Rise Of ISIS,ISIL: Cyber Jihad Is As Important To Growth Of ISIS As Conflict In Iraq And Syria [REPORT]
Twitter, Apps, YouTube, Instagram And Facebook Are Also Battle Frontiers For The Islamic State
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which also goes by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham has quickly become one of the most notorious of the jihadist groups operating in Iraq and Syria. The success of ISIS has much to do with the turmoil in Syria, the weakness and sectarian nature of the Iraqi state and the dynamic and ruthless leadership of ISIS. However, it also has much to do with the tech-savvy public relations the group does, which has seen them wage not just a physical jihad, but a cyber-jihad on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and apps. The cyber jihad has raised the profile of ISIS and brought it reputation, recruits and funding while spreading its message.
The rapid expansion of ISIS across the border into Iraq followed by the fall of Mosul, which saw an Iraqi army of 30,000 flee in the face of less than a thousand jihadists has given the Islamic State enough territory that it could very well be classified as its own nation. Since its success in Mosul, ISIS has advanced further south, openly proclaiming its intention to take Baghdad. The 1 million man strong Iraqi army has dissipated in the face of their advance, aside from a few select Shia units. The advance is remarkable, but what has also been remarkable is how ISIS is leveraging its victories of social media. The success of ISIS victories on the ground have acted as a clarion call for jihadists and supporters around the world to take action themselves. Undoubtedly this has been powered by a widespread sense of wrongdoing on the part of the Shia-dominated Maliki government, which has been accused of heavily sectarian measures. This has been exploited by Twitter jihadists who tweet about Maliki backed death squads and other crimes of the Iraqi state against Sunni's.
Still, there are more ISIS and jihadist accounts than Twitter can possibly shut down, some who have been there since as early as 2009. One such ISIS supporter goes by the name Al-Janabi and the Twitter handle @AbuBakrAl_Janab. His profile picture and background image bears the ISIS flag. He has more than 3,000 tweets, and more 2,000 followers. Many of his tweets include updates about the news from Iraq, accompanied by pictures and videos. Some of his tweets emphasize that the cyber jihadists on ISIS are tech-savvy, educated and well versed in the language of memes. Other tweets from those like Marwan-el-Tounisi act as propaganda, showing that ISIS rule over Mosul and other Iraqi cities have been a good thing, denouncing the Maliki government, Shias and the United States. Shias get special attention in the tweets of many of the ISIS jihadists and indeed, a good amount of ISIS supporters can be found from Iraqi Sunni's who feel angry and alienated from the Iraqi government.
Our people in Iraq welcoming the soldiers of the Khilafa army. pic.twitter.com/TiltwUz0UD— Marwan-el-Tounisi (@Marwouantounsi) June 15, 2014
What's interesting to see is that ISIS's advance in Iraq, coincided with a cyber-offensive on Twitter. The jihadists and ISIS supporters whose tweets I've embedded above have acted as the information, public relations and propaganda arm of ISIS. Their posts trumpet ISIS victories, denounce Shia's, and act to contradict news reports that claim that people have fled Mosul and other ISIS governed territories. They call out what they see as the hypocrisy of the West, when faced with accusations of mass executions of Iraqi Army soldiers and security forces, they respond that Maliki and Assad have committed similar crimes to the silence of Western governments. Social media has become a powerful and effective tool for these jihadists to communicate with potential recruits and to intimidate enemies.
It is telling that upon doing a search for #ISIS, one of the first results that come up is an ISIS propaganda image depicting its intention to seize Baghdad. Pictures of mass executions can be found on Instagram and Twitter and serve the purpose of building up the ISIS mythos and making them into a fearful enemy. The destruction of the Sykes-Picot border, victory at Mosul, the mass executions and now the advance on Baghdad are all physical actions that are being leveraged into propaganda for the cyber jihad. There is enough evidence on social media of the possibility that ISIS is gaining global support among the more extremist Sunni Muslims. The power of Twitter in the cyber jihad is magnified through the use of apps which can multiply the voice of ISIS beyond its numbers. ISIS has an app called "Dawn of Glad Tidings" in Arabic. Believe it or not, this is an official ISIS app that is on the Google Play Store. The Atlantic has reported on the sophistication of the app:
"Once you sign up, the app will post tweets to your account-the content of which is decided by someone in ISIS's social-media operation. The tweets include links, hashtags, and images, and the same content is also tweeted by the accounts of everyone else who has signed up for the app, spaced out to avoid triggering Twitter's spam-detection algorithms. Your Twitter account functions normally the rest of the time, allowing you to go about your business.
The app first went into wide use in April 2014, but its posting activity has ramped up during the group's latest offensive, reaching an all-time high of almost 40,000 tweets in one day as ISIS marched into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last week."
The magnification of these voices has resulted in ISIS hashtags trending and becoming the first thing people see when they search certain keywords like #ISIS, #Baghdad and others. According to The Atlantic, ISIS has been so good at its use of Twitter that it outperforms its main rival, Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra despite having similar number of online supporters. The question now is, how much impact is the ISIS cyber jihad having? One example of the impact of the cyber jihad can be seen in Canada, as a Canadian ISIS member has urged Muslims to follow the example of a Canadian suicide bomber who killed 19 Iraqi's. The suicide bomber named Salman Ashrafi was from Calgary before he joined ISIS and become a suicide bomber in Iraq. A fellow ISIS jihadist known as Abu Dujana al-Muhajir has praised his actions, using it as propaganda to urge fellow Muslims to follow his lead. There is also some evidence that the Brussels Jewish Museum shooting may have been done by an ISIS-supporting jihadist. New tweets mention an ISIS jihadist from Luxemburg, as well as ISIS flags on cars in Istanbul, Turkey.
What all this may indicate is that the use of social media by ISIS, may be having an impact on indoctrination, propaganda and recruiting. What is most important to understand about ISIS is that it is not like any other jihadist group. ISIS is by far one of the most successful and ruthless jihadists groups and its aspiration is for the creation of an Islamic state and eventually an Islamic Caliphate. It already views itself as a country and performs actions of governance, taxation and public relations in the territory it controls. ISIS controls not just physical territory on the ground, but also now increasingly commands greater respect and attention on Twitter, Instagram, forums, YouTube and other social media. Its victories are leveraged into propaganda, its defeats are spun into crimes by its enemies, Shia's and non-Muslims are demonized and through all of it there lies the promise of the coming Islamic Caliphate in the background. The cyber jihad has become just as important a tool for ISIS as an AK-47 or RPG and we will increasingly see other jihadist groups look to the success that ISIS has had on social media and adopt their tactics.
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