Iraq: Islamic State's Digital Fortress

How does IS, formerly ISIS, grow support through social media and other digital strategies?

The Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS has had surprising military success across Iraq. And while its means have been barbaric and cruel, it has swept through the country and is growing in numbers and support. In fact, IS has shown tremendous dexterity in manipulating social media to its own use and has demonstrated skill and sophistication, previously unseen in militant groups.

The Iraqi government is weak and has been at a loss fighting with IS. The US has launched airstrikes against the militants and is trying to cobble together a workable coalition of Arab States to fight. However, one front of this war has become social media and it looks like IS is winning.

Strategy and Tactics

One of the goals of IS is that it wants to revert back to ultraconservative traditions that it claims the earliest Muslims lived by. However, the medium though which it is spreading this message is ultra modern, and so are some of the visual tools and message formats.

IS runs centralized Twitter accounts to broadcast official statements and news updates. Then it has provincial accounts for each province it is present in, broadcasting a live feed of IS operations. 

One of the movies that IS has produced, and quite professionally, is called The Clanging of the Swords IV. Additionally it also has its own app called the Dawn of Glad Tidings that sends users news of IS advances, images that are often gruesome and videos like Swords IV. Thousands of IS twitter followers have downloaded this app. This is a new means of warfare. When once advancing armies moved forward with guns and missiles, IS is doing the same with movies and tweets.

Not all the videos and messages are about war - this is a well thought out strategy - IS is also focusing on social activity. Its digital propaganda includes photos of supporters being in the harvest or delivering food aid. It recently distributed a newsletter in English, a well-designed PDF, documenting community work.

The Builders

The New York Times reports that internet cafes in Iraq were “populated 24 hours a day” by many scores of young men, “posting what the media department of the Islamic State wanted them to post.” The capacity of these kinds of groups relies on voluntary mobilisation and has come to include thousands of members.

The Dawn app is said to have been built by members of IS’s Palestinian affiliate, in consultation with leaders in Iraq and Syria according to Abu Bakr al-Janabi, an Iraqi IS supporter who now lives in the EU. The Guardian quotes him saying, "There are a lot of people in IS who are good at Adobe applications – InDesign, Photoshop, you name it. There are people who have had a professional career in graphic design, and [others] who are self-learnt."

Additionally, there are reports that a college educated American citizen is one of the men running the social media operation. He has been identified as Ahmad Abousamra, 32, born in France and raised in the upscale Boston suburb of Stoughton. And such international input has helped IS recruit fighters from the US, UK and Canada.

The Counter-Insurgency

In an attempt to aid the US effort to quell IS’s rage, the State Department is engaging young people, sometimes even jihadists to post on popular Arab websites.  This is to broadcast a stream of anti-Islamic State messages, and one video, on Facebook or YouTube or Twitter, using the hashtag #ThinkAgainTurnAway.

However, the efficacy of this approach has been questioned. The US does not have a good image in the Middle East and while IS has willing volunteers, the US has to find people, or hire them to form its own social media army.

The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication is the State Department’s vanguard in this battle. It was formed in 2010 to counter messages from Al Qaeda and affiliated groups. It used to be more covert, posting messages on online forums in Urdu, Punjabi, Somali and Arabic.  It has now become more transparent and open in its resistance to terrorism.

The US strategy is to highlight the setbacks to IS and the human tragedy.  It also targets terrorist organisations in Nigeria and Somalia. These draw form Muslim scholars that are critical of IS, for example, “#ISIS murder of aid worker a violation of Islamic law”.

The State Department’s Twitter account has two million followers. Its Arab-language Twitter feed more than 200,000, and some ambassadors have Facebook followings in the tens of thousands.

The Facebook and Twitter Response

One of the questions many individuals ask is why doesn’t Twitter just ban IS accounts? Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles writes that, “I regularly meet with social media companies including Twitter. To date, their policy regarding digital terrorism and hate—to the extent that it exists—is a bad joke.

When I asked Twitter officials at a recent meeting if they remove tweets that have the ISIS logo, their response was ‘not necessarily, it depends on what it says.’”

While freedom of speech is a right that must be protected, this raises the concern of how much freedom can be allowed in exchange for security? Would banning these outfits from Twitter change ground realities in Iraq? Would online recruitments decrease or would terrorists just find another way? Twitter has in the past removed hateful Tweets from the likes of Al Shabab, but within days more tweets and multiple accounts sprung up.

On the other hand Facebook has removed IS from its platform, signalling that these companies can and do make any changes they deem fit. Facebook did not wait for political pressure to do so either and has been transparent about its rules.

Global Pervasiveness

The Guardian reports that hundreds of young women and girls are leaving their homes in western countries to join IS. These girls are sometimes as young as 13 or 14 and are mostly recruited through social media. The goal is to go to Syria to marry jihadists, bear children and join the fighting.

Women already in Syria have described it as a utopia on social media, that there is a “sisterhood of the caliphate”. Reality however, is different. Rolf Tophoven, director of Germany’s Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy, says that these recruited women have been raped, abused, sold into slavery or forced to marry, and that “the power, the leadership structure, are clearly a male domain.”

There are many, many Muslims that are sickened by what IS is doing. But IS has tapped into the maniacal fanaticism of its supporters to generate messages on social media and these supporters have a single-minded purpose. It is working like a well-oiled machine.

Those propagating these messages are in touch with global trends and realities. They are tapping into popular culture to recruit and spread their message to an educated global stratum. One of the examples is a poster on the internet that co-opts the YOLO (You only live once) meme. The IS version is “YODO, You only die once, why not make it martyrdom.”


Saadia Gardezi is a Political Scientist based in Pakistan