ISIS Winning The War In Iraq With A Not So Secret Social Weapon

We are living in the era of the most visceral, dangerous war photography in history, where the latest digital cameras, satellite phones and high speed internet have propelled incredible front line images into lounge rooms around the world - all in high definition.

But no matter how graphic or gruesome the images from international news agencies like Reuters, AP or Getty, it is the iPhone snaps of piled bodies, taken by the perpetrators, that make the front pages. Iraq 2014, in many ways, has become a 'selfie' war.

From Baba Yar in Ukraine, to My Lai in Vietnam, the mass killings of soldiers or civilians has historically been covered up by the perpertrators, the site obscured, the images blurred if they exist.

Iraqi soldiers are pictured moments before they are shot in a photo taken by the perpetrators

But posted on sites like, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, are the most iconic pictures of the conflict, the rows of men with bowed heads and hands bound, the trenches dug for bodies, the smoke from a rifle, the moment a bullet enters the head of a cowed soldier. The pictures are snapped on camera phones, not by professional, impartial photographers.

"Photography is a saturated market," said photographer Rick Findler, who spoke to HuffPost UK from Iraq, where he is embedded with the Kurdish peshmerga fighting the radical jihadists of ISIS. "Everyone has a mobile phone camera with the ability of taking high quality pictures - even terrorists and other enemies."

The horrors which appear almost casual through the frame of Instagram or Twitpic are limitless. Just last week, ISIS militants posted footage of an Iraqi police officer being abducted from his home before he was beheaded. A picture of the severed head was then shown with the caption: "This is our ball. It's made of skin #WorldCup."

The Sunni insurgents have taken several cities including Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, escalating fears of a brutal civil war against Iraq's Shia majority and the government of Nouri Al-Maliki.

"Post Cold War, covering conflict has got much more dangerous. And in recent times, there's been a blur between combatant and journalist, with so many citizen journalists. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it was too dangerous to go out there unless you were embedded with troops," Dr James Rodgers, City University journalism lecturer and former war correspondent told the HuffPost UK.

"It's almost impossibly dangerous to get close enough. Even Anthony Lloyd, the Times war correspondent who is one of the most experienced out there, found himself in a situation - which he wrote in his book - with someone who double-crossed him. Someone he thought he could trust in Syria."

"The technology is so much better now. In 2013, more photos were taken in one year than there have been in all the years past put together," he added. "There was no such technology, really, even in 2003."

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ISIS's professional approach to social media and access to the latest technology has even enabled it to launch its own official Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings (sounding remarkably like a Game of Thrones episode). Launched in April, the app demands that once it is downloaded, it will post tweets to your account, including images, with the ISIS hashtag. Thousands who signed up recently tweeted the same message, a terror thunder clap, 'We are coming for you Baghdad'. The Android app is still available in the Google Play store.

"What they are doing won't transform and certainly won't deter photographers from working in the future," Findler said. "Sadly it may change how picture editors work in the future, because they would much rather use a free image posted on twitter rather than pay for a photographer's picture. They would also rather use a picture from the very hands of ISIS, for example, rather than from a photographer that is a kilometre away with the people that aren't going to cut his head off."

The photographs posted on the personal social media of ISIS adherents are not just to terrify their opponents. It is a propaganda war aimed at the wider world and potential recruits, using both guts and gifs.

From fighters purportedly in Iraq and Syria, there are a substantial number of cat pictures:

There's even Twitter poetry:

"ISIS on social media is just like 19th century propaganda," Rodgers said. "But the scale is unprecedented. It's a weapon in the war. This is all done for public consumption, for the world. it's a way of showing how feared they are, how powerful. It's to scare their enemies on the ground, sure, but it's also done for us."

"What conventional war weapon can cause up to 30,000 soldiers to flee in fear?" Findler said. "Thousands of Iraqi army soldiers dropped their arms and even their clothes - in order to flee from ISIS - all because of fear. And that fear has been born by not only just their brutality - but their ability to publicise it and broadcast it using social media, making people aware of just how ruthless they are.

"The majority of photographers take pictures in war 'to make a difference', or at least try. I believe that the ISIS are doing the exact same - to make a difference. The only problem is their 'difference' involves warping people's minds and deliberately publishing these pictures for the sole reason of fear."

Rick Findlar's pictures from within ISIS territory in northern Iraq

Rick Findler

The radical Islamists who are believed to only have a core of 7,000 actual fighters, despite their military successes and their social media know-how, have another important use for social media, recruitment.

Kurdish intelligence chief Lahoor Talabani has warned many are taking up the call, and may return to attack Britain. "From just Britain alone have around 400 to 450 known people fighting amongst the ranks of ISIS," he said.

On Friday ISIS released a chilling 13-minute video - professionally shot and edited but which has not been independently verified - iissuing a rallying call to Islamists in the UK to join them "in these golden times", warning them: "You are going to die anyway."

ISIS members sit around in a field discussing their motivation for fighting

At several points the man identifying himself as Abu Bara' Al Hindi claims joining the group will alleviate the stress and "depression" of living in the West. “You need to fight for Allah. Sacrifice for Allah," he says. “The cure for depression is Jihad.”

The video was heavily promoted by supporters of Isis on Twitter, using the hashtag #AllEyesOnIsis.

Police have already warned they also have #AllEyesOnIsis. As Rodgers put it: "You can be sure if journalists are examining these pictures, the security services are looking at them very closely indeed."

33 civilian deaths from violence EVERY DAY on average since 'Mission Accomplished'

Iraq in numbers