country also imposed a strict quarantine policy for all citizens and permanent residents arriving in Australia. The Department of Home Affairs, in that regard, says that:

All travellers arriving in Australia must undertake a mandatory 14-day quarantine at designated facilities (for example, a hotel), in their port of arrival.

For international citizens in Australia, the government suggests:

Due to the current situation in Australia due to COVID-19, including state and territory border restrictions, business closures and social distancing requirements, all international visitors are encouraged to depart if it is possible to do so.

Similarly, New Zealand, which is one of few countries to have effectively contained the spread of COVID-19 in recent days, has also implemented an “Alert Level 4 – Eliminate” for the pandemic. Level 4 Alert implies that “it is likely that the disease is not contained”. According to Michael Baker and Nick Wilson, writing for The Guardian, this “elimination approach” by New Zealand is different from the “mitigation” approach of managing the “pandemic influenza”. According to them:

With mitigation, the response is increased as the pandemic progresses, and more intensive interventions such as school closures are often held in reserve to “flatten the peak”. By contrast, disease elimination partly reverses the sequence by using vigorous interventions early to interrupt disease transmission. 

It is due to this aggressive approach that the number of daily new cases in both Australia and New Zealand is steadily falling as can be seen in Fig 1 below.

Fig 2: Daily New COVID-19 Confirmed Cases (Until April 10, 2020)

A major take away from both Australia and New Zealand is the fact that both the countries were able to implement an early lock-down; not only enforcing social distancing measures but also recommending that all non-essential workers work from home. Moreover, both countries also shut down their borders for international travel. By doing that, both the countries effectively controlled the transmission chain of the virus; buying essential time to implement their virus-elimination measures.

When it comes to testing, we find that both Australia and New Zealand boast a higher number of “tests per 1000 people” when compared to Pakistan.

Fig 3: Total Tests for COVID-19 (Until April 10, 2020)

In terms of the total number of tests, Australia has so far conducted 338,000 tests, New Zealand 59,000 and Pakistan 58,000 COVID-19 tests (see above, Fig 3).  Therefore, where Australia and New Zealand’s “tests per 1000 people” stand at 13.2 and 12.1 respectively, Pakistan, on the other hand, has conducted a paltry 0.28 tests per 1000 people (see below, Fig 4).  

Fig 4: Total Tests per 1000 people (Until April 10, 2020)

Having discussed these measures, it is also worth noting that not all countries enjoy the luxury of pursuing the “elimination strategy”. Such a strategy can only work for countries that can effectively seal their borders and can bear the immense costs of testing and healthcare support. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the European continent and the US followed the “mitigation” strategy, which not only overburdened the healthcare system but also resulted in high infection and fatality rates.

However, even with such complications, a major lesson for Pakistan that needs to be learnt from both Australia and New Zealand is following a clear and concise policy. Both these countries, from the early rise in number of infections, were clear in their approach and policy actions. Even though Pakistan might not enjoy these favorable conditions – such as easy to manage borders and a stable economy – it can still ensure that its “mitigation strategy” for containing the coronavirus pandemic is clear and well laid-out. Only a clear policy and its implementation can, therefore, pull Pakistan out of this global health catastrophe that has claimed thousands of lives.

(Data Source: Our World in Data)

The author holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Newcastle and is currently based in Australia.

Using my IBM Data Science Skills: Choosing the Best Cities for Middle Eastern Eateries in Australia

IBM Data Science Capstone

Choosing the Best Cities for Middle Eastern Eateries in Australia: An exploratory analysis of Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth

Farooq Yousaf

In this capstone project, I used my overall learning from IBM’s Professional Data Science Certificate to solve a problem that I often encountered while living in Australia. Moreover, it is also a common issue faced by many local and foreign tourists who travel to major metropolitans in Australia, however, they are overwhelmed by food choices. Hence, I will use this project to “explore” which major metropolitans in Australia are the best options for visiting restaurants and eateries offering “Middle Eastern” cuisine.

The cities that I analyzed included Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth and Brisbane. Even though Sydney is the densest city by population (ABS, 2020), and normally it would be assumed that it would be easier and more convenient to visit various venues in the city, however, from my personal experience, it takes longer to explore venues in Sydney than in Melbourne or Perth. Hence, this project tried to explore why is that the case, especially when Sydney has more venues than any other city in Australia.

Data

The data required for this project was mainly of Middle Eastern restaurants based in the major cities of Australia; namely Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, and Canberra. For that purpose, I used the Foursquare API to extract data of Middle Eastern restaurants in the cities under discussion. The major values from that data that were required for this project were the name, address, latitude and longitude. Moreover, for analysis purposes, Wikipedia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)data was also used to expand the analysis. To analyze the data and create data frames, pandas, NumPy and folium (for maps) libraries were used.

Methodology

As John Rollins rightly argues, “lack sufficient understanding of how to go about solving problems using data science techniques” results in failure of adequately addressing the problem at hand (Rollins, 2015). Hence, in section 1 and 2 of this report, we started with introducing the problem, location and our data sources. In that regard, we used simple exploratory data analysis and map visualizations to find out which major cities in Australia are the best for local and foreign tourists in terms of eating at Middle Eastern restaurants.

Data Preparation and Modelling

We used the Foursquare API to search for Middle Eastern venues in our sample set of cities using the following code:

Foursquare API Code

As our data was in a highly nested JSON format, we turned it into a Pandas Dataframe using json_normalize. After normalizing the data, we had the data in our required format of “Name”, “Address”, “Lat” and “Lng”.

Normalizing our Json Data

Once we have normalized our data, we used a two-step approach to analyze our data. In the first step, we plotted the data normally as clusters of different venues in our sample cities. In our second step, we calculated the geographical centres of the city and the calculated the mean distance of venues from that centre. The analysis, even though not directly in our scope, also showed us how Middle Eastern restaurants are clustered in each of the five cities, indicating the diversity of the cities.

Results with normal plotting

While plotting our data for various cities, we first normally plotted the venues gathered from Foursquare API, along with calculating the central locations of all the cities. However, as we do not need to calculate the distance of venues from the centre, we first normally plotted the data.

Results with mean distance from the mean (center) location of the city:

Now that we have seen the clusters plotted on the map, we calculate the mean distance (average distance) of venues from the geographical centre of the city. The plot gives us a clearer picture of the true distance for a tourist or a traveller to visit various venues.

Values of Mean Distance (from mean center) of each city

Even though the mean square distance value gave us a clear picture, we calculated the mean square distance by excluding the maximum value of the “outliers”, to get a homogenous value. For this purpose, we use the NumPy mean function. We use the following code for each city:

Sydney, NSW: 0.11287612594187721

Canberra, ACT: 0.07047281616415198

Melbourne, VIC: 0.03318223070418223

Perth, WA: 0.04176312230297355

Brisbane, QLD: 0.05986191980294174

Discussion and Conclusion:

The findings from our analysis present an elaborate picture. As seen from our findings, when the venues were plotted without the mean square distance, the map, for a layman, might have shown that both Melbourne and Sydney might seem like good clusters with higher density. However, our mean square distance shows that even though Melbourne is indeed good, Sydney does not present a convenient picture as the mean square distance for Sydney is the highest compared to all other cities. This is because Sydney has a total area of 12,368 km², whereas other cities have the following areas: Brisbane 15,826 km², Melbourne 9,990 km², Perth 6,418 km², and Canberra 814.2 km² (Wikipedia, 2020). However, even though Brisbane, area-wise, is the largest “proper” city in Australia, it has a lower population than Sydney and Melbourne. Hence, this also suggests why Brisbane has fewer venues than Sydney and Melbourne because the latter cities have a higher population than Brisbane. Hence, our findings suggest that the best location for any tourist to try Middle Eastern food in Melbourne, as they will have to travel less to explore different venues in the city. After Melbourne, the two best options, in terms of less travel, are Perth and Canberra. The reason both Sydney and Brisbane, even being major metropolitans in Australia, have a higher mean square distance in terms of locations is that both the cities are area wise the biggest cities in Australia.

The project initially started with defining the problem statement, which questioned which major cities in Australia were the best for local and foreign tourists to visit Middle Eastern restaurants. Initially, from the normal clusters, it would seem that Melbourne and Sydney were indeed the best locations to visit the Middle Eastern venues. However, the mean square distance suggested that Sydney, with a larger area, had a higher mean square distance between the geographic centre of the city and all the venues. Similarly, Melbourne was the best city in this regard as the mean square distance was the lowest, suggesting that tourists would have to travel less to explore different venues. This project also explained how data science can solve even the simplest of problems in a more attractive manner.

Github Link:

The full repository for the project can be found here

References:

ABS. (2020). Australian Demographic Statistics, Sep 2019. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3101.0

Rollins, J. (2015). Why we need a methodology for data science. Big Data and Analytics Hub. Retrieved from https://www.ibmbigdatahub.com/blog/why-we-need-methodology-data-science

Wikipedia. (2020). List of cities in Australia by population. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_in_Australia_by_population

Sentiment Analysis of Pakistani Twitter: #SindhGovt. and #DGISPR leading with “positive sentiments”

Dr Farooq Yousaf [1]

The confusion surrounding the PTI Government in terms of dealing with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is also denting the party’s, especially PM Imran Khan’s, perception on social media. The three major stakeholders currently under discussion on the social media in terms of COVID-19 outbreak include the Sindh Government, the PTI Government and, more recently, DG ISPR.

Even though it should not be taken as a major generalizable indicator, a basic sentiment analysis conducted on these three stakeholders suggests that both the Sindh Government, and its CM Murad Ali Shah, and DGISPR, after his latest press talk on the coronavirus outbreak, are leading Pakistani twitter with twitter users expressing “positive sentiments” towards both of them. Even though sentiments towards PM Imran Khan are also predominantly positive, his ratio/percentage of positive to negative is lower than both CM Sindh and DG ISPR.

In the vast field of data science, sentiment analysis is a technique used in text mining and analysis of various emotions associated with the text. More specifically, it can refer to a “text mining technique for analyzing the underlying sentiment of a text message, i.e., a tweet. Twitter sentiment or opinion expressed through it may be positive, negative or neutral”. I have used a variety of text analysis libraries to run and re-run sentiment analyses of various datasets that I imported from twitter using Twitter’s API in Python.

Due to Twitter’s data extraction limitations, one can only extract a certain number of tweets at a given time. Hence, the following sentiment analyses are based on 500-1000 tweets for each of the three stakeholders. This analysis was performed to gauge the general sentiment of Pakistani Twitter in terms of how it was reacting to various major stakeholders in the country. Moreover, this analysis should be treated as a sample to explore wider applications of Machine Learning and Natural Language processing in political narrative and discourse analysis of Pakistan.

The following analyses of tweets do not contain retweeted tweets. The scale for reading the values of sentiment can be found at the bottom of this page*.

(Anyone interested in performing a Sentiment Analysis on their own can read this resource.)

Sindh Government:

The COVID-19 pandemic has somewhat brought the Pakistan Peoples Party back in the country’s mainstream politics. According to his supporters and critics alike, CM Murad Ali Shah of Sindh Province has led from the front to tackle the outbreak in the province. It is no wonder that over 80% of the tweets from our random sample of tweets expressed positive sentiments towards the Sindh CM.

Twitter Sentiment on DG ISPR

On the other hand, the newly appointed DG ISPR Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar has received positive feedback on his ‘apolitical’ press talk on Pakistan Resolution Day and the coronavirus pandemic. The DG argued that even though the ‘geographical’ borders had been closed as a preventive measure, “the actual border was between the man and the coronavirus, which we (Pakistan) have yet to take control of”. The tweets mentioning #DGISPR as their hashtag had an 80% positive sentiment ratio.

Twitter Sentiment on PM Imran Khan and PTI

Finally, both PM Imran Khan and his PTI Government had the lowest “positive sentiment” ratio out of the three stakeholders under discussion, with 67% positive tweets mentioning either #ImranKhan and #PTIGovernment. Even though the majority of the tweets in the sample had a positive sentiment, the lowest percentage of the three means that PM, due to lack of clarity in his plan for dealing with the outbreak, might have taken a hit on his popularity on twitter. This is especially interesting because PTI’s social media team and campaigns are considered to be the most sophisticated in the country among all political and non-political stakeholders. Hence, this provides a point of concern for the PM.

Even though Pakistani Twitter’s sentiment analysis presents an interesting picture in terms of the apparent popularity, in terms of positive sentiments, of various political and non-political stakeholders, this analysis should be treated as the “final word” on the topic for two reasons. 1) the sample size of analysis is limited and consists of 500-1000 tweets each for each stakeholder, and 2) the analysis excludes tweets in local and national languages, which might present a different picture altogether. However, the analysis should be treated as an example to explore how policymakers and politicians can use Machine Learning, and Natural Language Processing to gauge sentiments of social media users in the country.  

———————————-

*Scale:

-1: Very Negative Sentiment

 1: Very Positive Sentiment

[1] The author holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Newcastle Australia. He has also previously received his Masters in Public Policy from the University of Erfurt in Germany.

COVID-19 outbreak, terrorism and regional peace – Farooq Yousaf

Within a matter of weeks, the novel coronavirus – which came in the global limelight after spreading in China’s Hubei province and resulted in lockdowns in the country – has created major risks for global economy and public health.

On December 31, 2019, China had alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of “several flu-like cases” in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. Patients had then been quarantined and health authorities commenced work on tracing the source of the “flu”. Soon after, on January 1, 2020, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention identified a seafood market in Wuhan as the “suspected hub of the outbreak”. Since then, at the time of writing this piece, the COVID-19 strain of the Coronavirus has caused a global pandemic, affecting over 150 countries, infecting nearly 200,000 and killing nearly 8000 people (More details and live tracking of the coronavirus data can be found here).

The World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went as far as claiming that “a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack”. Hence, pandemics like these also raise concerns over the possible use of a deadly virus as a “bioterrorism” tool by terrorist groups around the world.

In 2015, it was reported that scientists at a top-secret facility in the UK were assessing the “potential use of Ebola as a bioterrorism weapon”. The unit was tasked with evaluating whether terrorist organisations like Al Qaida and the Islamic State could use the virus to attack targets in the west[i]. Moreover, Stephen Strauss also argues that much of the research on Ebola was funded due to the growing fears of the virus turning into a bio-weapon by terrorist organisations.[ii] In addition to that, outbreaks have also been used in the past to influence political outcomes. According to The Lancet, ‘on Dec 26, 2018, DR Congo’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) invoked concerns about the Ebola outbreak and terrorism to postpone the elections in three areas in North Kivu (Beni, Beni Ville, and Butembo) until March 2019.’[iii] This move invited strong criticism as many of 1.2 million people in these three areas were likely to vote for the opposition leader, Martin Fayulu.

These precedents make the coronavirus epidemic a point of concern for state officials, policymakers and counter-terrorism experts around the world. Opinion pieces have already started showing up in major news outlets, especially in the US, particularly on the lines of mild “conspiracy theories” and orientalist discourses, on how the coronavirus can be used as a major bioterrorism weapon by non-state and ‘hidden’ state actors, especially in the “desert caves of Middle East”.

In this regard, Grady Means, in The Hill, writes:

Regardless of the source of the coronavirus, it is now a roadmap for future bioterrorism. The damage has been quick and enormous — much greater than 9/11 — and worldwide. The responses have been predictable and ineffective. And the cost of a potential weapon such as this is close to zero. It represents the perfect asymmetric warfare strategy, and there should be little doubt these lessons are being studied carefully by military planners in North Korea, Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and desert caves throughout the Middle East [iv].

However, along with raising “bio-terrorism” concerns, the coronavirus outbreak is also impacting (and somewhat hampering) the everyday operations of various terrorist and militant groups around the world. Moreover, due to the urgency and importance of covering the outbreak in the mainstream and alternate media, incidents around the world involving terrorist attacks are also going unnoticed.

COVID-19, Terrorism and Peace

The Islamic State recently included a full-page infographic on coronavirus prevention in the new issue of its official weekly “al-Naba newsletter”, the Homeland Security reported. The group also asked its followers to “stay away from countries affected by the outbreak”. The group has been constantly “reporting” on the Coronavirus in its newsletter since last month, with one of its February issues noting that even though the epidemic was a punishment from God for China’s rights abuses against the Uighur Muslims, the interconnectedness of this world would facilitate the transfer of epidemics. Therefore, “Muslims should seek help from God Almighty to avoid illness and keep it away from their countries”. These updates from the group suggest that the outbreak has, in some way, affected the Islamic State, at least for the time being.

US, Taliban and Peace in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has remained a point of concern for many, as not only is the country battling through a major presidential crisis, between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, but a possible spread of coronavirus is also threatening to endanger the recently signed ceasefire agreement between the United States and the Taliban. Locals also fear that lack of supplies and facilities could be detrimental to the Afghan population, especially if the number of cases exponentially rises in the country.

“A doctor or a nurse may be able to buy some hand sanitiser and gloves for their homes, but we have hospitals in Kabul that don’t have clean water for doctors to wash their hands,” Najmusama Shefajo, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, told Al Jazeera news. She also said that if doctors lack the supplies to guarantee their own hygiene, it will then be hard for the patients to trust the doctors.

Therefore, political instability amid growing coronavirus concerns have caught the attention of foreign and senior officials overseeing security matters in Afghanistan.

Nick Kay – a senior representative of NATO – in a video message on Saturday called on the Afghan leaders find to an amicable solution the political instability in the country. “As the coronavirus sweeps the world causing public health crisis and potential economic crisis…it is strange that the political leadership cannot find a way to resolve their differences and unite the country both in the interests of public health but also peace,” Kay said.

Ironically, the Taliban have also raised concerns on the spread of coronavirus in government prisons.  “About 40,000 people are living in prisons run by the Kabul administration where there are no hygiene or healthcare facilities, making it a serious threat. This virus can spread very easily in such conditions. If something goes wrong, it will be the responsibility of the Kabul government.”, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said on Sunday.

On the other hand, US expert and scholar Dr Barnett Rubin succinctly summarises the threat coronavirus poses to peace and stability in the region. In this regard, he writes:

The pandemic seems likely to spread quickly from both Iran and Pakistan into Afghanistan. All of the known cases are related to Iran—with which Afghanistan has a 572-mile largely unmonitored border, and where more than 10,000 coronavirus cases have been recorded and over 300 have died, making it the fourth-most-affected country after China, South Korea, and Italy  …… Afghanistan also has a 1,510 mile long border with Pakistan, which is at risk because of the weakness of its public health system, its 596-mile-long border with Iran, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has brought tens of thousands of Chinese citizens into Pakistan…. The pandemic makes it even more important to end the war. The virus makes no political, national, religious, or sectarian distinctions. [v].

On the other hand, U.S. Peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who was primarily responsible for giving final touches to the Afghan peace plan, has repeatedly met both the presidential claimants, Ghani and Abdullah, however, there is no end in sight for the political turmoil. Moreover, even after the signing of the deal with the US, violence has continued in the country as a recent “insider attack” killed seven Afghan security officials.

In these testing times, and with a near-global lockdown, regional actors like China, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan can do little in terms of mediating between the Afghan government, the US and the Taliban. Hence, Barnett Rubin asks a pertinent question:

Will Qatar still welcome a delegation from Afghanistan, plus hundreds of journalists, under these circumstances?

Probably not!

The latest data (see graph below) on coronavirus infections from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering indicates two positive trends; one, the “infections curve” (orange) in China is flattening, and two, the patient recovery rates (green) are getting higher.  

Source: CSSE

However, in terms of its impact on terrorism and terrorist activities, even though little could be said with certainty whether coronavirus outbreak will hamper terrorist attacks from groups like Islamic State and the Taliban, concerns expressed by both these groups over the pandemic suggest that it may affect them in “some” way; probably in terms of movement and operations. The Taliban, even though seemingly concerned about the pandemic, has carried on with it its attacks on the Afghan security forces. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is also fighting for its survival and relevance in Afghanistan. Only time will tell whether COVID-19 outbreak will negatively affect the Afghan peace deal and the frequency of terrorist attacks around the world. However, this also leaves a gap for future research projects on global pandemics and their impact on the frequency of terrorist attacks.

Notes:


[i] The Guardian (2015), URL: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/21/top-secret-ebola-biological-weapon-terror-warning-al-qaida-isis

[ii] Strauss, Stephen. “Ebola research fueled by bioterrorism threat.” Canadian Medical Association. Journal 186.16 (2014): 1206.

[iii] The Lancet, URL: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(19)30002-9/fulltext

[iv] Means, Grady, The Hill, URL: https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/485921-the-coronavirus-blueprint-for-bioterrorism

[v] Rubin, Barnett, The Coronavirus Risk to the Afghan Peace Process, CIC-NYU, URL: https://cic.nyu.edu/publications/coronavirus-risk-afghan-peace-process

Tips and links for PhD and Masters Scholarships (Social Sciences and Humanities)

I have been receiving a number of messages from friends and colleagues on procedures and tips regarding scholarships abroad (especially in Western universities). So, I decided to write a note on the steps and the resources that I have come across over the years. You have to keep in mind that I am a Public Policy and Politics graduate, so my tips are mostly confined to Social Sciences and Humanities disciplines. Hence, don’t take it as the final word on scholarships. Finally, I’ve heard many friends and peers argue that it is “impossible to get PhD funding”. I, respectfully, disagree! It all depends on how you approach the whole process in terms of applying to the right place at the right time, while contacting the right supervisor. There are hundreds of scholarships in dozens of countries. So, you just need to persist and be patient. However, the process also requires you to anticipate and accept rejections. I applied for 9 scholarships in different countries and was rejected by 7.

For a PhD, the first and the most important step is to stay in touch with various databases (mentioned below). But if you want to take initiative on your own or apply to Universities directly, then visit University websites in Australia, USA or Europe. Almost all of them have a scholarship section for various disciplines.

For both Masters (by research) and PhD positions, the application matters and for that you need to contact the Professors who are teaching the courses of your choice in your preferred university. The MOST Important factor is the potential “Supervisor”. If they like your topic and encourage you to apply for a scholarship, then a good part of your job is done, the rest will depend on your academic/professional background, evaluation committee and the selection criteria. However, the supervisor loving your topic does not ensure a scholarship. It will only help you clear the first stage of your application process.

Important Note: While selecting or short listing potential supervisors, make sure their methodological approach is similar to yours. If your proposal is qualitative and your potential supervisor has worked on quantitative methods, there is very little chance that the supervisor will entertain your proposal. There remains “some” divide and friction between qual and quant academics. Even if they do entertain your proposal, they might try to change your methodological approach. If you are happy with that, then no harm in contacting a supervsior with a different methodological experience. Also, don’t get angry or irritated if you don’t get a response from a supervisor. Don’t email them more than twice. If they don’t respond after your second email, it might mean they are busy and might not be interested. Move on to another supervisor. While going through my emails from 2014, I saw that I emailed over 70 academics for PhD supervision and received around 20 responses. Out of those 20, around 8 or 9 expressed interest in supervising me. So, be prepared for lack of responses.

You always need to make sure that the professor you contact has somewhat a broader idea on the broad nature of the topic.

Many students think that a PhD proposal is something novel, or that you have to come up with a totally new idea. I think it is a misconception. You just need to develop a “new angle” to a common or a broader concept.

For example, if you think you wish to work on “Democratic decline in the Global South”, on paper, it may seem “novel”, but someone in some corner of the world would have worked on it in some way. They might have written a newspaper article, a paper or a book chapter. What matters in such cases is how can you make the broader idea “specific and different”. However, you also need to make sure that you have the capacity, access and permissions to get your desired data for analysis, either primary or secondary. That is where you need to make sure that during your literature search, or review, you establish the fact that further down the line you have enough data to work with and mention it in your proposal.

Your proposal length should depend on the application criteria. But whatever the length or the case, you need to make sure that you present a clear and concise picture of what you need to do as part of your research. The proposal reflects your capacity to conduct research on the topic of your interest, and that is why, you need to make sure that your capacity is clearly reflected in the proposal.

Important Note on the Proposals: If your primary aim – like me – is to learn and explore new and different avenues of knowledge, don’t be too rigid with your proposal. I have no shame in admitting that I had four different proposals for three different disciplines. Maybe my Masters in Public Policy helped me be eligible for different disciplines for a PhD position. However, I would have been equally happy if my other proposals were accepted and had I not conducted my PhD on the topic that I ultimately did. When I contacted my potential PhD supervisors, I mostly sent them two proposals at the same time, and gave them the option, rather than forcing them to accept one. It worked for me, however, I cannot say it will work for others as well.

Also, don’t take your proposal as something final, as it is bound to change. It only helps the evaluation committee to decide whether you have an idea (and capacity) of the topic you wish to do your research on. I finalised my proposal and outline in the 10th month of starting my PhD.

Also make sure that you have some sort of publications (whether academic or semi-academic) before applying for a PhD. Even if you don’t that is fine, but having some publications in your bag helps you application and selection a lot. It proves to the selection committee that you have the ability to conduct research.

Additionally, IELTS or TOEFL are also an important component and you need to make sure that you get ATLEAST 6.5 in all modules (but it also depends on the university criteria, a safe bet is 7.0 in all modules).

P.S. I originally wrote this note on Facebook a few years ago, therefore, adding this part after completing my PhD. THINK HARD before pursuing a PhD. It can both be easy and hard. It can be fun as well as boring. If you are someone who can, on and off, lock themselves off in a room and consistently read and write, then a PhD might be an ideal fit for you. But if you don’t like writing (and reading), then you would make your life miserable. I personally enjoyed my journey a lot. I learnt probably more than what I learnt throughout my college and university (Bachelors and Masters) days. But even for someone like myself (who loves writing), there were days where I just wished I could escape the stress of this journey.

You can check the following web links for scholarships all over the world. I will keep updating the list below:

(Cover Image Source: https://www.startschoolnow.org/ )