Will ISIS' Sophisticated Web Presence Be Its Lasting Legacy?

Long before it started making inroads into Iraq and Syria, Islamic State recognized the importance of a strong online campaign and slick presentation.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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ISIS militants topple a statue in a museum at a location said to be Mosol.
ISIS militants topple a statue in a museum at a location said to be Mosol.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

U.S. military commanders working in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) this week warned soldiers and officers about the use of social networks and electronic mail. Troops were specifically ordered not to mention details of where they live, their personal lives and, of course, their jobs in the military.

Unfortunately, this warning came a bit late. Last month, dozens of websites operating in the name of ISIS published a list of 100 U.S. soldiers and officers, including pilots and unit commanders, along with identifying pictures and home addresses. The sites called on the “Muslim faithful” to kill them all. Al-Qaida has previously published such lists of U.S., Pakistani and Afghani military personnel, and ordered its followers to murder them; as a result, the U.S. Army was forced to send some soldiers home out of fear for their lives. But the recent ISIS publication was more detailed and, it seems, more accurate.

This publication is just part of a broad network – the organization’s “media and public relations branch” – that was hard at work long before ISIS racked up any significant military achievements. The propaganda arm is run mostly by the Al-Hayat Media Center (not to be confused with the Saudi newspaper), which was established in 2014 and is headed by Ahmad Abousamra, a French-born Muslim who grew up in Boston and received a technology degree from Northeastern University. In 2012, the FBI published an arrest warrant for Abousamra, 34, and even offered a $50,000 reward for anyone providing information leading to his arrest. Today, it seems he lives in Syria and runs his network from there, with the aid of Islamic State supporters from all over the globe.

Former German rapper Denis Cuspert (aka Deso Dogg), who now goes by the name Abu Talha al-Almani, works alongside Abousamra and writes and produces many of the jihadist songs on Islamic State's website.

Al-Hayat is a sort of umbrella organization, under which various media and propaganda arms operate, including the online magazine Dabiq (in English); two production companies; the Islamic State news website; and an Arabic radio station, which also recently started broadcasting in English. It is not clear how many people are involved in these projects, which rely primarily on English, French, Russian and Urdu-speaking workers.

Regional propaganda networks also operate in the areas under ISIS’ control. There are “media offices” in cities such as Aleppo and Rakka in Syria; and Anbar province, Diali and Baraka in Iraq. The branches in Sinai and North Africa also have their own media operations.

Every branch works independently, but coordinates and consults with professionals in Syria or in Western countries. Some of the websites publish in numerous languages, though others make do with only Arabic. Dozens of these sites have been recruited to spread the message, alongside tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter accounts, which work constantly to disseminate information and recruit people for the cause.

The content the Islamic group publishes online is carefully edited – for language, visuals and graphics – say ISIS activists. Editors check the grammar and style, and make sure the texts are persuasive. Sometimes, Al-Hayat and its daughter organizations use focus groups of foreign-language speakers in an attempt to guarantee that the content is free of embarrassing mistakes and unacceptable slang – and that it comes across professionally.

The visuals are usually shot from small television cameras or cell phones, but sometimes two or even three cameras are used in order to provide video depth. The videos often include scenes from Hollywood war films; stills that are sometimes unrelated to ISIS’ activities; and audio files meant to enhance the dramatic effect. It is even possible that some of the mixing and editing takes place in companies in the West and not in ISIS’ Mideast media centers.

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ISIS makes great use of Twitter, even more than Facebook. Research by the Brookings Institution in Washington found that, in October and November 2014, there were at least 46,000 Twitter accounts identified as operating on behalf of ISIS. However, tis is a conservative estimate, and it’s possible that the number is at least 90,000, said the authors of the study. Some 1,000 to 2,000 of these accounts are the most active, with each having more than 1,000 followers. Analysis of some 20,000 of these Twitter accounts showed that, of those who revealed their location, most came from Saudi Arabia, and then Syria and Iraq. The fourth-largest number of accounts came from the United States. Most of the users prefer to write in Arabic, but about a fifth use English.

Although these figures are quite impressive, they do not necessarily reflect Twitter’s level of influence on recruitment to ISIS – and, more importantly, the willingness of account owners to actively participate in terror attacks or fighting on behalf of the organization. Some of the accounts connected to ISIS are even set up by its opponents, in an attempt to allow intelligence organizations to follow the information being exchanged, and then to locate the real activists. Hence the policy dilemma of how to deal with these accounts: Systematically block them? Or let them operate and collect information on the organization, its members and their locations?

Even though comprehensive research on the information that ISIS distributes is lacking, it is still possible to divide it up loosely into three main categories: recruiting, indoctrinating and reporting.

The appropriate media channel is selected based on the specific message: recruiting, for example, is done mostly through Facebook. Preaching is reserved for the websites, where the sermons of Islamic legal scholars acting on behalf of ISIS are published and video clips of the organization’s civilian actions are shown. For instance, this is where the organization published its legal justifications and rulings after the immolation of Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kasaesbeh in February.

Islamic State also publishes information online about its intent to attack certain places, in an attempt to motivate activists and get them to join in. The sites are also used to make announcements to civilians in areas under its control, such as guidelines on proper behavior – and, of course, the brutal punishments awaiting those who “deviate from the correct path.” The transmission of information and reporting happens mostly via Twitter.

Another element of Web activity is the network of online stores scattered throughout the world, where supporters can buy Islamic State merchandise such as hats, T-shirts, toys, flags and uniforms. The revenue from these sales goes into the organization’s coffers and adds to other income sources such as oil sales, taxes, fees and ransoms for captives.

This is how ISIS creates a huge community, against which Arab and Western nations have found it difficult to provide any decent virtual answers. A few U.S. sites do make clumsy attempts to mock ISIS or encourage Muslims around the world to condemn the organization, but these are far from being a match. The lingering question is how much a military victory over ISIS in Iraq or Syria will affect its online community of supporters.

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