The Ways that ISIS is Winning the War on Social Media


by Timothy

Unless you live under a rock, you have heard of ISIS. Most of us have seen their atrocities on the internet or on the news, no matter how much we try not to. Who are these people that we were so blissfully ignorant of only a few years ago, how did their name become so prominent in our vocabulary and how are they able to reach so many people around the world?

By now you’ve probably heard both titles for what is undoubtedly the most notorious terrorist group in recent history but you  may not know why there are two names for them or why they are different. The primary difference, believe it or not, is the geographical reach implied. “ISIS” stands for The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria while “ISIL” stands for The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Levant refers to the area from Southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt and includes Israel. As you can see, “ISIL” is much more ambitious and gives them far more prestige than they deserve.

ISIS began as a small insurgent group in Iraq around 2006 but finding it difficult to gain any progress as their own entity, they moved into Syria when the Syrian Civil War broke out. Their hope was to make gains there that they could not make in Iraq but Syria proved to be difficult as well. Their problem was funding and arming their efforts which the United States would resolve for them in a few years.

It wasn’t until 2014 that they were able to obtain many of the weapons that the Obama Administration had sent to the Free Syrian Army and they were able to take their newly fitted army back into Iraq to resume their claim for fame. Though unacknowledged by most of our government, many of the so-called Free Syrian Army members were actually ISIS members. It is believed by some that the administration was aware of this and continued to arm them anyway.

ISIS first became known for their grainy, poorly produced execution videos that began showing up on the internet. Primarily showing beheadings, their cell phone videos took the news cycles by storm and they immediately saw the value of social media in trying to boost their prominence. It didn’t hurt that they were simultaneously making military gains in Iraq at the same time, with their US supplied weapons.

Faster than cities in Iraq could fall to their fighters, social media became a victim as well. Using Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Silent Circle, What’s App and messaging apps like Telegram and Surespot, ISIS was suddenly able to spread its messages of propaganda all over the world and reach millions directly. They could encourage disenfranchised westerners to either travel to Syria and join their army or stay at home and attack whatever was around them. It was cheap, easy and largely untraceable.

Many of the videos and much of the propaganda that was released online were not beheading videos rather public works projects, economic development tasks and other rebuilding efforts that were supposed to show ISIS’ commitment to the towns and villages that they were invading. They were, according to their countless documentaries and posts, the “Good Guys”.

ISIS also began releasing a magazine to the west that was thoughtfully translated into English. The name of it is Dabiq and it can be found all over the internet. Not only the most current issue but also as many back issues as you would like to read. This magazine is high gloss, well developed and carefully edited. If you could forget what you were reading for a moment, you might think you picked up a copy of Better Homes and Gardens. Of course, when you get to the bomb-making instructions you will likely be jolted back to your senses.

These magazines, and others like it, are available on multiple websites who claim to be performing a service to the world by documenting them and keeping them forever. I suppose they do not feel responsible for the actions of whoever downloads them.

It has been reported that ISIS has, in some cases, even highjacked hashtags of unrelated subjects in order to direct unwary surfers to vivid and bloody photos as they did in 2014 when they commandeered “#worldcup” (which displayed a severed head).

ISIS videos became more sophisticated and they began filming with HD cameras, blue-screens, and even began producing little graphical introductions with each film. This same time last year, it was estimated that through social media, ISIS was releasing an average of 38 new items per day.

These efforts began paying off in dividends and according to CNN, as of this past spring, 3,400 westerners have traveled to join ISIS, with as many as 250 being from the United States. As stated, those that do not travel, or cannot, are encouraged in social media to attack whatever they can at home. This, too, proved successful.

While it is nearly impossible to list every attack that is attributed to ISIS in the West, some of the notable attacks in the US are:

  • April 15, 2013; Two brothers created bombs out of pressure cookers and placed them at the Boston Marathon. 3 dead.
  • October 23, 2014; An attacker armed with a hatchet attacked 4 NYPD Officers in a subway, injuring 2.
  • May 3,2015; Two gunmen attacked the Curtis Colwell Center during a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon exhibit in Garland, Texas. 2 dead.
  • December 2, 2015; A married couple in California shot their coworkers who were throwing them a baby shower. 14 dead.
  • June 12, 2016; A shooter entered a nightclub in Orlando, Florida and kills 49.

There can be little doubt that many of these attacks as well as others across the West would not have occurred had it not been for the shrewd exploitation of social media by ISIS. So the ultimate question is “Are we winning this war or losing it?” I will not pretend to know the answer to this.

If you believe what you see on television, we are winning battles in Iraq and ISIS is losing geographical territory there on a weekly basis. The problem with this is that ISIS is far more entrenched in countries other than Iraq. While their “core” countries (meaning they occupy territory) are Iraq and Syria, they are present in many more countries, making their reach astounding. They are thought to have a significant presence in Algeria, Nigeria, Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Caucasus in southern Russia as well.

This likely means that even after the horrors presently being committed in Iraq and Syria have abated, the attacks and propaganda which rely heavily on social media will continue. As long as it continues to be effective we have to assume that ISIS will continue to see its use as a valuable tool.

So far, the US government’s efforts at counteracting the presence of Radical Islam on the internet have not been very effective. They have attempted to create Twitter accounts, run by the State Department, that encouraged would-be recruits to turn away from radical tweets and propaganda. This often resulted in philosophical arguments between the State Department and pro-Jihadis which turned out to be largely unproductive.

Their more recent efforts, according to the Wall Street Journal, are to get Islamic leaders involved in trying to undermine the draw of ISIS and other groups on young, disenchanted westerners. What makes these countermeasures so difficult is that they should be targeted to a narrow, specific demographic and it is difficult to determine what that is.

Additionally, the government has financed competitions to encourage college students to come up with ideas on how to combat this social onslaught by radical groups. While there are some encouraging signs such as fewer tweets being registered by the Islamic State, this could be because of a move to heavily encrypted messaging and not necessarily a reduction in recruitment.

The reality is that it is difficult to prevent ‘copy-cats’ or anyone else who views an extreme position or action as an answer to their own discontented lives. Some of the attacks committed under the flag of ISIS can be contributed to these type of people as well as the mentally ill. In truth, there may never be a way to counter the attractiveness of such organizations for these people.

CNN interviewed a former terrorist recruiter who told them that one of the problems with the government’s attempts to counter ISIS’ social media blitz is that the government’s videos simply do not appeal to a gaming generation the way radical videos do. Up until this point, the government’s efforts have been mostly seen in the form of something akin to slide shows. His recommendation is that the US use social media, non-stop just as ISIS does.

It seems odd to think that some wanna-be terrorist, who may be undecided about killing the innocent people around him, might be swayed by whichever side has the most ‘game-like’ videos. I would hate to think that this is our new reality but some believe that it is.

One thing is clear. Something must be done. As ISIS continues to slip terrorists into the West under the guise of being ‘refugees’, as they continue to use chemical weapons in Syria and their hateful rhetoric is still taught by many Islamic leaders around the world, it is imperative that we contain the fight to those outside of our own populations.

The Brookings Institute which is a prominent ‘think tank’ on social issues thinks that the answer might be the ability to intervene with a potential recruit before he or she reaches the final stages of radicalization. This would require friends, family, and law enforcement to be able to recognize the signs of indoctrination and does not really address the problem of the initial attraction of social media content. Until this is addressed it is likely that the recruitment will continue.

Some believe that as ISIS loses ground in Iraq and Syria, the allure of recruitment will be reduced as a byproduct of that. After all, they argue, who wants to be associated with a losing team? There may be some truth to this but do we really want to wait to find out?

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