Today, much of the fight to combat terrorism around the globe is waged online. Modern terrorist organizations have grown increasingly sophisticated in their use of digital tools to amass influence and further extremist agendas. Although use of the Internet to promote extremism has become ubiquitous amongst terrorist organizations, The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been particularly successful in exploiting digital tools to accelerate its growth into one of today’s largest and most dangerous terrorist networks.
ISIS was officially established in 1999, and since inception the group has made a deliberate effort to leverage digital channels to connect with a global audience. ISIS gathered an online following early on by publishing radical literature, video clips, and images to Jihadist forms and websites. In recent years, however, ISIS’s digital presence has exploded – posting a new and signficant threat to the Western world. The extremist group’s propaganda efforts has evolved to sophisticated promotional videos and literature coupled with tactical social media distribution across platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. ISIS has even gone so far as to establish a number of distinct media outlets responsible for targeting specific demographics. In an article published by VICE, author Olivia Becker comments “In addition to being one of the most brutal militant groups currently fighting in the Middle East, ISIS might also have the most elaborate public relations strategy.”
The creation and dissemination of extremist propaganda is geared towards two objectives: A) to inspire and promote potential recruits and B) to display power and growth to the West. ISIS video propaganda is remarkably well produced, featuring everything from fighters handing out candy and ice cream to children, to scenes presenting advanced weapons, combat, damage inflicted by Western opposition. Although brutal content highlighting violence, murder, and torture is indeed a cornerstone to ISIS propaganda – that ‘genre’ makes up only a portion of ISIS’s content output. Other propaganda pushed by ISIS highlights happiness under the ISIS regime, significant military accomplishments, and general works of public good – aiming to appeal to a sense of identity, community, and religious obligation. Literature published online by ISIS includes religious pamphlets, extremist guidebooks, and a variety of online magazines. A report by the Quillian Foundation in 2015 found ISIS published an average of 38 new pieces of new content a day in a variety of different formats and languages.
Today the Islamic State is as much of a media conglomerate as a fighting force” – Brendan Koerner, Wired Magazine
The distribution of ISIS propaganda is crowd sourced via a open network of ambassadors. ISIS provides trusted ‘Internet Jihadists’ with exclusive content to blast across their respective networks – creating a ripple effect that disseminates propaganda to targeted audiences around the globe. An ex-National Security Council Advisor in 2015 reported a “conservative” estimate of 90,000 pro-ISIS messages posted across social media platforms on a daily-basis. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are a few of the primary platforms exploited by ISIS ambassadors to reach the younger-millennial audience the propaganda is intended target. Once an ISIS ambassador has a candidate ‘on the hook’, the connection is moved to a private, encrypted messaging platform where the conversation elevates to discussing the process of fleeing to Syria or carrying-out a domestic attack.
ISIS’s recruitment efforts have proven dangerously effective. An estimated 25,000 people have traveled to Syria to enlist in ISIS since 2011, and the current fighting force is made up of individuals from over 100 different countries. An estimated 3,000 Europeans and over 250 Americans have attempted to flee to Syria to fight under the ISIS regime. In fact my home state of Minnesota leads the nation with the highest number of people who have attempted to flee America to fight for ISIS. Since 2014, nine young men in their late teens and early twenties have been arrested for plotting to join the ISIS regime in Syria. One of the young men, Abdirizak Warsame, was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Scott Pelley. In the segment Warsame adamantly spoke to the key role that ISIS propaganda videos and direct correspondence with ISIS affiliates via social media played in his desire to join ISIS. Pictured below is a guidebook that was distributed online to some of the young men arrested that details travel advice, suggestions on what to pack, and how to best avoid being caught by the authorities when fleeing to Syria.
Perhaps even more of a threat, however, is ISIS’s ability to inspire and direct ‘lone-wolf’ attacks in countries around the world. From 2015 to 2017, ISIS has been tied to dozens of terrorist’s attacks outside of Iraq and Syria, as depicted by the graph below from the New York Times:
Given the grave threat of ISIS’s digital capabilities, taking out ISIS social media leaders has become top priority for the FBI and other national security agencies around the world. Additionally, tech companies including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft have joined the fight by forming a coalition in 2016 to combat the flow of terrorist content over the web, which has since resulted in a substantial decrease in the number of terrorist-affiliated accounts.
This post is in no way intended to glorify ISIS’s social media ‘strategy.’ It is intended to highlight how digital tools we use every day are being exploited for extremist aims.