Each day ISIS (now known as IS, Islamic State) gains followers and territory in the Middle East, their social media presence has expanded its influence well beyond any organization before them, taking the battlefield directly to everyone. ISIS is the first terrorist organization to successfully use social media as a recruiting process for today’s youth because social media is such a key component of everyday life. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was declared by the U. S. State Department as a terrorist organization in 2003.
In June 2014, ISIS rebranded itself as IS, the Islamic State, the change was made to reflect their claim of territorial sovereignty in parts of Iraq and Syria. ISIS was created in 2003 as a branch of al Qaeda in Iraq with a single mission; defeat the U. S. forces that had invaded Iraq and, remove those imposing Islamist governance in the land. In 2006 they became The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and, while still in association with Al Qaeda, they incorporated a number of insurgent groups into one coalition.
Following the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, ISI troops began fighting along side other rebel forces there as well. In 2012, the group renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, (or ISIS) reflecting its new regional ambitions and goals. While fighting in Syria, it gained strength and greater numbers of foreign recruits, drawn specifically to that conflict. However, Isis soon began clashing with other rebel organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syria Al Qaeda affiliate.
In February 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, disowned ISIS for disobeying his orders to stay put in Iraq and for clashing with Jabhar-al Nusra and other groups. Rather than disbanding after his statement, ISIS grew stronger, attracting more followers and gaining a reputation for brutal tactics. In June 2014, ISIS redirected its focus back towards Iraq. It organized a series of successful attacks in Iraq and quickly conquered significant territory stretching between Iraq and Syria.
At the end of June, it declared the territory it held in Syria and Iraq the third Caliphate and rebranded officially as the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al Bagdhadi, the organization’s leader, was declared Caliph under the name Caliph Ibrahim. Building upon techniques created by other terrorist organizations that came before them, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Shabaab, IS not only relies on social media platforms to spread its messages and recruit followers, including people whom live in the west, but also to convince its supporters to assist in that process.
The growing numbers of Americans and other Westerners attempting to join ISIS, mixed with the support it has received on the ground in certain places, suggests that its social media efforts might be paying off. Current reports estimate that between Twelve Thousand and Fifteen thousand foreign fighters, including as many as one hundred Americans, are currently engaged in the conflict in Iraq and Syria fighting for the Isis cause. Although it is impossible to claim that social media has played a definitive role in their recruitment, ISIS’s online propaganda has often targeted westerners.
Isis is not the first terrorist group to use social media though, for other terrorist organization have had twitter accounts as early as 2010. These other groups did so as a secondary means of communication. Terrorist propaganda was usually found on extremist forums, allowing for downloadable content such as magazines, videos and brochures. ISIS, however, has released their information almost exclusively via Twitter, where it can share its views around the world and enable supporters to take part in that process.
Millions of people use twitter and account creation is so easy, they can have dozens of account spreading their ideology to people. ISIS also relies on their supporters to attempt to influence others and join their cause and spread their message. Twitter allows users to hide their identities more effectively than other social networking platforms. And while Twitter can shut down Twitter accounts, new ones can always be immediately created. ISIS has established multiple Twitter accounts for several of its official media outlets, including Al-Hayat media, which releases propaganda pieces in Arabic.
It also maintains Twitter feeds in various languages, including English; Al-Medrar, which publishes in many languages; Platform Media, which mainly tweets news updates in Arabic; and Al-Battar media, which has English and Arabic section that tweets news, graphics, official statements, and videos. In addition, certain members of ISIS maintain Twitter feeds by posting news, images, and video of their activities. ISIS also creates hashtag campaigns, defacing trending terms by encouraging supporters to repeatedly and constantly Tweet various hashtags such as #AllEyesonISIS or #CalamityWillBefallUS whenever they post.
The goal of these hashtags is that they will be used so much that they will begin to trend on Twitter, vastly increasing the visibility of tweets with ISIS’s message. ISIS encourages its followers to use tweets with “trending hashtags,” or hashtags that are popular . Thus, it will encourage its supporters to tweet ISIS messages and ideology with popular hashtags such as #dankmemes or #DonaldTrump so that people searching for these hashtags will inadvertently come across pro-ISIS posts and view them.
The majority of non-Arabic propaganda distributed by ISIS is designed to get attention from major news outlets and officials by sending them information so they talk about them on the news. Or send it to people whom hold government office as well as sending them threats, and ridicule them. All this enhances the group’s image and encourages Westerners to support and join the organization and support the Islamic cause. Much of Isis’s social media campaign focuses on depicting ISIS as a goodwill organization.
Several Twitter feeds controlled by ISIS, frequently release pictures of militants playing with children, distributing food and performing other social services. “”In April 2014, ISIS produced a video featuring a former German rapper turned ISIS militant Denis Cuspert engaged in a snowball fight with fellow Isis members, chanting in German, “Now you see here in Syria, we can also have fun! That’s jihad, jihad makes for fun and we have fun here with the children come on, we invite you to jihad! ”
In June of 2014, ISIS began uploading a series of short videos called “Mujatweets” to YouTube. The goal of these propaganda videos were to portray ISIS as a charitable organization who were beloved by civilians and that their goal is to establish a better society. The first episode depicts a European recruit singing a song in German praising ISIS. The second episode shows short clips of children having fun and playing with ISIS members. The third episode features a Syrian chef who is an everyday civilian who explains how great his life is now that ISIS controls his region.
Of the five Americans arrested on terrorism charges in 2014, three of them had attempted to join ISIS: Shannon Connelly of Colorado, Michael Todd Wolfe of Texas and Nicholas Teau-sant from California. Donald Ray Morgan of North Carolina was apprehended and put in jail on weapons charges, but is believed to have been attempting to join ISIS. Also, two Americans have been highlighted in pro ISIS propaganda videos: One going by the name Abu Dujana al-Amriki in 2013, and one with the name Abu Abdurahman al-Trinidadi in 2014. “
The involvement of foreign fighters with ISIS and other terrorist groups raises many questions and concerns that they may pose a threat to their native countries upon their return home. This concern was clarified with the May 2014 shooting in the Brussels Jewish Museum. The culprit behind the malicious attack was Mehdi Nemmouche, whom is believed to have spent around a year in Syria, where he is suspected to have fought for ISIS as a militant.
ISIS’s sophisticated use of social media has or surely will become a blueprint that will be copied and perfected by other terrorist groups as well. This shows us that the world revolves so much on social media, that terrorists use it to spread their messages. Social media connects everyone, even terrorists. The idea of “being safe behind your computer screen” no longer exists and serves as a stark reminder of the role social media plays for terrorists around the world.