IS: Islamic social media state of mind

IS: Islamic social media state of mind
The Islamic State, building on al-Qaeda's example, has put social media at the heart of its strategy to capture territory in Syria and Iraq, with a sustained, coherent and powerful communications strategy.
6 min read
15 November, 2014
A powerful social media strategy has boosted IS (Anadolu)

Over the past year, the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) has cultivated the inherent strengths and weakness of the Internet and social media with growing sophistication.


IS members and supporters have proven their social media and web-savvy by launching a sustained, coherent and powerful communications strategy to intimidate the international community, terrorise local populations in the Middle East and seduce new recruits to join their ranks.


So extensive and successful has the IS media presence been that, increasingly, IS the organisation has become indistinguishable from IS the media phenomenon.


The group made its dramatic debut on the global stage in June 2014 with the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul. The capture was accompanied by a well-organised social media

      We are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media
- Ayman al-Zawahiri

campaign designed for maximum media exposure.


In Iraq, the IS was blessed with an enemy, the Iraqi government, totally oblivious to social media and the need for a counter communications strategy. At the time of the IS offensive, the Iraqi government did not have any official social media channels, let alone a web communications strategy, Twitter or Facebook accounts, to communicate its own version of events or to rebut IS propaganda and claims.


On the other hand IS, building on al-Qaeda’s long established web presence and harnessing long established virtual communities, had already established the credibility and authority of its official updated-around-the-clock Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. Over time these channels have become a main source of credible information for mainstream media reports and ordinary citizens of the region alike.


In the push for Mosul, the IS group demonstrated how deftly is its use of social media and how carefully planned its timing. The group chose to break stories of military advances between 10 pm and 4 am at night while Iraqi officials were mostly at home or fast asleep and not available for interviews. That meant IS versions of battlefield progress would break uncontested when reported by international media and local media, further amplifying their impact. This in turn fed back to social media pages creating a deafening buzz. Exhausted, confused and anxious Iraqi army, security forces and civilians soon retreated to run for cover.


During the week of the offensive against Mosul, IS and its social media support crowd flooded twitter and other platforms with thousands of coordinated posts by publishing the same message repeatedly. On 29 August, the European Centre for Law and Justice submitted a report on the use of social media by the IS to the United Nations General Assembly. Among the findings it was noted how, “on 13 June 2014, ISIS posted a picture of a decapitated head on Twitter, along with the following text: ‘This is our football, it’s made of skin #WorldCup’”. By using the #WorldCup, IS managed to expose the gruesome photograph to thousands of innocent Twitter users who were simply following the FIFA World Cup.


IS used a technique often used by US political campaigners - including that of Barack Obama in 2010. It developed a smart phone application called The Dawn of Glad Tidings and distributed it through Google Play store. The official description of the app was an "app that gives you news from Syria, Iraq and the Islamic world”. Thousands of users from around the world downloaded the app and were using it to follow events on the ground. Unwittingly to most of them, the app was also posting tweets, including links, hashtags and images, to users’ accounts. The IS application on the one hand was amplifying the groups messages by harnessing the power of the “crowd” while at the same time avoiding triggering Twitter’s spam-detection algorithms.


Deploying ‘The Dawn of Glad Tiding’ application is one example of how IS uses crowdsourcing, a powerful social media tool. This process has been central to the group’s social media strategy and is also used by large corporations like Dell and government agencies. Following the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of its banking system, for example, the country of Iceland used Twitter, Facebook and other web sites to crowdsource its new constitution. Iceland harnessed the wisdom, intelligence and resources of people on social media to get the job done. 


IS is doing the same; the group relies heavily on the massive power of internet crowds and has a keen sense of how to target and mobilise them to disseminate messages via their personal social media profiles – and it knows how to keep them engaged all the time. Social media supporters are used to reproduce graphics, videos and to translate material into as many languages as possible.

Online marketing

Before the group declared itself a caliphate, it tested the waters by pre-releasing the news via Twitter to create a buzz. It was nothing less than a marketing campaign to build awareness and develop methods to focus the crowds on future plans. It was also a practical way to get ideas from people and gather intelligence in real time while creating the impression in people’s minds that IS was following Islamic teachings by conducting a modern day internet-based version of Shora (Islamic Consultative process.)


But the group’s adeptness on the social media battlefield didn’t come from out of nowhere. The group has followed the example of al-Qaeda, of whose Iraqi chapter it is a successor. It has put social media at the heart of its strategy to capture territories in Syria and Iraq.


Al-Qaeda, the mother organisation, as it were, has long been using the internet, fully aware of the power of social media. In a letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the erstwhile leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, dated July 9, 2005, al-Zawahiri wrote: "I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma."


Back in 2010, from his hideout in Yemen, the American-Yemenite Anwar al-Awlaqi – described by his father as an  “all-American boy” and by spy agencies and observers as the Bin Laden of the Facebook age – posted thousands of videos on youtube and had a fan-base on Facebook numbering in the thousands. It brought him to the attention of western intelligence services – and eventually his death by drone strike.


In a speech in 2010, the Director General of the UK Security Service, Jonathan Evans said:  “Awlaqi with AQAP is of particular concern given his wide circle of adherents in the West, including in the UK. His influence is all the wider because he preaches and teaches in the English language which makes his message easier to access and understand for Western audiences.”


In a way, al-Awlaqi was practicing a purist form of social media marketing - passing knowledge and opinion among a social group that already has a shared system of values and a recognisable identity. Urging followers to act alone, as a “lone-wolf”, knowingly or unknowingly, he started a crowdsourcing process of which the IS today could be a manifestation.


It is estimated that the IS has over three thousand members from Europe, USA and other western countries currently fighting in Syria and Iraq. Most of those fighters are young, born and raised in the digital age. The IS may refer back to a golden age of pure Islam. But the group is truly a product of its time.