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How 'Islamic State' is fighting its battles digitally

Gianna Grün
June 3, 2015

Terrorist organization "Islamic State" is more than just simply savvy when it comes to using the internet as a propaganda tool. But what can be used to fight against such a profound social media strategy and smart users?

Symbolbild Islamischer Staat und Social Media
A tweet by an "Islamic State" affiliated Twitter account showing an "IS" fighter giving a flower to a young boy. Pictures like these are common propaganda contrasting cruel beheadings.Image: picture-alliance/AP

You can watch this war happening while safely thousands of miles away. Sitting in front of your computer and logged into Twitter, Facebook and Instagram you can watch it almost in real time. The conflict provoked by terrorist organization "Islamic State" is being fought in the real world, in Syria and Iraq, but a global audience can follow it virtually online.

It's kind of bizarre - this Sunni militant group, which stands for a traditional backward form of Islam, is using the most modern tools of communication that our world has to offer. And, as bitter as it is, while many media organizations have struggled to harness the power of social media, one has to admit that the terrorist organization seems to have mastered it.


One of the most important uses of social media for the organization is to spread its ideology. The terrorist group is fighting to create a caliphate, a form of Islamic government that harks back to the origins of Islam and Sharia law.

But it's not only about spreading their views. The Islamist group is also using online tools as a way of demonstrating what they claim to be their "successes" - posting messages, graphics and videos to underline their violent achievements.

Still, its not all about cruelty and terrorism: Besides war imagery and beheadings, there are also messages claiming to show "IS" doing community work.

Nur für Life Links - Screenshot Tweet "Islamic State" Landwirtschaft
"IS" propaganda tweet. Twitter has suspended this accountImage: Twitter

And let's not forget the cute, furry kitten pictures, which always go down well on social media networks: "'IS's' apparent love for kittens can be seen as cheap tricks or clichés to brand themselves as anything but monsters, but also as a historical reference to Huraira (a companion of the prophet Muhammad) who is known for being fond of cats," wrote Thomas Elkjer Nissen, author of "The Weaponisation of Social Media."

Nur für Life Links - Screenshot Tweet "Islamic State" Katzen
"IS" propaganda tweetImage: Twitter

Still, it's not all about consensus and support in the Twitterverse. Of course, there is the obvious rhetoric that tries to counter the "IS" views and also mockery of the terror organization. But even within like-minded circles there is also disagreement: "The question of when and how to declare a new caliphate is highly controversial in jihadi circles, and (...) produced a great deal of anger and divisive discussion," wrote extremism expert J.M. Berger in The Atlantic.

The narrative and messages conveyed by "IS" are simple and "they resonate because they are coherent, idealistic and fill a void," writes Nissen. He told Life Links: "For some individuals this void can be a lack of sense of belonging or purpose, sense-making, acceptance in society, fulfilling a romanticized image of conducting Jihad, adventure or simply social or peer-group status. (...) For some, however, the recruitment can also be a question of promises of something that can satisfy other personal desires and needs such as excitement, money, sex."


Of course, using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is not merely about getting the ideological message across, it's also part of an agenda to find more people willing to fight for the cause in Iraq and Syria. And it's successful: foreign fighters are thought to make up around half of "IS's" total fighting force.

Estimates vary, but the most recent figures from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) approximate that around 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 50 countries went to Syria and Iraq making it the biggest mobilization of foreign fighters since the Afghanistan war in the 1980s. According to the ICSR study, most of these fighters were from the Middle East, but a significant minority - more than 4,000 - came from Western Europe or North America.

Disseminators: Spreading the word on Twitter

And their conviction, as well as their path to war, is well documented in their social media activities. The Brookings Institution's "ISIS Twitter census" estimated that from September to December 2014 at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by "IS" supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time.

"By virtually any measure, 'ISIS'-supporters using Twitter are far more active than ordinary users," the census' researchers discovered; for example the average number of followers among "IS" supporters was 1,004, compared to 208 for the average Twitter user.

But "IS's" Twitter network not only consists of more and more active users, compared to similar terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, its connections are also stronger. "IS"-linked hashtagged tweets were found to have been retweeted four times more often than Nusra-linked ones.

While "IS's" official accounts only send out propaganda like pictures and tweets demonstrating success, a smaller group of so-called "disseminators" were found to be engaging with "IS" supporters and those wanting to fight for the group.

In mutual dialogue with wannabe-fighters, the disseminators aid recruitment by answering ideological questions and helping with the practical aspects of getting to the front line. This is how many young men - aided by social media - end up fighting within the "IS" ranks.

"In the minds of foreign fighters, social media is no longer virtual: it has become an essential facet of what happens on the ground," concluded a ICSR research team investigating the importance and influence of foreign fighters in this conflict.


Videos of beheadings taking place or pictures of those who have been beheaded, people with guns pointed at their heads, dead children and blood-covered bodies - it's all proof of the "Islamic State's" ruthless cruelty. If you are far away, all of this is already horrendous. But if you know that you are close enough to what is happening to potentially become a victim of these violent acts, then they are more than just horrendous - they are terrifying.

In medieval times, the arrival of armies was announced by war drums or the blast of horns - today, it seems it is tweets. When "IS" stormed Mosul and later approached Baghdad in the summer of 2014, thousands of tweets announced the advance of the terrorist group. It led to Iraqi soldiers abandoning their posts, the Guardian reported.

But it wasn't because the Iraqis had seen a large group of well-armed troops approaching. It was due to an "IS" app that sends out the same tweet via all the accounts connected with it. One such tweet featured a picture of an "IS" soldier staring up at a flag flying over what appears to be a city with the text, "We are coming, Baghdad."

Screenshot Facebook Angst von der Einnahme Bagdads durch den Islamischen Staat
2014 screenshot of a page on Facebook created by young people in Baghdad in response to "IS" threats to bring down the Iraqi city.Image: Facebook

Available on the Google Play store, "The Dawn of Glad Tidings" app was downloaded several thousand times enabling it to send out up to 40,000 tweets in one day. The app was terminated by Twitter in June 2014, but until then it helped "IS" in making them appear far more powerful than they are.

'IS' proves to be tech-savvy - which is not surprising at all

"'ISIS' does have legitimate support online - but less than it might seem. And it owes that to a calculated campaign that would put American social-media-marketing gurus to shame," J.M. Berger stated in the Atlantic.

But having a profound social media strategy is only half of the key to success, even when you are a terrorist organisation, as absurd as that sounds. The other half is knowing how to utilize the means the internet gives you: "[The 'Islamic State'] after all is comprised of predominantly young men in their twenties, many of whom have grown up in the West and will be completely at ease with Twitter, Instagram and YouTube," Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Media at the British think tank Demos, is quoted as saying in the Telegraph. "No wonder they are good at it. (...) It's what they've grown up with."

But do Western governments really have nothing they can use in the fight against that?


Twitter seems to have gone on the offensive in dealing with "IS" accounts, suspending more than 2,000 account each week in recent months. However, unlike Facebook and YouTube, the micro-news site has not (yet) made changes to its policy that specifically deal with extremism - every user is afforded the right to freedom of speech, although accounts can be suspended if a specific threat of violence is made.

But that's not to say that the suspension of accounts always has the desired effect of preventing extremism anyway - it usually just leads to the creation of new ones. And as a result of "IS's" known multiplatform strategy, while communication might be disrupted on Twitter, it could just continue elsewhere instead.

If this "elsewhere" includes the deep web, then account suspension might even have a negative effect, as such websites like Diaspora are outside of the control of government and intelligence agencies: "If every single 'ISIS' supporter disappeared from Twitter tomorrow, it would represent a staggering loss of intelligence", the "IS" Twitter Census authors conclude.


The challenge instead is to make the means of communication used by "IS" less effective, say the researchers:"We believe it is possible to design metrics that could be used to dismantle the network by separating those small accounts into even smaller clusters of users and disrupting the flow of information among them."

Still, the suspension of accounts and degradation of "IS's" communication networks may only be half the battle - it relies completely on privately-owned companies.
But it's not enough. "No single authority possesses the scope and power to fully address the challenges presented by the presence of 'ISIS' and other similar groups on social media," states the "ISIS Twitter Census".


"It is no doubt a challenge for many, if not most, western liberal democracies to counter or just mitigate the effects of 'IS' online strategies and use of especially social media. It is basically a law enforcement task, but in doing so you encounter both legal and ethical challenges, as well as capacity problems," says author Nissen, adding that it is not just a question of closing down "IS" media accounts.

"[It's about] figuring out how to undermine and delegitimize 'IS' narrative in the social media. Including increasing youth's media literacy and awareness about the techniques 'IS' use in social media and the discrepancies between what they promise and the realities in the 'caliphate'. It is challenging, but western governments are increasingly aware that it is an area where more resources must be devoted."

One example of this can be seen in Britain where the country's military has recently armed itself with "social media warriors", a special task force for Facebook, according to the Guardian. Israel's defence forces, meanwhile, are said to be pioneers in terms of their social media engagement: they are active on 30 platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram and in six languages. "It enables us to engage with an audience we otherwise wouldn't reach," an Israeli army spokesman told the Guardian.

Symbolbild Islamischer Staat und Social Media
It is not only "IS" fighters that are engaging on social media - also western armies are working to expand their warfare to include digital.Image: Getty Images/M. Cardy

As of yet, there is no western country that is officially at war with "Islamic State" because that would imply the recognition of a legal state. However, the the terrorist group has attacked soldiers from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, among others.

But there are countries, like Indonesia - the nation with the biggest Muslim majority - that are reported to be running counterterrorism operations and also working to improve laws to combat "IS" - current legislation does not allow authorities to charge or detain "IS" supporters and even if they were detained, the current prison system allows suspects to continue their activities behind bars.


Social media is also being used by counter forces, which are also mobilizing fighters online. Former US marine Kurt* decided to join a Kurdish group opposing the terrorist organization as a result of a Facebook page belonging to them. He sent a message to the "Lions of Rojava" to find out how he could get involved in the fight, although he finally went to join another group.

Kurt doesn't want to go into detail about the whole recruitment process, but he seemed quite well prepared as he was readying for war, taking medical equipment and even learning some Kurdish.

#readytofight: 'It is my obligation to fight Islamic State'

But this preparation seems also to be happening on the other side of the frontline. Foreign fighters about to join the "IS" were reported to have this very last question before starting their journey: Is hair gel available in Syria?

At this point, it can't get more absurd.
Oh, wait. Yes, it can.