In the years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden continued circulating al-Qaeda propaganda through videos he shot while in hiding. They were grainy, required virtually no editing, and were filmed with some sort of mountainous terrain as a backdrop. The al-Qaeda leader also typically wore a baggy camouflage jacket, kept an AK-47 within sight, and held onto a large wired microphone while speaking. There were dozens of these amateurish videos, which the jihadist organization smuggled to Arabic television stations so they could be distributed across the globe. As rough as they were, the videos were bin Laden’s primary means of taunting enemies and igniting morale within al-Qaeda fighters, even if some of them prompted speculation about his health and whether he was injured.
Fast forward a decade, and grainy videos of Middle East terrorist groups have evolved into high-definition films shot with drones and DSLR cameras, topped off with 3D graphics and musical scores that are a trademark of the tech-savvy YouTube generation. Instead of simply displaying a weapon in the background to convey power and intimidate as bin Laden did, these videos are now filled with bloody acts of violence. In lieu of waiting on TV stations to broadcast videos, groups upload their videos straight to social media, and announce them to their followers with a tweet and hashtag. This is all part of the propaganda machine of the Islamic State—the group that split from bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in early 2014 after they were deemed too violent.
IS (previously known as ISIL or ISIS) has used social media to recruit foreigners from all corners of the globe—and it's working a hell of a lot better than you might think. IS supporters and fighters have used Facebook, Twitter, Ask.fm, Pinterest, YouTube, WordPress, Kik, WhatsApp, and Tumblr—almost any network available—to reach new audiences. In late 2014, there were a reported 2,700 Westerners fighting for IS and similar jihadist groups in the Middle East. As of early 2015, that number has swelled to 3,400. At least 180 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join the group. In all, some 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries have joined jihadists groups including IS.
The group’s social media outreach is working so well that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to law enforcement agencies last month that IS’s recruiting and radicalizing efforts are trending with young Americans. Their propaganda is spreading faster than any other terrorist group in history—and they have more than $2 billion to keep the wheels spinning on this Hollywood-styled studio of evil.
But why does it work?
IS is run by people raised on the Internet, and they understand how to talk to young people using their language. By being technically and socially versed, they attempt to use these videos and images to tap into the hollow spaces of a person's psyche that have left them vulnerable. Hate how your life turned out? Join us and become something more. IS baits recruits with gifts like homes with free electricity, no rent, or the chance of something "better" in the after life. “Living in the West, I know how you feel—in the heart you feel depressed,” says British IS member, Abu Bara al-Hindi, in a video called “There Is No Life Without Jihad,” released by the Al Hayat Media Center (yes, IS has their own media center). “The cure for depression is jihad,” he continues. It's Marketing 101.
Aside from snuff films that are their own form of clickbait, IS fighters post things like pictures of them hanging with cats, eating meals, or giving out toys to children. It's this combination of normalcy (and familiarity) mixed with the glorification of the warrior lifestyle, which can be appealing to young men who mistake it for adventure or camaraderie. The lives of IS fighters can seem luxurious—depending on how they tailor the images of themselves on their social profiles. They're purposely targeting potential fighters from the West, South Asia, and the Middle East, according to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy report. Of course, reasons for joining the group vary from recruit to recruit, but IS casts a wide net in the digital sea, and they only need a small catch.
“There’s no question that what we’re combating with ISIL’s propaganda machine is something we have not seen before,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, adding that the department encounters some 90,000 pro-IS tweets a day. According to a report by Brookings Institution, there were at least 46,000 Twitter accounts linked to IS as of the end of 2014, which have helped spur pro-IS hashtags like #AllEyesonISIS or #CalamityWillBefallUS. If all of this intricacy reminds you of a U.S. company's thirst when it comes to social media PR, then this won’t surprise you: IS also has illustrated reports on its performance that are hundreds of pages long. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, have stepped up their game when it comes to suspending accounts, which led IS supporters to threaten the lives of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and other execs in January after they interpreted the account deactivations as an act of war. Brookings' report also said that 69 percent of the accounts used Android to post to Twitter, while 30 percent used iPhone, and one percent used Blackberry (IS banned iPhones in December for security reasons, but Brookings found there was only a 1 percent drop after the ban). IS had their own Android app for a short time.
"We condemn the brainwashing and recruiting of children through the use of social media and the Internet," said Zarine Khan, the mother of three children who were caught flying from Chicago to Syria to join IS. "And we have a message for ISIS: Mr. Baghdadi and his fellow social media recruiters, leave our children alone!"
The truth is, at any given moment, it isn't hard to find IS supporters and propaganda within a few clicks. There are e-books on Scribd and Tumblr blogs that give detailed instructions on how Westerners can travel to Turkey, and make their way to Syria, without getting stopped by government agents. Aqsa Mahmood, the Swedish teen who left her family to become a bride for an IS fighter, has a Tumblr blog where she writes pieces on why other girls should join. Tumblr is known for having relaxed attitudes towards sensitive content (like nudity), and they've left the pages untouched. Mahmood is suspected of recruiting three UK schoolgirls to join IS in February, and authorities have said that she'll be prosecuted if she ever returns home.
Even when a foreign recruit dies in battle, IS spins it as martyrdom. Canadian Andre Poulin joined IS in 2014 and was the focus of a video where he reaches out to other Canadians to join him and offer their skills. “You’d be very well taken care of here,” he says. The video ends with Poulin in battle, killed by an explosion. This is a strategy IS often uses: once they successfully recruit a foreigner, they use that foreigner to recruit others though social media.
The hacktivist group Anonymous declared war on IS, and notified Twitter and Facebook of hundreds of accounts that were linked to the group. Many of them were suspended after Anonymous revealed their IS connections, but nothing keeps IS supporters from opening new accounts. Sometimes, it might be best to leave the accounts active, since U.S. agencies are able to monitor their conversations before they're moved to an encrypted network or private apps like Kik or WhatsApp. (IS supporters usually include their Kik usernames in their profiles just in case a recruit wants information).
IS’s influence is even starting to spread to other terrorist organizations. Boko Haram, the group that sparked the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls after they kidnapped close to 300 Nigerian girls last year has also taken a cue from IS's social media strategy, by introducing new graphics for its videos and fancy opening sequences.
Yet forces against IS are slowly trying to retaliate on social media. The U.S. government started the Twitter account @ThinkAgain_DOS, which tweets out criticisms of IS and the occasional uplifting quote. But they recently went old school and air-dropped cartoons in Syria that featured an anti-IS image:
Images of Abu Azrael, a hulking former university lecturer armed with an axe and nicknamed the "Angel of Death" and the "Iraqi Rambo," have been passed around on Twitter to inspire fighters to continue attacking IS:
من هو أبو عزرائيل؟ * انهُ المدرس الجامعي الذي غادر قاعة الدرس ملبيا نداء الجهاد * ماجستير تربية رياضية. pic.twitter.com/m2Ta1dVmhS— هموم العراق (@hand_carry) March 8, 2015
Japanese Internet users had their own surprisingly comedic response when IS’s “Jihadi John” murdered hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa—they turned Jihadi John into a super kawaii meme. “You can kill some of us, but Japan is a peaceful and happy land, with fast Internet," Twitter user @jlist said in a tweet. "So go to hell.”
The Islamic State had years to refine jihadist propaganda, but the Internet is a quickly evolving beast itself—IS may only be able to keep up for so long until trends and hashtags leave them behind. Let's hope the day comes quickly.