Online jihad 3.0: Social media is weapon of choice for ISIS

Extremists are adept at using the media to recruit, and promote their beliefs

BAGHDAD - The world is riveted by the extremists who have seized large parts of Syria and Iraq with their military prowess and unrestrained brutality.

But Western intelligence services are also worried about their extraordinary command of seemingly less lethal weapons: cutting-edge videos, videos shot from drones and multilingual Twitter messages.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is using every contemporary mode of messaging to recruit fighters, intimidate enemies and promote its claim to have established a caliphate, a unified Muslim state run according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

If its bigotry and beheadings seem to come from a distant century, its use of media is up to the moment. A review of its prodigious output in print and online reveals a number of surprises.

ISIS propaganda, for instance, has strikingly few calls for attacks on the West. What animates all of ISIS' messaging instead is the image of unstoppable, implacable power.

"The overriding point is that success breeds success," said Mr Emile Nakhleh, a former CIA analyst.

In the evolution of modern jihadist propaganda, Osama bin Laden, addressing a single static camera with long-winded rhetoric in highly formal Arabic, represented the first generation.

The most prominent figure of the second generation was the YouTube star Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, who addressed Westerners in colloquial English, had a blog and Facebook page, and helped produce a full-colour, English-language magazine called Inspire.

The ISIS is online jihad 3.0. Dozens of Twitter accounts spread its message, and it has posted some major speeches in seven languages. Its videos borrow from Madison Avenue and Hollywood, from combat video games and cable television dramas, and its sensational dispatches are echoed and amplified on social media.

When its accounts are blocked, new ones appear immediately. It also uses services like JustPaste to publish battle summaries, SoundCloud to release audio reports, Instagram to share images and WhatsApp to spread graphics and videos.

ISIS has even gone on a website to answer hundreds of questions about joining the fighting in Iraq or Syria, from what type of shoes to bring and whether toothbrushes are available.

"They are very adept at targeting a young audience," said Mr John Horgan, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who has long studied terrorism. "There's an urgency: 'Be part of something that's bigger than yourself and be part of it now.'"

Scour the account of any Syrian jihadist from the West and you will find scores of questions from men back home asking how to emigrate, how to evade the authorities, what level of fitness is required – even whether hair gel is available in rebel-held areas, UK Mirror reported.

One jihadist from Manchester, it said, issued a checklist of things for potential fighters to bring with them, including toilet roll, indigestion tablets and an iPad.

This has a uniquely powerful effect on those considering joining the fight. It humanises the fighters and makes their dangerous journeys into Syria seem entirely normal. It seduces others into acting themselves, the report said.

Pictures also serve as a powerful recruiting tool. British fighters not only publish cocksure pictures of themselves with guns, tanks and other hardware but also of everyday life – fighters playing football, swimming and enjoying feasts.

"I am your brother in Islam here in Syria. We have safety here for your family and children," said a Western jihadist on video, urging potential ISIS recruits to come join the fight in Syria, CBS News reported.

The United States has been waging a "cyber counter-offensive" for the past 18 months by targeting dozens of social network accounts linked to Islamic radicals, posting comments, photos and videos and often engaging in tit-for-tat exchanges with those which challenge America.

Diplomats and experts are the first to admit that the digital blitz will never be a panacea, but US officials see social media as an increasingly crucial battlefield as they aim to turn young minds in the Muslim world against groups like the ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

A senior US State Department official described the strategy as a kind of cyber guerilla campaign. "It is not a panacea, it is not a silver bullet," the official explained. "It is slow, steady, daily engagement pushing back on a daily basis."

Source: New York Times, Agence France-Presse

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 1 and updated on Sept 15.