By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem* —
ISIS utilizes social media to promote its military and terrorist attacks in Syria and Iraq; where it set a complex strategic plan to use these platforms for the mentioned purpose. And with the outset of ISIS’ attack on Mosul and other adjacent provinces on June 9, 2014, many accounts were activated on Twitter that claimed it represents ISIS in Iraq and Syria. These accounts live streamed updates of ISIS’ operations, in additions to publishing data and images to promote the organization’s military and suicide operations in a number of Iraqi and Syrian provinces, in order to display its military power and battlefield progress.
Hence, ISIS runs professional promotion videos within its “billion campaign” that pleads Muslims to share messages, images, and videos on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube in support for ISIS. Also; the organization ran videos that called on to Muslims to support it, in both the French and English languages.
Furthermore; ISIS launches online campaigns and new hashtags on Twitter to support its operations in Iraq and Syria. In the process; it asks its followers across the world to take pictures holding the ISIS flag; and to share these pictures on social media.
In April 2014; ISIS developed a free application that it called “Fajr El-Bashaer” (literally meaning “the dawn of the good news”). This application displays all ISIS tweets right away after their publishing on Twitter, on the accounts of the application’s registered users; that after the consent of the organization’s media directors. The displayed materials include hashtags, links, images, videos among other things. Around 40,000 tweets have been published in a single day during the clashes in Iraq. The Iraqi government blocked some Facebook and Twitter accounts, among others, in an attempt to quell ISIS’s campaign’s influence on social media.
Interactivity of “jihadist” media
It is worth noting that “Jihadist” media techniques and styles have developed, and the “jihadist” narrative isn’t based only on approaching the masses using hateful, sectarian and extremist sentiments anymore, but has also morphed into a modern and interactive media that uses questionnaires and studies the opinions and reactions of its audience especially youth, before taking decisions regarding, for example, the ‘image’ of ISIS or its “jihadist” flag. The type of media has also turned into being an oriented platform that links the head with the base, reaching to the youths in a non-mundane fashion, displaying a sense of challenge throughout the process of polarization. This is why ISIS’ tweets were attractive to many youths.
The “jihadist” websites use taking footage of extremists’ suicide operations to appeal most of the youths, and thus recruit and mobilize as many of them as it can in their ranks. This is done by publishing harrowing images, and sometimes forged one, showing extremists’ atrocities to achieve a wider sectarian “jihadist” mobilization. Investigations and some Arab and foreign fighters’ testimonies, over the net, have shown that the images that the “jihadist” organizations published on their websites were a direct cause for the enrollment of these fighters in these organizations’ ranks and their fighting under its slogans.
The Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn of ‘The Independent’ wrote :” Looking at a selection of such online postings, what is striking is not only their violence and sectarianism but also the professionalism with which they are produced. The jihadists may yearn for a return to the norms of early Islam, but their skills in using modern communications and the Internet are well ahead of most political movements in the world”.
He added: “By producing a visual record of everything it does, ISIS has greatly amplified its political impact. Its militants dominate social media and produce well made and terrifying films to illustrate the commitment of their fighters as they identify and kill their enemies”.
Cockburn concluded that “In contrast to the sophistication of the technical production of footage by militants, the content is frequently crudely sectarian and violent.”
When examining a specimen of the images and posters on the internet, one can notice they don’t depict violence or sectarianism, rather they display prowess in the style of their production. These groups have thus well used technology for their interests.
Moreover; ISIS has wielded sectarian narrative in Iraq since 2010, to supersede the Sunni constituency in the country. And it considered the confrontation with the Iraqi government that of a sectarian revenge type, more than it being a mere doctrinal or “jihadist” issue for changing regimes.
The organization was also able to focus light on Iraqi arrested women “abductions” by the Iraqi authorities, and thus triggering tribal social instincts in Al-Anbar province to mobilize, through media, against the Iraqi government. In addition; ISIS documented some of the Iraqi army’s errors and violations apparent during its crackdowns on suspects, or when its rockets targeted by error civilian residential units in Al-Anbar province.
ISIS and the psychological warfare
Since its early emergence at both the political and media arenas, ISIS counted on psychological warfare to horrify its enemies, and the principle of “provocation” to polarize a wide audience. The organization follows an organized plan, and eclectically chooses the material it publishes; thus choosing graphic images that would have a profound influence on the viewer, and hence creating a sense of fear within its enemies, in addition to earning the fond of other extremist groups. ISIS is keen on beheading its hostages and shooting footage of the process to horrify its enemies, and that has had its influence on some Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Kurdish (Peshmerga) soldiers who fled the battlefields afraid of being taken hostages by ISIS, and thus being exposed to torture and beheadings. And on the contrary to other “jihadist” organizations, ISIS does not care much about its image among public opinion.
Furthermore, ISIS launched an English-language magazine, named “Dabeq”, that discusses news about “its emirates, caliphates and people”. The organization also used, in its audio-visual media, several types of editing while directing its videos in a sort-of cinematic kind of way. This is what caused media experts around the world to closely examine ISIS’ videos. In the video of beheading the American journalist, Steven Sotloff, which bared the title “second message to America”; ISIS incarnated an American style of movie direction. The DailyMail noticed that ISIS has copied the opening credits of hit TV show “Homeland” to introduce the beheading of US journalist Steven Sotloff. Homeland opens with rough cuts between poor quality footage of news reports, and a speech by US President Barak Obama declaring: ‘We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad’. Also, the brutal ISIS’ video shows Obama’s reaction to the murder of US journalist James Foley, in which he states: ‘We will be vigilant and we will be relentless’.
Some experts have considered this technique as a clear move by the terrorist group “to lure Western recruits using themes from popular culture that romanticize warfare and terrorism”. Dr Andreas Krieg, of the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London, told the DailyMail that the videos are a ‘means of psychological warfare’ that offer young Muslims ‘the illusion to escape the rigid world of boredom’.
ISIS resorts to Twitter for mobilization
The new head of Britain’s electronic spying agency, Robert Hannigan, claimed that the global internet companies have become ‘the command and control networks of choice’ for terrorists.
Hannigan, the director of GCHQ (Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters), explained how ISIS has exploited social media for recruitment and propaganda – using the Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube to promote beheadings. He added that internet firms need to open up even more to state, calling on the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to give greater co-operation to GCHQ and sister agencies MI5 and MI6. ‘GCHQ and its sister agencies… cannot tackle these challenges without greater support from the private sector, including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web,’ he said.
He accused a group of American tech companies centered in Silicon Valley; saying that they have become favored command and control networks for terrorists around the world. Yet these companies still deny the magnitude of this problem.
He also pointed out that the ISIS activists in Syria and Iraq use the internet to terrorize people and horrify them, or to inspire potential enrollers into the organization to enlist from around the world.
Hannigan also stated there was ‘no doubt’ that young foreign fighters had benefited from the treasure trove of intelligence secrets leaked by fugitive CIA worker Edward Snowden, who replicated the highly complex coding via programs, systems and tools.
Moreover, the production of ISIS’ videos seems to be immensely professional. The act of beheading isn’t shown in the videos, perhaps ISIS terrorists have discovered that this visual aspect of violence would have a negative impact on the audience, who must well receive the message. Hence, through self-censorship, these terrorists remain within the legal bounds of social media and its code of conduct; building upon freedom of expression in the west.
ISIS seeks to reach the Saudi society through media techniques, the likes of Twitter; since by using hashtags any issue the organization aims at publicizing, can go viral immediately; and the inciting tweets can reach millions of people through Saudi names.
The expert of extremist groups and terror, Mansour El-Shimmary, stated that ISIS runs many video on YouTube that show Saudi youth enrolled within the organization; like one that shows a young man tearing his passport, and another entering battlefield sites, in addition to recordings baring Saudi accents.
El-Shimmary explained that when examining the content of such recordings, we notice that the message ISIS is intent on conveying is that its most members are Saudis; yet they aren’t assigned for leadership statuses, just like the case with Afghans. But this interaction comes with a price to pay; as many of the Saudi “jihadis” who traveled to embattled areas in Syria and Iraq were influenced by imaginative figures on social media who facilitated their way into ISIS and other armed groups, through enthusiasm triggering; and then were asked to carry out battle operations and suicide bombings.
*Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanese analyst and researcher who specialize in the Middle East and Islamic affairs. He published several books and studies and he wrote for many Arabic and English newspapers and websites.