ISIS seen overtaking Al Qaeda in South Asia social media war

ISLAMABAD (REUTERS) - Islamist militant propaganda websites and social media accounts in South Asia are promoting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at the expense of the Al Qaeda, analysts said on Friday, highlighting the rivalry between the two global militant groups.

Disaffected Taliban factions have started to look towards ISIS, impressed by its rapid capture of territory in Syria and Iraq, though there is no evidence it is providing substantial material support to the Taliban.

The popularity of ISIS comes at the expense of Al Qaeda, whose deep pockets and foreign fighters once readily attracted local commanders.

But Al Qaeda has been decimated by drone strikes and its traditional influence severely eroded.

"The Taliban and al Qaeda have almost been written out of the picture," said Mr Omar Hamid, the head of Asia analysis at IHS Country Risk.

"Most of these sites have converted their content to an Islamic State (IS) platform," he said, referring to the group which is also known as IS and ISIL.

So far the ISIS social media campaign has not been matched by material support to South Asian groups such as the Taliban, he said, but it has helped gather dissatisfied splinter groups around ISIS.

A few Afghan commanders have sworn allegiance to ISIS, saying they oppose peace talks between the government and Taliban. Others have questioned whether reclusive one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who has close ties to Al Qaeda, is alive.

In Pakistan, home to a separate but allied Taliban insurgency, the leadership of the Taliban is hotly disputed. Some factions there also swore allegiance to ISIS, cementing their vow by beheading a soldier and posting the video online.

This week, the Afghan Taliban sent a letter to Islamic State's leader, urging the group to stop recruiting in Afghanistan.

"Twelve months ago, a majority of social media sites in Urdu or Pashto had around 70 per cent (of content) related to South Asian jihadi groups," Mr Hamid said, referring to two languages commonly spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"It changed to about 95 per cent IS content by September last year."

Mr Hamid, a former Pakistani counter-terror police officer, analysed dozens of militant Twitter and Facebook profiles and militant propaganda sites.

Pakistan's government has repeatedly promised to ban jihadi websites but most remain online. A spokesman for the country's telecoms authority could not say how many militant websites had been banned.

ISIS is definitely gaining in popularity at the expense of Al Qaeda, said Mr Saifullah Mahsud, head of Islamabad-based thinktank the FATA Research Centre. "Islamic State is the new poster boy," he said. "But the ideology has been around a long time."