Tweets, YouTube videos expose ISIS strategy

Analysis shows how it is pushing bulk of forces towards Damascus, Baghdad

PARIS - Tweets and YouTube videos by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group have allowed analysts to pinpoint their movements in Iraq and Syria, highlighting the group's increasing push towards government strongholds.

The revelation came as ISIS suffered a setback in Libya, where dozens of its fighters were killed on Saturday as militiamen sought to dislodge them from an area in the eastern city of Derna.

The data compiled by Britain- based analysts from IHS Conflict Monitor shows how ISIS is probing beyond the territory it holds and pushing the bulk of its forces towards Damascus and Baghdad.

IHS ranks the most reliable Twitter and YouTube accounts from known ISIS militants, as well as opposition activists and government sources, using the geo-location data from around 4,000 entries a month to map attacks ranging from assassinations to large-scale bomb attacks.

"The Islamic State is shifting its attention to the weakened Syrian government at the expense of losing territory to the Kurds in northern Syria," Mr Firas Abi-Ali, head of Middle East analysis for IHS, said, referring to ISIS.

That freed up ISIS militants to push towards the capitals, added IHS' deputy head of political violence forecasting Richard Jackson.

ISIS has planted mines and bombs in the ancient part of the central Syrian city of Palmyra, home to Roman-era ruins, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday.

It was not immediately clear whether the group was preparing to destroy the ancient ruins or had planted the mines to deter government forces from advancing towards the city, also known as Tadmur.

Mr Abi-Ali said the team began the mapping project and ranking the reliability of sources in January last year to try to sift through the lies from all sides in the war.

"What we've seen in the Syrian conflict is groups over-reporting their activity to gain credibility. There were a lot of unsubstantiated claims that one side or another was winning," he said.

Given the speed of their movement, ISIS fighters have made little effort to disguise their locations on social media.

"They rely heavily on their mobility, they move between battle fronts quite quickly and effectively, so they are less worried about giving away their location," said Mr Abi-Ali.

In Iraq, weak security forces and an ineffectual government mean ISIS is still able to make offensive gains despite a massive international effort involving thousands of air strikes, deliveries of weapons and other equipment and training for Iraqi forces.

The IHS data shows ISIS pushing into the capital, with 70 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in Baghdad between February and April, as well as three suicide bombings.

Some ISIS operatives were members of the feared intelligence services under the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and the group has been able to infiltrate towns, villages and tribes to lay the ground for takeovers.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Tweets, YouTube videos expose ISIS strategy'. Subscribe