The dreadful images of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines' beheadings - released by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) over the past few weeks - represent the climax of a fierce media campaign conducted by the group against the West. While extending its control over large portions of Iraq and Syria, ISIS has engaged in an equally brutal propaganda battle, which has mostly taken place on social media. In addition to an extensive use of Twitter, ISIS militants have taken to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other online platforms in a bid to raise money, recruit fighters and amplify their message. Theirs is a sophisticated effort directed at winning hearts and minds within as well as beyond the borders of the caliphate.
This is hardly surprising. Extremist groups have always been on the lookout for better ways to recruit new members and make their voice heard. From their perspective, turning to the latest technologies is a lot more of a necessity than a choice. Just think of al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11. Aware of the importance of winning the battle of ideas, Osama Bin Laden was able to build an advanced network for the production and distribution of jihadist media, including individual statements, documentary films and attack videos. Such material was initially intended for airing on satellite TV but was quickly redirected online as soon as channels such as Al-Jazeera decided to stop broadcasting the videos.
The recent migration of many jihadist organizations to social media reflects a desire to expand their targeted audience one step further. Password-protected forums - up until recently the main virtual gathering place for al-Qaeda supporters - made content particularly difficult to access for wannabe jihadists, while also representing a common target for the security services' disruption efforts.
Terrorist groups rapidly learned how to take advantage of the public nature of social media. As early as in September 2011, the al-Qaeda affiliated group al-Shabaab - the one responsible for the 2013 attack at Westagate Mall, Nairobi - adopted Twitter as its main propaganda tool. Before its multiple accounts were shut down earlier this year, Twitter constituted the group's primary channel for sending threats, challenging the enemy's claims and bragging about their actions, much as ISIS is doing now on a daily basis.
What makes ISIS stand out from the crowd of tech-savvy radicals is the scope of their engagement online. Analysts believe ISIS is using social media far more effectively than any other terrorist group operating on the Web. According to terrorism expert JM Berger, ISIS' digital efforts stem from a carefully planned and coordinated strategy, deliberately aimed at magnifying the group's message and making it look stronger than it really is. Indeed, a study he conducted in February showed that despite having roughly the same number of online supporters, ISIS' hashtags consistently fare better compared to those launched by Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda also active in Syria.
Berger's hypothesis seems to be in line with some of the tactics recently employed by ISIS. The group has developed an app for Android mobile devices called 'The Dawn of Glad Tidings', enabling users to keep up with the latest news about the activities of the Islamic State. In return, the application gives ISIS permission to send its tweets periodically from the accounts of everyone who has signed up for it. The result is that what is actually the voice of a dozen gets heard by thousands of people across the world and is perceived as the product of a burgeoning and extremely popular movement.
On a similar note, ISIS is creating armies of Twitter-bots designed to boost the group's propaganda efforts remotely. Their function is to post the same content several times accompanied with the most popular hashtags, in order to reach the broadest public possible. Hundreds of Twitter accounts have been hijacked as part of a campaign that has a two-fold purpose: giving the impression of a larger force while making it more difficult for ISIS supporters to be identified.
Independent supporters play a key role indeed in the digital campaign of ISIS. This is particularly evident in the process whereby militants and potential recruits access information about the conflict. According to a report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King's College London, the majority of foreign fighters involved in Syria receive updates from a range of 'disseminators' - sympathisers who have no direct links with the organization and are located primarily in Western countries. These figures are considered to have a major impact on how the conflict is perceived by those taking part in it and their influence is, in many cases, estimated to exceed that of ISIS' official accounts.
A similar mechanism is reflected in the highly professional nature of the material posted by the group online. Alongside the steady flow of gruesome images, ISIS militants systematically upload hundreds of motivational pictures, skilfully crafted using Photoshop and other graphic software. The majority of this material is created by users who are not associated with the group but contribute individually by designing, translating and circulating messages supporting the jihadist cause.
When it comes to producing recruitment and propaganda videos, however, unaffiliated supporters leave room to a much smaller group of official ISIS members. This mainly consists of professional filmmakers working directly for the Islamic State. Their use of high-definition video cameras, slick graphics and refined editing techniques has elevated the quality of the videos produced to Hollywood standards. One series of video clips called Mujatweets, released by ISIS' media arm on YouTube, portrays a number of ISIS militants as they engage in noble activities such as visiting an injured fighter at the hospital or distributing candies to some children. Episodes are filmed in HD, contain sophisticated graphics and logos, and include English subtitles -- a sign of how the message is explicitly intended for second-generation immigrants, especially the young.
ISIS contents are systematically shaped according to the target they are designed to reach. When speaking to the Western public, tactics such as organized hashtag campaigns (e.g., #AllEyesOnISIS) or hijacking of trending hashtags (e.g., #WorldCup2014) are frequently used to increase the visibility of the group. Yet the message differs, according to whether the goal is to intimidate or to inspire. In the former case, material is generally limited to photos of mutilated bodies and videos of hostage executions. In the latter, potential recruits are also presented with a more humane side of jihadists. A few weeks ago, a meme portraying militants posing with jars of Nutella was spread using several Twitter accounts.
Content changes once more as the target shifts from an international audience to the local population. English is replaced by Arabic, with graphic pictures being integrated with images showing administrative services being effectively run under the Islamic State -- a clear warning to ISIS opponents but also a promise of a peaceful life for those who remain faithful.
Such a systematic process of message customisation is arguably unique in the jihadist universe, as is the dimension and the level of professionalism characterising ISIS' propaganda campaign. There's nothing new in the early adoption of new technology by violent, extremist groups. Even the purposes for which social media are being exploited have largely remained the same as in the past. What has hardly any precedent is the breadth of the communication strategy implemented by ISIS, covering the type of content to be released as well as the way in which material is disseminated. Whether this will be enough to win the hearts and minds of the Ummah - the global community of Muslims - is still an open question. On the answer will depend much of the future of the Islamic State.
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