Tweet to Kill: Islamic State uses social media for self promotion

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Senior Capstone-The New School-Spring 2015

In August 2014 a YouTube video titled “A Message to America,” displayed a man in an all-black ninja-like outfit who held a knife to the throat of a man in an orange prison jumpsuit. A grassless hill and blue skies were behind them while the pseudo-ninja spoke to the camera. The man was later nicknamed “Jihadi John” by British tabloids. His prisoner in orange was American journalist James Foley, a GlobalPost reporter who went missing in Syria in 2012. This was an execution video. More have followed of various other people but the aesthetics are always similar. Black masked outfits and orange prisoner attire. Peachy-tinted sand and blue skies.

“Jihadi John,” or Mohammed Emwazi, is the poster boy for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Internet is its stage. Though the extremist group-turned caliphate has been growing over the last few years, its sudden mainstream presence has escalated since the latter half of 2014, with calculated messages on various social media platforms and the expansion of the territory it has claimed in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS content or mentions of the group have circulated social media more prominently since the announcement of the caliphate by its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. ISIS may earn some of its money through oil refineries and wells in the regions it controls, but it earns some of its new supporters through social media sites, primarily Twitter. The Islamic State appears to be promoting itself similarly to the way that social media teams promote products, organizations or brands.

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Selling It

“Whoever is running their media strategy is doing a damn good job,” said Kate Gardiner, an audience engagement strategist who has worked with companies like Al Jazeera and Newsweek (the latter whose Twitter account was hacked by ISIS-supporters in February 2015). “They understand the medium and the audience that they’re speaking to.”

In March 2015, American centrist think tank, The Brookings Project, released“The ISIS Twitter Census” by J.M. Berger, an analyst/consultant who studies extremism and Jonathan Morgan, a data scientist. The goal of the project was to “create a demographic snapshot of ISIS supporters on Twitter.”

According to their research, there was an estimate of 46,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts between the months of September and December of 2014. Many tweets also contained location metadata, and the authors came to the conclusion that many of the users were located in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq, with United States in 4th place.

 

Credit: The ISIS Twitter Census

According to the census, much of the success of ISIS’ presence on Twitter stems from very hyperactive users, estimated between 500 and 2,000 people with concentrated bursts of tweets.

Gardiner explained how the bursts function by using popular consumer brands as an example.

Pepsi, Gatorade, McDonald’s and Burger King, with that kind of branding power, are also doing the exact same thing. It’s the same tactics, the same tools, the same sort of scalable teams,” Gardiner said. “If you look at how Gatorade has all of these little board rooms and they use them for, let’s say, the Superbowl, and they decide what the best ideas are at that time. Each person manages a social media platform and that person writes something that is appropriate to the audience that they know the best, and they get published and everybody gives them accolades for doing it right. You could basically do the same thing with ISIS.”

Kayla Epstein, a Social Media Producer at The Guardian US discussed the differences between social media producers working for newspapers and businesses. She elaborated on the team dynamic of people who collaborate at The Guardian, for example. There are people creating posts, people to handle the search engine optimization, and people monitoring the web traffic to analyze what posts are better suited to where.

While The Guardian’s social media team works to promote the news, Epstein said that social media teams for businesses are “trying to create the image that is desirable for a certain demographic that they’re trying to reach. They’re trying to deliver a product just like a newsroom is trying to deliver the news.”

Meanwhile, Gardiner, who works in the field of audience engagement and social media strategy suspects that ISIS could have its own social media team. When ISIS hacked U.S. Central Command’s Twitter account, they used hashtags such as #CyberCaliphate.

“If you say, ‘okay, divorced from this product, what are they doing right?’ I mean you could do a South By Southwest panel that says, basically ‘what can we learn from ISIS and Boko Haram in terms of marketing tactics?’” Gardiner said. “You’re looking at an organization that wanted to prove a point and it’s using these incredibly low cost-high gain ways of engaging the audience to attract the attention of exactly the people that they want to. They’re doing it well.”

According to Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst with The Institute for the Study of War, ISIS has three major media offices: Al-HayatAl-Furqan and Al-Itissam.

Al-Hayat creates the execution videos that have been disseminated as well as Dabiq, an Islamic State magazine that is published in multiple languages, while Al-Furqan and Al-Itissam do battle videos, typically in Arabic. Other ISIS-related media comes from the wilayats, or provinces, and the alliances inside Iraq and Syria as well as externally in the region. According to Gambhir, those external entities make up the Media Front for the Support of the Islamic State to showcase military and government activities, including Sharia law, which is the legal framework for public and some private life within a legal system based on Islam. Sharia law can include high crimes or civil disagreements, but it also governs personal behaviors such as diet or public appearance.

The Media Front produces their own media “to show what they’re doing,” Gambir said. “It can include battlefield operations, it can include Sharia law, so cutting off hands and throwing people off buildings. It can also include the general government stuff, so ‘here we are taking taxes from everyone. Here we are touring the markets that we have. Here we are talking about our cool new radio broadcast.’”

Gambhir explained that there’s a variety of media crafted for specific groups of people. “So the message that’s being pushed to, for instance, a Syrian rebel is drastically different from the message that’s being pushed to an individual in Libya, which is different than the message being pushed to a schoolgirl in Britain,” Gambhir said.

So What Is ISIS?

“The Islamic State is not a terrorist organization in the sense that we know it,” said Monsour Farhang, a former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. He spoke as a panelist at an event hosted by the Graduate Program for International Affairs at The New School on April 10. “They use terror as a tactic. They use criminal acts as a tactic, but a terrorist organization doesn’t control territory. A terrorist organization doesn’t engage in face-to-face confrontation and fight with an army. These guys have an army of estimated 30,000 people, but a terrorist organization at the most would have tens or hundreds of members, and they’re always hidden. You don’t know where they are.”

Though the Islamic State, interchangeably called ISIS, ISIL and even Daesh, has a more noticeable presence since mid-2014, its roots trace back to the time when Al Qaeda was the primary news topic in mainstream media. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who helped found militant group Jamaat Jaish Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jamaa, spent four years in captivity at Camp Bucca, a US-run prison in Iraq. He was detained for being linked to a terrorist group. Baghdadi was released in 2009 and by 2010 he became the leader of ISIS,(and is supposedly descendent of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad), though it wasn’t until 2013 that the Islamic State was officially named as such by him. Though ISIS had attempted to have ties with Al Qaeda, it renounced its ties with ISIS in February 2014. In the months that followed ISIS took control of more cities before establishing itself as a caliphate in June 2014.

A caliphate is a form of Islamic government that is led by a caliph, who is the spiritual leader of Islam and claims succession from Muhammad. In declaring itself a caliphate, it became the Islamic State. Though ISIS grew out of Al Qaeda, it has worked to create an identity as a state to unify Muslims who adhere to Sharia law and pledge alliegance to Al-Baghdadi.

In June 2014, ISIS bulldozed the border between the Iraqi province of Nineveh and the Syrian province Hassaka. The hashtag #SykesPicotOver circulated on Twitter in reference to a World War I era British-French agreement that divided areas once a part of the Ottoman empire into spheres for potential influence.

An Iraqi citizen interviewed in Part 5 of VICE’s “The Islamic State:Inside the Caliphate” praises the destruction of the Syrian/Iraqi border with the establishment of the Islamic State. He claims that previously, “if you weren’t in the Shia army, you couldn’t go to Syria.”

 

“I would consider it a group, which considers itself a state,” said Murtaza Hussain, a reporter from The Intercept. Hussain feels that many of the people involved in ISIS are very adept at social media. “They’re a lot of young people who came of age during the time of social media, so it came very natural to them.”

Before the dawn of the age of the Internet, the extremist threat of the millenium was Al Qaeda. The people involved in that group utilized other means to communicate with those it wished to terrorize or recruit.

“In many ways, the DVD was a jihadist’s calling card, his method of bragging about his deeds in the years before smartphones and instant YouTube uploads,” Jay Sekelow, Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, wrote in his book, Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore. “Terrorists would compile ‘greatest hits’ compilations, showing IED strikes on Americans, mass executions of Iraqis, and the detonation of suicide bombs. DVDs were so common that our soldiers were trained to expect an imminent attack if a civilian was spotted filming them with a video camera.”

Mr. Z, a pseudonym, as he requested that his true name not be revealed, is an Afghan interpreter who translated for senior commanders in Afghanistan at the executive level from 2007 to 2013, and then with a private company serving the Special Forces until 2014 when he came to America. He is now an American citizen.

“Social media was not that popular as it is right now. Of course, though, they were disseminating these ‘night letters,’ they call it,” Mr. Z explained. “They spread night letters to warn people not to join the Afghan Army or they would face the consequence of beheading. They did it through a different way, then, whereas now it’s more advanced, using the Internet.”

According to Mr. Z, the letters “are something that is being dropped at your door. It says ‘hey Mr. A or B,’ and if he joins the Army for example he will face the consequence of being killed or being punished. Or ‘your son is already working for the government and we tell you to stop him from going there.’”

Beyond the era of “night netters” and DVDs and into 2015, ISIS has proven itself adept at using social media as a tool to spread its own night letters of a different kind. Videos of executions or threats for ransom have been released online, hashtags have been created, and hacking has been successful, such as hacking the Twitter accounts of US Central Command and Newsweek in January and February 2015.

Journalism Thesis Vox Pop from Charlotte Woods on Vimeo.

Going Viral

“I asked an ISIS fighter ‘why do you focus on Twitter?’” said Zaid Al-fares, a freelance journalist from the Syrian city of Raqqa, which is occupied by the Islamic State. He claims the fighter told him that “‘Twitter is the best place to reach everyone, not just like Facebook or YouTube. Twitter is the best. You can reach anyone on the planet.’”

Al-fares maintains accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Skype. He has contributed reporting to International Business Times.

Though Twitter appears to be the most prominently utilized social media platform by the Islamic State and its supporters, YouTube has housed various propoganda films, nasheeds (chants) and execution videos.

British journalist, John Cantlie, who was allegedly abducted with James Foley Syria in 2012, remains in captivity. He has since appeared in a video series titled “Lend Me Your Ears,” and wears an orange prison suit, much like others who have been captured. The execution of Foley, followed shortly by Stephen Sotloff, along with the release of “Lend Me Your Ears” coincides with a spike in social media activity by ISIS.

According to Gambhir, the group’s regional provinces began to publish content on Twitter by at least February or March of 2014. She said they had “released long, well-produced videos such as Clanging of the Swords prior to the June 2014 offensive. The volume of ISIS’s media increased greatly after the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014. There was also a noticeable increase in well-produced content (such as Dabiq) after the caliphate declaration.”

In the time since, Western and non-Western people (primarily journalists) have been kidnapped or executed, such as Kenji Goto, Haruna Yukawa,Sofiene Chourabi and photographer Nadir Khtari for example.

Oday Hatem, an Iraqi journalist and guest blogger for The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a piece that claimed about 20 Iraqi journalists and media workers have been abducted as of April 2015.

As more of the world becomes aware of the execution videos and various other media that ISIS produces, it appears that the capture or death of regional journalists in Iraq or Syria have been under-reported or documented.

Al-fares said that even though ISIS creates videos and pictures of captured journalists to “frighten the world,” they do not bother to document the fate of the Syrian journalists they seize. The Islamic State “does not bother with this work,” Al-Fares said. “[ISIS] only kidnaps and kills them later.”

“So what is it about this thing that calls itself the Islamic State and why is it on everyone’s radar now, whether it’s academic or in the media? “ said Robert McFadden, Senior Vice President of The Soufan Group, which provides strategic security intelligence to governments and multinational organizations. “Well I think the answer goes right to its explosive growth in territory since June of 2014. Once it decided to push very aggressively from the border area of Syria and Iraq, and over into the north and east of Iraq, culminating in it actually capturing Mosul.”

McFadden is a former Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Operations for NCIS.

“Where it really began and grew in a very spectacular way with tragic consequences was three big factors that happened in 2011,” McFadden said. He explained that the Syrian civil war along with the pull out of US and allied forces in Iraq helped ISIS “go from dormancy to a more active role.”

McFadden suggested the third predecessor that the Islamic State took advantage of was the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement of the majority of the Sunni population in places like Mosul and areas like Northern Iraq, into the Anbar Province. According to McFadden, ISIS also made behind-the-scenes alliances with “important Saddam-era back party officials and military people who are native to places like Tikrit and the Sunni heartland of Iraq.”

Farhang attributes much of ISIS’ growth to a demographic population increase and the fact that the Internet is not as censored as other forms of media.

Concurrent with the growth of the Islamic State online presence and followers is its expansion of territory. Freelance journalist Anna Therese Day recounted meeting a young boy who had been serving as a scout for the Free Syrian Army, and how when he’d injured his leg new territory boundaries and security checks through borders complicated what should have been a half-hour commute to the nearest hospital.

“It’s fascinating to see this thing that didn’t even exist a year ago is now a no-go zone and really something that they see now as another country,” Day said.

In April 2015, ISIS released a video to promote their health care services within the city of Raqqa. The video featured supposed doctor and former Australian citizen who identified himself as Abu Yusuf al-Australi and said his involvement is his “path of jihad for Islam.” He encourages others to join.

Though, many associate the Islamic State with its execution videos and social media activity, Vocativ analysis found that about half of ISIS online propaganda promotes “nation-building and social services.”


Cyber Wars

Part of the response to ISIS was the US Military was encouragement of increased online safety. In October 2014, an intelligence bulletin urged military personnel and related family to not directly showcase military affiliation on social media accounts, as to not make oneself a target.

“I think they use it to target people as victims, but I also know that they use social media to target potential followers,” Stephanie Slater said of ISIS utilizing social media as a tool. Slater is a Navy veteran who now works in the Public Affairs Office at Fort Eustis in Virginia. “It’s unfortunate because they’re targeting people who are vulnerable. People who feel like they need to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It could be for the right reasons or it could be for the wrong reasons. People join the military, or they join a humanitarian organization, because they want to be part of something bigger. I think they [ISIS] are preying on people’s vulnerabilities.”

Slater reminisced about how she used to set her personal Facebook profile picture to a downloadable image from Army.mil on Veteran’s Day, that said “I’m a proud Army Civilian.” There were several images for various affiliations, like “proud veteran,” and “proud parent” etc. This year it was glaringly obvious to Slater that those images were no longer available.

When the Twitter account for United States Central Command was hacked,there were threats that military personnel would be in danger.

While there are those who oppose the Islamic State with tangible weapons in their hands, there are others who utilize social media. In ISIS stronghold city of Raqqa, there is a group called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). It consists of 16 people who run the site, which reports on the happenings within the city. It’s founder, Abu Ibrahim Al-Raqqawi has contributed photographs to CNN and wrote an op-ed for The Guardian. For the past year, under this chosen psuedonym, Raqqawi has reported the day-to-day events taking place in Raqqa where he was born and raised. He does not reveal his real name in order to protect himself.

Raqqa serves as a stronghold for the Islamic State, but it’s not uncommon for residents to see drones of the Assad regime in the sky or the Islamic state hisbah who patrol the city streets. Hisbah, who Raqqawi has tagged in tweets as #islamic_police, are armed individuals who enforce the mandate.

Though RBSS has 16 members, Raqqawi claims the 17th person was arrested and executed by ISIS. He mentioned the communal efforts of others inside the city who reach out to the group for their own attempts at service journalism. Raqqawi claims these civilians “hate ISIS and want to help the campaign” by sending photos or videos to be posted.

“We also consider their security and their safety because sometimes, because they are not proficient at protecting their IDs,” Raqqawi said. “So, for example there was an airstrike on ISIS and someone was filming on his cell phone and in the video, his roof was showing, so ISIS will know who was taking this video.” RBSS discouraged the citizen from posting the footage anywhere to avoid his arrest.

Raqqawi explained how once, a video did cause someone’s arrest when there was an airstrike on a refinery. “There was nothing on the video showing who is he, just a little words from him. We didn’t think that ISIS will know who is he, so when we posted the video, he got arrested because of that. So ISIS also monitors our accounts. They are seeing what we are posting. They want any mistake that will maybe arrest us. Even they tried to hack us.”

Though there are dangers of social media, such as making oneself a target, Raqqawi acknowledges the power of it for change. Raqqawi and his group used fake identities when they created their social media accounts and website. “We are trying our best to protect our IDs and ourselves, because we think that every word from us equals a bullet for them,” he said. Raqqawi feels that ISIS’s anger at the posts means that their work is affecting them.

Raqqawi commented that ISIS promotes the city of Raqqa as a sort of paradise, just as it promotes its ideologies of joining the Islamic State. His group hopes that by documenting the things they see, potential recruits through social media may see both sides. He claims that social media is very powerful. “They are not recruiting them face-to-face. They don’t need travel, they are just sitting in their homes in Raqqa city and talking to these guys and recruiting them from far away,” he said. “Social media is very, very effective. It will be like the third world war. This is the new war in a different strategy. Your Twitter account is your weapon.”

The Internet — this multi-platform space of opinion, promotion, propoganda, news, and social interactions — is also a monetized weapon. Raqqawi explained that ISIS has set up Internet cafes inside the city where many locals can bring their laptops, or purchase Wi-Fi usage for their homes.

Raqqawi claimed that ISIS has created a false page for RBSS as a ruse to lure journalists into the area to be captured. This is one reason he hopes that Twitter can verify his and his campaign’s accounts with the little blue checkmark.

Raqqawi thinks that troops should be sent on the ground, but that he doesn’t “think the West wants to do this. If they want to do something, they need to give weapons for the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and help FSA also from the sky.” As for the online warfare, he feels that Twitter and Facebook should verify and promote anti-ISIS accounts such as Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered.

In February, a social media site, Kalifahbook was created and immediately taken down. The project was the work of an ISIS supporter, but due to its easy-to-detect domain, it was simple to spot. Gambhir, of the Institute for the Study of War, explained that most ISIS media is seen on Twitter or file sharing websites, like Archive.org or JustPaste.it, which are designed so that content can only be found with specific links. Gambir said it makes ISIS content more difficult to track.

“You know, someone can post a link and then soon after it gets taken down, but that person will create a new JustPaste.it page. It’s a bit of a whack-a-mole, both for the dissemination of media and the proliferation of accounts,” she said. “The latest and greatest way to keep yourself on Twitter, if you’re an ISIS supporter, is to start by numbering yourself as one and then each time you’re taken down increase your name to a new number, and everyone knows how to find you and go to the next number. So it’s very difficult for these platforms which, are supposed to be very open, and very accessible to also be clamping down on jihadist media as its being propagated.”

Berger and Morgan of the ISIS Twitter Census “recommend US Government work with social media companies to devise responses to the extremism social media.” They elaborated that even though discussions of that topic “frame government intervention as infringement on free speech, in reality, social media companies currently regulate speech on their platforms without oversight or disclosures or how suspensions are applied. Approaches to the problem of extremist use of social media are most likely to succeed when they are mainstreamed into wider dialogues among the wide range of community, private, and public stakeholders.”

Meanwhile, the hacktivist group Anonymous launched its anti-ISIS efforts, #OpISIS in June 2014 and released a YouTube video where it issued a press release to the public and media that claimed it would target “government-owned websites belonging to Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia” and that it is “held by a code of honor to protect those who are defenseless, both in the cyber world and the real world.”

Though one of Anonymous’ twitter accounts (@TheAnonMessage) had been briefly hacked by ISIS, as claimed in the video, Anonymous has since claimed to have shut down hundreds of ISIS-supporting social media accounts.

Twitter has been a prominent platform for pro- and anti-Islamic State conversations. Every hashtag serves to organize and spread the discussions and images. The platform allows people to voice their opinions from behind the relative safety of their screens. While some pro-ISIS accounts have been shut down, some opposing accounts have faced deactivation due to false identities. Activists, such as Abu Ibrahim Al-Raqqawi, take steps to protect their identities through using false names.

Raqqawi claimed Twitter once deleted his account, because he uses a fake name and he lost the 20,000 followers he had accumulated over the course of a year. Meanwhile ISIS supporters and members retweet each others’ accounts to grow the audience of followers, like teamwork.

In August 2014, a user known as Abdullah and supposed ISIS fighter, with the Twitter handle @mujahid4life was suspended by the site. The suspension did not have a lasting effect, because he created a new account, @ItsMeMuj, which was also taken down. While he retained an active account, he tweeted and retweeted about the Islamic State and even engaged in a conversation with users to discuss favorite films, which included Jumanji. He later tweeted criticism of the late Robin Williams for his standup comedy that poked fun at jihadism.

As supporters of the Islamic State grow around the globe, new threats arise. The media, both social and published, is a space for public opinion and the sharing of ideas. In May 2015, two American citizens opened fire at a “Prophet Mohammed” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. The Twitter account of Elton Simpson, one of the shooters, shows clues of a connection with ISIS that would suggest the attack was not simply inspired by the caliphate, but perhaps encouraged by it. Simpson was believed to have been in communication with Junaid Hussain, a former Brit and ISIS hacker invovled in #CyberCaliphate. Just before the attack, Simpson tweeted using a hashtag #texasattack. He also composed a tweet that promoted the account @_AbuHu55ain, which has since been suspended.

Unlike Al-Qaeda’s actions, the Islamic State doesn’t always need to carry out its attacks itself, beacuse its newfound followers around the world become the henchmen.

“The larger concern is that pro-ISIS hackers and collectives seem to become more capable and organized. If in their efforts to organize themselves, they actually are able to perpetrate attacks that target infrastructure or target physical assets of any country that they’re against, “ Gambhir said. “I think that represents a much bigger threat than the defacement attacks that we’ve seen so far.”

Islamic State, a self-proclaimed nation with its social media-savvy promotional tactics, has branded itself and influenced spaces beyond the geographical land it has claimed.


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