The migration from Internet chat forums to social media platforms came late to jihadists, but they’ve adapted skillfully. A strategy developed over years has evolved into a sophisticated campaign and now, at the center of the world’s attention, ISIS is using its skill to communicate directly to an American audience.
The filmed execution of James Foley was the first time most Americans saw ISIS address them but the group has been targeting Westerners for months.
“The first big turning point was Mosul,” said Emerson Brooking, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to ISIS’s capture of the city in early June. “ISIS put a lot of pre-planning into the social media arm of this offensive, and the effort paid off.” After Mosul, Brooking said, “You see a significant spike in English-language videos and images.”
If it could take Mosul, ISIS knew it would have the world’s attention and had planned what it wanted to say. The rehearsal for the global audience came earlier, in Syria’s civil war, where ISIS refined its approach to messaging online.
Starting in Iraq and later spreading to Syria after entering the war there in 2013, ISIS used social media to publicize its campaign of slaughter and threaten its enemies. The group’s military prowess was enhanced by its reputation for brutality, spread by its own media efforts, which weakened its enemies resistance and led some to flee from battle. On Twitter and in Facebook pages ISIS was making appeals as well as threats, attracting recruits and soliciting funding online.
This was actually an old tactic adopted to new technology. During the U.S. war in Iraq, when ISIS, in an earlier incarnation, was known as as al Qaeda in Iraq, the group learned “how to engage a U.S. audience and get at them,” according to Clint Watts a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The difference now is that ISIS no longer depends on intermediaries to broadcast its barbarism. In this new environment, the group’s media arm can upload its propaganda and see it spread globally in a matter of minutes or hours.
Unlike the cloistered online forums where jihadist groups once did most of their communicating, Twitter and Facebook are both open and public by nature. That meant that as ISIS took to these platforms it became easier for any fighter on the battlefield to pose next to mutilated bodies and post images that could easily be seen by anyone following the fighting. The people who saw it most often in 2013 days were ISIS supporters, who were turned on by the savagery, and the group’s enemies, who must have feared that it could happen to them next.
In February 2014 ISIS broke with al Qaeda, largely over leadership in Syria, though partly over a dispute about how much savage violence was too much. Following the break, social media became an arena for competing claims to authority between ISIS and al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The tweeting of battlefield gore didn’t disappear, but social media also became a stage for airing accusations and debate over the schism in the Syrian jihad.
At this point ISIS’s online efforts were largely still part of an inside conversation cut off from the Western public. Most messages were directed either at other parties in Iraq and Syria or to a sympathetic audience of jihadi fanboys and potential recruits abroad.
Another tactic ISIS developed was tweeting pictures of administrative services in the areas under its control that were meant to show its ability to govern. The images of ISIS in Syria that circulated in the West documented the group’s brutality. But to a local audience it was showing both piles of corpses and its fighters passing out candy – saying effectively, that, while it turned the rest of the world into a graveyard, for the faithful life would be sweet.
“They have their own media now where they can put this right out on Twitter and everybody can immediately see it and spread it online.”
Then, on June 10, after ISIS captured Mosul, its messages pivoted towards the West. The majority of the group’s posts were still in Arabic but English tweets and translated videos surged as ISIS targeted a Western audience. One meme clearly aimed to recruit young Westerners was the image of two ISIS fighters posing over a caption comparing jihad to the video game Call of Duty.
“The big difference now is that [ISIS] has its own English speakers,” said Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College in London. “And they have their own media now where they can put this right out on Twitter and everybody can immediately see it and spread it online.”
That has meant relying on a combination of sophisticated marketing and "social-media strategies that inflate and control its message.” Those stratgegies having increasingly been aimed squarely at a Western audience. During the World Cup ISIS used a hashtag, #WorldCup2014, exploiting the massive soccer audience’s attention to flood the Internet with its propaganda.
On Aug. 7, after President Obama authorized airstrikes in Iraq, ISIS responded with a hashtag campaign. The hashtag, #AMessageFromISIStoUS, threatening Americans with retribution for the airstrikes, was one sign that “ISIS has moved to a policy of direct and aggressive engagement via social media,” said Brooking of the Council on Foreign Relations.
More “aggressive engagement” followed. Some of it was meant to invoke the specter of ISIS as an omnipresent force, like the tweet of an ISIS flag in front of the White House. Another ISIS meme showing fighters posing with Nutella, the chocolate spread popular in Europe, was a different sort of engagement, meant to lure Westerners to the fight in Syria and Iraq.
Addressing its American audience, ISIS is actually speaking to at least two different groups. To the vast majority who are repulsed by the group it is boasting of its power and trying to make people believe that even inside America they are vulnerable. But there is a far smaller and more dangerous group that ISIS isn’t trying to scare — but inspire. ISIS wants to “keep their rhetoric out there, keep themselves visible and hope that someone acts on it for them,” said Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He believes that ISIS currently lacks the ability for a coordinated attack inside America but that they may speak to “troubled kids” who could independently, or with minimal support, “put together something like a Boston marathon kind of attack.”
Efforts to counter ISIS online presence have already begun. Twitter and Youtube have shut down accounts and removed videos. Individual users have started their own hashtags like #ISISMediaBlackout that encouraged people to post photos of James Foley’s life and work instead of spreading the video of his killing and amplifying ISIS’s message.
Most of ISIS’s Western audience is sickened by its brandishing of dismemberment and depravity — but it's also often captivated. As ISIS’s crimes are posted and reposted, and its sinister black flag becomes a fixture of broadcast news, every new story of its fighters playing with decapitated heads becomes a challenge to tell the truth without either propagating or censoring its evil.