Digital Jihad

10.01.14 9:45 AM ET

ISIS Is Winning the Online Jihad Against the West

Despite Western efforts, distribution of ISIS propaganda is as strong as it has ever been.

The release by ISIS of another video, in which British captive John Cantlie narrates their propaganda message, highlights that efforts to disrupt the ISIS media campaign, and claims made about the impact of current measures, are overstated.

This is the second “episode” in what appears likely to become a long-running series titled Lend Me Your Ears, and comes just days after an hour-long, full HD propaganda video, Flames of War.

As ISIS videos continue to spread online, Western claims that the propaganda capabilities of jihadist groups have been degraded by suspending accounts on Twitter and YouTube look increasingly out of touch. Efforts to stop ISIS and other groups from disseminating their propaganda have had little effect. There remains a persistent as well as ideologically cohesive presence for jihadist propaganda online.

If the U.S., and its Western and Arab allies, are to weaken ISIS's media reach, they need to look for new approaches that go beyond shutting down individual Twitter accounts and removal of YouTube videos.

Some terrorism experts had claimed that the ability of ISIS to spread its message was being degraded. However, the jihadist propaganda effort is not degraded, nor are the counter-narrative efforts “targeted at blunting the recruitment pitches” of jihadist groups having the desired impact. Instead, the U.S. and its Western allies are being drawn into open warfare online, on a battlefield chosen by their jihadist adversaries. And it is those jihadists who will thrive in the chaos that results.

The Nature of Netwar

Jihadist groups, and specifically ISIS, have been able to maintain a persistent online presence by sharing content through a broad network of “media mujahedeen”—one of the clearest incarnations of netwar since it was first envisaged.

Netwar is “an emerging mode of conflict in which the protagonists—ranging from terrorist and criminal organizations on the dark side, to militant social activists on the bright side—use network forms of organization, doctrine, strategy, and technology attuned to the information age,” according to an October 2001 paper by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla.

Networks are “very hard to deal with. …What all have in common is that they operate in small, dispersed units that can deploy nimbly—anywhere, anytime,” they wrote. In addition, successfully executing netwar strategy requires that a group know “how to swarm and disperse, penetrate and disrupt, as well as elude and evade.” Organizations engaging in network are often diffuse, leaderless, and incredibly resilient.

ISIS, for example, uses dispersed forms of network organization and strategy to disseminate rich audiovisual content from the battlefield in near-real time. Its interconnected network constantly reconfigures itself, much like the way a swarm of bees or flock of birds constantly reorganizes in mid-flight. It marks a shift from the broadcast models of communication during conflict to a new dispersed and resilient form, the user curated “swarmcast.” This makes ISIS a challenge for traditionally hierarchical organizations to counter.

Swarmcast in action

Those engaged in netwar, and ISIS supporters specifically, distribute content through a dispersed network of Twitter accounts as part of a fully integrated multiplatform, social media strategy, similar to that identified in an earlier study of ISIS’s rival, Jabhat al-Nusra. This gives ISIS a persistent online presence through a mobile-enabled swarm that rapidly reconfigures despite any attempt to target a few key individuals.

The nature of the mobile-enabled swarmcast means it appear to be degraded, but it has really only reconfigured. Twitter accounts linking to the image of James Foley after his beheading are still readily available despite various accounts being shuttered. Videos of the mass execution of Iraqis—which garnered significantly less attention and vastly fewer column-inches in the West than the deaths of two journalists— are still circulating, and hashtags are still being used to distribute content. For example, #مؤسسة_الفرقان‬‏ (mu'assasat al-furqan, the senior official media arm of ISIS) is being used to disseminate the videos of John Cantlie and the speech by Abu Muhammad al-'Adnani al-Shami. By using this hashtag, al-furqan is able to make material from al-Hayyat Center available alongside videos such as Flames of War and other user-generated content.

Optimists may choose to focus on the success of current account suspensions, arguing that “efficiency and reach are measurably diminished.” But there is no credible data yet showing that the reach of ISIS messaging has diminished. In fact, even the concept of reduced reach can be misleading.

‘Success’

As a recent article showed, when jihadists’ accounts are suspended, this likely reduces their ability to reach the least engaged individuals. This is important because most jihadist content requires a genuine commitment of time and attention—it is frequently very long-form, with hour-long videos, multilayered graphics and multiple pages. Users also require the bandwidth and patience to download large files (Flames of War is nearly a gigabyte).

With that in mind, to what extent should we consider it a success to remove the laziest followers from the network? After all, these would be users least likely to commit themselves to long-form jihadist content. In countering violent extremists, deterring the least interested and laziest users might measurably reduce the number of followers, but it misses the wider point of any counter-strategy. The most committed—and thus, the most dangerous—remain.

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Multiplatform Strategy

Even if the suspension of a few accounts on Twitter could be considered a success, mainstream, international news channels, national newspapers and websites still report on the release of new videos by ISIS. This is the hallmark of a successful multiplatform communication strategy.

For example, trailers for the Flames of War video can easily be found on YouTube. At the time of writing, one of the videos has been watched over 750,000 times and the average duration was over one minute for the 1 minute 27 second trailer.

The full version is also easily found. A version of Flames of War with Russian subtitles was posted on Vimeo and played over 13,000 times, while another version available on LiveLeak has been viewed 5,500 times. At least two versions of the full HD download are available on Gulfup and have been downloaded 21,550 and 5,600 times. Another version on Archive.org is hidden in the e-books section and downloaded over 12,000 times. Versions are also available from 180upload.com and Mediafire.com, while references to the film are still shared on Twitter using both Arabic (#لهيب_الحرب) And English (#FlamesOfWar) tags.

The media mujahedeen are constantly reconfiguring and finding new outlets. At the start of 2014, there was increased use of Google+, and experiments with platforms such as Friendica.eu. But these had little success. Recent attempts to establish a footing on VK.com, a social network with headquarters in St. Petersburg, Russia, have been more successful at establishing relatively static libraries of content, however.

VK is the most visited site in Eastern Europe, with 55 million average daily users and 260 million registered accounts. Links to jihadist content on other platforms are shared there, including lists of social media accounts available on other sites. One such list of accounts, analyzed with J-Trends Tracker, a tool for tracking extremist digital media, uncovered an interconnected network of “friend” relationships.

Arabic VK accounts share similar network characteristics with the networks of core jihadist users on Twitter. The VK network is sufficiently interconnected for the network to survive the loss of some members, and additional resilience is provided by links to other platforms, including Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. Furthermore, while much interaction now takes place via social media, classic bulletin board forums still have a role in providing information allowing the swarm to reconnect and reconfigure.

All this shows that the use of hashtags and the rapid dissemination of Arabic and non-Arabic content to a global network of sympathizers has ensured that finding and downloading the latest videos and speeches continues to be easy. Dissemination of ISIS content hasn’t been hampered at all by the suspension of a few Twitter accounts.