Radical Islam’s Digital Offensive - Social Week


By Brian Fencil

All images courtesy of chechclearisback.

Since its formation in 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has grown to a multi-billion dollar operation with tens of thousands of militants. They now control a large areas of Iraq and Syria, and apparently possess Scud missiles and chemical weapons.

Their expansion seems beyond the possible.

Part of the reason for their malignant growth is attributed to their social media campaign, which helped bring 3,000-5,000 troops from abroad. Members hail from places like UK, Australia, Texas, and Colorado.

The implementation of social media not only affects how many people are joining ISIS, but why people join. In other terrorist groups, like Boko Haram, unemployment and poverty are noted as major causes for inciting recruits. However, individuals seem to be joining ISIS because they are inspired by what they see online, paired with their love of the Kalifa (the Islamic State). Although, such analysis is heavily biased–the media attention acts as a stage for jihadists to practice the lines they’ve heard, to show how committed they are to jihad.

ISIS’s social media campaign is effective because of its size and scope. They post massive amounts of content on every major media outlet and even lesser known sites like Ask.fm. They also create WordPress blogs and apps. Their strategies entail a widespread global reach that, according to one ISIS member’s Ask.fm page, is not just “a valuable tool for recruitment” but can also “clear any dirty lies the western media says,” and “scare disbelievers and show [their] projects to establish the Islamic state.”

ISIS uses its own news sites to “clear any dirty lies.” There is the Al Hayat Media Center, as well as two Twitter accounts–@jihadNews2, and @AmreekiWitness (the latter, “dedicated to raising awareness about the upcoming conquest of the Americas, and the benefits to the American People”)–and those are just a few of them.  There is also Jihadology.net, which offers its own translation service, and The Islamic State Report, a weekly magazine in English and German.

Strangely enough, ISIS campaigners use social media to foster a community image for the group. They post photos of ISIS militants handing out food, and even posted a video of a family fair in Syria, which featured an ice-cream competition for children. There are even jihadist shirts and toys for sale.

To “scare disbelievers,” ISIS frequently posts photos and videos of mass executions, of their military style parades, and the killing of spies. They even organized threats against the US via Twitter. Last month, instructions on how to participate in the “Warning to the American People” were circulated–emphasis was placed on posting in English. Over the next few days, the hashtag #CalamityWillBeFallUS was tweeted nearly 85,000 times along with photos of dead American troops, the 9/11 attacks, and of ISIS parades.

ISIS also hijacked the World Cup hashtag and released a photo of a police officer’s head with the caption “This is our ball… it is made of skin.”

The most surprising part of their social media campaign is the notable quality of the video, photography, and editing.

The music video, “Let’s Go For Jihad” by the Al Hayat Media Center, ties footage of drive-bys, assassinations, and bombings efficiently edited with great graphics and dramatic slow motion.

The prospect of producing videos for social media also makes ISIS more violent in certain ways. Executions are filmed using several cameras with post-production prospects.

“They clearly killed these people for the camera,” former CIA counterterrorism analyst Aki Peritz explained in a Washington Post article.

All of their gruesome content is obviously effective. Thousands of people fall for their propaganda, and one Colorado teen actually fell in love with an ISIS member she met online.

After internet users become galvanized by ISIS propaganda, they can click on tips that tell them how to join. One ISIS Ask.fm user, calling himself Abu Abdullah, gives people basic information on his page, such has what type of currency to bring, and where to cross the border.

He describes what life is like while in ISIS, and lets others know what to expect when they complete training: an AK47, a few magazines, a vest pack, and grenades. Abdullah tries to advertise the free AK47 factor by letting people know the weapon retails for $1200 in Iraq. When people ask for more detailed information he invites them to message him on Kik.

Though the ISIS propaganda campaigns help them to recruit, such efforts also help counterterrorist groups. An anonymous US official told The Washington Post that since the country pulled out of Iraq two years ago, American spy agencies lost much of their ability to monitor events there. Now, “analysts are to a large extent dependent on tracking ISIS through social media sites,” the official tells the Post.

The NSA and the FBI declined to comment.

The internet is also bringing this war to civilians in a very interesting way. On the digital front, companies and organizations are fighting back. Twitter, Google, and Youtube are blocking offensive material, which helps to reduce the spread of ISIS propaganda. For instance, there was The Dawn of Glad Tidings, an ISIS news app that was downloaded thousands of times after being released in April. Google blocked the app soon after. Though Google declined to comment on the matter, a spokesperson told ITV that the app violated community guidelines.

Many ISIS members’ accounts operate under free speech, but when posts are too offensive, they can be blocked. For example, the Al Hayat Media Center, an ISIS media group, recently had their Twitter account suspended. However, the closing of accounts is like losing game of Whack-a-Mole. Accounts are so prevalent and pop up so quickly, that it’s realistically impossible to track and block them all. Also, some users even activate backup accounts in case their initial ones become deleted.

Twitter declined to comment on how they are managing the balance between ensuring free speech and blocking offensive content.

To combat ISIS, Iraq attempted to block internet communications, but without much success. Tor usage spiked with internet blocks and one ISIS member figured out how to tweet without internet.

It seems that the harder that ISIS members push their message, the more the rest of the world lashes back. On the digital front, citizens from around the world, and even members the US government, are trolling people on ISIS, and posting under #no2ISIS. The Anonymous hacker group has promised to combat ISIS as well. On the land front, ISIS’s fame is causing people to volunteer in the Iraq army.

The world is faced at a crux of ISIS’s social media success and preventative pressure.