The use of technology – particularly of the Internet – is nothing new for terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) used effective online outreach several years ago by departing from standard ideological messaging to showcase battlefield footage and glamorize jihad for potential recruits. The terror group ISIS, which has its roots in AQI, has improved upon those earlier tactics to create “the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group,” according to the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Their digital strategy combines their success on the ground with timely and sophisticated social media messaging.
ISIS uses a wide array of digital platforms – including Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, jihad websites, message boards, and many more foreign and lesser-known digital channels – to pump out abundant, often violent material. The content they produce runs the gamut from lengthy professional videos to tweets, message postings, and even oddly humorous pictures of cats with guns. By breaking down specific innovations in their digital strategy, we can better understand not only how it works, but also how to fight back.
The goals of ISIS’s propaganda war are to recruit and fundraise. Analysts characterize their capabilities as sophisticated and innovative because their digital methods have yielded significant results: up to 15,000 foreign fighters in their ranks and thousands of dollars of sympathizer donations in their pockets. And the widespread coverage in Western media has served to legitimize their claim of being a global force in the eyes of potential recruits.
ISIS’s digital strategy success stems from their mastery of three elements: an understanding of their audience, their ability to produce compelling digital content for that audience, and a savvy use of social media platforms for content distribution and engagement. In other words, they know whom they want to reach, how to reach them, and what they want to say when they find them.
Their primary audiences are young Muslim men who either feel angry and alienated because of an identity crisis or are fed up with oppressive regimes. Their desperation makes them susceptible to an extremist world vision that seems the answer to their plight.
ISIS reaches these frustrated and marginalized populations with their media arm and grassroots fighters and directly addresses their grievances with a wide range of content. Professionally produced videos showcase a multifaceted view of the movement; the violent “Flames of War” portrays fighters as brave and pious, “The Best Ummah” (Muslim society), in Arabic with English subtitles, shows religious men building a just society where everyone prays and the needy are cared for.
Along with videos, battlefield tweets and photos show the camaraderie, military success, new uniforms, shiny weapons, and in one case the large amounts of watermelon enjoyed by the fighters at breakfast.
The distribution techniques are where these efforts converge to produce a dramatic effect on potential recruits and a global audience. ISIS has flooded the social media landscape, simultaneously using multiple platforms for its sophisticated content. A recently released video features British hostage John Cantlie acting like a news anchor to announce the first in a series of lectures about ISIS. Popular Twitter hashtags were used to promote that video and the media covered it as well. ISIS has repeatedly used similar marketing tactics, such as spamming the #WorldCup hashtag in June to direct people to its own propaganda. To ensure that users with different Internet speeds can receive videos, they are posted in multiple places in different file sizes, demonstrating an awareness of mobile devices.
What ultimately might weaken the digital strategy of ISIS is what they have capitalized on so well from the beginning: success on the battlefield. ISIS has created a vision that has been difficult to refute, but they will have to quickly adapt their narrative to maintain that mystique if facts on the ground change. The only way to counter this well-oiled machine is to recognize ISIS’s innovative blend of capabilities, and then directly contest the social media space using the same methods and channels. Social media companies should also remain vigilant about enforcing their terms of service, even if it represents a whack-a-mole problem.
A “fight fire with fire” approach presents a challenge for governments given their operating restrictions and bureaucracy’s inability to adapt to technology – at any speed. But interagency and inter-governmental coordination, and partnerships with NGOs to promote efforts like the new #NotInMyName Twitter campaign against ISIS by Muslims around the world would be a good start.