The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS], along with its ongoing offensive on Iraqi cities, continues to intensify its use of mobile electronic devices and social media as important weapons of war. Tweets of beheading videos and posts of gruesome images led to Twitter’s suspension of two important ISIS pages, al-I'tisam and al-Hayat, three days after ISIS’s conquest of Mosul. Twitter's action, while symbolizing a step in the right direction, is too little too late.
For years, jihadi groups have recognized the multifaceted role that images, audio messages, and videos play in psychological warfare and in recruitment, and have placed substantial emphasis on media campaigns. Contrary to Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda (AQ), which frequently used news organizations such as al-Jazeera to release their media, ISIS has terrorized Iraq and the world by videotaping beheading videos and distributing them exclusively online ever since its foundation a decade ago by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Zarqawi’s internet jihad began in a pre-You Tube and Liveleak era, when posting videos online was difficult and time consuming. ISIS had to rely on jihadi forums and on trusted members to upload and disseminate videos and media releases. Videos such as the beheading of Nick Berg took hours to upload, and several more hours to download. Soon after the video was posted on the jihadi forum “Ansar al-Islami [Supporters of Islam],” the site crashed due to the volume of downloads. Members had to rely on those who were able to download the video to create new working links for it.
In spite of such difficulties, Zarqawi continued to use the internet as his main media outlet, and within less than a year, from anonymity, he became one of the most inspiring and beloved leaders within the jihadi community.
At present, eight years after Zarqawi's death, sharing beheading videos and other large files containing graphic images no longer requires fast computers, or any computers for that matter; it no longer requires sharing sites or savvy members capable of uploading such videos. Rather, smart phones and social media accounts are all that is needed to instantly share material in real time with tens of thousands of jihadists. ISIS, as well as its fighters and supporters, quickly adopted these tools and has been utilizing the latest internet technologies and social media outlets to maintain massive, sophisticated online media campaigns used to promote jihad, communicate, recruit, and intimidate.
Twitter became an important tool for jihadists because of its ease of use and ability to provide rapid updates to an unlimited number of viewers. Some jihadists became active to the point of "live" tweeting during fighting, reporting about injuries or deaths of fellow fighters and battle outcomes without any censorship.
As a result of this new communicative tactic, we learn of Americans, British, Australians, and French nationals executing suicide operations in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, and non-Muslim countries. Yet, many from the media, governments, and experts expressed their shock and astonishment of this “take over” of Twitter and other social media, questioning how it can be stopped.
ISIS on Twitter
ISIS maintains an organized and well-coordinated online network with more than a dozen official accounts on Twitter for its central leadership. Some of these pages are used to release messages from the group's leadership, and others are focused on recruitment, intimidation, and networking—gaining tens of thousands of followers.
For example, one of the two accounts that were suspended by Twitter on June 13, 2014 was the al-I'tisam page, which had more than 50,000 followers and served as ISIS’s information authority. The page posted releases from the group's leadership but also produced its own small-scale media.
Ajnad, another official ISIS page, tweets religious and Qur'anic citations to its 36,500 followers. Al-Furqan, ISIS's official media wing that produces its multimedia, also has a dedicated Twitter page where it posts messages from the ISIS leadership as well as videos and images of beheadings and other forms of execution to its 19,000 followers.
Further, ISIS’s Twitter network, Al-Hayat Media Center, which maintains at least half a dozen pages, emphasizes on recruiting Westerns and thus provides media in English and other languages, including French, Danish, and Russian. It has approximately ten thousand followers—mainly Westerners.
Geared to win the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria, ISIS also maintains several official local pages, focusing on the group's activities in various provinces. Such pages include the Anbar and the Niynwa provinces, each with close to 50,000 followers, and the Dayali province with 12,000 followers, to name a few.
In addition to its general and local pages, ISIS is supported by approximately thirty other online media groups. For example, the al-Battar Media Group, with 32,000 followers, works constantly to mobilize Twitter members to support ISIS by translating ISIS releases and by independently producing media. On June 23, 2014, the group released an audio message from the Abu Sayaaf Group in the Philippines, expressing support of ISIS.
Many of these Twitter pages follow each other, which means, for instance, that a tweet made by al-I'tisam will likely be seen by the 50,000 Anbar Province group members and perhaps even retweeted. From there, many other official Twitter pages and individual pages that follow the Anbar Province page will also potentially see and retweet that same tweet. Such groups can also strategically organize systems of relaying accounts, each one synchronously retweeting to a potentially new audience and exponentially increasing viewership.
In contrast, the traditional way used by most AQ affiliates to release information over the last decade—primary jihadi forums such as Shamoukh and Fida'a—have enabled the participation of several-fold fewer followers than with Twitter. Shamokh and Fida'a, with 9,482 and 4,372 members, respectively, are password-protected forums that require logging in, use of proxies to disguise IPs, and access to a computer—rendering the use of smart phones nearly impossible.
ISIS-supporting social media pages continue to flood Twitter with messages of praise and images of supporters from around the world. During a campaign named “#AllEyesOnISIS,” an offshoot of the ongoing “Billion Muslim Campaign to Support the Islamic State” social media campaign, tweets arrived from Germany, Indonesia, Pakistan, and South Africa, to name a few. The Billion Muslim campaign has generated over 22,000 posts within four days since its launch on June 13, 2014. On June 20, 2014, Twitter users began distributing images displaying words of encouragement or the phrases “All Eyes on ISIS” and “We are all ISIS” in Twitter posts that feature the hashtag “#AllEyesOnISIS.” The hashtag now totals over 30,000 tweets.
Ironically, this massive twitter campaign, generated by a violent and radical terrorist organization arguably more militant than AQ itself, has been masqueraded as a human rights organization attempt to help the weak and poor.
Twitter’s suspension of the al-I'tisam account and the Al-Hayat Media Center were small symbolic steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, it had virtually no effect on ISIS’s media campaign, recruitment, or intimidation efforts, which continue uninterrupted. Word of the suspension spread rapidly over social media and jihadi forums through the group’s other Twitter accounts. As Twitter hadn't set up sufficient means to prevent the group from resuming their tweets, two new ISIS accounts were set up that same day, recovering 20,000 followers within only two days. One of these accounts, al-I'tisam, appears identical to the suspended account, the only difference being in the name of the Twitter page.
Given the jihadi adoption of Twitter, suspending a small amount of jihadist pages is not going solve the problem. ISIS is just one of the many other jihadi militant groups that have hijacked Twitter to promote their jihad. AQ-affiliated groups and jihadist organizations have been actively expanding their online platform to Twitter as well—from the Somalia-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, which demonstrated the effectiveness of Twitter during their four-day long siege at the Westgate Mall in Kenya in September 2013, to other groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Nusra Front in Syria, Afghan Taliban, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Twitter must adapt to these new circumstances and become more proactive in deterring such activity. It has the capability to carry out account monitoring and suspensions on much larger scales than it has thus far. Meanwhile, amid the current inactivity, jihadists continue to gain support, recruit, and promote terrorist organizations through its service.