Air strikes won’t disrupt Islamic State’s real safe haven: social media
In June 2014, the militant group that Obama refers to as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, grabbed the world’s attention after it took over much of northern Iraq in roughly four days. Islamic State accomplished this by building a massive, sophisticated virtual network of fighters in addition to those on the ground. Indeed, its expansion online has been as swift as its territorial gains. It is this virtual power grab that will be most difficult to combat.
The Internet has largely sustained the jihadist movement since 9/11. With this powerful tool, jihadists coordinate actions, share information, recruit new members and propagate their ideology.
Until the rise of Islamic State, extremist activity and exchanges online usually took place inside restricted, password-protected jihadist forums. But Islamic State brought online jihadism out of the shadows and into the mainstream, using social media — especially Twitter – to issue rapid updates on its successes to a theoretically unlimited audience.
In the same way that Islamic State’s land grab proved stunning, the group’s actions online have been deeply troubling. Up until a recent crackdown by Twitter, Islamic State’s presence on the site had grown tremendously — from a small one to a well-organized network with dozens of accounts.
For example, Al-Hayat Media Center, the group’s primary Western-aimed media producer and distributor, was using the micro-blogging site to tweet jihadist material, including magazines, Islamic chants, e-books, leadership messages and calls to join the group. It also sent high-definition videos in Arabic, English, Bosnian, German, French, Russian, Indonesian and other languages.
In addition, Islamic State had been openly running local Twitter accounts, designated for specific cities and regions in Iraq and Syria. These provided news updates and martyr profiles — geared to win the hearts and minds of the local Sunnis.
Yet it was not just the official Islamic State media accounts that were worrisome. With the widespread adoption of social media and smartphones, individual fighters were turning their fierce military battles into real-time, glorifying accounts for potential jihadists around the world to consume. These self-styled social media personalities used online platforms to interact with prospective recruits in their own languages, boasting of their “heroic” exploits and desires for martyrdom.
Islamic State clearly must see Twitter as crucial to its survival. So it is unlikely to be chased off the platform without a fight. When Twitter cracked down on Islamic State-related accounts, the militants ignited a massive anti-Twitter campaign, filled with death threats against the company and its employees. The scare campaign even used its own hashtags, such as “#Thought_of_a_Lone_Lion,” which accompanied calls for lone-wolf attacks.
It didn’t end there. A few days later, Islamic State demonstrated that it can beat Twitter in its battle to silence the group’s propaganda machine. After Twitter suspended the Islamic State accounts on the site, the militants still managed to tweet the beheading video of the British aid worker David Haines on Sept. 13, 2014. The group used a carefully calculated maneuver on private account settings.
Soon after, links to the beheading flooded Twitter feeds everywhere. This continues today. The fact that the latest beheading video of a French hostage, released Wednesday by an Islamic State-inspired group in Algeria, was distributed on Twitter demonstrates that the site remains the primary outlet for propaganda from Islamic State and its supporters.
The group’s message is clear: You can’t stop us.
As the West continuous to mishandle the electronic jihad it is proving the militants right. Consider the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” social media campaign. In trying to win over would-be jihadists online, the program engages in childish discussions with jihadists.
Some have compared this to “trolling” and has proved not only to be ineffective but counter-productive. “It is a silly game,” said a former State Department official involved in countering Islamic propaganda online. Some experts, including me, regard the program as an embarrassment.
Islamic State is a new kind of enemy. Fighters killed in bombing raids can be easily replaced by new recruits found online. To fully end this cycle, the online recruitment of extremists must stop. Without excising the source of the problem, Washington and its allies will not succeed.
In Iraq and Syria now, the United States is not using “silly games” to destroy Islamic State. It is using serious firepower. It is time to do the same with the online caliphate.
PHOTO (TOP): Image created by the jihadists. It reads: ‘Twitter oh Twitter — believe me — don’t bother yourself — You can’t beat us, with Allah’s permission’
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
PHOTO (INSERT 2) People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw, September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
PHOTO (INSERT 3): A video purportedly showing threats being made to a man Islamic State (IS) named as David Haines by a masked IS fighter in an unknown location in this still image from video released by Islamic State, September 2, 2014.